November 2022 saw the visit of the French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu as well as the US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro to India. Lecornu was in New Delhi for the Fourth India–France Defence Dialogue, where both countries decided to enhance military industrial cooperation with a focus on Make In India (MII). Apart from their interactions in New Delhi, Lecornu and Del Toro also visited Kochi, the headquarters of the Southern Naval Command, where the indigenously constructed aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, is also based. The visits of the French and the American delegations brought into focus their parallel efforts to secure the contract for equipping India’s indigenous aircraft carrier with a fighter wing.
By S. Samuel C. Rajiv
The Indian Navy’s sole operational aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, currently operates Mig-29K fighters. The choice of the Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) programme to equip the INS Vikrant is between the twin-engined US Boeing F/18 E/F Super Hornet and the French Rafale Marine (M). The single-engine Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was found unsuitable for aircraft carrier operations. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for MRCBFs procurement in January 2017 for 57 fighters, which was subsequently reduced to 26 fighters to be procured via the government-to-government (G2G) route. These include eight twin-seater trainer variants and 18 single-seater variants.
Aircrafts in Contention
Both the aircrafts in contention, the Rafale and the Super Hornet, did demonstration ski-jumps at the Shore-Based Test Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa, Goa in January and June 2022 respectively. Boeing insists that the Super Hornet is fully compliant with the requirements of India’s aircraft carriers, INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant and notes that the two-seater F/18 can also be used for land-based missions as well as a trainer aircraft.
The US aerospace major also highlights the fact that the aircraft is inter-operable with the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-81 reconnaissance aircraft. Boeing notes that the P8I is operated by three out of the four Quad countries (US, Australia and India). Two out of the four Quad countries also operate the F/18 aircraft (US and Australia).
Boeing further reiterates that the same family of engines powers the F/18 and the LCA Tejas. While the General Electric (GE) F-414 powers the F/18, the US$ 716 million contract to supply 99 GE F-404 engines to power the LCA Mk-I A fighter aircraft was signed in August 2021. The MoD had earlier in February 2021 placed an order with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for 83 LCA MK-1A jets worth Rs 48,000 crore.
Boeing further reiterates that over 800 Super Hornets and its variants have been delivered worldwide and the massive scale will enable competitive incorporation of newly developed technology. The US aerospace major’s ‘By India-For India’ sustainment programme is also expected to ensure a higher availability of aircraft for operational deployment.
As for the other competitor, Rafale Marine, India has procured 36 Rafale aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF), the contract for which was signed in 2016. While the first aircraft was received in October 2019, all 36 were inducted by December 2022. Apart from France and India, Egypt, Qatar and Greece also operate the cutting-edge French fighter aircraft while the UAE signed a deal to acquire 80 Rafales in December 2021 and Indonesia signed a deal in February 2022 to acquire 42 Rafales.
The MRCBF options are slated to be an interim solution, before the Twin-Engined Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) project comes to fruition. The project was approved in 2020, with the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) expected to be completed by mid-2023. The aircraft will be powered by the GE F414 engines—the same engines that power the F/18s, and is expected to be inducted by 2031–32.
Both Dassault and Boeing are also competing for the multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) programme of the IAF, RFI for which was issued in 2018.
French Arms Exports to India
The Rafale is the latest in a series of fighter aircraft of French origin that have been operated by the IAF. French fighter aircraft in India’s inventory date back to 1953, when the IAF acquired the Ouragans (Toofani), becoming Dassault Aviation’s first export customer. Subsequently, the IAF also procured the Jaguars (beginning from 1978) and the Mirage 2000, from 1982 onwards. India currently has more than 100 Jaguars and more than 50 Mirage 2000s (single and dual-seat versions). The Mirages were upgraded with new radars, mission computers and electronic warfare (EW) suites (from Thales) in 2011.
Prior to the 2016 Rafale G2G deal, the 2005 Scorpene deal for six submarines was another major acquisition from France. The first submarine, INS Kalvari was launched in 2015 and commissioned in 2017 while the sixth INS Vagsheer, was launched in 2022. The Scorpene and the Rafale deals accounted for India being the second biggest purchaser of French arms during 2010–20, after Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia imported over Euros 9 billion from France, India imported arms worth Euros 7.2 billion. Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, along with Saudi Arabia and India, made up the top five importers of French arms during 2010–20. Aircraft were the major category of French arms exports during 2010–20, accounting for a quarter of all its arms exports.
The Strengthened India–US Defence Relationship
Even as India’s arms imports from France registered a massive jump in 2010–20, and irrespective of India’s interim naval fighter choice, the India–US defence and strategic partnership has been significantly strengthened in recent times. India was designated as a Major Defence Partner in 2016. While US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to India from 1950 to 2021 amounted to US$ 13.2 billion, US$ 4.7 billion (or 28 per cent) were during the period 2017–21. The authorised value of US defence articles and services through Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) to India has been over US$ 18 billion in the period 2010–21.
Some of the key equipment that have been procured include transport aircrafts (Lockheed Martin C-130J; 12 inducted), multi-mission helicopters (Boeing CH-47F I Chinook; 15 inducted), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft (Boeing P8-I; 11 inducted; 1 more ordered), and attack helicopters (Boeing AH-64E Apache; 22 inducted in IAF; six more ordered for Indian Army in 2020), ASW helicopters (Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60R; 24 helicopters worth US$ 2.6 bn to be inducted by 2025), heavy transport aircraft (Boeing C-17A Globemaster III; 11 inducted) and UAVs (General Atomics MQ 9 Sea Guardian; two leased).
India–US joint ventures like the Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL), established in 2016, has supplied over 150 Apache fuselages to Boeing’s global clientele. At the India–US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue held in April 2022, both sides also pledged to ‘promote the means to encourage reciprocal participation of Indian and US vendors in each other’s defence supply chains’.
If India opts for the Rafale Marine, as noted in this 9 December 2022 report, it will highlight the continued lack of success of US fighter aircraft manufacturers to become a part of India’s inventory, despite long-standing and robust efforts. It will also signify an increasing share of European manufacturers in the Indian military aerospace market. This is in the light of the 2016 Rs 60,000 crore Rafale deal and the 2022 Rs 22,000 crore deal for 56 C-295 transport aircraft from Airbus, 40 of which will be manufactured at Vadodara by Tata Advanced Defence Systems Limited and Airbus Defence and Space. While the C-295 is a replacement for the IAF’s HS-748 transport planes, it is also being seen as a possible replacement for the 100-odd AN-32s in the IAF fleet.
Even as the robust India–US defence and military partnership can be expected to absorb the near-term setback that could possibly flow out of India’s interim choice for naval fighter aircraft, US aircraft engine manufacturers like GE will continue to be an integral part of indigenous fighter aircraft programmes like the LCA Mk 1 and Mk 2A.
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