HomeIndustryIndian Navy makes changes in aircraft tender, might procure 26 jets only...

Indian Navy makes changes in aircraft tender, might procure 26 jets only instead of 57

The Indian Navy has reportedly made minor changes in its Muti Role Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) tender, in order to adapt to recent developments. The previous requirement for 57 airframes is now expected to be reduced to 26.

The tender focuses on acquiring combat aircraft for the Navy’s future aircraft carriers, as part of the fleet modernization equipping the naval air arm with new and improved combat solutions. However, while the previous number of 57 was expected to fulfill the demands of both the IAC-1 (INS Vikrant) and IAC-2 (INS Vishal). The former is expected to be commissioned this year and the latter’s plans have been put on hold in favor of nuclear submarines.

According to experts, the new change in procurement hints towards adopting a stop-gap solution before finding a dedicated alternative that will offer similar capabilities.

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Certain factors are believed to have influenced the decision. The Indian Navy is firmly backing the indigenous program for Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) and looking forward to absorbing the platform as soon as it enters serial production. Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has assured the service of equal or better abilities over the foreign fighters in the same class.

At present, three Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are competing in the tender. The US-based Boeing Defence with F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet” Block III, French-based Dassault Aviation with Rafale M, and Russian-based Rosoboronexport with MiG-29K. There are two mandatory requirements specified within the tender: the aircraft must be twin-engined and must be safe to operate in STOBAR configuration.

Both the F/A-18 and Rafale have been in service only with Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) carriers. However, both companies have assured the Indian Navy that a series of trials will be conducted to demonstrate the abilities of their respective aircraft to conduct operations on and off the STOBAR carrier. First in the race was Washington when it conducted a successful takeoff in December 2020, of a F/A-18E from a shore-based facility at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. A video was also released in the context. This was regarded as a “significant step” in gaining the trust of New Delhi and increasing the chances of selection.

Boeing’s illustration for an Indian Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet

Dassault, late but not least, has scheduled similar demonstrations with a testbed aircraft this month to stay in the competition. During her visit in December, French Defence Minister Florence Parly reiterated the intentions of the country to supply Rafale aircraft as per the Indian demands and requirements.

A Rafale Marine attached to squadron 17F of the French navy lands during flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). A Super Hornet can be seen in the background.

“We’re ready to answer any additional needs or requests that could be made by India. We know that an aircraft carrier will soon be delivered. Aircraft are needed. So we’re open & ready to provide any other Rafale if this is India’s decision.” she said.

The Indian Air Force has already opted for 36 Rafale F3R aircraft- with the deal signed in 2016, the first unit delivered in 2019 and completion expected by April 2022. The Navy, which was initially looking to join the IAF’s next MRCA 2.0 competition, may hope to sign its deal to acquire French fighters for its own inventory.

Russia has its own advantage. The Indian Navy is already operating two squadrons of Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29K since 2010, and at present two squadrons, INAS 300 “White Tigers” and INAS 303 “Black Panthers”, are on active duty. With already rich experience in operating with flex and flaws of the platform, the service may prefer going for an additional batch of the fighter instead of investing higher on western origin fighters. This is also valid in the sense that the requirement is generally of one new squadron, and the rest is to have trainer units as well as cover the gap created after losing airframes in accidents, 4 in total.

A MiG-29K onboard the INS Vikramaditya.

All three options are solid with each OEM pushing itself to secure the deal. It is up to the Indian Navy what it feels to suit the rigid and rigorous demands of its maritime operational procedure. While TEDBF is a long-term solution, it’s still a long time before we see it taking the first flight (the current deadline is 2026), and acquiring a modern and capable next-generation fighter is necessary to keep the operational readiness high and prepared for any conflict in near future.