fighters for the IAF

An IDC Analysis

(With inputs by Sayan Majumdar)


New Delhi, 07 April 2005

The competition to secure the deal of 126 Indian Air Force (IAF) multi-role fighters was thrown wide open with the US offer of F-16 Block 70 ‘Fighting Falcons’ and F/A-18E/F 'Super Hornets’. The French Dassault Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 was hitherto regarded as the “frontrunner” and will now face stiff competition. In a significant move the US aviation manufacturer Lockheed Martin offered to build 'exclusive' F-16C Block 70 fighters for the IAF. Mike Kelly, the Senior Executive of Lockheed Martin, claimed the projected F-16C Block 70 versions to be “much superior to any existing fighters in service in the world” and expressed the willingness for "complete" transfer of technology.

Although details of the F-16C Block 70 upgrade are yet to be revealed one may well expect it to include –– Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar capable of interleaving air-to-air, air-to-ground and terrain following modes, providing high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) ground imaging and capable of automatic terrain following; Infra-Red (IR) detection kit and a formidable Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. The “package” may include an impressive array of US air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry and the incorporation of “aerodynamic” aluminium Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) that “blend” nicely with the upper fuselage, which will ensure long-range and endurance with unaffected aerodynamic performance.

Perhaps the US officials realise the IAF fascination for the Mirage 2000 fighters and the proposed follow-on Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 variants, as combat records and performance imprint a deep impact on the servicemens’ psyche. In this context the excellent performance of the Mirage 2000H/TH fleet during the Kargil conflict during the summer of 1999 and simultaneous avoidance of air-combat of Pakistani Air Force (PAF) F-16s did have their effect. In any case there was decent possibility that in the event of an air-to-air confrontation the “no combat-loss record” of F-16s would have been shattered. Thus perhaps in a clever move the US administration have simultaneously offered sale and transfer of technology of the F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ naval multi-role fighters initially designed for operations from aircraft carriers. It also indicated the US anticipation of Indian requirement that also “expands” to medium-weight multi-role fighters capable of operating on a significant portion of Asian topography from bases in India.

Far from being a “knee jerk” move the US administration may have presented the Super Hornet offer after a lot of calculations, if US media snippets are taken to account. With the required fighters entering service in numbers around 2010–12 and serving as the sentinel up to at least 2030–35, it is important to choose a machine that has just entered service or is in middle of its development cycle to ensure significant further enhancements. Thus, not only Super Hornets can “run” for the IAF fighter requirement, in many ways it is capable of fulfilling the requirements of the rapidly expanding Indian Naval carrier based fighter requirement.

 The multi-mission F/A-18E/F "Super Hornet" strike fighter (F/A-18F variant is a two-seater) is an upgrade of the combat-proven night strike F/A-18C/D which provided the USN with a platform that has range, endurance, and ordnance carriage capabilities comparable to the A-6 Intruder “heavy duty” strike platform and incorporates lower Radar Cross Section (RCS) technology and other survivability enhancements from outset. The Navy inducted the first operational F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadron (VFA-115) in June 2001, with Super Hornets deployed on board the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in July 2002.The F/A-18E/F aircraft are longer than earlier Hornets, have larger wing area, and carry more internal fuel which will effectively increase mission range by forty-one percent and endurance by fifty percent. The aircraft can also carry the complete complement of "smart" weapons, including the newest joint weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW). Carrier recovery payload is increased to a significant 9,000 pounds with optimal reserve fuel and a load of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) while two General Electric F414 turbo-fan engines provide 44,000-pounds of thrust. Its nine-to-one thrust-to-weight ratio is one of the highest of any modern fighter engine.

Moreover vital avionics components like Raytheon AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) fire control radar of the Super Hornet are still undergoing development and offer pristine technology. AN/APG-79 AESA radar is projected to increase the F/A-18E/F's air-to-air target detection and tracking range and provide higher resolution air-to-ground mapping at longer ranges. The AN/APG-79 AESA entered low-rate initial production in September 2003 and is planned to replace the AN/APG-73 sets of United States Navy (USN) from 2006. For “silent approach” to the targets the Hughes Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infra-Red (ATFLIR) is deployed, and features both navigation and infrared targeting systems, incorporating "third generation" Mid-Wave Infra-Red (MWIR) staring focal plane technology.

The growth potential of the F-18E/F Super Hornets will allow flexible employment and enhancement strategies in future years to enable it to remain a formidable weapons platform for a further two decades. It is almost sure to carry extended-ranged variants of AIM-120 AMRAAM Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) in future and in any case the MBDA Meteor AAM can be integrated if necessary to perform “outer-air battles” akin to F-14 Tomcat/AIM-54 Phoenix combination. An electronic attack version of the Super Hornet, the EA-18G "Growler", modified for escort and close-in jamming is to commence development and is projected to replace the USN EA-6B Prowler around 2009.

A decent order of F-18E/F Super Hornets both for IAF and Indian naval requirements may well lead to other carrier based technologies like the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch & Recovery systems and with a bit of luck maritime nuclear propulsion. It will be interesting to see what the French manufacturer Dassault offers in return as it will hate to lose the lucrative IAF requirement, which at one point of time appeared to be within their grasp. The Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 offer to IAF will certainly incorporate technologies associated with the Dassault Rafale multi-role strike fighter, and who knows, Dassault in sheer desperation may even offer the Rafale to IAF at a more competitive price if a decent production run is assured. In any case a significant proportion of IAF requirement will be manufactured indigenously with foreign assistance after transfer of technology eventually bringing the price down. The “political reliability” of the French administration to India will serve as an added advantage as French are reputed for their wholehearted support to India during the times of crisis, the latest being during Pokhran 2 nuclear tests in 1998.

But the United States by now have their own set of advantages. Indo–US cooperation after “9/11” is at an all time high with all branches of the Armed Forces of both the nations striving hard to attain inter-operability and joint-cooperation on a grand scale. Under such a backdrop a common inventory of Super Hornets is highly desirable for both the nations. Moreover it was stated that the IAF had an immediate requirement for some 126 multi-role fighters, a vital need that may be best fulfilled by the American Aerospace production machinery in aspects that range from timely production through delivery, technology transfer, to high quality after-sales service all within a time-schedule.

The Indians on their part should put the greatest stress on technology sharing and transfer to additionally ensure the rapid attainment of Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of the indigenous LCA Tejas and timely introduction of MCA fleet around 2012–15.


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