Lean and Mean Platform

The race hots up for choosing the ideal fighter aircraft fit to accommodate both CATOBAR/STOBAR launch methods

Jaison Deepak

The Indian Navy is scouting for 57 carrier borne fighters capable of being Short Take-Off but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) and Catapult Assisted Take-Off but Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) to equip its new aircraft carriers. This would be the largest procurement of naval fighters in recent times through an open tender. The procurement is more significant in the circumstances where the LCA Navy has been rejected by the Indian Navy as being too heavy and failing to meet its requirements.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet conducts flight operations with an aircraft carrier
An F/A-18F Super Hornet conducts flight operations with an aircraft carrier

The naval fighter procurement, like all major acquisitions till date, would also have potential risks both financial and technical. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) saga has exposed the complexity and huge costs associated with such procurements especially when weapons, maintenance and other support are included. The aircraft have to meet the unique challenge of accommodating both CATOBAR/STOBAR launch methods. But most aircraft aren’t designed for both initially, and it doesn’t end there. The fact that the aircraft have to do that and yet be able to carry an operationally meaningful payload can be tricky. Compatibility with the lifts on existing carriers and the ability to move on deck easily are some areas which are of concern for the manufacturers. The Indian Navy also wants the Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) systems onboard to be integrated with the Automated Identification Systems (AIS) to identify friendly, civilian ships from the hostile ones. The AIS is already being used extensively on naval ships and aircraft. The likely contenders are Boeing’s F-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, UAC Mig-29K and the Saab Sea Gripen.

The Boeing Super Hornet has the distinction of being the most produced naval fighter in operation today. It may well be the most combat proven fighter among the competition where capabilities, both air to air and air ground, are not just written on paper but have been demonstrated several times. The super Hornet is continuously evolving with the US Navy ordering more as the delays with the F-35C continue. This is an insurance for the Indian Navy against obsolescence and reduce future developmental/upgrade costs. The US Navy is also pushing for Block III, probably derived from the Advanced Super Hornet concept demonstrated by Boeing. The additions include the upgrades to the already capable APG-79 AESA radar and the ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Countermeasures (IDECM) and the uprated GE-414 Enhanced Performance Engine (EPE) engine generating 20 per cent more thrust. Additional capabilities include the Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) which can free up the stores for additional weapons, a new Infrared Search and Track (IRST) device which can be internally mounted or in the centreline fuel tank, tremendously improving long range passive detection and identification capabilities.

The super hornet also bristles with an array of proven weapons with a variety very few aircraft can boast of. It includes the AMRAAM, AIM-9X for air to air combat, HARM for SEAD missions and SLAM-ER, Harpoon, JDAM, Paveways for air to ground and anti-shipping missions. One of the major strong points could well be the presence of a dedicated Electronic Attack Variant in the Growler, this along with associated developments like the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) present exciting possibilities in the Electronic Warfare domain which is increasingly becoming a game-changer. The Super Hornet is in service with the US Navy as a CATOBAR carriers and has to be adapted to STOBAR launch mechanism too to meet the criteria. Boeing has already carried out simulations to verify the ability to conduct STOBAR launches and has communicated that the Super Hornet will be able to do it while carrying a meaningful payload but till it is actually proven on a carrier this would still be a risk area. The Super Hornet has foldable wings which saves deck space but ease of deck movement and lift suitability has to be proven still.

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