India starts discussions to decide which fighter will fly from its new carrier, INS Vishal, in the Hornet vs. Rafale battle

The United States’ Boeing Defense and France’s Dassault Aviation are set to compete to provide India’s with 57 light fighters to operate from the deck of its upcoming carrier INS Vishal. While the country’s first two carriers, the INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, will operate Russian built MiG-29K light fighters, reliable and cost effective platforms, the country’s third platform is set to deploy Western rather than Russian platforms.

The Indian Navy has rejected offers from Sweden’s SAAB and Russia’s Mikoyan for its new carrier, and the Sweden has never operated modern carriers or designed carrier based fighters and that India’s navy in particular is seeking closer ties with the Western bloc, the dismissal of these offers was to be expected.

Indeed, considering the United States’ far greater experience in operating aircraft carriers, with eleven supercarriers in service where France has just one medium sized carrier, and considering the Indian Navy’s desire for close cooperation with the U.S. Navy in particular, Boeing has a significant advantage and is highly likely to win a contract over Dassault.

While the French Rafale M is far more capable than the F-18 Hornet across the spectrum, it is also a significantly more expensive platform with costs comparable to the F-35C rather than the a fourth generation fighter. Indeed, the cost of the Rafale has made it so uncompetitive in international arms markets that France has resorted to offering extensive economic concessions to effectively pay potential clients to buy its fighter.

The F-18 by contrast has proven to be a robust fighter not only for the U.S. Navy – but also for the air forces of a number of Western nations as well as Malaysia. With the Indian Air Force having previously cancelled an order for Rafale fighters due to their phenomenal cost, this could well be an inhibitor on future orders for the Navy particularly considering the country’s somewhat limited defence budget.

Something highly unique about the Indian carrier program is that it is effectively the world’s only market for conventional takeoff (as opposed to short takeoff vertical landing) carrier based fighters. The only other operators of conventional landing carriers are Russia, China, France and the United States – all of which produce carrier based fighters for their own needs.

Therefore for the MiG-29K, F-18 and Rafale M – India’s remains the only Navy which could potentially import the fighters for carrier operations. The country’s commissioning of new carriers therefore presents a unique opportunity for the United States and France. Indeed, other than the MiG-29K fighters previously sold to India for its previous carriers, this represents the first ever export of fourth generation fighters for carrier operations.

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