China has constructed 10 Naval bases in Indian Ocean. They will not just have a huge military presence in Indian Ocean, but an entire carrier battle group explicitly for the Indian Ocean. India has started to catch up to the challenge both at home and abroad by making military and diplomatic relations nations threatened by China's bullying in South China Sea as well as starting Naval base in Andaman and Nicobar and signing the LEMOA pact with US by which we can refuel and resupply our ships at Diego Garcia, situated south of Maldives. India has deep rooted cultural influence over all the Island nations in Indian Ocean, and has forayed into developing similar relations with African and Gulf nations.
But strategic purposes do need tactical tools to be successful and in this big chess board called Indian Ocean we have to place our pawns, knights, rooks, bishops and queen very tactfully so as to keep the enemy and check. India already operates INS Vikramaditya, a heavily upgraded ex Soviet carrier with MiG-29K onboard. As of today India not just have more experience in handling an aircraft carrier but India's MiG-29K is superior to China's Shenyang J-16 flying shark. The currently under construction INS Vikrant would offer just a little bit more counter offensive capability compared to Vikramaditya and would be stationed as such that it protects India's west coast while the east coast would be secured by the presence of the CBG of Vikramaditya.
Indian Navy currently operates 45 MiG-29K/KUB maritime fighters out of which 26 operate onboard INS Vikramaditya. The rest operate performing the role of shore based defence and training. The INS Vikrant which is currently under construction would likely feature a mix of MiG-29K and HAL Naval LCA mk2. This current requirement of 57 new carrier based fighter largely focuses on CATOBAR ( Catapult Assisted Take Off but Arrested Landing) capability. It makes some winds clear that future Vikrant class aircraft carrier rumoured to be named INS Vishal would have a catapult and would be a flat top carrier. It would most likely feature Electromagnetic Catapult. And would feature more than 50 fixed wing fighter aircraft. The Navy wants that the next fighter to embark upon IAC-2 ( INS Vishal ) must match or exceed the speed, range, endurance of MiG-29K and dominate the future threats from Chinese upgraded J-16 variants. This is why Navy was skeptical about HAL Naval LCA.
After the RFP floated by Indian Navy four offerers responded, The Swedish Maritime Gripen, Russia's MiG-29K, French Dassault Rafale M F3R (modified) and US’ Boeing F/A-18 Block lll Super Hornet. This was for Multirole Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF) project to induct 57 new carrier borne fighters. Now the news is that Navy is giving more emphasis on the two specific requirements from France and US as these two offers pack a proper punch sought by Navy. The navy is in the process of fine tuning operational staff requirements before freezing naval air staff requirements (NASR).
It must be noted that nations develop fighter aircrafts according to the tactical and strategic needs of their own forces, which may not match or suite the needs of other nations. This doesn't mean a certain fighter failing in front of other is weak altogether. We would compare the Rafale M F3R and Block lll Super Hornet based on Indian Navy's needs. The Indian Navy in past has used aircraft carriers in support of land attack as well staging a Naval Blockade. A carrier vs carrier battle haven't occurred since world war 2. Indian Navy wants easy access to the Afro-Asian regions so s to secure relations because of the huge Indian population living in these nations as well as secure the Islands. It is unlikely that India would use it's aircraft carriers for a long distance strike role sending it in South China Sea to counter China, but may go there for wargames.
Another thing which we need to understand before we start comparison that carrier borne fighters are at a decisive advantage in comparison their land based brothers. The land based fighters have to ferry themselves to the mission area far away from airbase and their performance would be degraded after such a lengthy flight. But because of having a mobile launch platform carrier commanders can place themselves directly into the theatre and attack the target in least time with least compromise with performance.
The comparison between Boeing F/A-18 Block lll Super Hornet and Dassault Rafale M F3R would consider :
1 Low Observability.
2 Electronic Warfare and Targeting Systems.
3 Kinematic performance.
4 Fighter Specific Weapons.
5 Pilot Comfort.
6 Operating and per unit costs.
Capabilities of fighters would be awarded certain points out of 5 based on their effectiveness.
