Why is Boeing Defense, which was among a handful of high-profile eliminees in India’s erstwhile medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) contest, so buoyant about the country’s next big outing into the jet bazaar? Six years ago, when Boeing fell off the table in a clunky six way face-off for a 126 aircraft deal, it had been put down to a handful of issues that included, among other things, some performance shortfalls. The memory of that has dredged up what could be the most trenchant denunciation of the most spectacularly failed fighter contracting effort in recent memory. And it comes from Boeing’s India chief Pratyush Kumar, who was drafted into the company shortly after the Super Hornet was knocked out of the competition along with the F-16, Gripen and MiG-35.
‘The M-MRCA was a beauty contest on specs,’ he says, only half smiling. The wounds of the M-MRCA are still fresh, with comfort for those who lost that victor Dassault Aviation didn’t manage to close anything close to a full deal. And more importantly, that while the French had been thrown a very generous bone, the door was open to far bigger things.
Boeing, first off the block to offer to build a brand new fighter production line under the Indian MoD’s prospective Make In India Fighter (MIIF) programme, is more optimistic than it has ever been before, even given the substantial challenges ahead. Its confidence has a six-point foundation:
First: the big picture. If the MIIF programme is a prospective hunt for a single-engine jet, why is Boeing so positive? Shouldn’t it mean that there’s at least clarity on that from the start, and that Boeing can sit this one out without the exorbitantly expensive uncertainty of the ‘all are welcome’ M-MRCA? Well that’s just the thing. Boeing believes India will want a twin-engine MIIF — either instead of or in addition to the single-engine contest that has just taken its baby steps (it isn’t clear if this has anything to do with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar quip in June that the MoD was in the process of developing “one or two ‘fighter Make in India’ programs”.) Kumar reveals Boeing assessment: ‘sufficient room’ for an IAF requirement of 100-200 twin engine fighters over and above the Rafale and Su-30 MKI numbers. So while Boeing was a recipient of the exploratory letter announcing India’s interest in a single fighter line, the company expects a similar process on a twin-engine jet too. If that does come to fruition, it will give India two large twin engine aircraft lines (the other being HAL’s Su-30 facility in Western India), though Boeing would likely balk at any comparisons with the Russian arrangement. So let’s break this down then — an LCA Tejas production line + an single engine MIIF production line and/or a twin-engine MIIF production line. While the single engine programme is already being seen in IAF circles as a direct contest between the Gripen E and the F-16 Block 70, on the latter, if it comes to that, Boeing likely expects to compete against the Typhoon and Rafale. On the substantial perceived disadvantage Boeing will certainly have in any prospective manufacturing face-off against the already contracted Rafale, the firm believes the play this time is industrial package, and will be hoping its big picture pitch stomps out any such considerations. By stipulating the number of engines it is looking for on its fighters, the Indian government is clearly sending out a signal that it has learnt real lessons from the cacophony that finally doomed the M-MRCA.
Second, Boeing plainly believes it has the best industrial package on offer, and emphasises in its pitch to the Indian government that unlike Lockheed-Martin’s offer to ‘shift’ production of the F-16 to India, Boeing would build a brand new factory in country. The ‘shifting’ of a production line, as per Boeing’s pitch, underscores the F-16 as a fighter ‘flying into the sunset’ and ‘winding down operations’. While Lockheed-Martin fights to dispel perceptions of an ageing jet, Boeing believes it plainly outclasses the F-16 in terms of forward growth potential. ‘The focus now is on a global base,’ says Kumar, indicating the company believes and hopes the contest now will be a big picture contest, not simply a hamster race on turn rates and engine performance.
Third, ‘Timing is everything.’ A phrase Kumar uses more than once when talking of the Super Hornet’s fresh bid in India. When Boeing was knocked out of the reckoning in 2010, the Indian military hadn’t a single war-fighting Boeing aircraft in service. Now, it has billions worth — eight Harpoon-armed P-8Is with the Indian Navy, ten C-17s with the IAF and sizeable numbers of the AH-64 Apache and CH-47F Chinook on order. It all ties in with what Boeing emphasises often — the ecosystem of its military products, a rubber-band of capability and logistics that binds its jets and helicopters together and amplifies their individual and collective effectiveness, maintainability and cost of ownership. The Super Hornet, Boeing suggests, will simply fit right into a field of play where the IAF already operates so much Boeing kit.
