New Delhi: The Indian Navy (IN) is planning to evaluate operational demonstration of US defence major Boeing F-18 Super Hornet carrier-based fighter at the shore-based test facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa in Goa in April-May this year as a possible contender for it’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and soon to be commissioned INS Vikrant. Both the Indian aircraft carriers use ski-jump to launch the fighters with arrested recovery through the net.
According to officials in knowledge of the matter in Washington and in New Delhi, the US Navy conducted ski-jump trials of F-18 fighter at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland in US or Pax river in December 2020 but the Indian Navy team could not attend the demonstration due to travel restrictions on account of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the US Navy shared extensive data of the ski jump trials with the Indian Navy. A year later in December 2021, both the US Navy and the aircraft manufacturer did a site inspection of SBTF at INS Hansa in the presence of Indian Navy officials.
While presently the operational demonstration of Rafale-Marine is on at the INS Hansa as the other option for Indian aircraft carriers, both the twin engine aircraft are virtually of the same later 1990s vintage and of the same 4.5 generation.
Even as the Indian Navy will be evaluating both the aircraft, the F-18 is a two seater fighter, which is more suitable to carrier based operations for better orientation at sea. Rafale-M is a single seater fighter, while it has a two seater trainer but that can only be operated from the shore.
The other important factor that weighs in favour of the F-18 is that it can fit the INS Vikramaditya or INS Vikrant lift with folded wings without compromising on its operational readiness.
In case of Rafale-M the fighter will only fit to carrier lift after the wing tips of the aircraft are removed as the wings cannot be folded and the span is more than that of a folded F-18 fighter.
Aviation experts says that an adapter platform will have to be fitted for F-18 Super Hornet as it allows faster movement of jets from lower deck to deck under combat and high seas condition.
Although both France and US are close allies of India, the Modi government will also take into account the license, maintenance and spare parts issues as it cannot afford to be caught on the wrong foot in a rapidly changing security environment.
Under no circumstances, the Modi government will allow India’s strategic autonomy and operational readiness to be compromised.