India Investigating F/A-18 Super Hornet AESA Radars, AH-64D Apaches
In the context of its deepening relationship with the USA, India recently added US fighters like the F-16 to the platforms under consideration in its multi-billion lightweight fighter competition. It would appear that one can also add the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet to the list of aircraft under serious consideration by India – and the AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter as well.
ENS reports that a November 21-22 meeting at the Pentagon will convey America’s decision re: whether to offer the Super Hornet’s top-secret AN/APG-79 AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar. If cleared, India will be the first country to be offered this particular radar, though it would not be the first to be offered comparable AESA radars by the USA. The UAE already flies F-16 Block 60 aircraft equipped with the AN/APG-80 AESA radar, and country participants in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program will be offered the even more advanced AN/APG-81 AESA radar as part of that aircraft’s standard equipment.
The AN/APG-79 AESA radar, with its dual mode air-air and air-ground capabilities, is the only major sub-system yet to be cleared by for sale to India as part of the offer of 126 fighters. Every other part of the potential offers has cleared Congressional scrutiny.
On another front, the Indian Air Force has an expressed need for 80 new attack helicopters. ENS also reports that the US will soon offer its top of the line AH-64D Apache Longbow to fill that need. The IAF is in the market for light and agile assault helicopters for possible use in counter-insurgency operations, and HAL’s indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is estimated to take at least another decade before it will see service.
DID Op/Ed Thoughts & Analysis:
If India does proceed with its attack helicopter project, the Apache Longbow will likely have company. Competitors ranging from the Russian Mi-28 Havoc and IAI/Kamov Ka-50/52 Black Shark, to the Eurocopter Tiger, South Africa’s Denel Rooivalk, and Bell AH-1Z King Cobra, et. al. can be expected to express interest; many of these contenders will also bid if allowed. The Apache Longbow’s expense has given other allies pause before, and India’s defense budget is limited and subject to political pressure. It will be interesting to see whether attach helicopters becomes a serious procurement priority for India, and if so what kind of cost pressures enter into the equation.
With respect to the AESA radar, the India/US relationship is at something of a dating stage. It is not unusual, therefore, to see dating behaviours – including tests of one’s partner that are not backed by real intentions.
Before reading too much into these inquiries re: India’s buying intentions, it’s worthwhile to recall the hangover effects from US military equipment sanctions in the wake of India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Sources at the US Embassy told The Indian Express that the inclusion of the APG-79 AESA radar in an American offer will effectively offset New Delhi’s fear of sanctions, which DID noted has made many players in India leery of American military hardware.
That reassurance of commitment may well be all that this meeting represents. While receiving America’s most advanced naval aircraft may have some allure and prestige value, in reality the Super Hornet doesn’t add up very well given India’s needs.
With India looking to expand its carrier force over the next decade, the carrier-capable F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets could appear attractive. Yet its $50-70 million price tag is far above the $20-35 million range typical of the lightweight fighter class (and indeed, of earlier F/A-18 Hornet models), and upon which India’s expected 126-plane order is predicated.
Given that the lightweight fighter order is intended to replace some of India’s 300-350 aging and dangerous MiG-21s that are slated for retirement, cutting the order to 50-60 Super Hornets seems like a bit of a leap given India’s needs on multiple fronts. The F/A-18 also requires full catapult launch facilities if used in a naval role, which would preclude its naval use on either India’s present Viraat or its next carrier, the ski-jump equipped INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) which is currently envisioned to carry naval MiG-29Ks. Furthermore, India already flies the excellent Sukhoi SU-30MKI, a fighter with a similar price tag to the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet but superior combat range, weaponry, maneuverability, and overall performance.
The only major advantage it appears to offer is the AESA radar technology. Whether this is worth reducing the number of aircraft bought, and distorting the prupose of the weapons buy to fit, is less clear. If India feels that AESA is a technical imperative for some reason, or sees the buy as a prestige issue, the decision could swing accordingly.
That’s possible. The military logic of an F/A-18 Super Hornet buy may seem somewhat thin, therefore – but as is the case with cars, logic doesn’t always win out when making purchases.
One plane that could serve India very well in both naval and land roles would be the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter STOVL, which is also equipped with an AESA radar. It’s noteworthy that India has pointedly been invited to F-35 Joint Strike Fighter events, and that the coming US Quadrennial Defense Review is expected to result in cutbacks of the USA’s F-35 orders. Purchases by India would be one way of offsetting those cutbacks, thus keeping the program in the $45-55 million per plane range.
While membership in the F-35 JSF production team is essentially closed due to the design’s advanced timeline status, the JSF STOVL would still be a less expensive option than the F/A-18 Super Hornet, giving the IAF a prestigious mid-range option with affordable stealth features and the ability to operate from any of India’s carriers. If the indigenous LCA Tejas lightweight fighter project can get itself on track and become a success, India’s Air Force would have a strong 3-tier base (Su-30 family, F-35B STOVL, LCA Tejas) for its future fighter force.
What seems to be keeping the Joint Strike Fighter from active consideration is the belief by Indian officials that the F-35 will not be combat-ready in numbers before 2015. Given the program’s planned IOC date of 2013, this is a reasonable assumption. By then, however, even the IAF’s 125 upgraded MiG-21 BiS ‘Bisons’ would be slated for retirement. Worse, the purchase would do nothing to fill the immediate gaps created by the mothballing and accident rate of the other MiG-21 aircraft.
This is not to say that some kind of innovative deal involving a ‘bridge’ of leased F-16s couldn’t be worked out, if the USA really wanted to sell the F-35B JSF to India and India saw the aircraft as an excellent fit. So far, however, neither party has made a move in this direction and India is considering a joint development pact with Russia for its next generation fighter needs.
The F-16 has elicited very little interest in India from the moment it was proposed. When that observation is combined with India’s delivery timing needs, expressed concerns re: platform proliferation and the need for commonality within its fighter force, adverse new foreign procurement rules for American offerings, dropping fighter strength, and budgetary priorities that force the military to battle for funds… it’s reasonable to conclude that India sees the US offer of F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft as more of a testing opportunity than a buying opportunity.
Given that, and the JAS-39 Gripen’s long odds, the best bets in India’s lightweight fighter competition would still seem to be foreign modifications of aircraft the IAF already flies: the French Mirage 2000-5, and Russia’s Mig-29M2 or MiG-29OVT/MiG-35.
For now, at least.
UPDATE: New developments may change this analysis. The AESA radars have always had performance advntages over mechanically-steered arrays, but recent research may make AESA a quantum leap. It seems AESA radars may turn out to be extremely effective for secure, very high bandwidth communications between AESA-equipped aircraft.
The F-16 Block 60 and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet are the only AESA-fitted aircraft in this competition, which could give the US fighters a significant enough edge to justify investment in a wholly new platform and technology source.