INS Vikrant Commissioned: What Next? Rafale-M or F-18 Super Hornet?
The Indian Navy is evaluating the French Dassault Rafale-M and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet fighters to modernize the fleet’s air wing.
So, after much waiting, India’s first domestic aircraft carrier was commissioned, the INS Vikrant. September 2, 2022 marks a major milestone for the Indian Navy, joining the few nations with more than one aircraft carrier or helicopter carrier in service, and becoming the third country, after the UK and China, to have commissioned a domestically built aircraft carrier in the past three years.
With a displacement of around 40,000 tons, the Vikrant is slightly smaller than the Vikramaditya and the carriers of the US, China and UK though it is larger than Japan’s. But analysts praised its potential firepower. When its air wing becomes fully operational over the next few years, Vikrant will carry up to 30 aircraft, including MiG-29K fighter jets – to be launched from its ski-ramp style deck – and helicopters as well as defensive systems including surface-to-air missiles.
India’s ambitions are not just that. With the MiG-29Ks facing a number of problems, the Indian Navy is evaluating the French Dassault Rafale-M and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet fighters to modernize the fleet’s air wing. Since the carrier has been designed as a ski-jump launch ship, the aircraft must be capable of launching safely with its weᴀpon and fuel load for a typical mission.
Recently, the navy carried out trials with the Dassault Rafale M, which is a French-made 4.5 gen fighter jet already in service with the IAF and also US-made Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, to check the operational capabilities of these jets on aircraft carriers. Both the jets get Air Force as well as Naval versions and successfully completed their trials in Goa.
Rafale is a twin-engine multirole 4.5 gen fighter aircraft manufactured and designed by Dassault Aviation. The Indian Air Force has placed a massive order to induct 36 Rafale jets to form two Squadrons, one in North India and another in South India. The Rafale Marine is the Naval version of the Rafale fighter jets with similar configuration.
The Dassault Rafale has a delta wing design and is capable of higher G-forces as much as 11G and is available in both single and dual seating cabin configurations. The Rafale is 15.27 metre long and a wingspan of 10.80 metre. The fighter has a GIAT 30M/719B cannon, in addition to its main missile being the multi-target, fire-and-forget, air to air MBDA MICA missile. In Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile, Rafale has MBDA Meteor.
The Navy’s F/A-18E Super Hornet, developed by Boeing Company has a 20% larger airframe, with 41% more range and improved General Electric F414 engines, providing 35% more thrust. The F-18 Super Hornet has Mach 1.8 speed, similar to the Rafale thanks to the GE sourced dual engines and is equipped with M61A1 Vulcan rotating cannon that can fire 6,000 rounds per minute. Super Hornet has semi-active radar homing AIM-7 Sparrow missile. In Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile, Super Hornet has AIM-120 AMRAAM.
The Indian Navy is also working on the TEDBF program which is the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter program for made-in-India fighter jets based on the HAL Tejas LCA. Since these jets will take time to develop and will eventually replace foreign fighter jets in the fleet, Navy needs some modern machines in the interim to replace the Russian MIGs.
The folded-wing configuration of the F/A-18 reduces the stowage width of the aircraft to 5 feet less than the Rafale, with its rigid-wing design. This would be a major advantage in the number of aircraft that can be carried on the flight deck and hangar in INS Vikrant. On the other hand, 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.
The F/A-18’s greater maximum take-off weight is also an advantage, however, the ability of the F/A-18 to utilise this advantage in a STOBAR configuration needs examination. However, Rafale has the advantage in terms of combat range. When combined with its supercruise capability, would allow operations from well outside surface-to-air missile range of China and Pakistan.
The Rafale has greater G-Limit capability, advantageous in a dogfight manoeuvre situation. It also enjoys a superior rate of climb, which would aid in short take-off and landing from the Vikrant. The F/A-18 is likely to have better ‘nose-control’, in part because of enlarged leading edge extensions- enabling high angle-of-attack manoeuvres for missile launch and allowing quicker regaining of control by the pilot. The F/A-18 also enjoys a significant ‘bringback’ capability, wherein it can return to the Aircraft Carrier with upto 4,100 Kg of unspent fuel, thus easing the logistics burden during routine sorties.
While the Rafale’s maneuverability and BVR capabilities would seem like an advantage over the F/A-18 E/F Block III, the tailor-made carrier-based design of the F/A-18 would go in its favour. The significantly lower cost of the F/A-18 would be another major factor for consideration. Also important is the fact that while the IAF already operates the Rafale and therefore has significant operating experience on the aircraft. All in all, the IN will have to decide between the important facets of operational efficiency, ease of operation and cost of acquisition and maintenance while choosing the contender for a carrier-based fighter.