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With countdown already begun to commission indigenous aircraft carrier 1 as INS Vikrant in August 2022, the Indian Navy will conduct flight trials of Rafale-Maritime fighter at Shore Based Test Facility at INS Hansa in Goa on January 6 onwards as part of its exercise to identify the best warplane to suit the 40,000 tonne carrier. The IAC 1 is based at Cochin shipyard and is currently undergoing intensive sea trials in Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
According to officials in knowledge of the matter, the Rafale-M fighter will be pushed through intensive trial at the 283 metre mock-up ski jump facility at INS Hansa for nearly 12 days to assess whether the fighter aircraft is best suited for IAC-1. The Rafale M fighter is the principal weapon system for French Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier and has also shown its inter-operability with US aircraft carriers way back in 2008.
The Indian Navy is also planning to test US F-18 Hornet fighter at the same facility apparently in March as the alternative option to Rafale-M fighter. The Boeing F-18 is a proven carrier based multi-role fighter for the US Navy and has performed strike operations from way back to 1991 Gulf War.
While the Indian Navy operates two squadrons of MiG-29K onboard its sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, the Russian aircraft is facing issues of maintenance and spare parts availability.
The DRDO’s LCA-M is still in the development stage with two single engine demonstrator fighters being flight tested from INS Vikramaditya and the Goa based shore based test facility for providing inputs to the final twin engine deck based carrier fighter in future. According to Aeronautical Development Agency, the first flight trial of the indigenous twin engine fighter is expected before 2026 and induction into Indian Navy before 2031.
While the decision on which fighter will spearhead IAC-1 will be based on the flight trials, fact is that Rafale-M is lighter and smaller in airframe to F-18 and packs a bigger punch than its American counterpart in terms of longer range air to air missiles and air to land missiles. Naval Aviation experts also say that it will be require structural modifications to the IAC 1 to fit F-18 into the lift to cart the fighter from hanger to the flight deck above due to its comparatively larger airframe.
As the IAC -1 is expected to commissioned as INS Vikrant on August 15, 2022, the 75th year of Indian independence, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is a strong possibility that the Indian Navy may ask the French manufacturers of the aircraft to lease four to five Rafale -M in 2022 so that the aircraft carrier is made operational. India already has a maintenance cum flight training facility of Rafale at Ambala air base. The Naval aviators will be trained at INS Hansa.