Noticing serious serviceability issues with the Russian MiG-29Ks, the original choice, along with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), as the multi-role combat aircraft for the current Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and the first indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant, the Indian Navy has released a detailed Request for Information for procurement of 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF). Boeing and Dassault Aviation are in the fray with the F/A-18 Super Hornet Block II and Rafale, respectively. Geopolitics Bureau examines the issue.

It has been a couple of years since the Indian Navy issued a request for information (RFI) for procurement of 57 MRCBF, following a delay in the development of the TEJAS Navy. The Navy requirement is the world’s largest tender for procurement of a carrier borne strike fighter and has two contenders: Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale Marine. While the Rafale Marine has only one operator, which is the French Navy, the Super Hornet has two operators, the US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

To many observers, the requirement for a new carrier fighter type was a surprise as the Indian Naval Aviation operates 45 MiG-29K (single-seat) and MiG29KUB (twin-seat) for which a substantial amount of operating infrastructure has been set up and a training pipeline has been put into place. Despite the Navy playing a key role in the development of the MiG-29K and funding it to boot, if it now needs different products, it implies that it faced poor product support from the manufacturer. In other words, teething developmental issues took much longer to rectify than anticipated. It may be noted that 45 aircraft were ordered from Russia by India which was the launch customer for the aircraft, with orders being placed in 2004 and 2010 for 16 and 29 aircraft, respectively. Deliveries of all the 45 aircraft have been completed.

The net result is that the Navy’s dissatisfaction with the MiG-29K and a delay in development of the TEJAS Navy will result in the Indian taxpayer being saddled with the bill to procure 57 new carrier-borne fighters. The IAF contract for 36 Rafale F3-R combat aircraft inked in September 2016 cost ₹59,000 crore (Euro 7.87 billion). A carrier-based multi-role combat aircraft will be more expensive to procure, but even for purposes of calculation if the IAF cost is applied, then 57 aircraft for the Navy would cost a whopping ₹90,000 crore! This will be in addition to the ₹10,500 crore spent in procuring the disappointing MiG-29Ks.

Pitching For The The Rafale-M

France, since 2018 has been pitching the Rafale-M variant fighter jet as a contender for the Indian Navy’s requirement of carrier-borne combat aircraft, with a top officer saying that it’s battle proven.

Pointing to operations against ISIS using the Rafale, the French Navy feels it will be suitable for India and can be easily integrated on-board the aircraft carrier under construction at Cochin Shipyard which is likely to be commissioned by next year end or early 2022. “We have used the aircraft carrier in the fight against ISIS and have used sophisticated armaments from the Rafale that demonstrates that it works very well,” Rear Admiral Gilles Boidevezi, in charge of foreign relations for the French Navy remarked in an interview with ET.

“The Rafale can be integrated with non-French carriers.” Industry sources said several rounds of talks had taken place with Indian Navy regarding the Rafale offer for a requirement of 57 jets and that it hadn’t been impacted by the political controversy over the earlier deal for 36 planes. In fact, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is expected to be in Paris from October 11 for a bilateral meeting, during which she is expected to be briefed on all ongoing projects, including Scorpene submarines and progress on Rafale production.

The tenders for the contract are expected to be issued shortly but it is likely to be a straight contest between the Boeing-made F/A 18 Super Hornet and the Rafale Marine. The French navy believes that it has demonstrated its ability to operate from foreign carriers. “The Rafale went to the US and was deployed on American aircraft carriers,” said Boidevezi. “The Rafale was perfectly integrated with the US carriers and has shown its capability to work with non-French platforms.” 

Both the F/A 18 and Rafale Marine fighter jets have been operating from aircraft carriers but are rigged for catapult launches. This may pose problems for India as the navy uses the ski-jump system, which involves a runway that curves upward. Sources said that extensive tests and software analysis have been conducted by the French side on the Rafale to show that it can operate with a meaningful load from ski-jump carriers.

This data has also been shared with the Indian Navy that is currently drafting technical requirements for the new fighter competition. Boeing, which makes the Super Hornet, has also shared this data with the Indian Navy.

Once the requirements are firmed up and permissions obtained from the ministry of defence, tenders will be issued. It is still unclear how the Indian side will categorise the purchase — as a direct foreign purchase or with an offset clause that mandates a proportion of the manufacturing will have to be domestic. The MiG 29 Ks were bought fully built from Russia as the relatively small number would have made domestic production too expensive.

