A deal between aerospace giant Boeing and the Indian Navy seems likely, with the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet emerging as the top contender to supply the Indian Navy with twenty-six Multirole Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) aircraft.
The deal could involve the delivery of a squadron of eighteen of the single-seat aircraft along with eight additional twin-seat variants. It is collectively estimated to be valued at up to $4.6 billion. Boeing's F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet complies with most of the critical mission-specific requirements, according to data analytics company GlobalData.
The Block III Super Hornet
The Boeing F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet was developed for high-loading, high stress operations. It requires minimal support equipment has the lowest cost per flight hour to operate with high mission readiness rates, according to Boeing. It has remained the U.S. Navy's frontline fighter with more than seven hundred aircraft in operation around the world. The Block III Super Hornet also offers opportunities for cooperation in naval aviation between the American and Indian navies.
However, according to GlobalData, the Boeing fighter may not be the best choice for New Delhi. The research firm suggested that Dassault Aviation's Rafale-M would have been the natural choice following a deal to acquire thirty-six Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force, due to the commonality of systems and ease of logistics.
However, the lack of foldable wings has been seen as a factor for why the Indian Navy went another direction. It would significantly limit the net volume of underdeck storage available – especially given the size of the Indian Navy's carriers.
Boeing offered other advantages, said Abhijit Apsingikar, defense analyst at GlobalData
"While the deal to acquire 26 aircraft is seen as a stopgap measure until the Indian indigenous Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) takes fight sometime in 2032, Boeing enjoys a distinct advantage of being able to incorporate the uprated F414 enhanced engines, rated at 116-120KN," Apsingikar said. "As the Indian Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has already selected GE to deliver 99 F414 engines for its upcoming Indian LCA MK-2, logistics to support the engines are further simplified."
In addition, the Super Hornet's powerful engines could enable it to offset the payload limitations inherent in STOBAR carriers, providing it an edge over the Rafale-M. As history has shown, political considerations and the reliability of defense partners can also make or break Indian defense deals. New Delhi has already acquired the P-8I Poseidon and MH-60R Romeo helicopters from the United States, but Boeing may need to show that it can effectively support those platforms.
The final determination is India's efforts to build up its domestic arms industry, which is balanced by what can be produced indigenously.
"While the FY2022-23 budget has earmarked a record $20.38bn for acquisitions, it has also reserved about 68 percent of the funding for financing domestic procurements, with just $6.52bn available to finance foreign acquisitions," said Apsingikar. "Despite this, the Multirole Carrier-Based Fighter (MRCBF) is likely to be shielded by the funding constraints owing to the critical nature of procurement. The need to equip the upcoming carrier with an airwing takes precedence and therefore is likely to be pursued on a priority basis."
Given all the factors, it seems that the F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet could be landing soon on Indian carriers. In December 2020, Boeing and the U.S. Navy even proved that the F/A-18 Super Hornet can operate from a "ski jump" ramp, demonstrating the aircraft's suitability for the Indian Navy's aircraft carriers.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.