We will offer the latest F/A-18: Boeing India chief

PRATYUSH KUMAR, President, Boeing India

Boeing is hopeful of grabbing the $15-billion deal to sell 110 fighter jets to the Indian Air Force (IAF) by offering its latest and most advanced F/A-18 Super Hornet. In an interview with BusinessLine on the sidelines of the DefExpo 2018, Boeing India President Pratyush Kumar said that the company will be offering its latest twin-engine F/A-18 Super Hornet to India, the price of which will be much cheaper than the French Rafale. He also said the fact that the RFI this time puts emphasis on the operational aspect of the fighters than technical specifications makes it more interesting. Kumar also said Boeing is set to build the F/A-18s in India under the ‘Make in India’ programme should it get the order to supply the entire 110 warplanes. Excerpts:

The Indian Air Force has finally issued the long-awaited request for information (RFI) to procure 110 fighters under a $15-billion deal. Will Boeing be offering the F/A-18 Super Hornets?

Yes, we will. I think it is a well thought out RFI. It broadens the aperture without restricting the number of engines which will make the competition much more vigorous and give Indian Air Force the option to consider different platforms with different capabilities. What I really like about this RFI is that it asks about the kind of operational requirements that they need to have rather than technical specifications. With too much focus on technical specifications, the operational part gets ignored.

Why do you say that?

Well as the world is moving beyond visual range war fighting, it can’t be doing specs based on dogfight. That’s so anachronistic. So it is a very progressive RFI in that sense. We are excited about it. I think it really fits well with our strategy with the Navy which has RFI for 57 multi-role carrier-borne fighters. So, I think what I like about it is that the Ministry of Defence is actually thinking about the skill economy and how can we line up the opportunities.

But don’t you see this as a replay of the scrapped $20-billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) tender that happened in 2008?

To say that this is a replay of the MMRCA is a convenient and easy shorthand for people. I would say that the operational requirements have evolved, the threats have evolved and technologies have evolved and the capability in the country has evolved. So 10 years later, we are sitting in a different place than we were 10 years ago. I think this RFI is going to reflect a more contemporary situation today. It talks about beyond the visual range capability, it has also factored in the per flight hour cost and the cost of operating the aircraft. It also talks about how to create business of scale to build the ecosystem in India for the full production of the aircraft. Ten years ago, they were talking about licensed production with HAL. So, I think it will be a lazy characterisation to call it MMRCA 2.0.

F/A-18 Super Hornet was ruled out during the MMRCA. What is new that you have to offer to the Air Force?

We are talking about offering the latest F/A-18 to India. The current competition will be much more on what will be the operational requirement versus technical requirements. We feel comfortable given the evolution of F/A-18 which has been constantly upgraded.

What if the Air Force asks for certain customisation of the planes?

We are willing to make those customisations as well, if there will be any.

Air Force will soon be getting deliveries of the twin-engine Rafale jets. Do you think the competition for F/A-18, as a result of that, increases should the Air Force plan to buy those?

We do think Rafale is a real competition. But Rafale is also expensive and even more expensive to maintain. F/A-18 is battle-proven, ruggedised, lowest cost per flight hours in the inventory by US government studies and it is even cheaper than the single-engine fighters in the US inventory. So it is a different platform and the survivability of our platforms is much better than Rafale.

As per the RFI, out of 110 warplanes, 94 aircraft have to be built in India. Are you willing to set up an entire production line for the F/A-18 here?

Our plan is to set up a plant in India and then develop a supply chain to feed our plant. So, yes, we are willing to build it in India.

But will it be doable under the present Trump administration?

We have in-principle approval from the Department of Defence (of US Government) on that concept. And we see this as a win-win situation for both countries.

What is a comfortable number for you to manufacture the planes here?

Well, 110 is a good number.

So, you are hoping that the entire order will go to you …

Well, the RFI says that whosoever wins will get the entire 110.

And what about transfer of technology (ToT), which always remains a contentious issue?

ToT is always up for discussion, but the RFI asks for very specific points on the issue. We will respond to that. But we feel that we have reached a stage in the relationship between the two countries that ToT should not be a factor anymore. This is because US recognises India as its ‘Major Defence Partner’ and they are much more forward leaning and sharing technology with India. It is a government-to-government discussion so I cannot speak on behalf of the government but I feel encouraged given the way the relationship is going.

What is your view on the long-drawn process to procure the fighters at a time when the Air Force is in dire need of those?

Speed always helps but these are also complex decision-making procurement processes. This is not a simple thing to acquire. I know you have to optimise your purchases within the budget constraints. You have to keep it an unimpeachable process so that nobody questions the procurement process. It is not something that we have not dealt with before, but frankly a good process will be good for all.

Published on April 11, 2018

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