Will India Fall for US Offer on Fighters for Indian Aircraft Carriers?

Will India Fall for US Offer on Fighters for Indian Aircraft Carriers?

Are military technology aspects of the US-India relationship set to change in the coming years? Recent reports suggest that the US is preparing a $500 million foreign military assistance package for India which, although a relatively small amount in comparison with the multi-billion dollar value of large defence hardware acquisitions, has considerable political significance in the US security and foreign policy system. Such financial assistance would put India just behind major US allies, Israel and Egypt.

The US is pushing for greater security partnership with India, especially including sale of major military platforms, such as ships, aircraft, tanks and so on. Apart from the intrinsic strategic and financial value of such arms sales to India, the US is also strongly seeking to wean India away from reliance on Russian military hardware, which today constitute around 60% of India’s arms imports, an aspect that has gained salience after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Over the past two decades, the US has sold arms worth over $20 billion to India, even as imports from Russia have dropped by around 55%, but most of the US equipment have not been major platforms but rather small numbers of special equipment.     

Four factors would play important roles in determining how this unfolds.  

First, further development of the US-India bilateral relationship, in which advanced especially military technologies and hardware play an acknowledged major and institutionalised role through the India-US Defence Framework Agreement initiated in 2005 and updated in 2015.

Second, the potential unfolding of security dimensions of the Quad involving the US, Australia, Japan and India, keeping in mind the security scenario in the Asia-Pacific, mainland Asia and South Asia.

Third, inevitable changes in the long-standing India-Russia relationship relating to military hardware, given India’s own efforts to diversify from over-dependence on Russia and the gradual weakening of Russian military-industrial capability, now likely to be further weakened due to the Ukraine war and tough Western sanctions. 

And fourth, India’s apparent new-found tilt toward earlier decried self-reliance in the defence industry, arising from the utter failure of prolonged efforts to woo foreign defence majors to set up manufacturing bases in India.

Against this background, this article looks at the US offer of the latest version of the proven F/A-18 E/F Block III fighter jets for Indian aircraft carriers. While all the four aspects outlined above cannot be dealt with in this brief article, they may be kept in mind in the discussions to follow.

Carrier-Based Fighters

Coincidentally or otherwise, while Prime Minister was attending the Quad summit with the US President and the Japanese and Australian Prime Ministers, two F/A-18 E Block III fighter jets were in Goa for shore-based and flight tests as part of the procurement process for an Indian Navy tender for 26 carrier-based multi-role fighters. The other contenders are the Rafale-M, the marine or carrier-based version of the Rafale fighter already serving with the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Russian MiG-29K currently in service on India’s only aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, and Sweden’s Saab Gripen.

Initially, the order was supposed to have been for 57 fighters but was later scaled-down to 26 due to financial constraints. Go ahead has also been given to DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) to develop an indigenous twin-engine carrier-based fighter which will, of course, take several years.

The 26 carrier-based fighters, of which eight are expected to be two-seater fighters for training and for specialised shore-based strike operations, are expected to serve on India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, IAC-1 or INS Vikrant. This carrier is currently undergoing sea trials and is expected to be inducted into the Navy later this year to serve on the Eastern seas, with the government wanting induction on August 15, 2022 on the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.

A second indigenous aircraft carrier, IAC-2, expected to be named INS Vishaal, has been put on hold, again due to limited finances, but may be taken up later. INS Vikramaditya, a refurbished Russian Kiev-class carrier, originally named Baku when in the Soviet Navy in the late 1980s, serves on the Western seas, and the Navy visualises a third carrier to either cover other requisite areas or to be used to replace either of the other carriers during maintenance so that at least two carriers are in service at any given time.

The Navy currently operates 45 MiG-29Ks, including variants and some two-seaters on the Vikramaditya with the expectation of operation aboard IAC-1 Vikrant as well. However, the MiG-29K has had a troubled record of service, with huge down times and low serviceability, even drawing harsh comments from the CAG.

