By Rakesh Krishnan Simha
During the past decade China has steadily increased its naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean. As many as eight warships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) are now permanently based in the region. While India is down to a lone aircraft carrier, Beijing has announced it is building its third flat top as part of its plans to have four carrier battle groups in service by 2030. Acknowledging this threat, India is seeking to scale up its naval forces.
As the spearheads of the fleets, aircraft carriers will play a pivotal role in India’s force projection. The Indian Navy currently operates a single carrier, the 45,000 tonne INS Vikramaditya, with a second, the 37,500 tonne INS Vikrant, undergoing sea trials. The Navy has plans for a third carrier, the 65,000 tonne INS Vishal. A three-carrier based force structure would allow India to operate two carrier battle groups at all times, with a total strength of around 150 fighter aircraft (not all based at sea).
However, due to budgetary constraints and because the government is strengthening the Army and the Air Force on a priority basis in the backdrop of the clashes with China, the Navy has been asked to concentrate on submarines and smaller warships. For comparison, an aircraft carrier with its complement of aircraft could easily cost US$10 billion whereas a diesel attack submarine costs one-tenth of that.
With the third carrier not likely to see the light of day for at least another decade, it is even more imperative that the Navy acquires the right mix of carrier-based jet fighters. Currently, the Indian Navy’s maritime fighter force consists of the Russian MiG-29K, which is mired in all sorts of problems. According to a report by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG), up to 47 per cent of INS Vikramaditya’s MiG-29Ks were nonoperational. That means at any given time, half of the Russian jets are in maintenance or overhaul. For comparison, in the US Navy, 80 per cent of the carrier air wing is mission capable at any time.
India’s carrier conundrum
Light deck aircraft carriers face two key problems. Firstly, there are not enough aircraft on board for a wide range of missions. For instance, with an aviation component of 24 fighter aircraft, the Vikramaditya has to deploy at least 70 per cent of its resources for its own air defence, leaving just eight jets for long-range strike. Secondly, for safety reasons the MiG-29K can only take off with limited fuel and weapons payload, severely impacting its range, endurance and effectiveness. This means, the aircraft is limited to roughly half its 980 km range. So for instance, if it wants to attack Karachi, the Vikramaditya will have to station itself approximately 400 km from the target. This will bring the floating city of 5,000 sailors well within the range of enemy aircraft and anti-ship missiles. Vikrant’s position will be similar.
“The operational history of light carriers bears this out,” says a US Navy War College study on the 1982 Falklands War. “To illustrate, of the 42 Harrier jets deployed on HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible during the Falklands War, 28 — a substantial two-thirds — had fleet air defence as their primary role. Just as tellingly, of the 1,300-odd total sorties that Harriers flew during the Falklands conflict, about 83 per cent of them were for combat air patrol.”
Another factor working against the MiG-29K is that it is meant for carriers equipped with a STOBAR (Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery) ski jump system and has no experience being deployed onboard aircraft carriers with a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) as in Western navies. This means it is not future proofed for India’s INS Vishal which will have a CATOBAR system.
So what can the Indian Navy do?
First and foremost, India needs to look beyond the MiG-29K. The aircraft is capable in the air but it was never meant to be a naval fighter. The air defence fighter was modified with reinforced landing gear to withstand the intense impacts of hard carrier landings. However, grafting naval technology onto an air force clearly didn’t work. The India Navy has discovered the MiG cannot handle the ‘controlled crashes’ characteristic of successful carrier landings. The MiG-29Ks not only suffered structural damage after every landing but the engines did as well.
According to the US-based Strategy Page, as of 2019, India has had 40 of these engines become totally unusable because of the damage. “India learned, the hard way, that jet fighters capable of operating from carriers are a very specialised type of aircraft and not just a land-based jet modified a bit to withstand the rigours of landing and taking off from carriers,” it says.
India has two options for its next generation of carrier based fighters. One, manufacture a naval version of the Made in India Tejas fighter. Two, look overseas, with the primary options being the Boeing F/A-18, the Dassault Rafale and Swedish Gripen. Basically, India is once again back to the chicken or egg situation – indigenise or import.
Naval Tejas: Future prospect
In early 2017, the Indian Navy issued a request for foreign suppliers to bid on a US$15 billion contract to supply 57 jet fighter-bombers capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. This came barely months after the Navy announced the made in India Tejas was unsuitable for use on Indian aircraft carriers. The Navy mentioned the LCA being overweight and underpowered. However, after a push from the government, the Navy declared it could place an order for 46 Mark 2 Tejas fighters if the aircraft’s empty weight is reduced from 6.6 tonnes to 5.6 tonnes.