The aircraft scoring maximum out of possible 30 points would be preferable choice.
Low Observability :
Advanced Super Hornet - 3 / 5
The Advanced Super Hornet is believed to have measures that reduces 50% of the frontal radar cross section than the F /A 18 Super Hornet. There aren't any indications of the nose being faceted for deflecting radio waves. The conformal fuel tanks are shaped as such that they does not increase the frontal radar cross section. There are next generation jammers that jam enemy radar waves mostly those which would possibly expose engine fan blades to enemy radars. There is a stealth optimised external weapons pod. Weapons are carried inside this pod and hence they turn out to be safer for mission needing stealth capability.
There is no indication but it is highly likely that the surface must be painted with Radar Absorbing Paints. This would be a major boost to stealth feature. The cockpit canopy also looks like being treated with special tint just the same as F 35. Because of new Next Generation Jammer the spoofing and Deceiving of enemy radars would add on to the decreased RCS against both air to air and air to ground radar. But this jammer needs to be carried on separate dedicated jamming support aircraft rather than internally which restricts the amount of total weapons being taken to a mission.
Rafale M - 4 / 5
Although not a full-aspect stealth aircraft, the cost of which was viewed as unacceptably excessive, the Rafale was designed for a reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and infrared signature . In order to reduce the RCS, changes from the initial technology demonstrator include a reduction in the size of the tail-fin, fuselage reshaping, repositioning of the engine air inlets underneath the aircraft's wing, and the extensive use of composite materials and serrated patterns for the construction of the trailing edges of the wings and canards. 70% of the Rafale's surface area is composite. The minimal RCS of Rafale, according to Dassault engineer (1/10~1/20 of Mirage-2000's frontal RCS), should be 0.05 to 0.1 m2 class.
Rafale makes extensive use of radar-absorbent material (RAM) in the form of paints and other materials. RAM forms a saw-toothed pattern on the wing and canard trailing edges, for instance. The aircraft is designed to, so that its untreated radar signature is concentrated in a few strong "spikes," which are then suppressed by the selective use of RAM. 75% of Rafale surface structure and 30% of its mass are made of composites. Besides, the high amount of composites and RAM materials, ducted air intakes, Rafale also has a sawtooth design feature all over the airframe and even in the air intakes.
To achieve Stealth Dassault combine four factors:
• RCS reduction of the most reflective parts of the structure
• Development of passive detections
• EW suite capable of jamming and decoying
• Terrain following system
Electronic Warfare and Targeting Systems :
Advanced Super Hornet - 4 / 5
~ AN / APG 79 AESA radar
With its active electronic beam scanning — which allows the radar beam to be steered at nearly the speed of light — the APG-79 optimizes situational awareness and provides superior air-to-air and air-to-surface capability. The agile beam enables the multimode radar to interleave in near-real time, so that pilot and crew can use both modes simultaneously. It has a range of some 70km against 1m² targets. With its open systems architecture and compact, commercial-off-the-shelf parts, it delivers dramatically increased capability in a smaller, lighter package. The array is composed of numerous solid-state transmit and receive modules to virtually eliminate mechanical breakdown. Other system components include an advanced receiver/exciter, ruggedized COTS processor, and power supplies.
~ Next Generation Jammer
The Next-Generation Jammer consists of two 15-foot long PODs beneath the EA-18G Growler aircraft designed to emit radar-jamming electronic signals; one jammer goes on each side of the aircraft. Radar technology sends an electromagnetic ping forward, bouncing it off objects before analyzing the return signal to determine a target's location, size, shape and speed...etc. However, if the electromagnetic signal is interfered with, thwarted or "jammed" in some way, the system is then unable to detect the objects, or target, in the same way.
