Boeing is pressing hard to win the Indian Navy contract for 57 aircraft carrier-borne fighters.
It could offer the Super Hornet in the ongoing IAF procurement of 114 medium fighters; its upgraded F-15EX fighter is also on the list.
Ajai Shukla reports.
United States aerospace major Boeing, which accounts for most of the $18 billion worth of weaponry that Washington has sold India since 2005, is pressing hard to win a $7 billion to $8 billion Indian Navy contract for 57 aircraft carrier-borne fighters.
Boeing has begun testing its flagship naval fighter, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which it intends to offer the Indian Navy, to prove it can operate from any of the Indian Navy's three carriers: The in-service INS Vikramaditya; INS Vikrant, which is to be commissioned by 2022; and INS Vishal, which is still on the drawing board.
'Boeing and the US navy are in the beginning phases of operating an F/A-18 Super Hornet from a ski jump at Naval Air Station Patuxent River to demonstrate it is STOBAR compliant for the Indian Navy,' states Boeing.
In STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery) aircraft carrier operations, fighters get airborne by flying off a 'ski-jump' like slope at the end of the flight deck.
The aircraft land back by snagging their tail hooks on arrestor wires spread across the deck, which drag them to a halt. Both the INS Vikramditya and the INS Vikrant are STOBAR carriers.
US Navy aircraft carriers and their aircraft such as the Super Hornet are, however, built for 'catapult assisted take off but arrested recovery' (CATOBAR).
In this, on board aircraft are accelerated to take-off speed by a steam or electromagnetic catapult, doing away with the need for a ski jump. INS Vishal is being built as a CATOBAR carrier.
Proving that the Super Hornet can operate off both STOBAR and CATOBAR carriers would enhance India's fleet commonality and economy.
Before commencing ski-jump tests, Boeing says the Super Hornet has completed more than 150 computer simulations.
'While our assessment has shown the Block III Super Hornet is very capable of launching off a ski jump, this is the next step in demonstrating that capability,' said Boeing.
The shore-based ski-jump at Patuxent River was built to test the F-35B Lightning II -- the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter.
India, too, has built a similar shore-based facility in Goa for testing the naval version of the Tejas fighter.
The Indian Navy began the acquisition of 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters (MRCBF) in 2017 by issuing a Request for Information (RFI) about 'day and night capable, all weather, multi-role, deck based combat aircraft, which can be used for air defence, air-to-surface operations, buddy refuelling, reconnaissance [and] electronic warfare missions from Indian Navy aircraft carriers'.
The 2017 RFI specifically asks vendors whether the fighter they are offering is capable of STOBAR as well as CATOBAR operations.
The quest for a MRCBF is rooted in the navy's disappointment over the unreliable performance of 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters that it procured from Russia along with INS Vikramaditya.
The need for a MRCBF was made even more urgent by delays in developing a naval version of the indigenous Tejas light fighter.
The navy assessed that the single-engine fighter could not carry enough weaponry, or fuel payload, to allow it to operate effectively off a carrier.
Naval planners, therefore, have rejected the Tejas Mark 1 and stated they want a heavier, more powerful, twin-engine fighter that India can develop only by 2025.
The formal MRCBF tender is still awaited, but industry analysts believe the contenders will be: The Super Hornet, the MiG-29K/KUB and navalised versions of the Rafale and Gripen E, called the Rafale Marine and Sea Gripen, respectively.
Ironically, Boeing's thrust in the MRCBF procurement comes at a time when a stressed defence budget has placed a question mark over the acquisition of a third carrier.
The Indian Air Force argues that shore-based air power is more effective than carrier-based fighters, and costs less.
The tri-service chief, General Bipin Rawat, who prioritises expenditure between the three services, has expressed reservations over spending heavily on an aircraft carrier and its air wing.
Boeing could also offer the Super Hornet in the ongoing IAF procurement of 114 medium fighters, achieving economy of scale by taking the numbers up to 171 aircraft.
Saab will seek similar benefits, while Dassault -- which has already sold India 36 Rafales and would also compete in both these tenders -- would garner even greater benefits of scale.
Meanwhile, Boeing is also weighing restricting the Super Hornet offer to the Indian Navy, while offering the IAF its upgraded F-15EX fighter.
Pratyush Kumar, who oversees the F-15 programme, confirmed last month that Boeing had requested the US government for a marketing licence to commence discussions with New Delhi about the F-15EX.
However, Boeing will only decide whether to offer the Super Hornet or the F-15EX once the IAF defines the specifications of the fighter it wants.