To be considered by the Indian Navy, Dassault's Rafale M will have to demonstrate the ability to take off in the STOBAR setting — a feat Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet has already demonstrated

The battle for the India Navy's lucrative fighter jet deal will enter a new phase yesterday (10 January, 2022) as Dassault Aviation's Rafale-M, the naval version of the Rafale fighter, will start flying from the shore-based test facility at INS Hansa in Goa to showcase its capabilities to operate from Indian aircraft carriers.

The aircraft will showcase its ability to take off from a ski-jump platform of the kind that Indian aircraft carriers have.

Rafale-M is already in service with the French Navy, which uses it from its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Unlike India's two carriers, which use ski-jump (short take-off but arrested recovery or STOBAR) to help aircraft take off from their decks, France's Charles de Gaulle uses catapult-assisted take-off (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery or CATOBAR).

In the STOBAR system, aircraft are launched from a carrier using their own power with a ski-jump ramp on the bow of the carrier assisting take-off. However, in the CATOBAR system, mechanical assistance is provided to the aircraft using a catapult, which is built into the carrier’s flight deck.

In both these systems, arrestor wires, which rapidly but smoothly decelerate an aircraft as it lands on deck, are used for recovery.

To be considered by the Indian Navy as a replacement for its MiG-29K fleet, Rafale M will have to demonstrate the ability to take off in the STOBAR setting.

Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, the other fighter in the race for the Indian Navy deal, has already demonstrated the ability to operate from the Indian Navy’s STOBAR aircraft carriers. An F/A-18 fighter took off using a ski-jump platform constructed at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland in August 2020. The navy may also test the Super Hornet at the ski-jump facility at INS Hansa in March this year, a report in the Hindustan Times says.

The F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III, Boeing says, will give the Indian Navy unique and differentiated capability in the form of an advanced, combat-proven, multi-role naval fighter that is fully compatible with the Indian Navy carriers. The aircraft is in service with the US Navy.

Unsatisfied with the performance of its MiG-29Ks, the Indian Navy has expressed interest in buying new fighters for its carriers. Moreover, with the induction of Vikrant in August this year (2022), the Indian Navy will have two aircraft carriers but not enough fighters to keep both the warships operational, experts have pointed out.

In 2017, the navy had said it would buy 57 new fighters for its air arm. However, the number has now been cut to 36 because India is developing its own deck-based fighter aircraft — Twin-Engine Carrier-Based Deck Fighter or TEDBF — and due to financial constraints.

Experts say Dassault's Rafale-M has an edge over the F/A-18 Super Hornet offered by Boeing as the Indian Air Force has already inducted two squadrons of the fighter and may contract for more in the next few years. India's rapidly expanding defence partnership with France, which also has a significant presence in the western Indian Ocean, will also be considered when New Delhi decides on the procurement of fighters.

The navy has also aligned its requirements with those of the Indian Air Force, which could see both buying fighters from the same manufacturer to ensure, among other things, economies of scale.

If Rafale-M is selected for procurement, the Indian Navy may ask Dassault to lease it four to five fighters to make aircraft carrier Vikrant operational after it is commissioned into the navy this year, the Hindustan Times report says.