The US has never been able to sell fighter aircraft in India. Can F/A-18E/F Super Hornet break the Jinx?

by Girish Linganna

France’s Minister of Defence, Sebastien Lecornu and the United States Secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, visited India in November 2022. Lecornu was in New Delhi for Fourth India–France Defence Dialogue, during which both nations agreed to strengthen military-industrial cooperation with an emphasis on Make In India (MII). Lecornu and Del Toro visited Kochi, the headquarters of the Southern Naval Command, where the indigenously-built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is also headquartered, in addition to their meetings in New Delhi. The French and American teams’ trips emphasised their concurrent efforts to gain the contract for outfitting India’s indigenous aircraft carrier with a fighter wing.

The lone active aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy (IN), INS Vikramaditya, is currently equipped with Mig-29K fighters. To pick which aircraft will equip the INS Vikrant, the Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) programme must choose between the French Rafale Marine and the twin-engined US Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) with a single engine was deemed inadequate for aircraft carrier operations. In January 2017, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) published a Request for Information (RFI) for the MRCBF acquisition of 57 fighters, which was later reduced to 26 fighters to be procured through the government-to-government (G2G) method. There are eight variations of twin-seater trainers and eighteen variants of single-seater trainers.

Aircraft Engaged In Combat

In January and June 2022, the Rafale and the Super Hornet performed demonstration ski jumps at the INS Hansa, Goa based Shore-Based Test Facility (SBTF). Boeing asserts that the Super Hornet meets the needs of India’s aircraft carriers, INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, and emphasises that the two-seater F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can also be utilised for land-based missions and as a trainer.

The US aerospace company further emphasises that the aircraft is compatible with the Boeing P-81 reconnaissance aircraft of the Indian Navy. Boeing reports that three of the four Quad countries utilise the P8I. (US, Australia and India). Two of the four Quad countries operate F/18 planes as well (US and Australia).

Boeing reiterates that the same engine family powers the F/18 and LCA Tejas. While the General Electric (GE) F-414 drives the F/18, a $716 million contract was struck in August 2021 to supply 99 GE F-404 engines to power the LCA Mk-I A combat aircraft. The MoD signed an order with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in February 2021 for 83 LCA MK-1A jets costing Rs 48,000 crores.

Boeing reaffirms that over 800 Super Hornets and their variations have been delivered worldwide and that the huge scale will enable competitive adoption of newly developed technologies. It is also anticipated that the ‘By India-For India’ sustainment programme will increase the operational deployment availability of aircraft.

As for the other contender, Rafale Marine, India concluded a deal in 2016 to procure 36 Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF). While the first aircraft was delivered in October 2019, the remaining 36 were all delivered by December 2022. Egypt, Qatar, and Greece also operate advanced French fighter aircraft. At the same time, the UAE signed an agreement to acquire 80 Rafales in December 2021, and Indonesia signed a deal to acquire 42 Rafales in February 2022.

The MRCBF choices are intended to be a stopgap measure until the Twin-Engined Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) project is completed. The acquisition received a nod in 2020, with the completion of the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) anticipated by mid-2023. The aircraft will be powered by the same GE F414 engines as the F/A 18s and is slated to enter service in 2031–32.

Dassault and Boeing are vying for the IAF’s multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) program, for which an RFI was launched in 2018.

French Exports of Arms To India

The Rafale is the most recent French-origin fighter aircraft deployed by the IAF. In 1953, the Indian Air Force (IAF) acquired the Ouragans (Toofani) and became Dassault Aviation’s first export customer. The IAF also acquired Jaguars (starting in 1978) and Mirage-2000 aircraft beginning in 1982. India currently possesses around 100 Jaguars and over 50 Mirage-2000s (single and dual-seat versions). In 2011, Thales upgraded the Mirages with new radars, electronic warfare (EW) suites and mission computers.

Before the 2016 Rafale G2G contract, another significant French acquisition was the 2005 Scorpene deal for six submarines. INS Kalvari, the first submarine, was launched in 2015 and commissioned in 2017. The sixth submarine, INS Vagsheer, will be launched in 2022. The Scorpene and Rafale deals made India the second largest consumer of French armaments between 2010 and 2020, behind Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia acquired almost 9 billion euros from France, India imported 7.2 billion euro worth of weapons. During 2010–2020, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and India were the top five buyers of French armaments. Aircraft was the largest category of French arms exports between 2010 and 2020, accounting for a quarter of the country’s total exports.

India–US Defence Partnership

Even while India’s arms imports from France experienced a large increase between 2010 and 2020, and regardless of India’s interim naval fighter option, the India–US defence and the strategic alliance have been substantially reinforced in recent years. In 2016, India was designated as a Major Defense Partner. From 1950 to 2021, US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to India totalled US$ 13.2 billion, of which US$ 4.7 billion (or 28 percent) occurred between 2017 and 2021. During 2010–21, the authorised value of US defence products and services sold to India under Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) exceeded US$ 18 billion.

The list includes:

Reconnaissance aircraft (11 Boeing P8-I in IN; 1 additional order).
Transport aircraft (12 Lockheed Martin C-130J in IAF).
Multi-mission helicopters (15 Boeing CH-47F I Chinook in IAF).
Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) maritime patrol (24 Sikorsky MH-60Rs; 2 inducted in IN).
Attack helicopters (22 Boeing AH-64E Apache in IAF; six ordered for Indian Army in 2020).
Reconnaissance UAV (2 General Atomics MQ 9 Sea Guardian leased in IN).

TATA Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL), a 2016 joint venture between India and the United States, has shipped over 150 Apache fuselages to Boeing’s global customers. During India–US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue conducted in April 2022, both sides agreed to “push the methods to encourage the reciprocal engagement of Indian and American vendors in each other’s defence supply chains.”

US Vs EU Dogfight

If India decides to go with the Rafale Marine, it will bring attention to the fact that despite decades of effort, American manufacturers of fighter aircraft have not been successful in becoming a part of India’s inventory. It would also indicate a growing presence of European firms in the Indian military aircraft industry. In light of this, while the C-295 is a replacement for the IAF’s HS-748 transport aircraft, it is also viewed as a potential replacement for the IAF’s around 100 AN-32 aircraft.

US aircraft engine manufacturers such as GE will continue to be integral to indigenous fighter aircraft programmes such as the TEJAS MK-1 and TEAJS MK-2. The robust India–US defence and military partnership are expected to absorb any short-term setback resulting from India’s interim choice for naval fighter aircraft.