The F/A-18 Hornet vs. the Dassault Rafale M: Which will win the Indian Navy's fighter contract?

With the introduction of the ‘Made in India’ aircraft carrier- Vikrant, India is hoping to update its naval fighter fleet. Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale M are in the running to supply the Indian Navy (IN) with cutting-edge naval aircraft. In 2017, the Indian Navy put out a request for bids for 57 fighter planes.

It was estimated that the tender was valued at $6.6 million at the time. The initial purchase for the Navy will include 18 single-seat and 8 twin-seat jets. Both the INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya will be equipped with these planes. 

It is anticipated that the air wing will consist of MIG-29K fighter jets, Kamov-31, MH-60R multi-role helicopters, Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH), and Light Combat Aircraft, and the former has been built to store 30-35 aircraft (LCA).

The Indian Navy’s MiG 29(K) jet strength needs to be increased in order to have enough planes to board two fully operating aircraft carriers. As a result, the Indian Navy must hurry to finish developing its deck-based fighter in order to equip Vikrant’s air wing.

It requires a fighter aircraft that can do a Short Takeoff and Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) and deliver nuclear bombs, air-to-air missiles, ground-to-air missiles, and guided bombs with pinpoint accuracy.

The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter project, which has been in development for several years, will not be available to the country for some time. Currently, the Navy can only find naval fighters in the FA-18 Super Hornet by Boeing and the Rafale Marine by Dassault Aviation that are capable of meeting its needs.

F/A-18 vs. Rafale M

Both planes have flown trials at the Indian Naval Station Hansa in Goa, and the race to win the contract officially got earlier this year underway.

In 2004, the French Navy began using the multirole, twin-engine Rafale M fighter. The Indian Air Force is already in possession of the military version of this plane. 

The marine version of the Rafale is distinguished from the standard version by its longer, more robust nose and reinforced undercarriage. A stronger arrestor hook to catch the wires that bring the aircraft to a stop during landing and a nosewheel built to endure the impact of carrier takeoffs and landings are also included.

The F/A-18 Super Hornet is another type of multirole, twin-engine fighter jet developed with carrier operations in mind. The aircraft first flew in 1999 and is now used by the United States Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Air Force of Kuwait. A huge cockpit monitor, an open system design that facilitates electronic upgrades, and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar are only some of its features.

However, the F/A-18 comes in both single- and two-seat versions, whereas the Rafale M is only offered in the former. The primary function of single-seat aircraft is to fly combat missions, while the primary function of twin-seat aircraft is to gather intelligence and conduct electronic warfare. 

In addition, the twin-seater will allow for more mobility, better fleet utilization, and the ability to launch from the carrier and complete operations that require more than one person to do successfully.

The F/A-18 Hornet vs. the Dassault Rafale M: Which will win the Indian Navy's fighter contract?

Both aircraft have the capacity to transport significant amounts of fuel and weaponry. Despite the aircraft’s impressive payload capacity, its humongous proportions and excessive footprint are not welcome on an aircraft carrier. Most aircraft used from a carrier have folding wings to better fit the space constraints of the deck.

The F/A-18 Super Hornet’s wingspan is 44 feet and 8.5 inches when extended, and it can be folded down to 30.5 feet when not in use. The Rafale M, however, lacks this capability. 

Also on deck, its 35′ 9″ wingspan is unchanged. Vikrant apparently has the ability to run an air wing with 30 aircraft, including choppers, so this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Some airpower analysts think the Rafale M will have an advantage in India’s hunt for the Navy’s deck-based carrier because the Indian Air Force (IAF) already uses the plane. While some believe that the QUAD and AUKUS have the upper hand, others believe that the F/A-18 Super Hornet has an advantage since it is the best fit for the IN’s operational needs and geopolitical considerations.

The F/A-18 has a distinct advantage over the Rafale M, according to our correspondent and several analysts he spoke with.

