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March 14, 2020: India is having major problems getting its first locally designed carrier, the INS Vikrant, into service. The most obvious problem is getting jet fighters that can reliably operate on the Vikrant. India initially selected the Russian MiG-29K but deliveries have been delayed because that aircraft turned out to be a poor choice. There are also problems with valuable equipment already installed in the Vikrant being stolen. The thefts included several computer systems. Getting replacements proved difficult, as well as getting a proper investigation into the thefts.

India’s attempt to build an aircraft carrier is, as expected, over budget and way behind schedule. The Vikrant began construction in 2009 and the plan was for it to be launched in 2010, with fitting out to be completed by 2013 followed by sea trials and entry into service in 2014. Things began to go wrong early on. By 2011 there were several major problems with Indian suppliers that delayed deliveries. A growing list of technical problems encountered by Indian suppliers of key equipment led to more delays and by 2016 an audit of the project concluded that it was unlikely that Vikrant would enter service in 2020 and that 2023 was more likely, but not guaranteed.

The 40,000 ton Vikrant has a ski-jump deck, like the earlier, refurbished Russian Cold War era carrier INS Vikramaditya, and is designed to carry 29 jet fighters and ten helicopters. A second Indian carrier is in the planning stages and will be based on Vikrant but larger (65,000 tons) and use a catapult instead of a ski jump for takeoffs. That enables aircraft to take off carrying more weight and some kinds of aircraft (like radar early warning types) to be used. The Indian Navy wants to see how the Vikrant works out before committing to the final design for Vikrant 2.0; the 65.000 ton INS Vishal. Faced with the dismal performance of the Vikrant construction effort it is unlikely that Vishal will be in service until the 2030s. Vikrant is now ten years behind schedule and there is still ample opportunity for more self-inflicted problems and delays.

In early 2017 the Indian Navy issued a request for foreign suppliers to bid on a $15 billion contract to supply 57 jet fighter-bombers capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. This comes after a late 2016 announcement that India’s locally designed and built LCA (Light Combat Aircraft or "Tejas") jet fighter was unsuitable for use on Indian aircraft carriers. The navy mentioned the LCA being overweight and, well, simply not suitable. With some encouragement from the government, the navy amended its decision to include the possibility that 46 of the LCA Mk2 (due in 2025) might be ordered if the empty weight could be reduced 15 percent (from 6.6 tons to 5.6 tons). Currently, the max weight is 13.5 tons and armament is one twin-barrel 23mm autocannon and up to 3.5 tons of missiles and bombs. Internal fuel is 2.5 tons and that can be increased by at least 40 percent via drop tanks. Many in the navy don’t believe LCA will survive until 2025 and the government seems to concur and authorized the navy to seek a suitable carrier aircraft abroad.

Actually the Indian navy already had a foreign built carrier jet but was seeking other suppliers or an improved model of the MiG-29K they were already using on the Vikramaditya. The Indian Navy bought Russian 16 MiG-29K jets for their new aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. The Indians were not happy with the performance of the refurbished Vikramaditya or the MiG-29K. Technically the MiG-29K could compete for the contract to replace the current model MiG--29Ks, a carrier aircraft the Russians have given up trying to fix. India ordered the MiG-29Ks a decade before receiving them in 2009 and began using them on the Vikramaditya in 2012. The result was problems and disappointments. The main issue is that the MiG-29K is not rugged enough to survive prolonged use on a carrier. It’s the carrier landings that do the most damage and the MiG-29K requires sturdier landing gear and a few other more robust components. The main concern here is the engines the MiG-29K uses. When operating from a carrier these engines suffer more breakdowns than the land-based MiG-29s. So far five MiG-29Ks have crashed, four of them belonging to India. One of the crashes was in 2011 where a newly built, for India, MiG-29K crashed during acceptance testing. This was in Russia and at that point, India halted further order for MiG-29Ks and began seeking another supplier.

So far the most likely replacement for the MiG-29K is the American F-18E/F, which has never operated from a ski-jump carrier, only from catapult equipped carriers. The manufacturer is building a land-based ski-jump carrier deck and will test its F-18s on that to assure India that the F-18 can do the job. India plans to buy 57 F-18s if the ski-jump tests are successful. The F-18E would replace the MiG-29Ks already in use on Vikramaditya and enable the new Vikrant to enter service with jet fighters that work.

Given the extremely long time Indian procurement officials take to actually complete the purchase of foreign aircraft. the Vikrant will probably not enter service until 2025 or later. Negotiations to buy the F-18 actually began in 2018 as the American manufacturer, Boeing, began making deals with India firms to build some F-18 components and assemble the 57 Indian F-18s in India so they could be declared “made in India.” For Boeing, this is a $15 billion deal but it is no secret that working out the details with India is more of a marathon than a sprint. With the new F-18 assembly operation India will feel confident in buying more F-18s, which many export customers use mainly as a land-based fighter.

The F-18E has been around for two decades and obtained substantial combat experience after 2001. That provided some interesting problems for the F-18. Since about 2006 the navy found that both their older F-18C Hornet fighters and their newer F-18E "Super Hornet" were wearing out much faster than they were supposed to. This was sort of expected with the F-18Cs, which entered service in the 1980s. These aircraft were expected to last about twenty years. But that was based on a peacetime tempo of operations, with about a hundred carrier quite stressful “traps” (carrier landings) per year. There have been more than that because of the 1991 Gulf War (and the subsequent decade of patrolling the no-fly zone) and the war on terror. So to keep enough of these aircraft operational until the F-35 arrives to replace them, new structural components (mainly the center barrel sections) were manufactured. This is good news for foreign users of the F-18C, who want to keep their aircraft in service longer.

The F-18E entered service in 2001 and was supposed to last 6,000 flight hours. But the portion of the wing that supports the pylons holding stuff (bombs, missiles, equipment pods or extra fuel tanks) were found to be good for no more than 3,000 flight hours. The metal, in effect, was weakening faster than expected. Such "metal fatigue", which ultimately results in the metal breaking, is normal for all aircraft. Calculating the life of such parts is still part art, as well as a lot of science. Again, unexpectedly high combat operations are the culprit. One specific reason for the problem was the larger than expected number of carrier landings carrying bombs. That's because so many missions over Iraq and Afghanistan did not require F-18Es to use their bombs or missiles.

The navy modified existing F-18Es to fix the problem, which is a normal response to such situations. Sometimes these fixes cost millions of dollars per aircraft, but this particular fatigue problem is costing more to fix than expected. Many aircraft appear beyond repair and will have to be retired after 8,000 hours in the air.

There are actually two quite different aircraft that are called the F-18 (the A/B/C/D version, and the E/F/Gs). While the F-18E looks like the original F-18A, it is actually very different. The F-18E is about 25 percent larger (and heavier) than the earlier F-18s and has a new type of engine. By calling it an upgrade, it was easier for the navy to get the money from Congress. That's because, in the early 1990s, Congress was expecting a "peace dividend" from the end of the Cold War, and was slashing the defense budget. There was a lot of commonality between the two F-18s, but they are basically two different aircraft. Thus when used more heavily than expected, they developed metal fatigue in different parts of the airframe.

 


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