French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation has offered to equip India’s homemade aircraft carrier with Rafale jets. But the French firm faces stiff competition from America's Boeing, which is pitching F-18 fighter planes for the new vessel.
India this week commissioned the 43,000-ton INS Vikrant. The giant vessel can hold 30 aircraft and helicopters – about half the capacity of the US Navy’s Nimitz class carriers.
Vikrant will initially be equipped with Russian-origin MiG-29s borrowed from India’s other aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. Vikrant will then rearm with Western aircraft once the deal has been approved by the government.
"As of now, there is no one else in the race except Boeing and Dassault,” one official told RFI of India’s four-year quest for 57 dual-role combat jets for its two aircraft carriers.
India bought 45 MiG-29s in installments starting 2011 and, nine years later, it cleared the import of 21 additional units and ordered the modernisation of 59 of the multi-role jets.
The trouble with MiGs
Captain Rajat Kumar, who leads INS Vikrant’s air wing, has reservations about the MiG-29s that will come on board his carrier, powered by four gas turbines that can pump out 88 megawatts of power.
“The MiG-29 is a large aircraft – it was designed by the Russians and it is quite challenging to land on a deck,” Kumar told media on board the new carrier that cost 2.52b euros and took 20 years to build.
National auditors have said the ageing MiGs suffer from engine failures and other “operational deficiencies”.
Military officials told RFI that 26 Western jets would eventually operate from the 860-foot long INS Vikrant, which will commence flight tests in November and continue until mid-2023.
Cordial air war between allies
In May, Boeing sent two F-18s to display the jet’s capability at a naval base in India’s seaside state of Goa in the latest pitch to sell the twin-engine plane to the world’s second largest arms importer.
“The Super Hornet Block III has been built for carrier aircraft operations and it is the fighter that the US Navy depends on for its operations,” Salil Gupte, president of Boeing’s Indian chapter, told a news conference in August.
“The Super Hornet we are offering to the Indian Navy has the most advanced and critical capability. The fighter will outpace current threats,” said Steve Parker, another Boeing executive, adding the firm can deliver the jets in three years.
Executives from American firms like General Electric, Raytheon and Norththrop Gurmman involved in the F-18 project have also been visiting India in efforts to sell the plane.
France fights back
France too sent the naval variant of its Rafale aircraft for shore-based testing at the Goa facility in June last year and then again in January. The company says its craft meets all requirements of the Indian navy.
The jury is out but several aviation experts favour the French product saying the Indian Air Force was “extremely satisfied” with 36 Rafales it purchased for almost eight billion Euros in a 2016 deal with Dassault Aviation.
“Indian pilots are flying operational sorties on them and so it will be easy to adapt to its deck-based variant,” an official said of Rafale-M, which is deployed on the French navy’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.
But the Rafale deal kicked off a firestorm in India where opposition politicians alleged bribes exchanged hands to clinch the government-to-government contract behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, several admirals have said India needed a third aircraft carrier given its vast coastline but the government says two will be sufficient.
“The commissioning of the Indian aircraft carrier is an assurance to friendly foreign countries that we will be able to assure collective security,” Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said during INS Vikrant’s flag-off.