Fourth, Boeing’s existing industrial base in India is formidable — it currently has 30 direct and 130 indirect suppliers in country spanning all manner of outsourced work, the most substantial being the Tata-Boeing joint venture in Hyderabad that will begin building full Apache fuselages for global customers next year. A ready supply base is a very valuable card to have when you’re looking to build more in India, and Boeing knows it. Its status there compares more than favourably against its prospective competitors in the field. The company has already begun an aggressive campaign its supplier base to pull more Indian firms into the Super Hornet global supplier base. ‘Ours is a bottom-up plan,’ says Michael Koch, vice president at Boeing Defense India, indicating that the company could be scouting for local capabilities in composites and precision manufacturing.
Fifth, Boeing believes it is positioned favourably to support the LCA Tejas programme should it be called upon to do so. As India’s Light Combat Aircraft clocks the hours in IAF squadron service and cruises towards final operational clearance (FOC) for deployed duties, where does Boeing fit in, if it does at all? For starters, top officials at Boeing are of the view that a single-engine fighter line impacts growth prospects of the LCA far more than a twin-engine capability would do. In addition, Boeing has already made it clear it is ready to assist or partner with the Indian government taking the LCA forward. Firms in the reckoning for a fighter deal are aware that any substantive step into the country to build fighters now will (and should) require involvement in the LCA programme — in terms of technology or as an accelerator. The mode for such involvement, either through offsets or direct partnerships, is something that will need to be worked out. Boeing believes its position is strong vis-a-vis India’s Tejas for those two reasons — it doesn’t compete with the Tejas, and it has the ability to help speed things along if called upon to do so.
Sixth, if the F/A-18 was knocked out of the M-MRCA on a slew of performance and other counts and the company isn’t looking at the fight ahead as a ‘beauty contest’, that doesn’t mean they won’t be pitching very specific capabilities on the Super Hornet. This week, Livefist had the opportunity to visit the Royal Australian Air Force’s Amberley base in Queensland at the invitation of Boeing Defense, where F/A-18 unit commander Group Captain Glen Braz briefed journalists on Super Hornet operations across the two squadrons under his charge. Both squadrons replaced the RAAF’s F-111s and function as a stopgap bridge before the delayed F-35. The officer took the time out to underscore a slew of performance particulars, including the F/A-18s ‘superior’ buddy tanker capability that he says allows refueling in more contested airspace (the IAF’s Su-30s sport the capability too), its recent deployment to Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 where the Super Hornets ‘regularly flew 9-10 hour missions’ and much else. (On a side note: the RAAF Group Captain admitted that his pilots don’t use buddy tanking much — ‘To be honest, the jet has too many other capabilities. When our young pilots misbehave, we turn them into the tanker guy,’ he says.) As the only customer of the F/A-18 outside the U.S., and the first non-naval operator of the jet, the RAAF is also being roped in to showcase the benefits of a maritime fighter — increased ruggedisation for the maritime environment, safety, faster turn around and, importantly, smaller logistical footprint to ease deployment at sea and abroad. ‘The Super Hornet is designed to operate with minimal equipment,’ says Koch.
In many ways, Boeing pits itself not just against rival contenders, but the often confounding manner of India’s jet contracting itself. As the field hots up, it will be interesting to see how a firm with unrivaled business experience in country charts a course forward on a crucial programme that’s been fashioned from the detritus of a failed effort by India to give its air force over a hundred new fighters.
The games begin. Again.
(Livefist is part of the 2016 Boeing Media Tour and is visiting Boeing & US Govt facilities at the invitation of Boeing Defense. Post your questions on India-specific programmes. Livefist will attempt to get answers.)