In anticipation of winning the Indian Air Force's $10.4 billion tender for 126 combat jets, European consortium EADS has offered India a choice to pioneer a project for a naval version of the Eurofighter Typhoon that is in the fray in what is being described as the "mother of all defence deals".
Typhoon's competitor in the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender, the French firm Dassault's Rafale, already has a naval version that is operational on France's lone nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Officials of BAE Systems, one of the four partner companies in EADS for the Typhoon programme, told IANS during a visit to their RAF Warton production facility in Britain recently that India can exercise the choice of being a partner nation and leading the programme for the carrier-borne version of the aircraft if it wins the MMRCA tender. At present, Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany are partners in the Typhoon programme.
According to the BAE Systems officials, the Typhoon, which is a shore-based combat jet, has the potential to be a carrier-borne aircraft, provided a few modifications are made to the aircraft itself, essentially in a ski-jump take-off configuration due to the thrust-vectoring 90 kN (kilo Newton) engine that powers it.
Among the changes, it identifies strengthening of the undercarriage of the aircraft to assist in hard landings on a carrier's deck, fitting a carrier hook for arrested landings, and a good paint coating to help it withstand the vagaries of nature at sea.
The choice of the Typhoon for the Indian Navy the officials said, will complement the experience of operating the British Sea Harrier vertical-landing carrier-borne aircraft on board its lone aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, for over two decades now. Of the nearly 30 Harriers India had got for INS Viraat, only about 10 are left in service, with the rest lost in air crashes.
The offer has been made keeping in mind the Indian Navy's request for information issued in 2009. But the Indian Navy itself is not very amused with the offer.
First, according to officials, the Indian Navy plans to induct the Russian-built Admiral Gorshkov or INS Vikramaditya in the next couple of years. This warship will deploy Russian MiG-29K naval fighter jets and for this, the vessel is being reconfigured into a ski-jump take-off but arrested landing (STOBAR) mode at the Sevmash shipyard in Russia.
The same aircraft will be operated from the flight deck of India's indigenous aircraft carrier, under construction at the Cochin Shipyard, when it is inducted in the middle of this decade. Hence the Indian Navy has placed a total order for 45 MiG-29Ks for the two carriers from Russia.
For the future, the navy wants the Defence Research and Development Organisation's Tejas light combat aircraft's naval variant to fructify. If it does, then it may be the future carrier-borne aircraft of the navy for its two more indigenous aircraft carriers planned for construction at the Cochin Shipyard. But that decision is a long shot as it stands today, according to senior naval aviation officers.
But here is where the EADS, and BAE Systems in particular, is hopeful and is pitching the Typhoons as a powerful STOBAR platform for the future indigenous aircraft carriers of India.
(N.C. Bipindra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)