Boeing has been flying an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet off a ground-based ski jump at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. This is part of a demonstration effort for the Indian Navy to show that the aircraft can operate from short take-off but arrested recovery configured (STOBAR) aircraft carriers, such as the INS Vikramaditya and the future INS Vikrant.
An Indian defense analyst who goes by the Twitter handle @hukum2082 was first to reveal this flight testing, which was then picked up by another Indian analyst, Saurabh Joshi, in another series of tweets, on Aug. 19, 2020. The Chicago-headquartered plane maker subsequently confirmed that this ski jump demonstration program is presently taking place at Patuxent River, though it is not clear when exactly it began. The naval air station has a ground-based ski jump that it used during testing of the short and vertical takeoff and landing capable F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.
"Boeing and the U.S. 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," Justin Gibson, a Boeing spokesperson, told The War Zone. "Boeing completed extensive analysis and more than 150 flight simulations on F/A-18 compatibility with Indian aircraft carriers, and while our assessment has shown the Block III Super Hornet is very capable of launching off a ski jump, this is the next step in demonstrating that capability. More details will be released upon the conclusion of the test demonstration."
The company had previously announced plans to begin this ski jump flight test program in February. It had first disclosed that it was doing simulation work on the Super Hornet's ability to operate from a STOBAR carrier in 2017.
"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," Dan Gillian, Vice President of the Super Hornet program, said in an interview with Indian defense news and analysis site LiveFist in 2017. "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."
McDonnell Douglas, which developed the original F/A-18 Hornet and was subsequently acquired by Boeing, had also previously conducted ski jump tests with that aircraft at the tail end of the Cold War. That testing showed that with as little as a nine-degree incline, the total required takeoff roll for the Hornet could be cut in half, though it's unclear what the jet's gross weight had to be to achieve this performance. Ski jumps generally increase the takeoff performance of combat jets in the absence of catapults and also provide an added margin of safety.
Since at least 2016, the Indian Navy has been working to acquire a fleet of at least 57 new fighter jets to complement its existing MiG-29K Fulcrums under the Multi-Role Carrier-Borne Fighter (MRCBF) program. There have been numerous reports over the years that the Indians have been disappointed in the performance of their navalized Fulcrums.
The Super Hornet is now competing against the MiG-29K, as well as the naval version of the French-made Dassault Rafale and a variant of the Swedish Gripen. The Indian Air Force notably took delivery of the first of its land-based Rafale variants last month.
The Indian Navy had also previously rejected plans for a carrier-based version of the domestically designed Tejas, with complaints that the design was overweight, though the development of that aircraft has continued, since then. In January, the prototype landed on and took off from the INS Vikramaditya
Being able to operate from a STOBAR carrier is a key requirement for the Indian Navy, which presently only has the one carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, which is in the configuration. A second STOBAR-configured flattop, the future INS Vikrant, and indigenous design, is also under construction.
The Indian government has expressed interest in acquiring a catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier in the past. Last year it emerged that BAE Systems had proposed a design based on the U.K. Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth class. The HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship the HMS Prince of Wales are both short-take off and vertical landing (STOVL) types with ski jumps, but no arresting system. It's not clear whether the ship that BAE pitched to the Indians is STOBAR or CATOBAR derivative. There were CATOBAR variants of the Queen Elizabeth design among the initial proposals to the Royal Navy.
What is clear is that the Indians have plans to expand their carrier fleets, which would also require additional carrier-based aircraft. Proving that the Super Hornet, which is already CATOBAR capable, is also able to fly from STOBAR carriers could give it an advantage in the competition as India would not necessarily need to acquire multiple types to operate from different types of carriers in the future. The MiG-29K, for instance, cannot fly from CATOBAR carriers, for instance.
The Super Hornet, in its latest advanced Block III configuration, which you can read more about in detail in this past War Zone piece, is also in the running for a separate Indian Air Force fighter jet mega-contract, which is looking to acquire 126 new fighters for that service. A deal with the Indian Navy could further tip the scales toward the F/A-18E/F due to the cost benefits that India could realize from logistics, infrastructure, and supply chain commonality.
Whatever happens, it will very exciting to learn more about how the Super Hornet has been faring in these ski jump tests at Patuxent River.
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