Boeing is planning a series of flight tests in Goa to demonstrate the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet’s ability to take off and land on Indian aircraft carriers. The tests are scheduled for May-June, and the US business will send two US Navy (USN) F/A-18Es to the Indian navy’s Shore-Based Test Facility at INS Hansa near Goa.
According to Alain Garcia, vice-president of India business development for Boeing Defense, Space & Security, the jets would demonstrate the ability to take off using a ski-jump ramp and also conduct arrested landings on a runway constructed as an Indian carrier.
Boeing and the US Navy will collaborate on the project. Air-to-air, air-to-surface, and anti-ship aircraft configurations will be displayed.
New Delhi has long had a need for 57 new carrier-capable fighters. It is expected to get a first tranche of 26 aircraft, eight of which must be two-seaters. For the time being, the Indian navy is weighing its options and has not issued a formal call for proposals (RFP).
The Dassault Rafale M, the Super Hornet’s main opponent for the requirement, reportedly conducted a series of identical tests at INS Hansa in January. Saab has also suggested the Gripen Maritime, a carrier-capable version of the Gripen E.
Garcia, who formerly piloted the Super Hornet in the US Navy, is certain that the Boeing type is well suited for India, stressing that the Block III configuration – which is about to enter US service – is critical in generating a uniform tactical picture.
He mentions the Block III Super Hornet’s active electronically scanned array radar, huge area displays, capacity to connect with other platforms, and open systems design.
He believes the aircraft will work well with other US equipment in the Indian navy’s inventory, such as the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60R anti-submarine warfare helicopter and the Boeing P-8I Neptune, the Indian counterpart of the 737-derived P-8A.
Furthermore, acquiring a Super Hornet would allow the Indian Navy to collaborate more closely with the US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force, both of which employ Super Hornets.
The INS Vikramaditya, based on the former Soviet Kiev-class carrier Baku, is the only active carrier in New Delhi. It is modest by American standards, having a displacement of 45,400t, which is less than half that of the US carriers from which the Super Hornet generally deploys. The fixed-wing air wing of Vikramaditya presently consists of 26 RAC MiG-29Ks.
Furthermore, New Delhi is planning to put its first indigenously manufactured carrier, the INS Vikrant, into service. The displacement of the Vikrant is listed as 45,000t. Both are STOBAR (short take-off but arrested landing) vessels that launch aircraft using a ski-jump.
Catapult aided take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) ships are used by US and French carriers. While CATOBAR carriers are more difficult, aeroplanes with greater cargoes can take off. Furthermore, such ships may launch turboprop support assets, like as the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft.
In the long run, India might build a CATOBAR warship employing an electromagnetic launch system similar to the one pioneered by the USS Gerald R Ford.
Regardless of the significant disparities between American and Indian carriers, Garcia believes the Super Hornet will perform well in Goa. He mentions that the type has already been tested for ski-jumping at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland.
The Super Hornet will even demonstrate the ability to take off with two Boeing AGM-84 anti-ship missiles in Goa, despite the fact that the Indian requirement only asks for one anti-ship missile.
Garcia declines to specify the payload penalty that employing a ski-jump instead of a catapult will inflict on the Super Hornet, but claims that the fighter has the payload capability to meet all criteria while operating off a ski-jump.
Garcia claims that the Super Hornet’s Precision Landing Mode enables for exceptionally precise shipboard landings when recovering aboard an Indian carrier.
“They’ll be able to see how accurate the Super Hornet is in landing on any given flight deck area,” he says.
“We’re so confident that we actually informed the Indian navy that if they have an aircraft carrier parked off the coast of Goa, we’d be more than glad to go fly out there and show it on the aircraft carrier itself.”
Because the Indian navy has yet to accept Boeing’s plan, the Super Hornets will be tested on land at INS Hansa.
According to Garcia, Boeing has provided New Delhi with extensive study of how Super Hornets would fit on Indian carriers, both on the flight deck and in the hangar.
The comparatively modest elevators optimised for the MiG-29 provide a challenge for both Vikramaditya and Vikrant. According to Garcia, one advantage of the Super Hornet over the Rafale is the ability to fold its wings, allowing for a more comfortable elevator installation. Furthermore, Boeing has developed a method for Indian deck crews to manoeuvre the Super Hornet onto and off Indian ship elevators.
Garcia also reminds out that the Super Hornet’s two-seat variant, the F/A-18F, is completely capable and currently serves on US carriers. While the Rafale has a two-seat B variant for the air force, the carrier-capable Rafale M only has a single seat.
While the Goa test work implies that there is some progress toward an acquisition decision, New Delhi’s track record with fighter acquisitions suggests that a final choice could be years away – if at all.
To emphasise this, New Delhi has yet to submit an RFP for the acquisition of naval fighters, despite the fact that a 59-page request for information was sent more than five years ago, in early 2017.
Nonetheless, New Delhi’s long-term goal of improving its aircraft carrier capability is unmistakable. The impending Super Hornet tests in Goa – and what the Indian navy learns from them – will be a significant step toward realising this objective.