French company Dassault Aviation is gaining momentum to win the Indian Navy contract for 26 Rafale-M fighters to operate from the deck of the new aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. Various outlets have reported that the Indian Navy has formally notified the Indian Ministry of Defense that the Rafale meets more requirements than the only competitor in the running, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet.

 Although contracting in the Indian defense sector has been famous for the distance – and pitfalls – between winning the competition and being awarded the contract, senior Indian Navy sources said the Rafale “was the right one.”

The Rafale takes first place one year after the two competing aircraft underwent weeks of field testing at the Indian Navy’s ground test facility in Goa.

The Rafale-M leads the Indian carrier fighter competition.

Neither of the two aircraft manufacturers has made official comments, but the officials of both confirmed that, although they had not yet received any communication from the Indian Navy or the Ministry of Defense, they had heard of the project. The next formal steps could be taken this year.

The contract award would make the Indian Navy the first export customer for the carrier-based Rafale-M, having already exported the Air Force variant to a number of countries, including Egypt, Qatar, Greece, and India. The Indian Air Force’s 36 Rafale, made up of two squadrons, arrived in the country between 2020 and 2022. 

The same variant is competing in the Indian Air Force’s Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft Competition (MRFA), which aims to buy and build 114 fighters. , a repeat of the M-MRCA contest, which collapsed at the end and saw the Rafale beat out a bunch of competitors, including the F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 Super Viper, the Gripen NG, and the MiG -35. This time, the Rafale will take on the same stack of plans, with the addition of two more:

Over the past two years, Boeing has crafted its strategy for India, targeting the F/A-18 towards the Indian Navy and the F-15EX towards the Indian Air Force.

F/A-18 Super Hornet this week at Aero India 2023.
F/A-18 Super Hornet this week at Aero India 2023.

Indications that the Super Hornet has been outclassed by the Rafale come after years of headwinds in which both competing jets have struggled to prove their compatibility with the Indian Navy’s carriers. In the end, the Rafale has simply proven to be more compatible than the F/A-18, although the analysis details are unclear.

INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s first self-built aircraft carrier, entered service last September and has recently started its crucial aviation tests months ahead of schedule with landing and takeoff cycles of the domestically built HAL Tejas and of the MiG-29K fighter, based on the aircraft carrier. 

A few years ago, the Indian Navy formally ruled out the HAL Tejas as a fully operational carrier fighter, opting to assign it technology demonstration roles for a naval fleet defense fighter.

LCA-Tejas
LCA-Tejas

That future product is the TEDBF (twin-engine deck fighter), the project set for approval by the Indian government this year at the cabinet level. Reports suggest that the Indian Navy is willing to support a campaign of 100 of these fighters when they are tested and ready.

Suppose Dassault Aviation manages to close the purchase deal for 26 Rafales. In that case, it will be an interim purchase to provide the Indian Navy with carrier-based aircraft to fill the gap until the TEDBF becomes operational in the next decade. The first flight of the TEDBF could take place in 2026, according to reports from the Aero India show.

The Indian Navy has been clear for years that it no longer wants the MiG-29K, a jet necessary for the operations of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (now INS Vikramaditya). Availability, performance, and maintenance issues are believed to have forced the Indian Navy to end any consideration of this type of aircraft, despite considerable infrastructure costs.