Super Hornet, Rafale-M and MiG-29 begin their battle for the Indian Navy

With the induction of INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy is looking for a potent carrier-based fighter. With MiG-29Ks facing some issues, the Indian Navy is evaluating French Dassault Rafale-M fighters against Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornets.

India will test American F/A-18E Super Hornets as probable future fighters embarked for the new nationally produced INS Vikrant aircraft carrier. According to the sources, the Indian Navy has in fact requested two F / A-18E Super Hornet fighters from the United States for a series of tests.

Towards the end of May (May 21), two Super Hornets will arrive at the ground test complex for the practice of take-off and landing of embarked aircraft (NITKA) of the Indian Navy of Hansa, in the state of Goa.

Note that the Americans were aware of the Indian interest in aircraft carrier-based F/A-18E Super Hornet fighters, so at the end of 2020 they independently proceeded to test them by making a series of take-offs on a ground jump built at the US. Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland.

F/a-18E Fighter Jet during Ski-Jump testing
F/a-18E Fighter Jet during Ski-Jump testing

Certainly the F/A-18E Super Hornet was designed to take off from conventional airports or from the deck of an aircraft carrier using a steam or electromagnetic catapult but the situation is different for the INS Vikrant.

The new Indian aircraft carrier is in fact of the STOBAR type (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery, in Italian short take-off and assisted stop), halfway between the short take-off and vertical landing aircraft carriers (STOVL), like the Italian Cavour as much to be clear and the catapult aircraft carriers CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off Barrier Arrested Recovery, in Italian catapult assisted take-off but recovery with arrest cables), such as the large US aircraft carriers.

The American embarked fighter has so far operated precisely from the American CATOBARs but not from the STOBARs and therefore will have to demonstrate in India that it can do so easily up to the maximum take-off weight allowed. Technically feasible operation but operationally all to be verified.

Boeing therefore intends to push the Russian MiGs out of the Indian market with the aim of supplying New Delhi with its F/A-18 Super Hornet instead of the MiG-29K and thus equipping the new aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy.

A US effort that fits into the broader context of Washington’s pressure on New Delhi to reduce the close economic, military and energy ties with Russia.

Rafale-M landing on Charles de Gaulle
Rafale-M landing on Charles de Gaulle

Among the candidates, in addition to MiG which proposes a new batch of MiG-29K / KUB already operational for some time on the first Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, there is also Paris at stake with the embarked version of the Dassault Rafale-M (Rafale-Maritime) already supplied to the De Gaulle aircraft carrier of the National Navy.

Moreover, India already opearting 36 Rafale F3R in the ranks of the Indian Air Force and the French fighter aircraft has struck a remarkable series of orders (Croatia, United Arab Emirates, Greece and Indonesia as well as Egypt, India and Qatar) and that between the other has already been tested in India in take-off operations from the aforementioned NITKA complex in Hansa.

Both US F-18 and French Rafale-M are carrier-capable fighters in consideration for India’s second aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which will be commissioned on August 15, 2022 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Indian Navy as of now has plans to buy 26 fighters on a government-to-government basis as the ADA designed indigenous twin-engine deck-based fighter may be ready for trials by the end of this decade.

With China building its third aircraft carrier indigenously, India needs a minimum of two aircraft carriers to project dominance in the Indo-Pacific along with other QUAD partners. The Indian plan is to station one carrier group each on the western and eastern seaboard with forward deployment capability in Andamans and Nicobar Islands.

Which one is better?

The highly capable and versatile F-18 Super Hornet can fit into both elevators of IAC-1 with folded wings. A maximum of eight two-seater F-18 fighters are capable of launching from the deck of both Vikrant or Vikramaditya unlike Rafale-M two-seaters, which can only operate from shore-based facility and thus losing one-third of its combat capacity. This means while F-18 twin-seater fighters can be launched from carrier deck during war, the twin-seater Rafale-M fighters can only be launched from the shore.

Although the two aerial platforms under consideration of the Indian Navy can carry massive weapon loads, long-range air to air missiles and air to ground weapons, the F/A-18 Hornet can carry up to four anti-submarine missiles as compared to one by the Rafale-M fighter. Both are proven 4.5 generation fighters with F-18 having a huge successful history of combat over high seas and land.

INS Vikramaditya
MIG-29K aircraft on board INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier

However in all probability, the MiG 29K would be first to do its carrier compatibility trials in order to get the ship operational with the existing inventory of MiGs first (one in hand is better than two in the bush is a famous saying).

Another important aspect of the trials would be the handling of these aircraft on the deck of Vikrant. How quickly and how many aircraft can be parked on the deck and how many in the hangar, the ability of these aircraft to fit into the deck edge lift for movement to and from hangar to the flight deck.

There have been reports of some issues with the wingspan of aircraft and its ability to fit onto the lift, particularly the Super Hornet. One assumes that these issues would have been addressed by the manufacturer. If selected Rafale would offer ease of maintenance considering that the Indian Air Force is operating a land-based version of the same aircraft, there would be a commonality of many equipment and components, better logistics, and engineering support.

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