The Indian Navy’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, may start sea trials soon. This could pave the way for her to be commissioned this year. She is currently moored near the shipyard in Kochi on the south-western coast of India. When she joins the fleet, she will be a key component to India’s ability to face China’s growing naval reach. In particular China is building up its aircraft carrier capabilities.
Initially Vikrant will likely be equipped with the existing MiG-29K Fulcrum aircraft. But there is an expectation that a new type will be fielded. India’s main aircraft manufacturer, HAL, is developing a dedicated carrier-borne 5th generation fighter.
The existence of the the new plane, dubbed the TEDBF (Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter), was reported by DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) in April 2020. More recently it was showcased at Aero India 2021 in February. It is being developed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), part of India’s DRDO. It is a naturally successor to the (ultimately unsuccessful) Naval variant of the indigenous Tejas jet. The Tejas is a small single engine fighter. However the Indian Navy has determined that it requires a twin engine aircraft to replace the MiG-29K. The TEDBF will learn a lot from the Naval Tejas project however.
The TEDBF is expected to be a true multirole fighter. Missions should include combat air patrol (CAP), interception, ground attack, strike, maritime strike, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and buddy-buddy refueling.
One feature of 5th generation fighters which the TEDBF will forego, in order to save weight, is the internal weapons bay. Instead a wide range of stores will be carried on its 11 hardpoints. Based on the model at Aero India this might include the ASRAAM short range and Astra beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-air missiles. Also shown attached to the hard points were the Rudram-1 and Rudram-2 anti-radiation missiles. It is to be expected that the TEDBF will be capable of carrying a wide range of ordinance.
Unlike the Tejas, the TEDBF is designed from the outset as a carrier-based fighter. This means folding wings and other practical features. It also shifts to a true canard configuration, and incorporates 5th Generation hallmarks such as reduced radar cross-section shaping in the forward fuselage.
Due to its twin-engine configuration the aircraft is larger than the Naval Tejas, yet slightly smaller than the Fulcrum. Its physical dimensions, with a wingspan of 11.2 meters and length of 16.2 meters, are compact. And the width is reduced further to 7.6m with the wings folded. The maximum take-off weight is likely to be similar to the Fulcrum however.
This contrasts with the Chinese Navy’s much larger Shenyang J-15 fighter which has a wingspan of 14.7 meters and a length of 21.9m. The J-15 is a reverse-engineered copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker-D. Like other Chinese Flanker derivatives the J-15 is equipped with a range of Chinese air-air missiles including the PL-12 beyond visual range missile. They can also carry anti-ship missiles and land-attack missiles.
The smaller fighter size should allow Vikrant to carry a similar sized air wing to the much larger Chinese carriers.
Interim solution? Super Hornet and Rafale
The TEDBF is expected to fly in 2026 and will take years after that before it enters service. In the meantime, the Indian Navy is looking to acquire a twin-engine fighter for the carriers. On January 17, the Directorate of Naval Air Staff issues a request for information (RFI) for a multirole carrier borne fighter. The number quoted is 57 aircraft.
The two types being discussed are the Boeing Super Hornet and Dassault Rafale. Both are relatively mature designs which are still in production, making them low-risk options. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (-E is single seat, -F is two seat) first entered service with the U.S. Navy in 2001. The Rafale-M carrier fighter also entered service with the French Navy (Marine Nationale) in 2001.
The Rafale may have an advantage as it is already in service with the Indian Air Force. 36 Rafales have been ordered with the first deliveries in July 2020. More orders may follow. These are the land-based variant but share some commonality with the carrier fighter.
So we will see how the TEDBF project fares in the coming years if off-the-shelf aircraft prove effective. In the meantime it is also probable that China will deploy its own 5th generation carrier fighter.