U.S. aircraft maker Boeing has finished detailed capability studies that conclude that the company’s F/A-18E Block III Super Hornet, a supersonic twin-engine carrier-capable multirole fighter jet based on the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, will be able to operate heavily armed from the flight deck of India’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the future INS Vikrant, designated Indigenous Aircraft Carrier 1 (IAC-1), according to local media reports.
“We have answered queries from the Indian Navy and the simulation analysis is done,” Dan Gillian, Program Manager F/A-18 at Boeing was quoted as saying by The Economic Times earlier this week. “At some point we will also take off from a U.S. Navy ski jump. We feel very comfortable that we will pass the requirements with a meaningful and significant payload.”
The future INS Vikrant is fitted with a ski-jump assisted Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) launch system for launching aircraft. The F/A-18, however, has been designed to operate from U.S. flattops using a catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft launch system, which allows for the deployment of far heavier and better armed fighter jets than the STOBAR launch system.
“The F/A-18E aircraft would be ideally suited for carriers using CATOBAR aircraft launch system,” I explained in 2017. “The heavier weight of the F/A-18 in comparison to the current mainstay of Indian naval aviation, the Russian-made MiG-29K Fulcrum fighter jet, would make launches of the U.S. aircraft from STOBAR launch systems technically more challenging and would require a reduction of the fighter jet’s armament.”
Consequently, the recently concluded Boeing study is meant to assuage fears of the Indian Navy that the F/A-18E Block III would have to operate in reduced capacity from the deck of the Vikrant. The Indian Navy intends to procure 57 new carrier-based multirole fighters for its new Vikrant-class aircraft carriers, which is slated to include the future 65,000-ton flattop INS Vishal, the second ship of the Vikrant-class.
According to the Indian Navy, the future INS Vishal will carry up to 55 aircraft (35 fixed-wing combat aircraft and 20 rotary wing aircraft). The aircraft will be launched using CATOBAR aircraft launch system, which may include U.S. defense contractor’s General Atomics’ new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology also found on the U.S. Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.
However, the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has so far still not given the greenlight for moving forward with the acquisition of the second Vikrant-class carrier. The first-of-lass Vikrant is expected to enter sea trials in early 2020.
The other two aircraft candidates for forming the Vikrant-class’ future air group are the naval variant of the Dassault Rafale and the Russian-made MiG-29K Fulcrum fighter jet, although the latter is not seen as a serious contender. Earlier this year, Boeing has also partnered up with India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Mahindra Defence Systems for a separate bid to sell 110 fighter aircraft to the Indian Air Force.