Indian Navy kicks off global search for a carrier-borne fighter - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 27 January 2017

Indian Navy kicks off global search for a carrier-borne fighter

Leaving Tejas out in the cold, navy reaches out to global vendors

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Jan 17

After declaring last month that the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) was not suitable for operations off an aircraft carrier, the Indian Navy has declared its interest in buying “approximately 57” multi role carrier borne fighters (MRCBF) for deck operations.

The navy’s “request for information” (RFI), posted on the web on January 25, does not specify whether it wants a single-engine or a twin-engine fighter. However, the expansive role capability spelt out biases the selection towards a medium-to-heavy, twin-engine fighter.

“The MRCBF are intended as day and night capable, all weather multi-role deck based combat aircraft which can be used for Air Defence (AD), Air to Surface Operations, Buddy Refuelling, Reconnaissance, EW (Electronic Warfare) missions etc from IN (Indian Navy) aircraft carriers”, states the RFI.

The RFI specifies that, in its operational configuration, the MRCBF would carry four “beyond visual range” missiles, two “all aspect air-to-air missiles” and a gun.

The RFI asks whether the MRCBF is capable of both STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery) as well as CATOBAR (catapult take off but arrested recovery) aircraft carriers. The navy’s two current carriers --- INS Vikramaditya, which is in service; and INS Vikrant, which is being built in Cochin Shipyard Ltd --- are both STOBAR vessels. INS Vishal, which would probably be commissioned around 2030, will probably be a CATOBAR carrier.

Theoretically in the fray are six contemporary fighters. Three are twin-engine: Dassault’s marine Rafale, called the Rafale M; Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; and the Russian MiG-29K/KUB.

Another three --- Lockheed Martin’s F-35B and F-35C; and Swedish company Saab’s Sea Gripen --- are single engine fighters.

The navy has already bought 45 MiG-29K/KUB for its two current carriers and, given problems with that fighter, will not buy more. The Rafale M and the Super Hornet are designed for CATOBAR operations, but Boeing officials say computer simulations confirm the Super Hornet is capable of short take offs from a ski-jump.

“Boeing has completed extensive analysis and done some testing on the F/A-18’s compatibility with Indian carriers. We have assessed that the Super Hornet is capable of launching off a ski-jump carrier and could be operated from Indian carriers”, says Pratyush Kumar, head of Boeing India.

Meanwhile, development delays could rule out the two F-35 variants --- the vertical take off and landing (VTOL) F-35B and the catapult launched F-35C. However, Saab officials, speaking off the record, confirm emphatically that they will offer the Sea Gripen. “We have done detailed feasibility studies that encounter no problem in evolving the Gripen E into a carrier-borne fighter”.

Effectively, that places Saab’s and Boeing’s aircraft in pole position for the MRCBF. Both fighters are also in contention to be built in India to meet the Indian Air Force’s requirements.

The contours of the race will become clearer on May 24, when original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) must submit responses.

Significantly, the new RFI asks OEMs whether they are willing to manufacture their fighter in India.

Given the timelines for delivery --- with the first fighters to be delivered within three years of contract signature and all 57 delivered within another three years --- the OEMs will find it challenging to establish production in India with an acceptable degree of indigenisation.

“We can establish an assembly facility in India within 18-24 months, with about 10-15 per cent indigenisation of the fighter. But it would take four years to get 30 per cent indigenisation, and at least seven years to indigenise 45-50 per cent of the fighter”, says a senior official from one of the OEMs that received the RFI.

The RFI asks for detailed information on the weaponry integrated on their fighter, including land attack, anti-ship and anti-radiation missiles, and precision-guided munitions (PBMs), or “smart bombs”. It asks whether the aircraft is integrated with helmet-mounted displays and “airborne electronically scanned array” (AESA) radar.

The RFI also asks whether the fighter has a twin-seat variant (used for training), and whether that variant retains all the combat attributes of the single-seat variant.

There is now a dark cloud over the Naval Tejas with this RFI, which would be followed up later this year with a Request for Proposals (RfP), or call for bids. As Business Standard reported (December 30, “Aircraft carrier version of Tejas still alive, despite navy opposition”) the navy has insisted since last April on dropping the Naval Tejas and focusing instead on a marine version of the proposed fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).


  1. Global as in American or French, right? (Russia need not apply). What's to search? Just pick one and GO! Damn babus.

  2. My Opinion, If Navy is even thinking of F-18 or Rafale, the money involved could,

    * Let us partner with a consultancy to finish the work on Kaveri engine and complete the project.
    * Finish the development work on LCA Navy with F414.
    * Still buy a good 30 to 35 Ming 29 K/KUB with upgrades, possibly also partner in development work to sort out the remaining issues on this Aircraft.

    The above apart from the advantages would also, save time, which looks set, with a long selection process negotiation and final contract with the work to be done.

    My thoughts!

  3. Did I miss something between first claim that tender is biased to twin-engine fighters, and final conclusion that undeveloped Naval Gripen is favored... above mature Rafale M (already integrated with Indian comms, etc via IAF). Did Naval Gripen gain a second engine?

  4. Effectively, that places Saab’s and Boeing’s aircraft in pole position for the MRCBF. Both fighters are also in contention to be built in India to meet the Indian Air Force’s requirements.

    Eh? This is getting ridiculous.

    The F-35 is just 12 months away from the end of its development phase (which puts it about 6 months behind schedule). The USMC (F-35B) has already declared IOC and the USN (F-35C) will declare IOC next year. But that as per you not a feasible time-frame for the Indian Navy's purposes.

    Meanwhile the Gripen E's IOC is scheduled for 2023 and its carrier-variant exists only on paper but Saab according to you is offering a very feasible proposal.

    I think you're allowing your soft spot for the Gripen to cloud your judgement.

  5. "Effectively, that places Saab’s and Boeing’s aircraft in pole position for the MRCBF. "

    LOL, don't know how you placed a paper plane (Sea Gripen) ahead of an in-production jet (F-35).

    - Reader A

  6. Expect bashing of navy by some armchair generals. They called army corrupt because IA didn't select Arjun for weight and other reasons.

  7. Rafale m if its stobar capable will be a good choice. Else fa18 super hornet should do.

  8. Rafale M should also be a strong contender if the government would like to sign any follow on order for IAF.

  9. F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, the F-35B short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant, and the F-35C carrier-based Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) variant.

  10. LCA has been a technology demonstrator . That is why GE414 powered Naval plane was planned long back.
    I do not think Navy will decide just like that nor is this a sudden decision.
    It would have been if you had published a comparison of specs navy wants to LCA capabilities

  11. LCA-N has no future, never had. it's a no brainer, how can a small aircraft with small engine carry all equipment the navy desires?? which country in the world operates such a small aircraft for the Navy? Even the JSF single engine is heavier than the rafale or the migs and has massive thrust yet is has limited internal payload and range so LCA navy is a nonsensical option for carriers. the only place we can make use of them is for training and shore based defence but there again about 40 should be enough and that should keep HAL and DDP happy.
    sea gripen is a paper tiger, they will ask for a firm order and then start work which means another 5 to 10 years, ditto for LCA mk2. Rafale is a worthy option but price will be too steep and we will be left with a huge hole in the budget so that also looks bleak.
    hence f-35 or f-18 are the only options especially with IN asking for buddy refuelling and recce which f-18 and ea-18 will fulfil, plus it will come cheap. f-35b is the only other option as f-36 needs cartobar which is not coming until 2030 so from my point of view f-18 is frontrunner with cost on their side plus also commonality with IAF as well as orders they have already bagged.

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