It is able to jam multiple frequencies at a same time. The technology is designed to block, jam, thwart or “blind” enemy radar systems such as ground-based integrated air defenses – so as to allow attack aircraft to enter a target area, conduct strikes and then safely exit. It is slated to become operational by 2021.
~Internal Infrared Search & Track
It is capable of long-range infrared scan and detection of airborne threats, as it works on passive detection and ranging. It has a large field of regard and being passive makes it is immune to electronic deception. The programmable scan modes relives much of the pilot's workload. Low false-alarm rate is the cherry on cake. The automatic target detection algorithms are very helpful. Even if the picture obtained isn't clear.
Rafale M - 4 / 5
~ RBE2-AA / AESA – “Active Electronically Scanned Array” radar.
The RBE2-AA radar system is an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system derived from the Rafale’s RBE2 radar. It replaces the mechanically steered array antenna by electronically steering exerted by up to several thousand of transmit-receive modules which enable maximum performance and versatility as well as enhanced reliability. The radar is using about 1000 GaAs T/R modules and is reported to deliver a greater detection range of 200 km, improved reliability and reduced maintenance demands over the preceding radar. Active electronic scanning makes it possible to switch radar modes quickly, thereby enabling operational functions to run simultaneously.
The cherry on the cake is it's terrain following capability by which it flies very near to surface which enables Rafale to fly under radar very easily compared to other radars.
~ Front Sector Optronics – FSO
Front Sector Optronics (FSO) provides a tele-lens picture of the target. It allows target tracking, through IR (Infra-red search and track) and visual sensors: air targets at ranges up to 100 kilometers, surface or sea targets at up to 6 kilometers. The covert approach capability of the FSO is especially valuable in air policing and intercepts, where the TV picture of the target provides early visual identification and detection of suspect manoeuvres. The IR Search and Track channel uses sophisticated processing algorithms for the automatic detection and tracking of airborne threats and targets on the ground.
~ SPECTRA – internal Electronic Warfare suite.
SPECTRA -Self-Protection Equipment to Counter Threats for Rafale Aircraft. Jointly developed by THALES and MBDA, the SPECTRA internal “Electronic Warfare” (EW) system is the cornerstone of the RAFALE’s outstanding survivability against the latest airborne and ground threats. SPECTRA is divided into different modules and sensors strategically positioned throughout the airframe to provide all-round coverage.
Using sophisticated techniques, such as interferometry for high precision DOA and passive ranging, digital frequency memory for signal coherency and active phased-array transmitters for maximum effectiveness and covertness, the highly advanced multi-sensors and artificial intelligence data fusion capabilities of SPECTRA provide the Rafale aircraft with the best chance to survive in harsh and lethal environments. The Rafale combat aircraft and the SPECTRA system are fully operational onboard the French Navy's Rafale.
Advanced Super Hornet - 3 / 5
Because of the two conformal fuel tanks the range of Advanced Super Hornet has increased 130 miles making total range more than 700nm. The range differs with difference in what payload is carried or external fuel tanks are carried or not, also on the altitude and speed chosen by the pilot.
Combat radius specification:
Interdiction with four 1,000 lb bombs, two Sidewinders and two 1,818 liter (480 U.S. gallon: 400 Imp gallon) external tanks, navigation FLIR and targeting FLIR: Forward Looking Infra-Red hi-lo-lo-hi = 390 nm / 627 km. With CFTs = 748 km.
In hi-hi-hi profile with two AIM-9, four Mk.83 bombs, three tanks, two sensor pods = 1,230 km.
Fighter escort with two Sidewinders and two AMRAAMs = 410 nm / 660 km. With CFTs = 778 km.
Combat endurance: maritime air superiority, six AAMs,
three 1,818 liter external tanks. = 150 nm / 240 km. With CFTs = 283 km.
Flight Performance of F/A-18 E ( would minimally differ for Advanced Super Hornet )
Max Speed at Service Ceiling : Mach 1.6
At Low flying : Mach 1.0
Minimum Flying Speed : 125 ~ 135 knots.
