Fighters At Sea

With China pulling ahead in naval aviation, Indian Navy must address growing asymmetry

Atul Chandra

The Indian Navy needs to urgently decide on its future carrier-borne fighter aircraft and induct and operationalise the fleet before the end of the decade if it is to address the growing asymmetry between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has stated plans to operate six aircraft carriers in the future.

French Navy Rafale-M aircraft being launched from the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle

The PLAN will also induct and operationalise an advanced carrier borne fighter aircraft before the end of the decade. The aircraft, referred to as the Shenyang J-35, is thought to be a navalised derivative of the FC-31. According to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which is the manufacturer of the FC-31, the single-seat, twin-engine multi-role fighter jet is 17.3 meters long with a wingspan of 11.5 meters. When the J-35 enters service on PLAN aircraft carriers, the stealthy aircraft will provide a quantum leap in capability over its existing Shenyang J-15s. Publicly available images of the J-35, show the new Chinese fighter having a surprising similarity with the US F-35 fifth generation fighter jet.

China launched its third aircraft carrier in June and it will have a displacement of more than 80,000 tonne and be fitted with electromagnetic catapults. The Fujian will also likely be the first of the three PLAN carriers to deploy the J-35. The use of electromagnetic catapults will allow the new aircraft carrier, which is named Fujian (Hull 18) to also launch a carrier-based early warning aircraft (thought to be a derivative of the KJ-600 early warning aircraft) and a carrier-based advanced jet trainer (likely the JL-10). Surprisingly, despite China’s success in development of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), many of them armed; there does not appear to be a publicly announced maritime carrier borne version of these platforms.

The PLAN’s existing aircraft carriers, CNS Liaoning (Hull 16) and CNS Shandong, (Hull 17) can carry 24 and 36 Shenyang J-15 carrier-borne fighters. Both the carriers feature Ski-Jump designs, which limit their ability to launch larger and heavier aircraft. The Shenyang J-15 is an unlicenced Chinese copy of the Sukhoi Su-33 and is presently the PLAN’s only carrier borne fighter type. PLAN Shenyang J-15s landed and took-off from CNS Liaoning for the first time in November 2012 and the aircraft carrier is now being used to train PLAN fighter pilots flying J-15s in advanced carrier borne operations. Recent reports in the Chinese media have also indicated that new-build J-15s are being fitted with domestically developed engines. The new engines for the J-15 are thought to be the indigenously developed WS-10 ‘Taihang’ turbofan engine and will replace the Russian Al-31F engines now fitted on the J-15. The PLAN is also slated to upgrade its J-15s to further enhance their combat capability. The PLAN also operates Su-30MKK from land bases.

The PLAN’s new Type-075 amphibious assault ship Hainan also recently completed its full-time training assessments, marking a major milestone for China’s first independently-built amphibious assault ship. “Right now, we have completed the full-time training assessment, getting closer towards high seas. Next, we will continue improving the level of the joint real combat training, with emphasizes on force-on-force training and technological training, giving full play to the operational effectiveness of ship Hainan in integrated operations,” said Captain Zhang Meiyu, commander of the Hainan. The Hainan carries ship-borne helicopters and has the ability to transport Main Battle Tanks (MBT) and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC).


Balancing Equation

The rapid development of the PLAN’s carrier borne aviation capability is likely to result in a highly capable force by the end of this decade. This makes the Indian Navy’s quest to induct a modern carrier borne fighter all the more important as the aircraft needs to be selected, cost negotiations concluded and deliveries to commence before the end of the decade.

At present, the Indian Navy operates an estimated fleet of 40 MiG 29K/KUB carrier borne fighters. The Russian Navy is the only other operator of the type. The Indian Navy’s first frontline MiG-29K squadron was commissioned in May 2013 13 at INS Hansa, Goa. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) concluded the first contract with Russian Aircraft Corporation (RAC) MiG in January 2004 for 16 MiG 29K/KUB aircraft and associated equipment in a deal worth USD 740.35 million (Rs 3,568.49 crore at that time). Deliveries began in December 2009. The MoD opted for 29 additional MiG 29K/KUB aircraft in March 2010 at a cost of USD 1,466.44 million (Rs 6,840.94 crore at that time). This order for 29 aircraft was completed by RAC MiG in 2016. Since its induction at least four aircraft have been in lost crashes. The service life of the MiG 29K/KUB aircraft is 6,000 hours or 25 years. The service life of RD-33MK engine which powers the MiG29K/KUB is 10 years/4,000 hours with an overhaul life of 1,000 hours.

Dassault Aviation and Boeing are offering the Rafale M (Marine) and F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet to meet the navy’s requirement for 56 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF). However, the initial buy may be reduced because of budget constraints. Boeing officials stress that the Super Hornet is fully compliant with INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant aircraft carriers with the ability to operate on the deck, in the hangar and on the lifts of both aircraft carriers. Both variants of the Super Hornet – the E-Variant (single-seater) and F-Variant (two-seater)—are being offered to the Indian Navy. Randy Rotte, Boeing’s senior director for International Business Development for the Asia-Pacific region, provides some insights into the successful operational demonstration tests performed with two Super Hornet aircraft at the Indian Naval Station Hansa in Goa in July. The operational demonstration was undertaken at very heavy weights, simulating either the carriage of a very heavy fuel load or weapons load, he said in an earlier interaction.

