The Indian Navy has floated a Request for Information (RFI) for a newer generation of aircraft which can operate from the two indigenous aircraft carriers it will commission over the next 10 years.
The Ministry of Defence and industry sources indicate that the RFI, issued recently, is of a "generic" nature, looking for newer platforms and airborne technologies and what is on offer from some of the well-known manufacturers. The US Boeing and French Dassault have confirmed receipt of the RFI for their respective F18 Super Hornet and Rafale.
The number of newer generation aircraft is yet to be decided.
According to the coming issue of India Strategic defence magazine, the new generation aircraft will be in addition to the 45 Mig-29Ks the navy is buying from Russia, 16 of which were ordered in 2004 along with Admiral Gorshkov. The Mig-29K is a modernized naval variant of the Mig-29 operational with the Indian Air Force (IAF).
The order for an additional 29 Mig-29Ks is being processed, and is likely to be placed shortly after price negotiations and delivery schedule are worked out.
There should be no delay from Russia on the supply of the Mig-29Ks although it has delayed the delivery of Gorshkov by four years and is also demanding an extra $1.2 billion over and above the contract price of $974 million. The old carrier was given free and the price was for repairing and refurbishing the vessel which was damaged in an onboard fire accident.
The Super Hornet, a successor of the earlier Hornet, was introduced in 1998 for the US Navy while Rafale, a successor of the old Mirage 2005, has both air force and naval versions already operational. Both these aircraft are also competing for the nearly 200 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) requirement of the Indian Air Force.
Eurofighter Vice President and Head of India Campaign Directorate Dr Matthias Schmidlin told India Strategic that while he could not confirm receipt of the RFI for the naval variant of Eurofighter, his company would bid for the Indian Navy's requirement if invited.
In fact, he pointed out, Eurofighter is the only aircraft among the six contenders for the IAF order which would have thrust vectoring capability in the coming years. Thrust vectoring capability allows an aircraft to stand still in the air, and takeoff and land even in vertical mode like a helicopter.
Some 200 Eurofighters have been produced so far, predominantly to meet the requirements of participating nations which include Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy.
Thrust vectoring is being developed and would be operational on Eurofighters within the first half of the next decade, Dr Schmidlin said.
Harrier, which India bought in the late 1970s from Britain, was the first aircraft with thrust vectoring. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), being developed by Lockheed Martin for US Air Force and Navy for the coming years, will have this capability.
Besides Boeing, Dassault and Eurofighter, the other contenders in the IAF competition are Mig-35 (a newer version of Mig-29), Gripen from Sweden and F 16 Viper IN (US Lockheed Martin).
The Indian naval brass is reportedly only doing a bit of loud thinking on its new requirement, but if it formally opens the competition in the coming years, it would add a new dimension to the IAF's ongoing contest.
IAF's Request for Proposals (or tenders), is for a firm order for 126 aircraft and for 63 more as an option at the same price. Given the continuing fall in the number of IAF squadrons due to the obsolescence of its largely Soviet-vintage aircraft, a repeat order for at least 100 more MRCAs is likely.
If the Indian Navy chooses the same aircraft, then it would be a bonus for the supplier, and also for HAL, which would be the lead integrator for Transfer of Technology (ToT) and 50 percent offset mandatory in the RfP.
Procedurally, the Navy would also find it easier to buy the same aircraft without opening an international competition, as it would be a follow-on order requiring no multi-vendor bid.
The Indian Navy has one small aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, which has recently been refitted and modernized for life-extension. There are a dozen old Harriers to operate from its deck, while Gorshkov will be available in 2012 or 2013.
Notably, Gorshkov is a 44,000-tonne carrier while India's first indigenous aircraft carrier, being built at Kochi, will only have about 37,000-tonne displacement. The second carrier, already sanctioned by the government, could be modified to be a little bigger.
Both these carriers are being designed by Italy's Fincantieri.
It may also be noted that both Eurofighter and Rafale are smaller in size than the F 18 Super Hornet, which operate from very large US aircraft carriers floating in all the oceans.
But Boeing IDS' Head for India, Dr Vivek Lall, told India Strategic that Boeing had done a computer simulation to verify that the Super Hornet could operate from Gorshkov and Indian carriers as and when they are commissioned.