India’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the future INS Vikrant, designated IAC-1, will be ready for induction into service by October 2020 as per Indian Navy. A CAG (Comptroller and Auditor-General) report had said the Carrier would be fully operational by only 2023. Though LCA Tejas had recently demonstrated arrested landing and operating an indigenous aircraft has certain advantages, but Indian Navy has never been very keen on having LCA Tejas onboard its new Carrier. There are mainly two reasons cited behind this : first is the limited range of Tejas which annulls the purpose of having a carrier in the first place ; secondly, the 40,000-ton carrier will be fitted with a ski-jump assisted Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) launch systems for launching aircraft. The STOBAR system imposes further limits on the operational range and armament of aircraft operating from the carrier given that ski-jump takeoff and arrested carrier landings necessitate a high thrust-to-weight ratio for successful take-offs and can only be conducted with lightweight but powerful aircraft.
Besides an aircraft carrier, the other immediate gap that Indian Armed Forces are facing vis-a-vis PLA is the lack of a Fifth-Gen Aircraft. Ever since IAF walked out of the PAKFA programme with Russia, there has been no measurable progress on acquiring any alternative fifth-gen aircraft. If any body in defence echelons might be harbouring the desire to acquire F-35, that is put paid to by the high cost associated with the aircraft. Though Lockheed Martin has announced to bring down the cost of Lightning II to about $80 million per jet as it will achieve economy of scale by 2020, but still given the armaments and other allied costs, the aircraft is not going to be any cheaper than Rafale.
However there is a viable and very potent alternative in sight if Defence Ministry is willing to look for one. It will give Indian Navy a definite edge on the adversary also and simultaneously will not be draining on the exchequer either. Moreover the most powerful navy in the world US Navy is going to have the same mix of jets for its Aircraft Carriers upto well into 2040s.
Yes, I’m talking about having Advanced Super Hornets and F-35 Lightning II onboard IAC-I in the ratio 3:1. India can do with acquiring 4 squadrons of Advanced Super Hornet ( a few out of them F/A-18G Growlers) and a squadron of F-35 Lightning II – F-35B-STOVL variant or F-35C with foldable wings, or both, as the Indian Navy experts decide. Given that INS Vikrant will carry 36 fixed wing aircrafts and INS Vishal will carry about 55 fixed wing aircrafts, the suggested purchase above will suffice for both the carriers. I kept the purchase large because even otherwise Indian Air Force is facing shortage of aircrafts, but exact numbers can be worked out.
Dan Gillian, Boeing’s vice president of F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, had told Business Insider that Boeing could start fielding Advanced Super Hornets by the early 2020s at the latest, while some limited contracts to bring elements of the Advanced Super Hornet are already underway. Having Advanced Super Hornets onboard India’s Carrier instead of full load of F-35s does not mean any compromise with quality. In fact, the designs of the F-35 and F/A-18 reflect that they are to be used for completely different missions. Otherwise they are certainly comparable in terms of price, availability, and capability.
🔴 So what exactly does 2017 update (Advanced) of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet look like?
“When we talk about the Advanced Super Hornet package, it can be delivered to a build of new airplanes and it can be retrofitted to existing airframes,” said Gillian.
“An airplane that I’m building today off the line has some systems that have matured over time that a Super Hornet would not have,” but essentially there would be no difference between a 2017 Advanced Super Hornet and a Super Hornet plucked off an aircraft carrier and brought up to date.
⏩ The physical characteristics of a fully decked out Advanced Super Hornet would be as follows:
(1) Shoulder-mounted conformal fuel tanks to carry 3,500 pounds of fuel and reduce drag. These fuel tanks could “extend the reach about 125 nautical miles,” meaning that the planes then can “either go faster or carry more,” according to Gillian.
(2) An infrared search and track radar (IRST), which would be the first such capability included on a US fighter jet since the F-14 Tomcat. This will allow the Advanced Super Hornets to counter enemy stealth capability, and to get a read on heat-emitting entities without emitting any radar signal of its own. “There was a fixation on stealth attributes,” Gillian said of fifth-gen fighters, “which is an important attribute for the next 25 years, but tactical fighters are designed for stealth in one part of the spectrum, all planes emit heat.”
(3) An advanced electronic warfare (EW) pod. Currently, the US military’s premier EW platform is the Growler, an EW version of the Super Hornet where Boeing has “taken out the gun and installed more EW equipment … Instead of missiles on the wingtips it has large sensing pods,” said Gillian. The Navy has scheduled the F-35C to eventually carry the advanced EW pod, but the initial generation of F-35s will have to rely on Growlers for EW attacks.
(4) An advanced cockpit system with a new 19 inch display. Basically “a big iPad for the airplane, allowing the pilot to manage all the information and data that’s out there,” said Gillian, comparing its utility to the F-35’s display.
(5) An enclosed weapons pod would make the plane more aerodynamic while also cutting down on the plane’s radar cross section. Combined with the form-fitting fuel tanks, the Advanced Super Hornet could cut it’s radar signature by up to 50%.
(6) Improved avionics and computing power as well as increased ability to network to receive targeting data from platforms like the F-35 or E-2 Hawkeye.
(7) The Advanced Super Hornet would also feature an improved active electronically scanned array radar.
(8) An improved engine could increase fuel efficiency and performance. Boeing hasn’t yet begun earnestly working towards this, and it could add to the overall cost of the project significantly.
Hypothetically, Advanced Super Hornets were given IRST before F-35Cs came onboard last week. Growlers will also serve in the vital role of EW attack craft, without which the F-35 cannot do its job as a stealth penetrator.
So while an Advanced Super Hornet is never going to be comparable to the F-35 in all aspects, it could certainly develop some strengths that the F-35 lacks.
Additionally, Gillian said the Advanced Super Hornets would not cost much more than the current F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, which run around $70 million a piece. Even if that price rose $10 million, it would still be cheaper than the cheapest expected F-35s, which come in at $85 million.
I would again like to make clear that the F-18 will never do the F-35’s job, and vice-versa.
“The Advanced Super Hornet is really a collection of systems and design changes that when implemented achieve a significantly different capability for the air wing,” said Gillian, who stressed that the Super Hornet and Growler platforms were “well positioned” to improve in scope and capability over time.
However, Gillian made it clear that the Advanced Super Hornet program has been, since its inception, meant to accompany the F-35, with carrier air wings comprising of three squadrons of Super Hornets and one squadron of F-35s into the 2040s.
The US Navy has contracts already underway to update their existing Super Hornet fleet with elements of the Advanced Super Hornet package, and it seems the US will end up with both Advanced Super Hornets and F-35s, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
The F/A-18, not designed with all-aspect stealth in mind, will likely never serve as a penetrating aircraft for heavily contested airspace, but its future onboard America’s aircraft carriers is well defined for decades to come. Why should Indian Navy be bereft of the same advantage now that the country enjoys a very close relationship with the only Super Power in the world ?