On September 13, 2019, a naval version of the Tejas carried out a successful “arrested landing”, demonstrating its ability to land onboard an aircraft carrier. Four months later, on January 11, 2020, the light combat aircraft successfully carried out its first arrested landing on the Vikramaditya. A day later, the aircraft performed its first ski-jump assisted take-off from the carrier. “With this feat, the indigenously developed niche technologies specific to deck-based fighter operations have been proven, which will now pave the way to develop and manufacture the twin engine deck-based fighter for the Indian Navy,” the Indian Navy said on Twitter.
The experience gained in operating the Naval Prototype will help in proving input to the development of Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) aircraft. The TEDBF will be powered by two General Electric F414 engines and will carry higher and heavier payloads and range. Labelled as the Omni-Role Combat Aircraft, it will have two engines, an elongated fuselage and an expanded wing-span. Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh stated that the DRDO had offered to develop a new twin engine deck-based fighter for the Navy based on the experience of the Naval LCA and it should be ready by 2026.
Boeing Super Hornet: Best shot
So far, the most likely replacement for the MiG-29K is the American F-18E/F Super Hornet which has never operated from a ski-jump carrier, only from catapult equipped carriers. However, according to a Boeing spokesperson, the company and the US Navy are in the beginning phases of operating an F/A-18 Super Hornet from a ski jump at Naval Air Station Patuxent River to demonstrate it is STOBAR compliant for the Indian Navy. Boeing has completed more than 150 flight simulations on F/A-18 compatibility with Indian aircraft carriers.
While the original F-18 is a nearly 40 year old design, the Super Hornet is an entirely new aircraft that is about 25 per cent larger (and heavier) and has a new type of engine.
Boeing seems to have a lot of friends in India. Currently, India has 11 C-17 Globemaster IIIs, 12 P-8I Neptune maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft, 22 AH-64E Apaches (with six more on order) and 15 CH-47F (I) Chinooks, all Boeing platforms. In 2020, Boeing also signed an agreement for the sale of six AH-64E Apache helicopters for the Indian Army.
With India and the US now strategic partners, there is considerable military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries. Common military equipment will also allow ease of interoperability between the Indian and US navies. The latest F/A-18 Super Hornets are designed to operate well into the 2040s so there is no threat of obsolescence. In fact, the US Navy employs a mix of the latest F-35 stealth fighters and the Super Hornets – a combination that enhances the lethality of both types of aircraft.
Rafale M: Super advanced, super expensive
In the 1990s when the French Navy was seeking to replace its aged F-8 Crusaders, the French mulled the possibility of inducting the Boeing F/A-18. The Americans even loaned two Super Hornets to the French for testing but ultimately the French Navy opted for the Rafale’s naval version. The production model of the Rafale M undertook its first flight on July 7, 1999.
The aircraft has acquired some combat experience since then. In 2002 seven Rafale Ms operating from the carrier Charles de Gaulle took part in “Operation Enduring Freedom”, flying over Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. In 2016, Rafale Ms struck targets associated with the Islamic State.
As well as the obvious advantage of acquiring a super advanced fighter – with some stealth characteristics – what works in the Rafale Ms favour is commonality of maintenance and spare parts. Since the Indian Air Force already has all the logistics sorted, it will be a smooth landing for the Rafale M in the Navy. With the negotiating part out of the way, the Navy can simply concentrate on acquiring the right weapons and avionics required for operations over water.
The only down side is the cost. At nearly US$200 million per aircraft, this is not an aircraft that will sell during a pandemic. The IAF had to be satisfied with 36 aircraft instead of the planned 126; it is highly unlikely the Navy will get 57 Rafale Ms.
Sea Gripen: Outside chance
Swedish defence major Saab has offered to collaborate with India to develop the naval version of the JAS-39 Gripen fighter. Ulf Nilsson, the head of the company’s aeronautics division, says there is a great opportunity for technology transfer to India.
A variant of its newest fighter, the Sea Gripen has STOL capabilities (Short Take off and Landing), which means it has performance and flying qualities similar to those required for aircraft specifically designed to operate from an aircraft carrier.
The ongoing development focuses primarily on correct sizing and positioning of a stop hook, as well as the necessary modifications so that the Gripen’s undercarriage is able to withstand the high loads associated with carrier landings.
There is no doubt the Swedes can be relied upon to develop high performance aircraft that are also cost-effective. Saab had also offered to move the entire production facility of the Gripen to India if the IAF opted for the Swedish fighter. They could offer a deal that may be equally enticing, to the Indian Navy.
A big drawback for Saab is that Sweden does not have an aircraft carrier. How it will refine a naval prototype remains to be seen.
Also, Stockholm is competing against the Americans and French who are in the geopolitical heavyweight and middleweight categories respectively. Big ticket weapons sales are rarely about weapons alone, they encompass the entire package. Sweden will have to make a really generous offer to shoot down the Super Hornet and Rafale M.
-The writer is a defence analyst. His work has been quoted extensively by leading Think Tanks, Universities and Publications world-wide. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda