Boeing seeks to make the F/A-18 Super Hornet the Indian Navy's primary naval fighter of the future—one that can fly from both India's ski-jump equipped aircraft carriers in the near term and catapult equipped ones in the future.
Confirmation that the Super Hornet could operate with a relevant weapons loads from short-takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) aircraft carriers came following a big Super Hornet pitch meeting in New Delhi put on by Boeing, after which Indian defense page Livefist interviewed Dan Gillian, VP of the Super Hornet program.
During the interview, Gillian stated:
"We've done a lot of simulation work with the Indian Navy to better understand their requirements and we fill comfortable that the Super Hornet can operate from all their carriers, both the ones fielded today and the ones in the future... We think we can move around the deck, be very mission capable with a relevant weapons load-out and fuel load-out to give the Navy what they need... The Super Hornet as built today can operate from Indian carriers."
India currently fields the Russia- built MiG-29K for its STOBAR fighter needs. These aircraft has been plagued with serviceability and carrier environment suitability issues since they entered service less than a decade ago. Also, the current navalized Fulcrum isn't capable of catapult launches, whereas the Super Hornet is.
India plans on fielding catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) configured aircraft carriers in the 2020s, but before that it will add two more ski jump equipped carriers to its fleet. The first of these vessels, named the INS Vikrant, is being indigenously designed and built and is slated for commissioning before the end of the decade, but it could be some time after before it is actually ready for patrols.
Two Vikrant class ships will be built before the Indian Navy plans to switch over to CATBAR configured carriers. These two Vikrant class carriers will join the INS
Vikramaditya, which is currently India's only fixed-wing aircraft carrier. The Vikramaditya was heavily modified by Russia for the Indian Navy, turning what was a Kiev class heavy aircraft carrying cruiser into a similar configuration as the Soviet-era Kuznetsov class aircraft carriers that Russia and China currently operates. The project ran hideously over budget and behind schedule.
With big carrier ambitions, India needs fighters that can make the most of its shipbuilding investments. The Indian Navy is currently looking for 57 new fighters to fulfill this role under the multi-role carrier-borne fighter (MRCBF) program, and that number will likely grow as the Indian Navy's carrier fleet expands in the coming decade.
Currently the Super Hornet, Rafale, Gripen, and MiG-29K are in the running. Even the F-35B and F-35C could be possible contenders, but at this time it is unclear if the Joint Strike Fighter will be formally offered. Only the Rafale and Super Hornet are CATOBAR capable today. The MiG-29K would be upgraded for catapult launch capabilities and may port over some technology from the latest MiG-35 Fulcrum variant. Gripen-E would have to be navalized completely, but the SAAB has closely studied doing this under the Sea Gripen concept for years. Also, the Gripen is single engine and it seems like the Indian Navy is interested in a twin engine design, but still, Gripen is a hardy and efficient combat jet and has a lot to offer the Indian Navy.
Whichever naval fighter India picks, industrial offsets and technology transfer will be a major factor in the decision. Assembling the jets in India seems to be a key component of any deal and Boeing has said they would be willing to set up an assembly line in the country under a "make in India" initiative. How exactly this will sit with President Trump's "America First" economic policy is yet to be understood.
Gillian noted that Boeing already has many parts built in India and has over 160 suppliers there, and described Boeing's willingness to start Super Hornet production to India as such:
"We are talking about creating a next generation facility in India. We think the Super Hornet is the most advanced airplane that India could manufacture which will lead to the next generation of airplane that India will design and build here... We envisioned bringing a large part of it to India. It's not about moving our production line.... We think we can bring best of the Boeing to India. We can create a next generation 21st century factory in India to build Super Hornet."
Gillian also mentions that the same factory built for Super Hornet production could be used to build India's next generation indigenous fighter aircraft in the future. How Boeing would be involved in that initiative and what level of technology the company would be able to hand over to India to make it happen remains unknown.
Gillian underlines that by building the Super Hornet in India, the country will then have the "aerospace ecosystem" that will allow them to build a next generation fighter themselves. He also claims that the Super Hornet is the most modern airplane to manufacture in the competition, which seems like a questionable claim.
When it comes to what the Super Hornet can bring to the Indian Navy, Gillian was clear that it wouldn't be the jet we know today, but one in the highly upgraded "Block III" configuration.
"We think the Super Hornet is a next-gen aircraft... We continue to build them for the US Navy. We are going to bring the Block III Super Hornet online, a next gen fighter that is both networked and survivable. It has a high level of stealth and a great EW suite [electronic warfare], it has an AESA radar that has been integrated and flying for years. We're bringing out an infrared search and track sensor—a great package of sensors and equipment that make it a very lethal next generation fighter. It will be operating as a front-line aircraft well into 2040. We think the aircraft speaks for itself from capabilities standpoint—lowest cost per flight hour of any airplane in the US inventory [obviously that is not accurate], that's a huge advantage as you build a large fleet."
Make sure to watch the full interview below:
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com