NEW DELHI --- The Indian Navy has launched a global search for maritime fighter jets it plans to operate from future aircraft carriers and is awaiting response from top military contractors on what they have to offer.
The navy wants 57 multi-role carrier-borne fighters (MRCBF) and the potential order could get bigger with an option clause to buy more jets. The hunt for new deck-based fighters comes at a time when the navy is left with just a solitary aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, following the decommissioning of Viraat on Monday.
The navy issued a request for information for the multi-billion dollar MRCBF project in January, giving aircraft manufacturers a four-month deadline to respond.
By May, the foreign firms have to answer queries on technical parameters, budgetary estimates, likely level of indigenisation, transfer of technology and schedule of deliveries after a contract is inked.
French, Swedish, Russian and American firms are likely to compete for the project to equip India’s future carriers: Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC)-I or Vikrant being built at Kochi and IAC-2, which is in a conceptual stage.
The navy has rejected the naval version of the light combat aircraft. It wants a twin-engine fighter with a stronger airframe and landing gear to operate from a flight deck with high-tempo flying cycles.
French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation will compete for the MRCBF programme with the Rafale M fighter. These fighters are embarked on French Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
India signed a $8.7-billion deal with France last year for 36 Rafale warplanes for the Indian Air Force. Dassault is hoping the IAF order could give it a head start. The firm believes it makes better sense to equip the IAF and the navy with the same platform as it would translate into better logistics, maintenance and industrial support.
Swedish aircraft maker Saab will throw its hat into to the ring with its Gripen Maritime fighter. Saab says the maritime fighter has “95% commonality” with the Gripen E.
The Swedish firm is closely tracking an IAF programme to build single-engine fighters in the country. Saab says the maritime fighter features all the capabilities of the Gripen E and will come with a highly competitive operational cost per flight hour.
Low maintenance requirements and high availability for operations make it an ideal solution for the Indian Navy, a Saab spokesperson said.
F-18 SUPER HORNET:
US defence giant Boeing’s F-18 fighter jet is also expected to be a strong contender for the Indian Navy project. The F-18s operate from American super carriers such as USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, with the US Navy accounting for a fleet of more than 600 Super Hornets.
The American firm is also in discussions with the IAF to set up a production line in the country to build twin-engine fighter planes.
The US has offered its electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology and advanced arresting gear for IAC-2 or Vishal. India and the US have formed a joint working group on aircraft carrier technology cooperation.
Russia will be eyeing the project with the MiG-29 fighter jet, already in service with the Indian Navy. The deck-based fighter operates from INS Vikramaditya, a second-hand carrier bought from Russia.
The navy commissioned its first squadron of MiG-29K fighters at Goa in May 2013, ahead of the induction of INS Vikramaditya.
It also plans to deploy the fighters on the IAC-1 having placed separate orders for 45 MiG-29K fighters.
However, a 2016 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General revealed the MiG-29 fighters are plagued by engine troubles and airframe problems.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: France’s Dassault fancies its chances of winning the Indian navy fighter competition, not only because the it has already sold 36 Rafales to the Indian Air Force but also because the Rafale-M naval fighter is the only competitor designed from the start for carrier operations.
“Rafale is the smallest carrier-capable fighter, and it could operate today from India’s aircraft carrier,” Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier told reporters in Paris March 8, as the payload penalty due to the ship’s lack of catapults can be compensated through buddy-refueling after takeoff – a capability Rafale already has.
Finally, he noted that “Indian pilots have already had a taste of Rafale, and they will want more.”)