|US Navy brand new Gerald R Ford Supercarrier|
Last week, when Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) handed over Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vikrant to the Indian Navy, the shipyard was left with a large, empty berth where India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, or IAC-1, had been under construction. Now, demanding answers were two questions: First, is there going to be a second indigenous carrier? And, if yes, what would be the size and specifications of IAC-2? The navy’s answers to those questions will determine India’s naval power for decades to come.
First, the Rafale – Marine does not come in a twin-seat version. The Indian Navy, which has specified that it requires eight twin-seat and 18 single-seat fighters, would only get that configuration in the Super Hornet. If, on the other hand, the navy were to buy 26 Rafale – Marine fighters, the eight twin-seaters would be available for training ashore, or for combat missions flown from ashore, but not for combat missions flown from the carrier deck. The IAF might conceivably use the French fighters in combat, but only from on-shore bases. On the other hand, if Super Hornets were to be bought, they would all – single seat as well as twin-seat versions – fly combat missions from the carrier, ensuring better use of our limited budget.
Second, flying the Super Hornet would ensure high inter-operability between the fighters, the aircraft carrier and a number of other platforms that the Indian military has bought, or could do so. They include the E/A-18G Growler, a highly specialised electronic warfare (EW) aircraft that accompanies the Super Hornets on missions, blinding enemy radar and thus enhancing survivability – a tandem capability that no other carrier-borne fighter in the world enjoys. The US government has not yet agreed to supply India the Growler, but is likely to do so in the future. But if the Indian Navy does not buy the Super Hornet now, they would effectively be closing the door on Growlers for ever.
Third, the interoperable platforms also include MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, the P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft and the MQ-25 Stingray autonomous, carrier-borne tankers. If the Indian Navy does not buy the Super Hornet now, it may also be denying itself access to MQ-25 tankers, from US carriers in the future. The MQ-25, today a carrier-borne tanker, is likely to be modified for additional roles in the future. The Indian Navy has big ambitions at sea in the autonomous domains, including air. The Super Hornet could open the doors for this, if the US grants access to the MQ-25 someday, as US-India relations flower.
Fourth, the US Navy might also link the availability of EMALS/ AAG from General Atomics for the next indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-2) to the strategic closeness that a sale of Super Hornets would bring. Fifth, a Super Hornet sale to India would create a higher degree of inter-operability with US naval forces in the Indo Pacific, as well as with the Quad militaries (both Australia and the US operate Hornets.
Sixth, the acquisition of Super Hornets would allow the Indian Navy continued access to the most capable combat aviation assets in the Indo-Pacific (the US has 11 carriers against only one French and one British carrier). The US Navy has employed aircraft carriers effectively for a century and working with them would help the Indian Navy absorb the best practices at sea. Some 700+ Hornets have accumulated a million plus arrestments at sea, against France’s far lesser experience of flying 40+ Rafale-Marines from a single aircraft carrier for 20-odd years. In fact, endorsement is best provided by the French Navy, which sends its pilots to the US to learn the art of tail-hooking. Finally, working with the US would help the Defence R&D Organisation learn global best practices in carrier operations as they design and develop the “twin-engine deck-based fighter” (TEDBF).