Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet: Will It be the Best Choice for India?

As Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Rafale-M compete aggressively to win the game for 26 fighters that Indian Navy plans to purchase, the crucial factors in play will be the level of technology transfer and reliability as long term partner

By Girish Linganna

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Even as the French, the Russian, the Swedish and the European Consortium push their fighter jets for MMRCA -2 project for the Indian Air Force, the Americans who are not ready to fall behind have been proposing their F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets of Boeing for INS Vikrant, the aircraft carrier which is to be inducted into the Indian Navy.

Recently, during the visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to the Karwar’s INS Kadamba Naval base, ‘Coincidentally’ two F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters were dispatched by Boeing for the flight trials at INS Hansa’s shore-based test facility. They were sent for consideration as the main weapon of INS Vikrant’s (India’s new aircraft carrier) arsenal. The IAC 1 is awaiting commissioning shortly.

F/A-18 SUPER HORNET IN A NUTSHELL

The Super Hornet delivers next-generation multi-role strike fighter capabilities, It has the flexibility, performance and the capability to modernise the naval aviation or air force of the country.

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It is available in both single-seat E version and twin-seat F version, with a capability to perform almost every tactical mission including close air support, maritime strike, air superiority, fighter escort, day/night strike with precision-guided weapons, forward air control, reconnaissance, and tanker missions.

In 2018, a few reports claimed that Boeing was in talks with the Indian Navy for selling its F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets.

A CLASH OF FIGHTERS

The IAC-1 is undergoing sea trials with MiG-29K fighters on board for now.  They have already proven to operate from ski jump on board the INS Vikramaditya.

The Super Hornet delivers next-generation multi-role strike fighter capabilities, It has the flexibility, performance and the capability to modernise the naval aviation or air force of the country.  

On the other hand, the naval version of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft has been rejected in the past by the Navy saying that as of now, single-engine fighters cannot optimally operate from a carrier. The future fighter jet to be indigenously developed Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF), may be ready for trials by the end of this decade.

Rafale-M is another jet considered for INS Vikrant and Vikramaditya. It has already been tested by the Indian Navy earlier this year at the same facility in Goa. The Navy plans to purchase around 26 fighters on a government-to-government basis.

F/A-18 TO COMPETE WITH RAFALE-M

The F/A-18 Super Hornet can fit into both elevators of IAC-1 with folded wings. The Super Hornets, unlike the French fighter jets, are capable of being launched from the deck of both Vikrant or Vikramaditya.

Rafale-M can only be operated from a shore-based facility which makes it lose one-third of its combat capacity. Another limitation for the fighter stands as it lacks a folding wing mechanism that turns Rafale-M Trainer incapable from being operated by an Indian aircraft carrier. Also, the Rafale-M requires the removal of Tip rails and weapons before moving the aircraft using the Lift to carry it to the maintenance bay, while Boeing’s aircraft doesn’t face this issue. Thirdly, limited production lines make Rafale-M more pricey, thereby increase its overall cost. However, both aircrafts are a catapult launch, therefore, the ski jump trial is new for both of them.

In terms of armament, both are capable of carrying massive weapon loads, air to ground weapons and long-range air to air missiles but while the Rafale-M fighter can carry just one anti-submarine missile, F/A-18 Hornet on the contrary can carry up to four such missiles- an advantage over the French fighter jet. ‘

Both the aircraft are 4.5 generation fighters while the F/A-18 has a hugely successful history of combat over high land and seas.

VIKRANT’S AIR JOURNEY SO FAR

The 45,000 metric tons indigenous aircraft carrier is expected to carry an air group of around thirty aircraft of which about 24-26 would be fixed-wing combat aircraft. Apart from the above, the IAC-1 would also carry 10 Westland Sea King or Ka-31 helicopters. While the Sea King will provide anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, Ka-31 will fulfil the airborne early warning (AEW) role.

The F/A-18 is best suited to guard India’s maritime interests. Boeing believes that P-8I and the Super Hornet will bring in several opportunities between the two Navies for a secure Indo-Pacific

Back in 2016, Tejas was announced to be overweight for carrier operations and so, the Navy settled with MiG-29K as the primary aircraft for the IAC-1.

However, in January 2017, an international Request for Information (RFI) for over 57 “Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters” was released by the Navy and the main contest was between Dassault Rafale-M and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

BOEING’S BID FOR THE F/A-18

As per Boeing officials, the F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III will serve the Indian Navy with differentiated and unique abilities in the form of a combat-proven, advanced, multi-role naval fighter which stands compatible with the above-cited carriers. The aircraft has been particularly designed from its inception for carrier operations and shall achieve the required parameters of the IN, said Alain Garcia, the vice president of Boeing’s India Business Development.

He further added that the Block III Super Hornet is equipped with open architecture and advanced networking which allows the fighter to jointly work with the Indian Navy’s P-8I and several other assets of the US-origin. It can rapidly welcome new technologies in order to stay a step ahead of emerging threats.

The F/A-18 is best suited to guard India’s maritime interests. Boeing believes that P-8I and the Super Hornet will bring in several opportunities between the two Navies for a secure Indo-Pacific.

If the F/A-18 Super Hornet wins the game, the cooperation between India and the United States would surely deepen further

Mentioning another advantage of the fighter, Boeing said that the Super Hornet comes with affordable acquisition cost and also the Hornet costs less per flight hour for operating when compared to any other tactical aircraft in the United States forces arsenal, including single engine fighters. Officials say that this has been possible as the Super Hornet offers impressive durability and is designed for ease of maintainability.

Officials state that over 275 Indian suppliers deliver complex assemblies, parts and components for Boeing’s defence and commercial aircraft, including the P-8I, F-15, Apache, C-17, Chinook, T-7 and the F/A-18.

The joint venture between Boeing and Tata Advanced Systems, Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL), has been manufacturing aero-structures for Boeing’s AH-64 Apache helicopter while they recently delivered the 140th Apache fuselage. This JV is also producing a complex structural part, 737 Vertical Fin structures, on a production line that will be utilizing cutting-edge robotics and automation.

If the F/A-18 Super Hornet wins the game, the cooperation between India and the United States would surely deepen further. The latter already has the biggest Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in India, the fighter jet has the interoperability with Lockheed Martin MH-60 R anti-submarine warfare helicopters and Boeing P8Is which were purchased by Delhi for the Indian naval forces.

Noted Defence and Security analyst Joseph Chacko says that both the aircrafts are a fit for the carrier. What is going to decide the winner is who is going to provide how much technology transfers willingly. India had a bad experience with the British equipment because it had American components in it and during the sanctions, the US had stopped the sale of American components in those British equipment used by India. So, in view of the Russian sanctions, India will have to decide if the US is a reliable partner or not. While, even though the French have sanctioned Russia, they still have a better track record in the sanction department.

– The writer is an Aerospace and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (An Indo- German Company). The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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