A Viable & Competent Option

The Rafale-M is undoubtedly the most advanced naval strike fighter in service anywhere. Designed from the outset for carrier operations, it has successfully been engaged in combat operations from the Charles de Gaulle nuclear aircraft-carrier in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria.

The versatile Rafale-M excels in the full spectrum of missions, including air superiority/offensive counter air, fleet air defence/defensive counter air, pre-strategic and tactical reconnaissance, nuclear deterrence, destruction of enemy air defences, deep strikes, battlefield air interdiction, close air support, anti-ship strikes, buddy-buddy refuelling...Compared to US super carriers, UK and French carriers, the IAC is smaller, with a shorter deck that imposes the development of an advanced aircraft that would guarantee particularly slow approach / landing speed regimes.

Performance & Capabilities

To match this stringent requirement, Dassault Aviation came up with an aero-dynamically advanced delta design fitted with canard fore-planes. The selected configuration offered the best compromise between minimum and maximum speeds, combat agility during a dogfight, and range and endurance to strike targets far away. Even better, the Rafale-M is fitted with thirteen hardpoints to carry a 9,500-kg weapon load, the largest combat load of any naval fighter. In flight, its performance is startling. It’s got tons of thrust and loads of lift for maxi-mum agility. As a result, Rafale-M air combat performance clearly exceeds expectations: it can accelerate and turn hard, and change altitude very rapidly to become unpredictable for the enemy. Specific features and low observable coatings have been introduced to significantly reduce the Rafael’s radar cross section, further lowering vulnerability. In an effort to minimise procurement / operating costs and decrease production and maintenance complexity, the naval Rafale M and its Rafale C and B air force counterparts all share an extremely high level of commonality. Their airframes, weapon systems, engines and subsystems are identical, differences being mainly restricted to the landing gear, to the arresting hook and to the introduction of a built-in foldable access ladder.

One just needs to look at the Rafael’s massive landing gear to understand how strong its airframe really is. The fighter was carefully designed to fit the necessities of carrier operations while ensuring a long service life. Its structure was optimised to absorb the violent shocks and loads associated with catapult shots and carrier landings: this allowed launch loads, which run through the nose landing gear, and arrestment loads, transmitted via the tail hook, to be efficiently distributed through the aircraft structure to minimise fatigue and wear and tear. The materials used to build the new fighter were carefully selected to reduce corrosion, a perennial hurdle for carrier-based aircraft. The airframe itself is rather compact for an aircraft offering such large fuel and weapon payloads: this facilitates on-deck handling and aircraft placement and spotting, maintains carrier elevator capacity and carriage, and allows for satisfactory hangar height clearance for below deck storage and maintenance

Rafale M fighters has received numerous new enhancements as part of the new Standard F4 which is being developed to meet the projected threats over the next two decades. The fighter includes a helmet-mounted display, a new cockpit displays, a new directional datalink to improve their connectivity, and multipurpose active electronic scanning planar arrays able to carry out numerous functions simultaneously: detection, jamming, electronic attack and communication. These planar arrays will rely on the latest Gallium Nitride (GaN) technology which will offer extended operational ranges and reduced power and cooling requirements. A whole range of new, lethal weapons has been adopted, including the new Franco-British, multipurpose, stealth, stand-off Future Cruise and Anti-ship Weapon (FCASW) which will replace both the Scalp and the current AM39 Exocet.

The  Rafale  carries  a  wide  spectrum  of  guided weapons,  including  the  GBU-12  Paveway-II, GBU-22  and  GBU-24  Paveway-III  laser-guided bombs,  the  SBU-38,  54  and  64  versions  of the  Hammer  (Highly  Agile,  Modular  Munition Extended Range) family of precision weapons, the AM39 Block 2 Mod 2 Exocet anti-ship missile, the Scalp cruise missile and the MICA-IR/EM air-to-air missiles (MICA-NG from 2026) and the formidable Meteor active radar guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air (BVRAAM) missile.

Parting Thought

The Navy has asked that MRCBF deliveries commence three years from the date of the contract signature and be completed in three years. Hence, if a contract is finalised by 2021, as an optimistic outcome, then the first aircraft would join the Navy in 2024, with deliveries to be completed by 2027. The RFI states that the MRCBF should be a day and night capable, all-weather multi-role combat aircraft that can be used for air defence; air-to-surface operations; buddy refuelling; reconnaissance; and electronic warfare missions.

To conclude, the Rafale-M is a very capable fighter and a better option than any other aircraft available today as it fulfils the stringent operational requirements of the Indian Navy with relative ease.