The esoteric subject of fighter aircraft contracting, usually restricted in the Indian context to the occasional headline, boomed within the walls of India’s Parliament a week ago. In the eye of the proverbial storm was — and continues to be — India’s purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France. With less than a year to go for the country’s next national election, one that promises to outstrip all earlier elections in its assurance of a historically no-holds-barred fight, the aircraft deal is now a fully loaded political weapon, where the noise has helpfully blurred many of the questions being asked. It’s a noise that won’t die down soon.
In the middle of this noise, the Indian public will need reminding that India has just flipped the switch on another major effort to procure fighter aircraft, in which contenders include the very Rafale that’s cruising now through the most potent of Indian political fires: those fueled by armament deals. The new effort, which symbolically began on July 6 when six aircraft manufacturers, including the Rafale’s maker, Dassault Aviation, is a $16 billion plan to build at least 110 of a winning foreign fighter for the Indian Air Force in a new private sector manufacturing facility.
As Livefist has reported before, the enormous complexity of the contracting exercise aside, there is unlikely to be any substantial movement on the effort for the remainder of the financial year, with every bit of it to be consumed in the election process. However, unlike the similar erstwhile ‘mother of all deals’, the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest for 126 jets, that collapsed in 2013 under an earlier government, the fresh effort is being seen as an imperative for both fleet strength as well as industrial aerospace capacity. It won’t be an easy path, but a system bruised by lessons over a decade is girding its loins and hoping things will be different this time. The current political flashpoint over the Rafale fighter jet deal has only made an already vulnerable topic in India more volatile. Well, that’s the context.
On July 6, alongside Dassault’s information docket on the Rafale that arrived at the Ministry of Defence were five others: Saab’s on the Gripen, Rosoboronexport’s on the MiG-35, Airbus’s on the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed-Martin’s on the F-16 Block 70 and finally Boeing’s on the F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III. The Indian Air Force had initially set out to acquire single-engined fighters (a contest that would have been between only the F-16 and Gripen in the above list), though it expanded this effort to include twin-engined jets, throwing up the familiar six horse race that will be run.
While that contest will meander over the next 12-18 months towards getting off the ground, the other major air force capability program that’s been through its own share of rough weather is the quest for a stealth aircraft fleet. India’s now well-known disenchantment with Russia over the Su-57 fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) program has led to a tentative rethink and a consequent slowing of the effort. With China speeding through its fifth generation program with inductions of the Chengdu J-20 starting last March, the Indian Air Force finds itself staring at a void it had hoped was going to be filled with a degree of predictability.
It is in this combination of turbulences that India sets out to acquire new jets. And Boeing, one of India’s largest single suppliers of military aircraft in the last decade, sniffs a game-changing opportunity that plugs right into work it is already engaged in for the US Navy.
Unlike the F/A-18 Block II fighter that had been fielded by Boeing in earlier contest that collapsed without finality, it has offered the Indian Air Force the F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet this time, an aircraft that will involve a 50 per cent increase in lifetime flight hours, extended endurance by virtue of conformal fuel tanks, a new tactical targeting system, an expanded network and datalink architecture, a wide display cockpit and — what Boeing is hoping will be a game-changing advantage in the Indian contest — stealth coatings and airframe tweaks that bring the Super Hornet’s radar signature down by at least 10 per cent more.
That Boeing has emphasised the Block III Super Hornet’s stealthiness in their response to the Indian Air Force isn’t surprising. Company executives replied in the affirmative when Livefist asked if the stealth pitch was aimed at alleviating the Indian Air Force’s urgent concerns over the stealth capability void and projecting it as a key capability differentiator in the mix.
“It is by far the most stealthy aircraft in the competition, and the only next generation fighter in the contest,” Dan Gillian, Vice President on the F/A-18 program at Boeing told Livefist. “There is need for stealth for future threats and a balanced approach to survivability. The Super Hornet as it is today is already more stealthy than its competitors. And the Block III just takes that further.”
Here’s a video of Livefist’s Shiv Aroor in conversation with the Boeing leadership team spearheading the Super Hornet pitch in India (Article continues below the video):
Boeing doesn’t go so far as to say the Block III Super Hornet is a stealth jet, but has insisted that an already low observable airframe will see its radar signature diminish by 10 per cent under the new US Navy funded upgrade. While some reports have defined these as minor changes, Boeing offers that it’s still a step ahead of competitors in the mix. And by extension, a tangible parameter for the Indian Air Force to chew on in the circumstances, even though the contest at hand doesn’t specifically stipulate (yet) the requirement for a stealthy jet. Whether that changes at the request for proposal (RfP) stage remains to be seen.
To be sure, while stealth is a specifically customer-contracted improvement in the new Block III Super Hornet, Boeing’s competitors will also likely brandish the low-observable qualities of the aircraft they have fielded. In the realm of stealth, low observable pioneer Lockheed-Martin for instance has pitched the F-16 Block 70 as a system with many survivability features that mirror the purpose-built stealth F-35 Lightning II. The Gripen E from Saab too has a few things to say about how the new airframe cuts radar signature. The Rafale and Typhoon have for years challenged the stealth offered by the F-35 with their own survivability features in hostile airspace. But it’s clear that alongside manufacturing heft and capabilities of the Block III Super Hornet, stealth will be a buzzword for Boeing in the Indian contest.
“Merely kinematic performance doesn’t cut it anymore. A fighter simply going at a target with speed isn’t going to bring anything to the fight. Footprint and radar signature matter for emerging threats,” says Pratyush Kumar, President, Boeing India. “It’s a contemporary fighter for the United States. It has adequate stealth characteristics to serve current needs and as a bridge to the future. Many of the stealth technologies for the AMCA can be derived from this.”
India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fifth generation fighter concept remains on the drawing board, and its techno-industrial future now stands yoked to the current fighter contest. The Indian Air Force has never operated stealth aircraft before, nor has it had the opportunity to work with purpose-built stealth technologies in terms of coatings and materials so far. Its radar signature work has remained restricted largely to flight profiles and tactics. Boeing seems poised to tap that threshold. While the company states that its thrust is based on a three-way proposition hinged on performance, affordability and indigenisation, the fourth vector in the mix is clearly stealth.
The US Navy is contracting for 110 new Block III Super Hornets, while the first in service US Navy F/A-18s that will be brought up to the Block III standard were delivered to Boeing’s St Louis facility earlier this month, with hundreds more to follow.