Adding a new dimension to the heated global contest to manufacture fighter aircraft in India, The Boeing Company on Thursday announced a partnership with public sector Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and private sector Mahindra Defence Systems (MDS) to make the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in India.
The partnership would come into effect if India were to select the Super Hornet in any one of two ongoing fighter procurements: An inquiry for 57 “multi-role carrier borne fighters” (MRCBF) for the navy, or another inquiry issued last week for 110 multi-role fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
By most calculations, a win by the Super Hornet in one of the tenders would create the financial logic for a win in the other tender as well. That is because production costs in India would progressively reduce as the number of fighters increased.
“Boeing is excited to team up with India’s only company that manufactures combat fighters, HAL, and India’s only company that manufactures small commercial airplanes, Mahindra”, said Pratyush Kumar, Boeing India chief, at the signing ceremony.
Boeing’s “public-private” strategy contrasts with the approach of rival aerospace vendors, Lockheed Martin and Saab, in a separate procurement of single-engine fighters that eventually morphed into the ongoing acquisition of 110 “multi-role fighters”, for which the IAF issued a “request for information” on April 6.
Lockheed Martin and Saab have both partnered private sector firms — Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) and the Adani group respectively — to build in India. That was because the defence ministry required the single-engine fighters to be built under the strategic partner (SP) category, which mandates a private sector Indian partner.
Now, however, the defence ministry is reportedly reviewing the SP policy, and considering whether to permit public sector firms to participate in SP category acquisitions.
The Boeing-HAL-Mahindra partnership constitutes a flexible arrangement in which any of the three — the foreign partner, the public sector firm or the private entity — can be the face of the consortium. For example, if a private sector lead is mandatory, Mahindra can be the prime entity, with Boeing and HAL as technology partners.
The entry of HAL, which has an airfield and manufacturing hangars in Bengaluru, could significantly reduce the Super Hornet’s price.
The partners say they are still deciding where manufacture would take place, and are evaluating HAL’s Bengaluru’s facilities as one option.
“We want to build a brand new, 21st century facility for building the F/A-18 Super Hornet in India that allows for final integration and checks. Whether we can house that alongside HAL’s existing runway facilities or we have to create a new space is something that would be worked out between the three partners,” said Kumar.
Boeing, unlike Lockheed Martin and Saab, has been sceptical about the Indian private sector’s ability to manufacture a complex fighter aircraft with technology transfer. Speaking in New Delhi last September, Kumar publicly stated that global experience, including in Turkey, Japan and Brazil, showed that success required “a fine balancing act of co-opting the capabilities of both public and private enterprise.”
Now Boeing, HAL and the Mahindras have done exactly that.
The Super Hornet is the US Navy’s main carrier borne fighter, and will remain in production out to 2035 according to Pentagon estimates. A new, Block III evolution has gone into service with enhanced network capability, longer range with conformal fuel tanks, an advanced cockpit system and a life of over 9,000 flying hours.
In December, navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, stated that the RFI for the MRCBF had evoked four responses and that a Request for Proposals would be issued by mid-2018. The four fighters in contention are believed to be the Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale-M fighter; Swedish company Saab’s Gripen Maritime, and the Russian MiG-29K/KUB that already flies off the navy’s lone carrier, INS Vikramaditya.
Lanba stated that the MRCBF would be required for INS Vikrant, which is scheduled to be commissioned in 2021, as well as for the subsequent INS Vishal, which is at least 15 years in the future.