Navy’s Quest for Carrier Borne Fighters

The Chinese PLAAF and PLAN Aviation continue to field greater numbers of fourth-generation aircraft like J-20 and probably will become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years. Thus India’s selection of future fighters for the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force has to take this threat into account.

Issue: Aero India 2021 Special By Lt General Naresh Chand (Retd)Photo(s): By Dassault Aviation
French Navy Rafale M in operations

During December 2016 the then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba, announced that the Indian Navy (IN) intended to forego the acquisition of the Naval Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and look for global platforms. Accordingly in January 2017, the IN issued a Request for Information (RFI) for 57 Multi Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF). The RFI laid out that the “The MRCBF are intended as 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, EW missions etc from IN aircraft carriers.

Apart from other procedural aspects, the RFI also made it clear that transfer of technology and license production will be required as part of the acquisition of the fighters. It also asked the following:-

  • As how many engines the aircraft had and can it operate from both STOBAR (Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery) and CATOBAR (Catapult Take-off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft carriers without any modification to the aircraft?
  • Is the Nose Landing Gear designed and capable of undertaking Catapult Launch from contemporary Steam and Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch (EMAL) systems?

There were many more details in the RFI and it caused quite a ripple within the global aerospace industry.

Possible Choices

Possible choices were Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III, Dassault’s Rafale M, SAAB’s Gripen Maritime and MiG-29K. If India had deep pockets then it could consider Lockheed Martin’s F-35B/C Lighting-II. Twin engine version fighter based on LCA was also in the run especially in the Atamnirbhar environment.

Challenges for a Carrier-based Aircraft

Carrier borne fighters are naval aircraft specially designed for operations from aircraft carriers. Majority of them have been derived from the air force fighters. Their main attribute should be that they are capable of being launched and landed within a short distance and be sturdy enough to withstand the sudden forces leashed on the aircraft during launch and recovery on a pitching deck. Their wings should be able to ‘fold up’ to cater for lack of space on the aircraft carrier. Landing an aircraft on a carrier deck is a very complex manoeuvre as the landing runway is about 95m and thus is too short for an aircraft moving at a speed of about 250 km/h to stop on its own. Thus an arresting gear mechanism is provided on the aircraft carriers with steel cables and an arresting hook is provided on the aircraft. On touchdown, the aircraft hook has to engage the cable and then the arresting gear can stop the aircraft in about 95m. Thus the pilot has to touch at a very precise spot to engage the cable with the hook. At the same time he has to maintain exact speed and heading for a perfect landing. All this when the set back forces on the pilot are maximum. Normally a carrier has three arrestor wires and the pilot aims for the middle one however if he misses all the three wires, then he has to do a bolter (or instantaneous take-off from the deck) as per the standard operating procedure (SOP). To carry out a bolter, the aircraft has to have immense power to be able to accelerate fast enough to enable a take off. This is the reason the Navy rejected the single engine version of the LCA. The other challenge is related to design. The aircraft is designed to suit the aircraft carrier or the other way round. Currently the aircraft have to suit the existing INS Vikramaditya and soon to be commissioned Vikrant. There is a bit of uncertainty regarding the future design of Vishal and whether timely fiscal support will be provided to fructify the project.

The aircraft is designed to suit the aircraft carrier or the other way round. Currently the aircraft have to suit the existing INS Vikramaditya and soon to be commissioned Vikrant

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III. Boeing has been pushing the Super Hornet for many years. Recently they demonstrated at Naval Air Station Patuxent River that the Super Hornet would do well with the Indian Navy’s Short Take-off but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system and validate earlier simulation studies by Boeing. F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet will offer the Indian Navy advanced warfighter technologies, superior economics and enhance naval aviation cooperation with the US Navy. Ankur Kanaglekar, Head India Fighters Sales, Boeing Defense, Space and Security said that, “the first successful and safe launch of the F/A-18 Super Hornet from a ski-jump begins the validation process to operate effectively from Indian Navy aircraft carriers”. Boeing is offering the F/A-18 Super Hornet in single seater (EVariant) and two-seater variant (F-Variant). He added that it can interface with (Navy’s) P-8I aircraft. The Indian and US navies train jointly in the Indian Ocean region and a joint working group (JWG) for aircraft carrier cooperation was set up in 2015. US Navy designers have helped in framing specifications for India’s proposed third carrier. Indian Navy’s team was to visit the US Naval Air Station in Maryland to witness a demonstration by Boeing on the compatibility of its F-18 Super Hornet but the visit got postponed due to the COVID-19.

Dassault Rafale M. The Air Force single-seat Rafale C, the Air Force two-seat Rafale B, and the Navy single-seat Rafale M feature maximum airframe and equipment commonality, and very similar mission capabilities. The Rafale M is suitably modified for operating from an aircraft carrier. It features a greatly reinforced undercarriage to cope with the additional stresses of naval landings, an arrestor hook, and “jump strut” nosewheel, which only extends during short takeoffs including catapult launches. The naval modifications of the Rafale M increase its weight by 500 kg compared to other variants. Its advantage is that the Air Force version of Rafale is already in service with the Indian Air Force.

SAB Gripen Maritime. Gripen Maritime has been designed to provide the maximum multi-role day/night capability and performance from both STOBAR and CATOBAR carriers. Utilising the latest model based systems engineering practices perfected by Saab, dedicated teams have worked over a number of years to achieve certification of the maritime version. Gripen has a small footprint, about the same as the Sea Harrier, allowing more fighters to be embarked in current and future Indian Navy carriers.

Mikoyan MiG-29K. Indian Navy had contracted for acquisition of 16 MiG-29K/KUB carrier based fighter aircraft with RAC MiG on January 20, 2004 which were delivered in 2009. A contract for additional 29 aircraft was signed on March 8, 2010, and were delivered by the end 2016. This is a proven aircraft which is in service with the Indian Navy for the last 12 years and if contracted will create no problem for training, maintenance and inventory management.

HAL Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). LCA has not found favour with the Indian Navy thus DRDO has decided to develop a Twin engine fighter instead.

Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the DRDO will develop a TEDBF for the Indian Navy instead of persisting with the development of a Mk2 variant of the LCA-Navy (NLCA) design. Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh had said on December 3, 2019 that DRDO had offered to develop a new twin-engine deck-based fighter aircraft for the Navy based on the experience of the Naval LCA and it should be ready by 2026. Considering trials and series production it may go upto 2030. Following the success of trial landings of the Tejas-N fighter on board INS Vikramaditya, ADA gave the go ahead in June 2020 for the development of a twin engine Made-in-India fighter jet. ADA, the principal designer of the Tejas fighter mentioned the indigenous growth of the brand new fighter in a meeting chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and attended by the Navy and Air Chiefs. Following this meeting, the Operational Requirements (ORs) for the brand new fighter were issued by the Ministry of Defence. This development matches with the Government’s announcement of Atmanirbhar (Self reliance). Based mostly on the Tejas fighter, the brand new Navy fighter is supposed to complement MiG-29s.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35B/C Lightning II. It is a single-seat, single-engine, allweather, stealth, multirole combat aircraft. The F-35B entered service with the US Marine Corps in July 2015 and the F-35C in the US Navy during February 2019. The aircraft has three main variants: the conventional take-off and landing F-35A (CTOL), the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B (STOVL), and the carrier-based F-35C (CV/CATOBAR).

Some of the above fighters like the Super Hornet and MiG-29K are already in service thus may not require elaborate trials but other fighters including the TEDBF will require detailed trials and Vikrant is likely to be in service by 2022 thus there will have to be some suitable fighter shortlisted for it.