FA-18 Super Horne

Tough Competition

Commodore Ranjit Rai (Ret.), a former director of naval operations, director of naval intelligence, and author of Warring Navies: India and Pakistan,says that the F/A-18, the fighter flown by the United States Marine Corps, is the most tried and true aircraft in the world from a carrier. To this he said, “while the Rafales that the IAF is flying are extremely good, it still has certain flaws to my knowledge,” calling attention to the fact that the Rafale is a “modified” aircraft.

The French jet’s weight is another area of interest. There is a significant weight difference between the Rafale M and the F/A-18. Having a ski jump on a carrier means that the available runway is smaller, hence the weight is significant. All-Up Weight (AUW) is limited as a result. As a result, the ordnance payload that can be carried by a given aircraft will decrease as its weight increases. Adjustments to the jet’s wings are also necessary so that it may be stored in the hangar lift of INS Vikrant.

Despite these drawbacks, the Rafale M is still a strong contender because of its many benefits. There is more confidence in the jet’s effectiveness in battle. Its seafaring prowess was also demonstrated during its time spent on the French aircraft carrier Charles Degaulle. 

The fact that the Rafales are already in use by the IAF is perhaps the most alluring aspect of the deal. Consequently, there will be uniformity in the hardware, software, repair procedures, and other related services. The cost of maintaining the fighters might be reduced because to the standardized procedures.

But as Miranda points out, the F/A-18 is a stark contrast. When asked if the Indian Navy should invest in F/A-18s, he responded that doing so would improve long-term interoperability with the United States Navy. However, it will be a major undertaking in terms of logistics.

The F/A-18 Hornet vs. the Dassault Rafale M: Which will win the Indian Navy's fighter contract?

A small number of MiG-29Ks, along with some F/A-18s and maybe even a third type, can be procured for the INS Vikrant at this time. The Indian Navy should carefully consider the expense of creating a carrier strike group similar to the United States Navy.

The Super Hornet is the workhorse of the US Navy’s carrier air wing. Boeing claims that the plane can carry out a wide range of operations, such as carrying out day and night strikes with precision-guided munitions, providing fighter escorts, providing close air support, suppressing enemy air defenses, 

Boeing’s Vice President of India Business Development, Alain Garcia, emphasized the F/superior A-18’s interoperability when speaking with this writer. The official explained that the third-generation Super Hornet would be able to communicate with the Indian Navy’s P-8I and other US-origin assets thanks to its open architectural design and advanced networking capabilities. 

As part of the Make-In-India program, Boeing also offers to set up a shop in India to produce aircraft. For the F/A-18, for instance, components like the gun bay doors and wire harnesses are supplied by local businesses like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Rossell Techsys. Not only that, but it’s possible to switch over to the F/A-18 work packages as well.

Another potential benefit of the GE F-414 engine that drives the Super Hornet was brought up by Garcia. More than 5 million hours have been put into the engine. The same family of engines powers the Indian Air Force’s new homegrown Light Combat Aircraft fleet.

Technical improvements to the F414-GE-400 engine on the F/A-18 Super Hornet fleet will be implemented if India chooses GE Aviation as the partner for the co-development of the engine on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) program. He continued by saying that the engines’ commonalities would boost their scalability, which might open up maintenance opportunities in India.

The US Navy’s innovations, strategies, and expertise in the realm of naval aviation would be of great use to the IN as well. Boeing has publicly stated that it hopes the transaction will pave the way for the US Navy and the IN to work together and share technology. 

In addition to fostering greater cooperation with US naval forces in the Indo-Pacific and the Quad military, Garcia argues that purchasing Super Hornets would ensure the Indian Navy has continuing access to the region’s most capable combat aviation aircraft.

The Rafale M is hardly a pushover competitor, though. According to Steve Trimble, Defense Editor of Aviation Week, “occasionally a lower price or other terms might beat a bid with a performance advantage,” which exemplifies the fluidity of international defense negotiations. 

However, we do know that the Super Hornet has a wing-fold mechanism, whereas the Rafale does not. So, you could keep more Super Hornets than Rafales in the same amount of room. However, President Macron of France has prioritized closing transactions of this nature all over the world, so France should not be written off. In terms of government procurement, the Super Hornet is a lower priority than the F-35.