India has issued a request for information for new naval fighters, which will be capable of operating on two indigenous aircraft carriers projected to be in service by the end of the next decade.
Boeing, Dassault and Lockheed Martin received the RFI, according to industry sources. This did not indicate the number of aircraft required, and asked only for information on available technologies and capabilities with their respective F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Rafale and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter designs. But a request for proposals is still some time away, the sources add.
"We are currently reviewing the Indian navy's request," says Boeing, which received the RFI via the US Navy.
The request comes as the navy's first RSK MiG-29K carrier-borne fighters are being delivered, and as delays plague the development of a naval variant of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, six of which were ordered earlier this year.
But one sceptical source says it makes little sense for India to buy a third naval fighter. "Why would the navy want to operate three different fighters? That adds to the operating costs and logistics. I think it is more likely to buy additional MiG-29Ks and wait for the naval Tejas to be ready," they add.
India has one aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, from which it operates British Aerospace Sea Harriers. It has also bought from Russia the Kiev-class carrier Admiral Gorshkov, renamed the INS Vikramaditya. Russia is refurbishing the vessel, but the deal has been plagued by delays because of a dispute over the final price, and the delivery is likely to slip beyond 2012.
India is also building two indigenous Vikrant carriers, with the first likely to be delivered in 2015. Each would be able to carry up to 40 aircraft, including 30 short take-off but arrested recovery fighters.
The navy has been keen to modernise its aviation arm in recent years, ordering eight Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft and starting a competition for six medium-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft. It is also keen to buy new anti-submarine warfare helicopters and wants to induct a range of unmanned air vehicles.
The naval fighter requirement comes amid an ongoing air force competition for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft. The service is assessing the F/A-18E/F and Rafale, plus the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen NG.