Russia had problems with spares even after the Ukrainian and Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. While the serviceability has gone up since those years, it is anybody’s guess how Russia will cope with the much more severe current sanctions and negative impact on its industries. All in all, it seems highly unlikely that the IAF will go in for more Mig-29s in the present tender.

With the IAF never having seriously considered the Swedish Gripen, the race appears to be between the marine Rafale and the F/A-18 Super Hornets.

Advantage Super Hornets?

Both the Rafale-M and the F/A-18 Super Hornet have been specifically designed for carrier-based operations.  It would appear at first glance that the Rafale would have the obvious advantage. Rafale is a more contemporary aircraft, whereas the Boeing F/A-18 is a much older design dating from the 1990s which, however, has undergone many major upgrades and even re-designs. In fact, the older vintage of the F/A-18 was probably the major reason for it being knocked out early from IAF’s MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) tender under which the Rafale was ultimately selected, leaving the Rafale and the Eurofighter as the final contestants.

Since Rafale is already in service with the IAF, it would be advantageous in terms of spares, maintenance etc to add more Rafales, even if they are with the Navy, rather than add yet another aircraft type to the carrier fleet.

If the lighter MiG-29s are out of consideration, and only the heavier Rafales and F/A-18s are to be considered, the ability of these aircraft to take off and land using the Indian Navy’s aircraft carriers’ ski-jump and STOBAR (short take-off but arrested) landing systems with arrester cables snagging the landing aircraft, becomes crucial.  The heavier Rafale or F/A-18 on India’s carriers would enable larger weapons payloads, longer range and more complex missions.

The Rafale-M has already undergone field trials at the INS Hansa naval station in Goa where a ski-jump has been set up simulating the ski-jump deck on the Russia-made Vikramaditya and the indigenous carriers.  The Super Hornets have demonstrated their compatibility with the ski-jump through numerous computer simulations, tests at a physical facility in Patuxent River, Maryland, US,  in December 2020, and now at INS Hansa in Goa. On this count, both seem on par.

Boeing is pushing hard to overcome its “older aircraft” image, to show that it is a contemporary advanced fighter, and is also dangling many carrots for India to consider. Boeing stresses that the F/A-18 remains a preferred carrier-based platform serving with many Navies around the world, including with new customers such as Australia, who prefer it to the more expensive F-35 which may not be available to all countries. Indeed, the acquisition cost, operating and maintenance costs are major selling points for Boeing.

The Super Hornet uses the GE F-414 engine which powers India’s indigenously developed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the same engine is also likely to power several of the LCA versions under development, thus enabling logistics synergy and cost effectiveness.

Carrots and Sticks

Boeing is also emphasising the Super Hornet’s “precision landing” software which optimises the landing speeds and glide slope, and also enables independence from the Indian carriers’ optical landing systems. Boeing also underlines that the Super Hornet Block III being offered to India is highly networked and comes with built-in networking with other US assets India has already acquired from the US such as the 17 P8-i maritime reconnaissance aircraft and the recently bought anti-submarine MH-60 Helicopters. Servicing partnership over the aircraft lifetime is also being offered.

Network compatibility with any future unmanned aircraft is an additional plus point, the reference clearly being to the pending, but yet to be finalised, Indian acquisition of 30 armed Predator/MQ9B drones from US major General Atomics. Further, the one advanced technology project identified under the Defence Technology Trade Initiative which met requirements and capabilities of both sides, is on Aircraft Carrier Technologies. Under this, possibilities of technology transfer or joint development of hybrid electric propulsion CATOBAR systems and Electromagnetic Air Lift Systems on Indian carriers are being explored, and the US would clearly show more interest if India acquires more carrier based platforms, such as carrier-based drones which are also under discussion between India and the US. 

It is understood that both the Super Hornet and Predator drone acquisitions were discussed at the “2+2” Summit of Indian and US Foreign and Defence Ministers.  Other possible acquisitions and links to these two on hand would probably have come up with various carrots being dangled at the end of strings that can always be pulled back! Will India succumb?


The writer is with the Delhi Science Forum and All India People’s Science Network. The views are personal.