France and the United States compete to sell fighter jets for the Indian aircraft carrier

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The French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation has offered to equip the Indian homemade aircraft carrier with Rafale jets. But the French company faces fierce competition from the American Boeing, which is launching F-18 fighter jets for the new ship.

India commissioned the 43,000 tonne INS Vikrant this week. The giant ship can hold 30 planes and helicopters, about half the capacity of the US Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

Vikrant will initially be equipped with MiG-29s of Russian origin borrowed from the other Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. Vikrant will then rearm with Western aircraft once the deal has been approved by the government.

“For now, there is no one else in the race but Boeing and Dassault,” an official told RFI of India’s four-year quest for 57 dual-role fighter jets for its two aircraft carriers.

India bought 45 MiG-29s in installments from 2011, and nine years later allowed the import of 21 more units and ordered the upgrade of 59 of the general-purpose jets.

The problem with MiGs

Captain Rajat Kumar, who heads INS Vikrant’s air wing, has reservations about the MiG-29s that will board his carrier, powered by four gas turbines that can produce 88 megawatts of power.

“The MiG-29 is a big plane – it was designed by the Russians and it’s quite difficult to land on a deck,” Kumar told media aboard the new carrier which cost 2.52 billion euros. and took 20 years to build.

National auditors said the aging MiGs suffered from engine failures and other “operational deficiencies”.

Military officials told RFI that 26 Western jets would eventually operate from the 860-foot-long INS Vikrant, which begin flight testing in November and continue through mid-2023.

Cordial air war between allies

In May, Boeing sent two F-18s to show off the plane’s capabilities to a naval base in the Indian seaside state of Goa during the final pitch to sell the twin-engine aircraft to world’s second largest arms importer.

“The Super Hornet Block III was built for carrier aircraft operations and it is the fighter the U.S. Navy depends on for its operations,” said Salil Gupte, president of Boeing’s India Section, during a briefing. a press conference in August.

“The Super Hornet we are offering to the Indian Navy has the most advanced and critical capability. The fighter will outrun current threats,” said Steve Parker, another Boeing executive, adding that the company can deliver the planes in three years.

Executives from American companies such as General Electric, Raytheon and Norththrop Gurmman involved in the F-18 project were also visit India with the aim of selling the aircraft.

France strikes back

France also sent the naval variant of its Rafale jet for shore trials at Goa facilities in June last year and again in January. The company claims that its craft meets all the requirements of the Indian Navy.

The jury is out, but several aviation experts are in favor of the French product, saying the Indian Air Force was “extremely satisfied” with the 36 Rafales purchased for nearly eight billion euros as part of a an agreement concluded in 2016 with Dassault Aviation.

“Indian pilots fly operational sorties there and so it will be easy to adapt to its deck-based variant,” an official said of the Rafale-M, which is deployed on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the French Navy.

But the Rafale deal sparked a firestorm in India where opposition politicians claimed bribes exchanged hands to seal the government-to-government deal behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, several admirals have said India needs a third aircraft carrier given its vast coastline, but the government says two will be enough.

“The commissioning of the Indian aircraft carrier is an assurance to friendly foreign countries that we will be able to provide collective security,” Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said at the inauguration of INS Vikrant .

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