While India still hasn’t defined the kind of fighter it wants in an ongoing contest for 114 jets, Boeing’s plans appear to have become more well-defined than before. There are now multiple indicators to suggest that Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III jet is now primarily pointed at the Indian Navy, while the F-15EX is shaping up to be Boeing’s protagonist in the Indian Air Force requirement.
Livefist learns that Boeing will shortly receive a requested license to formally market the F-15EX to the Indian Air Force, with an announcement possibly imminent. It was in February that it was first revealed that Boeing planned to add the F-15EX to an Indian Air Force campaign that had thus far only involved the F/A-18 Super Hornet. While the F/A-18 will theoretically remain available to the Indian Air Force, it is becoming clear that Super Hornet energies are being pointed far more prominently at the Indian Navy, making what appears to be space for a more prominent positioning of the F-15EX for the IAF.
To be clear, the Indian Air Force hasn’t yet defined its requirements, and potentially has on its hands a contest where it must choose between jets as disparate as the F-15 and Su-35 at one end and the Gripen E and F-21 at the other. India’s decision last week to proceed with plans to acquire more of its existing jet types — 12 more Su-30 MKI and 21 MiG-29 UPG jets — has stirred a debate over whether priority urgency needs to be applied instead on the 114 Make in India jet program.
“I wouldn’t hypothesise about the requirements, but the reason we’ve applied for a license for the F-15EX is so that we can offer an entire spectrum of capabilities. And depending on how the requirements get panned out, we are comfortable and confident. But it’s still to early to say if it will be a single or twin engine,” said Ankur Kanaglekar, Head of India Fighter Sales at Boeing Defense in an interview to Livefist now up on our YouTube channel, linked here:
Asked specifically about the F-15’s expanding role in the campaign, Kanagalekar said, “A lot of years have passed, the technology has improved, the geopolitics has changed. I would rather wait to see the requirements before commenting on plans on the air force side.”
The invocation of geopolitics by Boeing’s India fighter campaigns head is significant, especially since it comes at a time when US-India relations have made major strides forward in an atmosphere of tensions with China. Two US Navy carrier battle groups have entered the western Pacific in recent days, with open saber rattling between both sides. But there’s plenty happening in India too, and not just on its border with China.
It is Livefist‘s assessment that the F-15EX will be much more prominently projected by Boeing as an IAF fighter going forward. The new strategy comes right ahead of the deliveries of India’s first Rafale jets this month. The Rafale had defeated Boeing’s F/A-18 in the erstwhile M-MRCA contest for 126 jets. That quest famously spiraled into the ground though, with the current Narendra Modi government then choosing to buy 36 Rafales, a fraction of the originally intended 126. Boeing brandishing of the F-15EX to the Indian Air Force may therefore be seen as a move to offset the clear advantages the Rafale now has by virtue of being in Indian inventory, and therefore making a default case for further orders.
“There will be more opportunities very soon to hear more about the F-15EX program, but won’t be able to share very much owing to the stage of the process. The US Air Force is interfacing with the Indian Air Force on that,” Kanaglekar said.
The emphasis of the F/A-18 Super Hornet for the Indian Navy’s 57 jet contest is visible too. Boeing art, including the image that headlines this piece, all specifically show the Super Hornet in Indian Navy colours. But the emphasis goes way beyond graphics. On the naval front too, the F/A-18 faces a fight against the Rafale, though Boeing believes the geopolitical/technological ecosystem and scale that comes with the Super Hornet make it a contender even if the Rafale has a ready ‘commonality’ case for the Indian Navy deal too.
“The Indian Air Force and Indian Navy have two very distinct requirements,” contends Kanagleka. “It’s a different world altogether when you’re talking about naval aviation. It is the other benefits that the Indian Navy will get from the collaboration, the growth potential, the fact that tremendous amount of scale exists out there will not be available anywhere else. Several dialogues are happening with the Indian Navy.“
In February 2019, Boeing entered into a three-way partnership with HAL and the Mahindra Group to support the F/A-18 pitch to India. Asked if that partnership would apply for the F-15EX too, Kanaglekar said, “It’s too early to say. Requirements will drive our business case and discussions. We are fully committed to Mahindra and HAL on the F/A-18 campaign. We will wait for requirements to see how things will pan out.”
Boeing’s partner HAL has made clear its sentiments on how difficult it will be for the IAF to draft requirements in the 114 jet program that covers disparate fighter types.
On the Super Hornet front, Boeing has had several levels of dialog with the Indian Navy over the last year. In February this year, Boeing revealed plans to test the F/A-18 on a ski-jump to prove compatibility on India’s current and upcoming aircraft carriers.
In the 114 fighter program, Boeing’s F-15EX (and F/A-18 Super Hornet) potentially go up against a raft of fighters that include the Rafale, Su-35, MiG-35, Gripen E, Lockheed Martin F-21 and Eurfighter Typhoon. It remains to be seen how evaluations will play out, considering the huge energies spent on the M-MRCA field trials and tests, a contest described by a former Boeing India head as ‘a beauty contest on specs’.