The notion of India buying and even producing American-designed jet fighters for its Air Force has been floating around for a few years already. Recent developments in the borders with China and Pakistan and the dwindling numbers of available combat aircraft have made this matter even more crucial.
At the same time, New Delhi is also expanding the capabilities of its Navy, including the development and deployment of modern aircraft carriers. However, older and newer aircraft have failed to meet all of the existing demands, which means that additional fighters may be in order for the Navy too.
New Delhi has been looking for a wide array of solutions aimed at addressing these issues. According to Flight Global, Boeing has been offering such solutions to the Indian government by using the battle-proven F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as its flagship.
This type is the main combat aircraft of the U.S. Navy and has operated all over the world, even shooting down a Syrian Sukhoi Su-22 earlier this year. It is also used by the Royal Australian Air Force.
Furthermore, the model that Boeing is offering to India is an improved one, which is better than the units currently serving under U.S. colors, dubbed the “Block III” Advanced Super Hornet. This model has better sensors compared to its predecessors, an improved cockpit, and extended range due to the conformal fuel tanks over the fuselage.
However, Boeing is not alone in the bid for new aircraft for India, and the negotiation of defense deals with New Delhi tends to be tricky.
Nevertheless, India does need the new aircraft. Although the country is already a global player, the main military threats to India are actually quite close to home and wield nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is a traditional rival, which has fought several wars with New Delhi. The possibility of a new conflict between both nations is quite real.
China is also cementing its place on the global stage. It is one of the world’s main economies and has ties with nations all over the globe. Chinese Armed Forces are numerous and well-equipped, and Beijing keeps modernizing them. This, and the fact that Beijing already won a war against India back in 1962, makes it New Delhi’s most direct opponent.
When planning a war against either of these two opponents, India has to factor in the other because it stands to reason that they could either come to each other’s aid or capitalize on the chaos of an ongoing war. Because of this, India has a minimum sanctioned strength for its Air Force of 40 squadrons of around 18 combat aircraft each, with 44 squadrons being considered ideal.
However, the Indian Air Force only has 33 of such squadrons at the moment, the Hindustan Times reports. This reality is usually labeled as the ‘fighter gap’ and puts the country at a strategic disadvantage. Even worse, many of these airplanes are old Soviet models, which are outdated and dangerous to fly, like the MiG-21.
It should be noted that India does have great numbers of powerful machines, too. The Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-30MKI is a premier combat aircraft, and when production ends, the country would have received almost 300 of such aircraft. But they won’t be enough.
India has been developing its own light combat aircraft, the HAL Tejas, in an attempt to produce a model that is simple and able to be produced in enough numbers to replace older aircraft and bolster the ranks. But the development, which started in the 1980s, has been lagging, and the aircraft is not yet operational in sufficient numbers. Even worse, the naval version was canceled after the Navy found that the airplane didn’t meet its requirements.
In an attempt to modernize and get more aircraft, New Delhi also established the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition, in which the Super Hornet participated. This tender was supposed to select a model among some of the most advanced combat aircraft in the world to supply the Air Force with 126 units. In 2012, the French Dassault Rafale was selected, but India only bought 36 airplanes, leaving the fighter gap issue to be solved at a later date.
At the same time, the Indian Navy was also modernizing. The INS Viraat, in fact a recommissioned HMS Hermes, was decommissioned in March of the current year, leaving the INS Vikramaditya as the only operational carrier in the Indian Navy.
While the Viraat operated the venerable Sea Harrier jump jets, the Vikramaditya is a much larger ship and can carry the Russian MiG-29K twin engine fighters. India is also building an additional carrier, the INS Vikrant. Both of these ships use the ski-jump system to launch aircraft. This system implies that the aircraft needs to make a take-off run at full power and then goes up a ramp in order to gain altitude so it can fly.
This system is simple to operate when compared to the Catapult Assisted Take-Off (CATOBAR) system used by American carriers, but it puts limitations on the maximum weight of an aircraft, which is translated as fewer weapons and less fuel. In order to get rid of such limitations, India is developing a larger carrier with a CATOBAR system, the IAC-II, which should be roughly similar to its American counterparts once finished.
These plans also imply the acquisition of more fighters to equip such vessels. Currently, India operates 45 MiG-29Ks, but the service has become disenchanted with these fighters. They have been found to be vulnerable to the stresses of carrier operations and have other operational limitations, Defense-Aerospace reports.
Disappointed, India is looking not only for a larger fighter for the new carriers, but also a replacement for the MiG. This is distressing for Russia, which has been Indian’s main weapons supplier for decades.
The bid for the new jets would entail the acquisition of 57 units, which would be a boon for the Super Hornet if it ends up being chosen. Boeing went as far as advancing the possibility of opening a production line in India, according to UPI. This would not only allow the country to control the production to a certain extent, but also make the acquisition of additional Super Hornets for the Air Force more enticing.
Additionally, the aircraft offers interesting features beyond the improved avionics and range. It exists in both single-seat and dual-seat versions, the F/A-18E and F/A-18F respectively, and also in the EF-18G Growler electronic warfare model, offering a great deal of versatility for potential buyers.
However, the Indian Air Force does operate the Rafale, which is also offered in a naval variant with CATOBAR compatibility. Like the Super Hornet, the Rafale is combat proven, but it is much more expensive.
In any regard, the decision should only be taken in 2018 or 2019. It is, however, interesting to note that Boeing’s offer comes at a time when Lockheed-Martin has made a similar proposal to New Delhi.
Last Wednesday, The Times of India forwarded some news about the proposed deal to produce F-16 fighter jets in India. Given that the production lines in the U.S. will probably close during the next few years, Lockheed, in association with Tata Advanced Systems, proposed to open a new facility in India.
This would allow the country to address its fighter gap by producing at least 100 light fighters. Lockheed also offers the possibility of India selling the aircraft to other nations, which is tempting indeed.
It is an intriguing deal, but it is competing with Saab, which has also offered to produce its own single engine fighter, the JAS-39, in the country.
In any regard, India’s fighter fleet is facing strong challenges, and although there are several potential solutions in sight, they all have their own pros and cons. In the end, the decisions will depend on political will and strategic necessities.
[Featured Image by Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP Images]