The Super Hornet’s ability to take off with a very heavy fuel load or weapons load means that the aircraft would be combat effective immediately after take-off from the aircraft carrier. Over the course of the tests held in July, two aircraft were used to perform multiple ski-jumps, roll-in and fly-in as well as performance flights. These flights were performed in a variety of weights in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and air-to-surface configurations as required by the Indian Navy. The Super Hornet will also have a greater degree of interoperability with Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and the navy’s soon to be inducted Sikorsky MH-60R Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters. Boeing states that the Super Hornet’s advanced network architecture enables it to interface with the P-8I and other US-origin helicopters and future carrier-based unmanned systems.

Boeing has been highly successful in the Indian defence market since the late 2000s with sales of the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft to the navy and C-17 Globemaster III, AH-64E Apache and CH-47I Chinook to the air force.  Boeing recently announced a potential economic impact of USD 3.6 billion over 10 years to the Indian economy if the aircraft were selected. Boeing has committed to continued investments in manufacturing, engineering & technology transfer, sustainment, training and skilling and infrastructure. The economic impact would be over and above Boeing’s current offset obligations and plans in the country, company officials say. Boeing is already sourcing over a billion dollars’ worth of aviation services and components from India and company officials are keen to highlight Boeing’s role in developing India’s aviation ecosystem. The US airframer today works with over 280 different suppliers in India and is also investing USD 200 million in a state-of-the-art campus in Bengaluru.


French Flavour

Dassault Aviation however, is an experienced campaigner in the Indian market and benefits from having the Rafale F3-R in operational service with the Indian Air Force (IAF). As a result, the Rafale M has more than a fighting chance of coming out ahead in the Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF) competition. Dassault Aviation is also on a high with a string of sales successes for the Rafale in recent years. Asia remains a key market for Dassault Aviation and the French airframer will be keen to add an Indian order for the Rafale. India will be the first export customer for the Rafale M, if a deal fructifies and will be the only export customer to have selected the type for its air force and navy, apart. Unlike the Super Hornet, the Rafale M is available only as a single-seater for carrier operations and is today available in the F3 Standard. The Rafale M completed two decades of operations with the French in 2022.

Indonesia added to the Rafale orderbook in February, when it signed up for 42 aircraft for the Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara (Indonesian National Army Air Force). The Rafale has also found orders in Egypt, Qatar, Greece, UAE and Croatia in addition to France. The Indian order for 36 Rafales was made in September 2016. The UAE, which ordered 80 Rafale F4s in December 2021, is the largest export order for the aircraft. Egypt was the first export customer for the Rafale and has ordered 54 aircraft, 24 in February 2015 and 30 more in May 2021. Qatar ordered 36 Rafales (24 in May 2015, 12 in December 2017). Dassault Aviation is proposing the Rafale-M for the Indian Navy’s requirement of 57 MRCBFs and the Rafale F3-R for the Indian Air Force’s requirement of 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft. Greece placed orders for 18 aircraft in January 2021 (12 used and six new fighters), while Croatia ordered 12 used Rafales in November 2021.

The Rafale F3-R, which entered the French Air and Space Force service in 2021, is the latest variant and all Rafales delivered since 2013 are fitted with the Thales RBE2 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. The Rafale F1 standard was specific to first French Navy aircraft, the follow-on F2 standard added air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities, while the F3 and F3R extended the versatility of the aircraft. The Rafale F1 Standard featured only air-to-air capabilities and became operational in 2004 with the French Navy on Rafales launched from the nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier Charles de Gaulle. The Rafale F2 entered service with the French Air and Space Force and the French Navy in 2006, while the Rafale F3 was qualified by the French MoD in 2008 and added the AREOS reconnaissance pod, anti-ship capability with the AM39 EXOCET (implemented in Rafale B, C, and M), and the nuclear capability with the ASMPA. The future Rafale F4 variant will see the addition of Helmet-Mounted Display capabilities, addition of the new Mica NG Air-to-Air Missile along with the ability to carry the 1,000-kg AASM Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon. It will also accommodate future evolutions of ASMP-A, SCALP, AASM 1000 kg weapons. French Rafale F4s will enter service in two stages in 2023 and 2025.

Indo-French military-to-military cooperation has increased substantially in the recent years and both nations celebrate 25 years of their strategic partnership in 2023. Defence minister Rajnath Singh held the fourth India-France Annual Defence Dialogue with France’s Minister of Armed Forces, Sebastien Lecornu in New Delhi in November. A wide range of bilateral, regional, defence and defence industrial cooperation issues were discussed in the dialogue. During the dialogue, one of the key areas of discussion was defence industrial cooperation with a focus on Make in India. Future collaborations and potential co-production opportunities were discussed by both ministers. As part of his visit to India, Lecornu made a day-long trip to the Southern Naval Command headquarters and was hosted aboard INS Vikrant.



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