Carrier Landing Approach Speed : 142 knots.
Service Ceiling : 15,240m.
G Limits : +7.6G / -3.0G
Thrust to Weight Ratio ( For air to air load at sea level ) : 1.05 ~ 1.08 with afterburners, 0.67 ~ 0.69 without afterburners.
Rafale M - 4 / 5
The Rafale M F3R is the latest version to be inducted in 2018 in French services, it does not come with conformal fuel tanks so the range increment based on internal fuel won't be significant. Rafale carries less fuel internally compared to Advanced Super Hornet, but could carry 3 external fuel tanks without losing much of it's kinematics. The M F3R would be come up with Meteor missiles.
Combat Radius Specifications:
With three tanks, four MICA AAMs, and twelve 1,000 Ib bombs = 1,100 km.
With three tanks, four MICA AAMs, and four 500 Ib GBU-12 LGBs = 1,480 km.
Combat Air Patrol : More than 2 hours Rafale M with six AAMs and three 1,250L tanks = 185 km away from the carrier.
With three tanks, four MICA AAMs and four Meteor AAMs = 1,155 km.
Rafale M flight performance
Max Speed at service ceiling : Mach 1.8
At low flying : 750 knots
Minimum Flying Speed : 100 ~ 115 knots.
Carrier Landing Approach Speed : 120 knots.
Service ceiling : 18,400m
Climb Rate at Sea level : 305 m/sec.
G Limits : +9.0G / - 3.2G
Thrust to Weight Ratio ( for air to air load at sea level ) : 1.10 ~ 1.15 with afterburners , 0.73 to 0.77 without afterburners.
Fighter Specific Weapons
The Advanced Super Hornet comes up with AIM-120D as standard air to air missile. JDAMs and SDBs for air to ground missions. Here having SDBs would be considered a significant advantage because a huge number of precision bombs could be carried. Plus new missiles like AGM-158 JASSM and LRASM are the most advanced missiles in their category providing guaranteed precision strike capability to Advanced Super Hornet. But a disadvantage here is less amount of available hard points for carrying significant number of weapons.
On the other hand Rafale M carries MBDA MICA and MBDA Meteor world's best BVRAAM. For strike missions a hugely successful MBDA Storm Shadow / SCALP-EG cruise missile and AM-39 Exocet for Anti-Ship roles. Because of customisation options available the air launched versions of BrahMos and BrahMos NG can be flown away on Rafale M. Plus Rafale M comes with 13 hardpoints (14 on air force version) out of which even if 3 would be dedicated for fuel tanks a great mix of air to air and air to ground load can be carried.
For this category Advanced Super Hornet gets - 3 / 5
Rafale M gets - 4 / 5.
The Advanced Super Hornet comes with next generation cockpit featuring a single screen touch input display and highly advanced level of sensor integration takes pilot comfort straight to the level of a fifth generation fighter. It has a centre joystick HOTAS control. Now HAL has a JV with Elbit whom are making next generation cockpit for India's AMCA fighter. Besides Boeing has showed assertiveness towards supporting India's AMCA program.Having lower G Limits than a conventional high agility fighter and superior slow speed maneuverability adds to pilot comfort.
Rafale’s net centric warfare capabilities and sensor integrated data shown on head level display , the PCWRITE for managing this totally revolutionise the way this omnirole fighter manages flight and combat. The impressive display system do work but the integration of sensors is of the level of 4++ generation fighter. For the sake of comfort the side stick controls do a thing. It's terrain following radar makes low level flight Very very comfortable, just control the throttle and be realised about losing altitude or hitting the ground.
Both fighters get equal score for this category as both have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Advanced Super Hornet - 4 / 5
Rafale M - 4 / 5
Operating and per unit costs.
