Super Hornet for the Navy, Rafale for the Air Force


The US House of Representatives passed a legislative amendment on July 14, approving a waiver for India from punitive CAATSA sanctions for the purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia. Could this derogation have an impact on India’s carrier-based fighter program for which the American F-18 Super Hornet competes with the French Rafale-Marine?

CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) is a US law that prohibits US companies from engaging in business with sanctioned countries.

It was passed in 2018 in response to Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and its alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. However, the law is also valid against Iran and Korea North.

The legislative amendment passed July 14 was drafted by Indo-American Congressman Ro Khanna, urging the Biden administration to provide India with a CAATSA waiver to counter the growing threat from China.

As previously discussed by EurAsian Times, one of the reasons for the US’s willingness to ignore India’s purchase of the S-400 is the negative fallout from India’s sanctions on US arms manufacturers.

Over the past two decades, US defense sales to India have reached up to $20 billion and US defense giants such as Lockheed and Boeing have also launched arms production joint ventures with big Indian companies like Tata and Mahindra.

Additionally, India is currently in the midst of a major decision to acquire carrier-based combat aircraft for its newly developed aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is one of two preselected candidates.

The Indian Navy wants to acquire a twin-engine aircraft to replace the existing MiG-29Ks from INS Vikramaditya. He will conclude a government-to-government contract with the American or French government for the purchase of more than two dozen combat aircraft.

Earlier this month, Indian Navy Chief Vice Admiral SN Ghormade said that trials of the Super Hornet and Rafale-M had been carried out to find out their capability for aircraft carrier operations.

INS Vikrant (Indian Navy/via Twitter)

Rafale-Ms and F-18s performed ski jumps – a crucial take-off capability – from INS Hansa’s land-based test facility in Goa to demonstrate their ability to operate from aircraft carriers indians.

The Navy is now awaiting a final report on the operational demonstration, which reports from the defense and security establishment would take two months to prepare.

Although both aircraft are promising platforms, various other factors could come into play when India makes its final decision. One of these factors could be the CAATSA waiver for India.

Reports of technical problems with Rafale-M

Additionally, recent reports suggest technical issues with the Rafale-M that could tip the balance in favor of the F-18 Super Hornet.

First, the Rafale-M cannot fold its wings, which makes it take up more space on the hangar deck. The plane’s advanced weapons and rails must be removed for it to fit into the elevator, which will transport it to the maintenance bay below.

File Image: Rafale Marine Fighter

While the Super Hornet has a folding wing mechanism, Boeing confirmed in its formal presentation to the Indian Navy that the aircraft can fit into the elevator of INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya without the need to remove the radome cone and wingtip rails.

Additionally, the single-seat and two-seat variants of the F-18 can operate from the carrier, unlike the Rafale-M, whose two-seat variant operates from shore, which Boeing says could benefit the Super Hornet.

In addition, Rafale-M has a production limited to less than 50 units, because the only operator of this aircraft is the French Navy, which would make this platform more expensive than the Rafale jet operated by the Air Force French and the Super Hornets.

While in the case of the F-18, nearly 1,500 current and older generation examples have been produced over the past four decades, which should reduce some operating costs due to economies of scale.

F/A-18 super hornet
File Image: F/A-18 Block III

Boeing officials also highlight the interoperability factor, saying the Super Hornet is compatible with other systems and platforms serving the Indian Navy, such as the MH-60 Romeo anti-submarine helicopters and aircraft. long-range maritime P-8I Poseidon.

Another factor that could benefit the F-18 is its General Electric (GE) F414 engines, the same engine chosen by India to power its carrier-based Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF).

With these engines, the maintenance crew will not have to carry separate spares for two different engines when both aircraft types are on the same aircraft carrier. It will also reduce the additional cost of training the maintenance crew to service two different engine types.

However, Safran, the maker of the M-88 engine that powers the Rafale, recently announced the establishment of a $150 million maintenance and repair (MRO) facility in India, according to a recent report from the EurasianTimes.

The MRO facility is expected to service CFM engines for Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s produced by CFM Engineering, a joint venture between Safran and General Electric. However, it is not clear whether the Rafale’s M-88 engine will be serviced at this facility.

In addition, Safran is also about to sign an agreement with the Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO) to develop a 125 KN engine for its fifth-generation indigenous fighter program, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Geopolitics surrounding the deal

There is also a diplomatic and geopolitical aspect to India’s decision, as France has been India’s proven partner in advanced defense technologies. In contrast, the United States has always been reluctant to share advanced technologies with India.

Moreover, New Delhi has always valued its strategic autonomy in the international geopolitical landscape, which is evident from its stance on the current Ukraine crisis, where India has refused to lament Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite pressure from the United States and other Western countries.

File Image: Modi meets Biden

Given the recent Western sanctions regime against Russia due to the mostly US-led war in Ukraine, India may doubt Washington’s reliability as a defense partner. Therefore, New Delhi might be more inclined towards a deal with France.

However, US lawmakers’ latest landmark amendment to lift CAATSA sanctions on India may answer some of New Delhi’s doubts and perhaps even secure the deal for the Boeing F-18.

The EurAsian Times asked three experts whether the US CAATSA waiver over India’s purchase of Russian-made S-400s will affect India’s choice between the Super Hornet and the Rafale-M.

According to IAF fighter pilot Vijainder Thakur, the Squadron Leader, “The imposition of CAATSA sanctions would have definitely ruled out the selection of the Super Hornet! The Super Hornet probably has a significant cost advantage over the Rafale-M, so a better way to look at it would be if the United States removed a possible hurdle in their selection.”

When asked if India could decide to reciprocate the United States’ waiver of CAATSA sanctions by choosing the Super Hornet, Thakur said, “A favorable counterpart to the Super Hornet by India would be unethical, and France would surely protest.

Prakash Nanda, a veteran journalist and strategic affairs commentator, said he did not believe the waiver was related to the deal. “The choice of planes depends on the terms and conditions on which they will be purchased. The waiver should be viewed in broad geopolitical terms,” Nanda said.

Another aviation expert who requested anonymity said: “The CAATSA waiver for India might not be particularly targeted to tip the scales in favor of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, but may be placed in a global geopolitical context.

“The United States was surprised by India’s independent stance vis-à-vis Russia, which turned into a slight crack in the Indo-American relationship itself. India’s oil purchase from Russia has skyrocketed, as it also refuses to criticize its military intervention in Ukraine.

According to the expert, the United States seems to have given up trying to distance India from Russia, but New Delhi has another important utility for Washington, which is to counter China.

I think the Rafale-M and F-18 Super Hornets fighters are excellent combat aircraft and would be a great addition to the Indian Navy. Both fighters have demonstrated their ability to operate from the Indian aircraft carrier, and both are powerful combat-tested platforms.

It is now a political decision that ultimately comes down to the “added value” that the United States and France can offer India. To keep the two powerful camps happy, it could very well be Super Hornets for the Indian Navy and Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force, the expert concluded.


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