The Indian Navy is actively conducting “testing” to find the most suitable fighter line to serve on the country’s new aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
After 12 days of testing at Goa’s INS Hansa facility using 283 meters mock ski jump facility, the marine version of the French-made Rafale fighter jet has been successfully flight-tested at a shore-based facility in Goa where conditions similar to that on the indigenously-developed aircraft carrier INS Vikrant were simulated, a top diplomat said.
The Indian Navy is looking for 57 multirole fighters to operate on its future aircraft carriers, and France has expressed a strong desire to secure the contract.
The Rafale-M is pitted against the U.S.-made F/A-18 Super Hornet — both of which are being evaluated for a possible purchase by the Indian Navy for deployment on the 44,000-tonne INS Vikrant that is undergoing trials in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal for likely commissioning in August.
“Tests were done to check its [Rafale-Marine’s] take-off [capability] from the deck of your [India’s] carrier and it has done very well,” French Ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain told journalists on February 1 evening in Kolkata in a free-wheeling conversation.
India’s new aircraft carrier has been designed as a ski-jump launch ship, different from both US and French carriers, who use a catapult launch for their jets. The aircraft selected by the Indian Navy consequently must be capable of taking off in this fashion, carrying all weapon systems and full fuel load.
The Rafale M (Marine) is a single-seat carrier-based fighter version for the French Navy. This is the version operating on the French navy aircraft carrier, which has been in service since 2002. Rafale M is 500 kg heavier than the Rafale C. The exterior is very similar to the Rafale C, but the M version has many differences.
In March 2022, the Indian Navy will test another competitor, the Boeing F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet. The Hornet took off from Ski jump as part of a test campaign held in 2020 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River (MD). It is also reported that structural changes to the elevators of INS Vikrant must be modified to accommodate Super Hornet aircraft.
However, according to sources, the suppliers have made modifications to both Rafale-M and Super Hornet to make them suitable for the Indian order.
The Navy was looking for an aircraft that is capable of delivering nuclear loads, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, and precision-guided bombs. The Navy wants to initially purchase 26 jets for its aircraft carrier, though it had issued in 2017 a Request for Information (RFI) for 57 multirole aircraft capable of being launched from carriers.
The RFI was issued as the Navy will be phasing out the MiG-29Ks, currently being used on INS Vikramaditya — a modified Kiev class carrier — in 2034.
Ambassador Lenain pointed out that Indian Air Force was already using Rafale fighter jets and “was very satisfied with the aircraft”.
Since the IAF has Rafale jets, a Naval order would build on commonality, he said.
“We have already supplied 35 Rafales in the last order and will complete it by sending the 36th before the deadline in April,” he said.
Besides the upcoming tests for these two competitors, there are rumors that it is likely that India will ask the French government to lease 4-5 Rafale M by 2022, in order to put into operation onboard the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant when it officially entered service.
The Indian Navy currently operates two squadrons of MiG-29Ks on its sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. However, fighter jets from Russia face challenges in terms of range, payload and maintenance.