NAVY DOGFIGHT BEGINS: India Opens Talks With Boeing & Dassault

The Indian Navy has officially opened vendor discussions with Boeing Defense and Dassault Aviation under its most ambitious current aviation thrust, a quest for 57 multirole fighters to operate off its future aircraft carriers. Livefist can confirm that while the navy did receive four responses in response to its call for information last year, only two are being regarded as ‘serious contenders’.

A top Indian Navy aviation and procurement officer confirmed proceedings on the Multirole Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) project to Livefist. He said, “We are treating only  two of the responses as being from serious and ready contenders. This is in the interests of our current requirements and timelines.”

As projected here on Livefist before, the contest is progressing as a direct face-off between Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet and a modified version of Dassault’s Rafale M F3R standard. Livefist can confirm that the Indian Navy isn’t regarding by the same measure of seriousness the two other responses it has received — from Russia for the MiG-29K and from Sweden’s Saab for the concept Gripen Maritime. It is all but official, therefore, that these last two contenders don’t have a place in the potential race.

A request for proposal (RfP) process for the 57 naval fighters, to be executed under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model, could begin later this year. The navy is in the process of finetuning operational staff requirements before freezing naval air staff requirements (NASR).

While the navy hasn’t stipulated engine numbers and launch configuration in its RFI sent out last year, Livefist gathers that planners are steeply inclined towards catapult launch (CATOBAR) operations, all but confirming that India’s future aircraft carriers (IAC-2 onwards) will be flat-top vessels, rather than the ski-jump fitted aircraft carriers it has operated thus far (barring the original INS Vikrant in its early configuration). India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, the new Vikrant-class, will be a ski-jump fitted ship like the INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat before it.

Both Boeing and Dassault have invested energies in attempting to persuade the Indian Navy that the F/A-18 and Rafale, respectively, are capable of operations of a ski-jump fitted carrier, even if they’re design-built for launches off a catapult system. It is understood that the Indian Navy has officially requested data on simulations conducted by both companies in this regard.

Progress on what is arguably the Indian Navy’s most significant current procurement push comes at a time replete with pressures and uncertainties that could almost certainly complicate, delay — perhaps even derail — momentum towards the next step. For instance, a vituperative opposition party-led political spotlight on the Indian government’s 2016 Rafale deal has made the readily touchy act of arms contracting in India even more sensitive. With India’s next national election less than 18 months away, all processes with even the slightest capacity to trigger political noise go slow. And this is not to even mention the enormous complexities and uncertainties buffeting the Strategic Partnership model itself and how India can even execute under it.

As Livefist reported last year, there are inevitable linkages between the Indian Navy’s requirements and what could come next for the Indian Air Force — a seemingly insatiable quest for squadrons to meet sanctioned strength numbers. The Indian Air Force’s quest for 100 single engine fighters under the Strategic Partnership model, a direct face-off between Saab’s Gripen E and the F-16 Block 70, is also reported to have run into trouble over fears of a single-vendor situation. Concerns that apply to the IAF’s quest will definitely apply to the navy’s own. Neither service will be holding its breath.

A poignant confirmation that Livefist was able to obtain as part recent interactions with naval planners was that the indigenous LCA Navy Mk.2, seen earlier as the last hope for the home-grown fighter for carrier operations, is officially off the table. Documents viewed by your correspondent show that on October 18, 2016, at a meeting between then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, an Indian Navy team and representatives of the DRDO, it was officially decided that the file on the LCA Mk.1 and Mk.2 would be closed from a procurement perspective, though funding would continue. Noting that the proposed Mk.2 also did not meet requirements and would be available too late, Parrikar signed off on a decision to de-link the LCA program from the navy’s quest for further fighters. The file notes, ‘ADA to continue development of LCA Navy Mk.2 as an intermediate step with an aim to develop an indigenous deck based fighter that will meet naval requirements’. Minutes of a meeting that took subsequently took place on November 21, 2016 show that the navy was then cleared to ‘initiate a case for deck based fighters independent of the LCA Mk.2 project’.

The Indian Navy is therefore planning to formalise financial support to the fifth generation AMCA program is the potential first indigenous deck-based fighter.


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