The operating costs vary depending upon availability of spare parts , maintenance procedures applied and intended availability of the fighters onboard the Aircraft Carrier. The stated operating costs for F/A-18 E/F is around USD 10,000 per hour but these figures would vary for the Block lll Super Hornet because it's maintenance involves radar absorbing paints, it's external weapon pods and reduced downtime because of an entirely new maintenance management system. On flightglobal website the quoted maintenance costs are USD 17000. The Quoted per unit cost for Block lll Super Hornet is USD 75 million as of 2017. But these figures are quoted by company and involves little bit advertisement considerations too. So the real price would be surely more. Boeing won't like to lose an opportunity here in India.
There aren't any reliable accurate data about current operating costs , only the data that during operations in Mali in 2012 the operating costs of Rafale M were USD 19,000. Rafale M F3R also have new maintenance simulators to train the crew and computerised maintenance system eases things down. This increases operating costs after 2018 but would be worth the price. The same F3R standard Rafale's modified to fit in Indians requirements costed 7.8 billion Euros for 36 units. That is 216.6 million Euros. The French know that Rafale M would then me a more likely choice so they would use this opportunity and open up a big mouth next time. By the way 216.6 million Euros as of today means 1648.8 crore Rupees that is per piece cost.
Here surprisingly the Hornet is more horny. I would give more more to it than Rafale M. But wait, It came to attention in 2017 that the availability rate on Super Hornets on US carriers is worryingly low. As high as 60% of Navy and Marines planes were grounded. This cuts the advantage Advanced Super Hornet offers. On the other hand Rafale has really impressive uptime. Since the air force's Rafale deal involves transfer of technology, most spare parts would be manufactured in India only.
Both Advanced Super Hornet and Rafale M tie up here and get - 3 / 5.
Total Score -
Advanced Super Hornet
1 Low Observability - 3 / 5
2 Electronic Warfare - 4 / 5
3 Kinematic Performance - 3 / 5
4 Fighter Specific Weapons - 3 / 5
5 Pilot Comfort - 4 / 5
6 Operating and per unit costs - 3 / 5
1 Low Observability - 4 / 5
2 Electronic Warfare - 4 / 5
3 Kinematic Performance - 4 / 5
4 Fighter Specific Weapons - 4 / 5
5 Pilot Comfort - 4 / 5
6 Operating and per unit costs - 3 / 5
Advanced Super Hornet = 20 / 30
Rafale M = 23 / 30
So on overall aspects Dassault Rafale M F3R has a slight edge over Boeing F/ A-18 Block lll Super Hornet.
Remember that does not mean Rafale M is better in combat that Block lll Super Hornet.
There are still some questions that must be considered even though we have completed our comparison.
What happens to MiG-29K ?
= MiG 29K is a heavily upgraded fighter and tailored to Indian requirements, it is also capable of taking off from carrier deck with full combat load which makes it more formidable at sea than China's J-16 shark.
But MiG-29K does not offer any significant further upgrade prospects, in terms of low observability and maintenance costs it's performance isn't good. So Navy decided to seek an entirely new fighter for it's flat top carriers.
Why not go for a Navalised Gripen ?
It doesn't matter how good a fighter plane is in looks or how amazingly in the animated simulation it beats Sukhoi Su-35. Swedes’ offer isn't readily available now. We don't have time for experimentation , China won't hold up there plans. For the sake of time we need fighters that are readily available and have proven themselves in combat.
What happened to LCA Navy Mk2 ?
= During February last year the media dropped a bomb by falsely reporting that Tejas’s Navy version has been rejected. First thing is Naval variant will have it's down name not Tejas. And second thing is that Navy never said they would induct NLCA mk1, they knew since the beginning that NLCA mk1 won't be able to take off with full combat load. And now popular Defence website Livefist reported that even Naval LCA mk2 has been delinked from the flat top carrier IAC-2 INS Vishal. It would go up with Navalised AMCA only. But still Naval LCA mk2 isn't dead. HAL would continue with it and Naval LCA would serve on INS Vikrant. While N-LCA mk1 would serve as a carrier testbed for validating a proof of concept of an indigenous naval fighter.
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