French Rafale M edges out American F/A-18 in Indian Navy fighter contest
The Indian Air Force already operates two squadrons of the Rafale fighter, and if the navy also orders the maritime version of the same fighter, there will be commonality of spares and maintenance, said an official
The French Rafale M fighter has edged out the American F/A-18 Super Hornet in a direct competition to equip the Indian Navy with 26 new deck-based fighters for the country’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, officials familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
The Rafale is manufactured by Dassault Aviation while the Super Hornet is a Boeing product.
Dassault and Boeing demonstrated the capabilities of their aircraft to the navy at a shore-based test facility in Goa in January and June, respectively. The navy has submitted the trial reports of the two fighters to the defence ministry, and it is now for the government to take a final call on the government-to-government deal to meet the navy’s requirements, said one of the officials cited above, asking not to be named.
“The Rafale M has been found to be a better fit for the navy’s requirements,” said a second official, also asking not to be named. The Indian Air Force already operates two squadrons of the Rafale fighter, and if the navy also orders the maritime version of the same fighter, there will be commonality of spares and maintenance, the official added.
The 26 fighters that the navy plans to buy are only a stopgap until the country develops its own twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF). The navy is preparing a draft cabinet note for the design and development of TEDBF that India plans to operate from its aircraft carriers, navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar said last week.
The first prototype of TEDBF is likely to be ready around 2026, and its production could begin by 2032. The navy is working with the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) and Aeronautical Development Agency on the TEDBF project. Since TEDBF is still a decade away, the navy is looking at importing deck-based fighters as an interim measure.
It makes sense for the navy to go for the Rafale M fighters to fill the capability gap, said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
“The Rafale’s maritime version will have more than 85% commonality with the IAF Rafales. That means there will be tremendous advantages in logistics management of spares and commonality of maintenance. In the long term, an Indian firm could even overhaul both the variants,” Chopra added.
Like INS Vikramaditya, the fighters on board INS Vikrant will also use the ski-jump to take off and will be recovered by arrestor wires or what is known as STOBAR (short takeoff but arrested recovery) in navy parlance. The Vikramaditya operates Russian origin MiG-29K fighters.
The French side has also stressed that the Rafale M brings commonality with IAF’s 36 Rafale fighters, thus offering advantages related to training, maintenance and logistics support.
“We will take a call on what’s in our best interest,” the navy chief said on December 3. INS Vikrant will operate an air wing consisting of 30 aircraft, including the new fighters, Kamov-31 choppers, MH-60R multi-role helicopters and advanced light helicopters.
While the Rafale M is deployed on the French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, the Super Hornet operates from all 11 US Navy aircraft carriers. Boeing had earlier anticipated economic benefits of $3.6 billion to the Indian economy over 10 years if the Super Hornet was selected as the navy’s next carrier-based fighter, with continued investments in manufacturing, engineering and technology transfer, infrastructure, sustainment and training and skilling.