By N. C. Bipindra
New Delhi: Fulfilling a 12-year-old commitment and a two-year rigorous testing, American aerospace and defence major Boeing Co. today said it has “proved” its F/A-18 combat jet can operate off a ski-jump ramp, giving a boost to its pitch for a possible 57-aircraft Indian Navy tender that could be worth at least $8 billion.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet‘s ski-jump tests were conducted at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland in the United States, with keen participation and assistance from the United States Navy, according to Boeing Defense, Space and Security India fighters sales head Ankur Kanaglekar.
“Over the course of the last few months, Boeing and US Navy teams were working diligently, analysing vast amounts of data generated from the test programme. The ski jump concluded goes a step further and will help validate the past studies conducted by us on the ability of F/A-18 Super Hornet to operate effectively from the ski-jump,” he said at a select briefing for Indian journalists held on a video conferencing platform.
Boeing had communicated to an Indian Navy query in 2008 that based on its simulations, the Super Hornets could operate off the Russian Navy warship Admiral Gorshkov that was then being refurbished for the Indian Navy service with an angled ski-jump flight deck. The F/A-18s are steam catapulted safely off the flight decks of US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers around the world for more than two decades now.
The tests were witnessed by Indian officials from the embassy in Washington D. C., Kanaglekar said, but did not confirm if the officials included the defence attache or the Indian Navy officers. “The demonstrations…show that the Super Hornet would do well with the Indian Navy’s Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) system and validate earlier simulation studies by Boeing.”
STOBAR is a flight deck configuration on India’s present lone aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and the future Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, tentatively named Vikrant. It involves taking off from a short runway using a ski-jump ramp and landing on the flight deck using an arrestor wire to which a hook on the aircraft’s tail locks on to bring it to an instant halt.
“The first successful and safe launch of the F/A-18 Super Hornet from a ski-jump begins the validation process to operate effectively from Indian Navy aircraft carriers. The data collected from these studies will help us further refine our simulation tests that we have conducted over the last two years,” Kanaglekar said.
“The F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet will not only provide superior war fighting capability to the Indian Navy but also create opportunities for cooperation in naval aviation between the United States and India,” he said.
“The F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet will offer unrivalled growth potential to the Indian Navy through single- and two-seater carrier compatible variants and the ability to interface with the P-8I as a force multiplier.”
Interoperability is one of the unique selling points for Boeing’s F/A-18 pitch, as Indian Navy also operates the company’s P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and has acquired other American assets including the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky MH-60R multirole helicopters, that can also carry out anti-submarine operations.
“(The) F/A-18 Super Hornet’s offer is not an offer for a platform but an opportunity, which can enhance collaboration between US Navy and Indian Navy in naval aviation. The commonality and potential interoperability between the US Navy and Indian Navy would get boosted as a result of F/A-18 Super Hornet on Indian Navy carriers,” Kanaglekar said.
“Built around Super Hornet, the two navies can potentially collaborate on operational readiness, carrier integration, technologies, pilot training and development as a result of F/A-18 Super Hornet offer.”
Kanaglekar said the F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet will offer the Indian Navy value in the form of advanced warfighter technologies at a low acquisition cost and affordable cost per flight hour because of its ease of maintainability design and durability. Its airframe has long life over 10,000-plus hours built-in for future upgrades and enhancements.
“The Indian Navy stands to benefit from the multi-billion dollar investments made towards new technologies in the Super Hornet by the US Navy and several international customers.
“This includes advanced network technology, longer range and low-drag with conformal fuel tanks, long-range detection with Infrared Search and Track, enhanced situational awareness with a new Advanced Cockpit System, improved signature reduction and a 10,000-plus hour life.”
As part of Boeing’s proposed “By India, for India” sustainment programme, the Block III Super Hornets can be serviced in partnership with the Indian Navy as well as India and US-based partners throughout the lifecycle of the aircraft, the company said.
“This will further develop advanced expertise in aircraft maintenance in India, resulting in higher availability of the aircraft, at competitive pricing and reduced risk for the Indian Navy.”
Kanaglekar said Boeing was also looking forward to partnership with Indian industry to sustain F/A-18 from India. “This will help create specific expertise with respect to sustainment of F/A-18 SH from India.”
He said of the value of the aircraft’s total life, 80 per cent happens on the sustainment side and only 20 per cent on the platform side. “We are looking at several organisations and their capability on how they are working on other programmes. As requirement of the Indian Navy gets finalised…we could potentially create an ecosystem to sustain the Super Hornets in India based on other programmes we are executing in India.”
Kanaglekar said Boeing was on schedule to deliver next-generation Block III capabilities to the US Navy in 2021 and by 2024, one squadron per carrier air wing will consist of Block III Super Hornets.
Making the platform the US Navy’s dominant force in the skies, the Super Hornet provides the most weapons at range in the US Navy’s fighter inventory, including five times more air-to-ground and twice the air-to-air weapons capacity, he said.
The acquisition of naval fighters for the Indian Navy is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s 10-year $250-billion military modernisation programme that was launched in 2015, and it will be a key asset to counter the growing influence of Communist China and its People’s Liberation Army – Navy in the Indian Ocean Region.
Though not officially acknowledged, Indian Navy sources have indicated in the recent months that they were rationalising the naval combat jet requirements and may reduce the number under this tender to just 36 aircraft, which may bring down the value of this contract to about $5 billion.