Under the Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) programme, a discreet procedure is ongoing to purchase new fighters for the Indian Navy’s aircraft carriers, with altered numbers and a novel, hybrid, and potentially difficult acquisition approach. However, some of the fighters under consideration are not capable of operating from aircraft carriers.
According to StratPost, the military is now seeking 26 carrier-based fighters. This updated price is for a smaller number of planes than the 57 planes proposed in a 2017 RFI. This lower figure reflects a desire for speed, with the idea that lower spending will be processed more quickly. This lesser purchase is also due to predictions that India’s indigenous Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) will eventually replace the MRCBF.
This lower purchase is also due to the fact that the MRCBF is currently expected to be a stopgap, with India’s indigenous Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) expected to take-off by 2026 and be inducted by 2032.
However, despite the reduced numbers, the procurement must be completed soon, as India’s new Vikrant (IAC-1) aircraft carrier is scheduled to be commissioned this year. With the LCA (Navy) deemed unsuitable for carrier operations and the capabilities of the in-service MiG-29K/KUB anticipated to dwindle over the next decade, the purchase is critical, even if scaled back.
The standard procedure for procuring aircraft entails sending a Request For Information (RFI) to gather data from manufacturers, creating a proposal on the number of aircraft required, estimating the cost, and presenting it to the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for Acceptance Of Necessity (AON).
Once the Acceptance is received, a tender Request For Proposal (RFP) is published, requesting bids from all eligible aircraft manufacturers.
However, it is expected that there will be no tender competition this time and that a decision would be taken between the two fighters at the Acceptance Of Necessity stage, culminating in a Government-to-Government contract.
The navy will examine the price and availability quotes supplied by manufacturers through their governments before choosing one fighter over the other. For the selected aircraft, a budgetary quote proposal for cost, numbers, and equipment will be submitted to the defence ministry’s Defence Acquisition Council for Acceptance Of Necessity.
This new strategy is meant to speed up the acquisition process and, ostensibly, avoid a tender competition between countries that are perceived to be supportive of India.
However, because this approach is not typical in the Defense Acquisition Procedure, it may generate issues. The DAP, which oversees the acquisition of all military equipment, was last reviewed by the defence ministry in 2020 (with revisions announced last month).
With plans for a future Indian CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft carrier, one of the navy’s primary needs is that the MRCBF aircraft be able to be launched by catapults from aircraft carriers.
This capability is not available on the Russian MiG-29K/KUB. India has not been offered the fifth-generation US F-35C fighter jet. The only fighters available to the Indian Navy are the French Dassault Rafale M and the American Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. Both aircraft are capable of catapult launch, and the MRCBF chosen from the two is likely to be able to operate from the INS Vikramaditya and Vikrant’s ski-jumps.
Over the next four months, the two aircraft will demonstrate their capabilities at the Indian Navy’s Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa in Panaji, Goa. While the Super Hornet has shown that it can operate from a ski jump, it has never jumped from a ramp. It is not expected to be an issue, but it will be a significant milestone for Rafale.
However, when choosing between the Super Hornet and the Rafale, the navy must decide whether it wants a full fleet of 26 Multi-Role Carrier-Borne Fighters or merely 18 of the 26 aircraft capable of aircraft carrier operations.
The navy seeks 18 single-seat fighters and 08 two-seat fighters. While the F/A-18 Super Hornet’s single-seat and two-seat models are both capable of carrier operations, the Rafale M lacks a two-seat variant. Instead, the French are anticipated to supply the two-seat Rafale B, of which the Indian Air Force (IAF) has purchased eight variants as part of its order for 36 Rafale jets.
The Rafale B is a two-seat fighter that lacks the structural upgrades required for carrier operations, such as a stronger airframe and redesigned undercarriage.
Last month, during the Dubai Air Show, Boeing summarised this to visiting Indian reporters.
“There are two versions of the F/A-18. The ‘E’ model, which is the single-seat version, is available. It is available in the ‘F’ variant, which is a two-seater. They’re totally carrier-capable in either circumstance. They may operate from either a US Navy carrier or a US Navy submarine. Our competition, on the other hand, is not in this situation. In this scenario, the competitor has a naval derivative dubbed the ‘M,’ which is a single-seat aircraft. Our competitor’s two-seat aircraft would not be able to operate from the carrier. That is a significant difference for Indian decision-makers to consider.
Consider the difference in value in this scenario versus where they can all operate from the ship,” Thom Breckenridge, Boeing’s vice president for international business development for its bombers and fighters line, said at the air show.
During her visit to India earlier this month, French defence minister Florence Parly proposed the possibility of developing aircraft engines in addition to the naval Rafales. The 2+2 meeting between India’s foreign and defence ministers, which was postponed due to schedule conflicts in 2021, will take place in January 2022.
The relative strategic relevance of the aircraft chosen will also be a factor for planners to consider. If the Super Hornet is chosen (it would be the first American fighter in Indian inventory), it opens up the possibility of easing seamless interoperability with the US Navy’s eleven aircraft carriers, which are ubiquitous as strong proponents of challenging China’s attempts to dominate the Indo-Pacific region and also operate the aircraft. As part of its air force, Australia, the Quad’s third member, does as well. For instance, it would alter the dynamics of a game like Malabar.
In more ways than one, if the Rafale is chosen for the MRCBF, the Indian Navy will operate a fighter that is shared with the Indian Air Force.