Carrier-Borne Fighters as of Today

Carrier-borne aircraft have come a long way in respect of capability to project air power leading to a paradigm shift in the military capability of a nation

Issue: 6 / 2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By US Navy, Dassault Aviation, Saab, Indian Navy
Serious Contender: F/A-18F Super Hornet has proven capabilities

In the last over a decade and a half, the focus in India in respect of induction of combat platforms has been on the acquisition in fairly large numbers, of modern fourth-generation fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF). However, in the beginning of last year, with the Indian Navy initiating a Request for Information (RFI) for 57 aircraft to equip its new indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant that is currently under construction at Cochin Shipyard Limited, interest in carrierborne aircraft has been reignited both in the military aviation community as well as in the global aerospace and defence market that is focused on this segment of the industry. This sudden interest in the Indian market has been fuelled by the fact that the Indian Navy has rejected the naval version of the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk I and has offered no clarity on its position vis-à-vis the naval version of the LCA Tejas Mk II. This platform is yet to be developed and the time frame in which it is expected to be available is quite uncertain. In the meantime, the new indigenous aircraft carrier is expected to be commissioned by the end of 2020. It is therefore incumbent on the Indian Navy to complete the process of induction of the selected carrier-borne fighter aircraft in a matching time frame.


The origin of carrier-borne fixed wing aircraft can be traced back to 1910 when for the first time, a fixed wing aircraft took off from the deck of a warship USS Birmingham that was anchored. This exercise was repeated two years later with an aircraft taking off from the deck of a ship HMS Hibernia of the Royal Navy of Britain, that was sailing on high seas. However, in the last a little over a century, Carrier-borne aircraft have come a long way in respect of capability to project air power leading to a paradigm shift in the military capability of a nation. A fleet of combat aircraft operating from a carrier group, is virtually its backbone and always remain at the forefront of military power of the nation they belong to. Aircraft carriers and modern Carrier-borne aircraft are designed for different methods of takeoff from and landing on the deck. These are as under:

    Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR): Under this system, the aircraft is launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier using a catapult to drastically reduce the length of the takeoff run. For landing, there an arrester hook mounted under the tail of the aircraft that engages arrester wires immediately after touchdown and brings the aircraft to a halt almost immediately.

    The Dassault Rafale–M is the only non–US fighter aircraft cleared to operate from the decks of US aircraft carriers

    Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL): In this system, for aircraft capable of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL), a “Ski-Jump” instead of a Catapult is employed to give the aircraft the capability to get airborne requiring a significantly short takeoff run. The Ski-Jump takeoff facilitates carriage of higher payload as compared to a vertical takeoff and dispenses with the need for a catapult. The capability of the aircraft to land vertically dispenses with the need for arrester wires.

    Short Take-Off but Arrested Recovery (STOBAR): In this design, the aircraft is not launched by a catapult, but takes off under its own power and uses a Ski-Jump to shorten the takeoff run. On landing, arrester wires are used to stop the aircraft within a few feet from touchdown.

(Clockwise from Top Left) Options for the Indian Navy: F-35C Lightning II carrier variant; Rafale-M; Sea Gripen and MiG-29K


Today, the nations of the world that build Carrier-borne aircraft are just a few and these include the Unites States, Russia, France, China and Sweden. Japan has not produced any Carrier-borne aircraft in the post World War II era and the last such platform produced by Britain was the Sea Harrier that has been phased out by the Indian Navy. The Carrier-borne aircraft currently operational in the different Navies of the world or are in advanced stage of development, are as listed below:

United States of America

    F-35C Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter: A product from Lockheed Martin Corporation, this is a single-engine, multi-role, allweather, fifth-generation platform with stealth features. This platform is a result of evolution over five decades of operation of carrier-based combat aircraft. Designed for CATOBAR, it is the world’s only fifth-generation, long-range, stealth, strike fighter designed and built explicitly for operations from onboard aircraft carriers. The platform is designed to respond to future threats and ensure the maritime supremacy of the US Navy which currently is the largest customer of this aircraft. The US Marines are also to acquire this platform over and above the fleet of F-35B STOVL that are already operational with them.

    Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet: Produced initially in 1995 by the then US aerospace and defence major McDonnell Douglas as the F-18 Hornet which was a twin-engine, multi-role fighter with all-weather capability. However, after the merger of McDonnell Douglas and Boeing in 1997, full scale production of the platform began under the management and control of the latter. Over the years, the aircraft has evolved into a potent combat platform and was re-designated as the F/A-18 Super Hornet. This platform has been and will continue to be the backbone of the US Navy’s Carrierborne aircraft fleet and the mainstay of US Naval air power for years to come. Inducted into the US Navy in two models, the single-seat E model and the two-seat F model, the Super Hornet is capable of performing a range of missions in the tactical spectrum, including air superiority, day/night strike with precision-guided weapons, fighter escort, close air support, suppression of enemy air defences, maritime strike, reconnaissance, forward air control and aerial tanker missions.


    Rafale-M: This is twin-engine canard delta wing, omni-role combat aircraft, designed, developed and manufactured by Dassault Aviation of France. Capable of fielding a wide range of weapons, the Rafale is designed for air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground attack, deep strike, anti-ship strike and nuclear deterrence missions. The Rafale-M is the dedicated naval version, uses catapult for takeoff and arrester gear for landing (CATOBAR). It is the only non-US fighter aircraft cleared to operate from the decks of US aircraft carriers.


    MiG-29K: Developed in the late 1980s, the Mikoyan MiG-29K is a modified version of the land-based MiG-29M for operating from an aircraft carrier. It is a fourth-generation, all-weather, multi-role combat aircraft, capable of receiving fuel as well as refuelling other aircraft in flight. It has a combination of lowobservable technology, advanced electronic-warfare capabilities, reduced ballistic vulnerability and standoff weapons to enhance its survivability. This aircraft was inducted into the Indian Navy beginning 2010 and continues to be in service.

    One major factor that is likely to influence the final choice will be cost, both for initial procurement and through the life cycle of the platform

    Su-33: Designed by Sukhoi of Russia, the Su-33 is an allweather, carrier capable, twin-engine, air superiority combat aircraft and is derived from the Su-27. It has folding wings, upgraded engines and strengthened undercarriage for operating from the deck of an aircraft carrier. It is capable of receiving fuel in flight. It entered service with the Russian Navy in 1998. However, once the aircraft reaches the end of its service life, the Russian Navy has plans to replace it with the MiG-29K for which orders have already been placed in 2009.


    Saab: Designed, developed and manufactured by the Swedish aerospace major Saab, the Gripen JAS 39 is a light weight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft. The carrier capable version of the platform called the Sea Gripen, is currently under development. Saab has planned the Sea Gripen as a new-generation, carrier-based fighter for the future. The Sea Gripen will have all the capabilities of the land-based Gripen E/F and will be the most technologically advanced fighter aircraft in the world in its category. The aircraft will be highly agile, will have super-cruise capability, extended reach, net-centric capability, advanced data-link and an extensive electronic warfare suite that can be adapted to meet specific user requirements. The Sea Gripen will also have superior sensor fusion abilities, the Selex Raven AESA radar, Infra-Red Search and Track plus a revolutionary avionics architecture. The platform will offer easy integration of advanced weapon systems and growth potential.


    Shenyang J-15: Also called the Flying Shark, this aircraft is under development for the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force and is claimed by the parent company to be a 4.5 generation platform. It is a twin-jet, all-weather, air superiority combat aircraft and will be capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. The project is marked by controversy as Russia has claimed that the Chinese have copied the Sukhoi Su-33 without their permission and have thus violated Intellectual Property Rights.


Given the experience of the Indian Navy with the MiG-29K especially inadequate product support resulting in poor serviceability of the fleet, it is unlikely that the service would even consider a second look at this platform or for that matter any other Russian platform. The Chinese J-15 would also be disqualified for the same reason apart from the fact that it is regarded as an illegitimate copy of the Su-33 as also the political paradigms involved. That leaves four options for the Indian Navy namely the F-35C, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Rafale-M and the Sea Gripen. Of these, the Sea Gripen is still under development and unless the original equipment manufacturer provides a model for evaluation, it may be difficult for the Indian Navy consider this option seriously. Thus the choice will boil down to three platforms, two from the US and one from France. Apart from operational characteristics, one major factor that is likely to influence the final choice will be cost, both for initial procurement and through the life cycle of the platform.