Rafale takes lead over Super Hornet in India’s Navy tender

A Dassault Rafale fighter jet during the first delivry to India's government
© Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

The Rafale M, the carrier-borne variant of Dassault’s fighter jet, has come out on top in an evaluation conducted by the Indian Navy.

During the Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBF) program, the French fighter was pitched against the US-made F/A-18 Super Hornet. The tests took place at the shore-based INS Hansa test facility in Goa that simulates the deck of the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.

The capacities evaluated included the ability to take off by ski-jumping off a ramp. This technique, called Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR), is deployed on the two Indian Navy carriers, while carriers for both the French and US Navies favor a flat deck and a catapult launch system (CATOBAR).

Confidential results of the contest were sent to the Indian Ministry of Defense, with the government set to review them before taking a final decision. According to several Indian outlets, though, the Rafale M appears to have won out during the evaluation.

“The Rafale M has been found to be a better fit for the navy’s requirements,” an unnamed official told The Hindustan Times.

Other defense sources told The Times of India that the report found the Rafale M to be “more suitable in meeting the operational requirements and criteria” of the Indian Navy compared to its competitor.

India has already been using the French fighter in its ground-based operations since September 2020, with the Indian Air Force (IAF) using the 36 Rafale B/C. As such, the Navy could make use of the Rafale training and maintenance facility at Ambala Air Force Station.

The high stakes of the MRCBF program 

The Indian Naval Air Arm is currently seeking to replace its aging fleet of 40 MiG-29K aircraft. The winning aircraft from the trials will operate from the INS Vikrant. The MRCBF tender will result in an order for at least 26 fighters.

The INS Vikrant is the first Indian-designed aircraft carrier, with most of its components locally sourced. It was delivered to the Indian Navy on July 28, 2022.

The MRCBF competition could also influence a much larger procurement: in parallel to its naval program, India is also considering the acquisition of 114 new fighters for the IAF as part of the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) tender.

A Rafale order from the Indian Navy could thus tilt the balance in favor of the French fighter in the IAF competition as well, for the sake of fleet harmonization.

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