Asia Defense

US and French Fighters Contend for a Place Aboard India’s New Aircraft Carrier

Would the Boeing F-18E or Dassault Rafale M be better suited to operating from India’s new aircraft carrier?

US and French Fighters Contend for a Place Aboard India’s New Aircraft Carrier

An F/A-18E Super Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27 launches from the flight deck of the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Janweb B. Lagazo

With the Indian Navy’s first two carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant deploying Russian built MiG-29K multirole fighters from their decks India has sought a new source of fighters for its third and largest carrier – INS Vishal. While the Vikramaditya, a heavily modified former Soviet Kiev class carrier, is currently in service and the Vikrant, the country’s first domestically built carrier, is in its late development stages, the INS Vishal remains in the mid-design stage and has yet to see its keel laid. At 65,000 tons the Vishal will be by far the heaviest carrier commissioned into the Indian Navy, and is set to integrate several cutting edge technologies largely absent on previous Indian platforms. One prominent example are the navy’s plans to acquire U.S. electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS) developed for the U.S. Navy’s Gerald Ford class supercarriers to enhance the capabilities of the Vishal, which the United States military has agreed to provide in light of growing military cooperation between the two powers. While the Vishal is hardly a supercarrier, its capabilities will make it one of the leading carrier platforms in the world very likely eclipsing the capabilities of the Chinese Liaoning, Russian Admiral Kusnetsov and French Charles De Gaulle

India’s new carrier will be the country’s first to deploy fighters using a Catapult Assisted Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system, the most efficient system for launching carrier-based aircraft which allows for the deployment of far heavier and better armed fighters than alternative systems. India’s previous two carriers by contrast relied Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR), limiting the weight of aircraft which could be launched and thus the types of aircraft which could operate from their decks. The Indian Navy has requested a carrier based multirole fighter for the Vishal, and is set to acquire 57 platforms for its deck. While previous carriers relied heavily on the Russian MiG-29K for combat roles, a platform designed for the Soviet Union’s own STOBAR dependant carriers, India’s induction of its first CATOBAR-capable carrier has allowed the navy to choose from a far wider range of fighter platforms.

Bidding for India’s contract represents a unique opportunity for manufacturers of CATOBAR-capable fixed wing fighters, as India is currently the only operator of carriers employing conventional takeoff aircraft which is unable to produce its own fighters (since Brazil and Thailand demobilized their own carrier and carrier-based fighters respectively.) The United States, Russia, China and France by contrast all produce their own carrier-based fighters, while carriers such as the British Queen Elizabeth class and Japanese Izumo class are incapable of operating such fighters and rely solely on short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capable platforms. Russian and Swedish bids have already been eliminated from the competition to provide fighters for the Vishal, the former due to its lack of experience with CATOBAR systems and the latter due to its lack of any experience whatsoever in operating modern aircraft carriers. According to Gene Cunningham, vice president of Boeing Defense, the company has selected the Boeing F-18E Block III Super Hornet as the most suitable export for India’s tender. This is the United States’ most advanced carrier-based platform, set to serve in large numbers onboard its Gerald Ford class supercarriers alongside the F-35C and in many ways superior to its lighter fifth generation counterpart. The fighter features limited stealth capabilities, a next generation cockpit, conformal fuel tanks for an extended range, and can carry up to fourteen air to air missiles – making it perhaps the most sophisticated and heavily armed carrier based fighter to date. France’s Dassault remains the only other contender. By contrast to the U.S. Navy’s diverse and gargantuan fleet of fighter aircraft, the French Navy fields only a single carrier based fighter class, the Rafale M, and has only around 30 of them deployed on its sole aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle

When comparing what acquisitions of the French Rafale and U.S. F-18E can offer the Indian Navy, accepting the U.S. offer remains far more likely for both practical and political reasons. Not only is the F-18E far more widely operated and more cost effective, largely a result of economies of scale and the United States’ far larger acquisitions relative to those of France, but the U.S. can also afford to invest in research and development for modernization at a rate France, fielding a very small fleet, cannot. Examples include recent upgrades to equip the F-18E with advanced anti stealth capabilities, invaluable in Indian hands considering China’s induction of large numbers of highly capable stealth platforms. The Rafale M has not been upgraded with any such capabilities, and considering the current general state of French military aviation it is unlikely to modernize the fighter in any way comparable to the Super Hornet. The F-18E boasts several other assets the French platform lacks entirely, perhaps most prominent of which are its ability to deploy more advanced long range air to air missiles. The AIM-120D currently under development for example is set to have a range of 180 km, giving Indian fighters an advantage at extreme ranges over fighters deployed from any non U.S. carrier (assuming India can acquire the AIM-120D before China inducts its own PL-15 ramjet powered air to air missiles). 

The advantages of the Rafale M over the F-18E are somewhat negligible by comparison. The fighter retains a higher speed, superior maneuverability and a greater climb rate, none of which are likely to prove decisive in beyond visual range engagements. Visual range combat, in which the Rafale excels, is meanwhile particularly unlikely for carrier based fighters given both the vast distances separating naval fleets and the relative scarcity of aerial targets at sea. While land-based variants of the Rafale are renowned for their formidable range and payload, these are limited on the naval variant to reduce takeoff weight. With France using less sophisticated steam-based launch systems for CATOBAR launches its fighters’ payload is reduced relative to those of F-18E fighters deployed from the Untied States’ Gerald Ford next generation carriers, the latter which can make full use of an EMALS launch system to deploy with more weapons and carry more fuel for a longer range. France would need to extensively modify the Rafale M to take full advantage of the EMALS system, one which the French Navy has no experience operating with, whereas the F-18E Block III has already been tailor made for the role. This makes U.S. platform far more suitable for deployment from the INS Vishal considering that it will itself use the very same EMALS system as U.S. carriers.

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Arms acquisitions often take a country’s geopolitical alignments strongly into consideration, and provide an excellent means for nations to strengthen their defense ties. With India’s Navy in particular seeking closer ties to the U.S. military, and with the United States having far more to offer India in its military modernization efforts than France, acquiring the F-18E could well be a politically superior choice as well as a practical one. Deploying the F-18E could also better facilitate Indian acquisitions of specialized derivatives of the Super Hornet used by the U.S. Navy such as the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare platform and the stealthy Advanced Super Hornet, should the latter eventually enter service. Ultimately the F-18E, a platform combat tested on numerous occasions and heavily relied on by the U.S. Navy to engage near peer threats, is set to be an excellent choice for the Indian Navy, while the Rafale’s capabilities and prospects for future modernization to match rival platforms remain relatively limited by comparison. The INS Vishal remains far more likely to deploy the U.S. made F-18E upon being commissioned, which will be the United States’ first ever export of a fourth generation carrier based fighter. The acquisition will make the INS Vishal’s fighter contingent among the most capable in the world, and will go a long way towards cementing defense ties between the navies of the United States and India.

Abraham Ait is a military analyst specializing in Asia-Pacific security and the role of air power in modern warfare. He is chief editor of Military Watch Magazine.