As early as February 2020, there were reports that Boeing wants to sell the heavy-duty F-15EX fighter to India. F-15EX is the latest variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle multirole fighter. Is it a new prospective candidate for the multirole fighters that Indian Air Force (IAF) has been desperately trying to acquire since 2001? The first round of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition that began in 2004 with issue of RFI, saw Rafale emerge as the winner. The requirement of the 126 had to be curtailed due to technical and contractual reasons and finally only 36 Rafale aircraft were bought off the shelf from France. The process for second round of attempt, now to acquire 114 aircraft got kicked off after the Indian Air Force (IAF) released a 72-page preliminary Request for Information (RFI) to foreign vendors on April 8, 2018. The response to RFIs was received by July 2018. Six global companies responded. On offer were the same six aircraft that were part of the earlier MMRCA competition. The initial six contenders who responded to the RFI in July 2018 were Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 (Later named F-21), Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F/A-18E/F, Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian MiG-35 and European Eurofighter. A new participant Sukhoi Su-35 was added later. If F-15 EX will now to be added, or it becomes a direct government-to-government independent offer, to be supplied through U.S. Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route only time will tell. IAF has still to issue its Request for Proposal (RFP) which would become the basis of actual competition. Having initially wanted only a single engine fighter with larger numbers, the selection for IAF has now become rather wide with a much heavier F-15 at one edge of the spectrum and much lighter single engine Lockheed Martin F-21 and Saab Gripen JAS 38 E/F on the other end. With India all set to acquire 12 additional Su-30 MKI and 21 MiG-29 UPG aircraft the urgency for pushing 114 Make in India jets have also come into question. also it will be so very difficult now for IAF to shape its RFP with such wide range of contenders.
Boeing Evolves as Company
William E Boeing bought a shipyard in Seattle in March 1910 which later became his first airplane factory “Pacific Aero Products Co”. Boeing has come a long way since and today makes airplanes, rotorcraft, rockets, and satellites. It is among the largest global aircraft makers; second largest defence contractor, and the largest exporter in the United States by value. In 2019, Boeing generated about 76.6 billion U.S. dollars in revenue (Boeing’s defence business was around $26bn). This compares to more than 101 billion U.S. dollars in 2018. Boeing is now ranked as the second-largest aerospace company in the world behind Airbus. In 2019, Boeing delivered 158 type 787 aircraft. In total, the aircraft manufacturer delivered around 380 aircraft in 2019. It is ranked 40th on the Fortune Global 500 list (2020), and ranked 19th on the “World’s Most Admired Companies” (2019).
India and USA Closer Relations
At the advent of 21st century, rising muscle flexing China became of concern to India, USA and the South Asian countries. Thus began close relations between the world’s oldest and largest democracy. Once U.S. demonstrated accommodation to India’s core national interests and acknowledged outstanding concerns, it resulted in increase in bilateral trade and investment; cooperation on global security matters; support for inclusion of India in United Nations Security Council (UNSC); greater role in World Bank and IMF; and admission into multilateral export control regimes like Nuclear Suppliers Group, MTCR, Wassenar Arrangement, and Australia Group. Post 2000, USA became more open to selling high end military equipments to India. In 2016, India and USA signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and India was declared a major defence partner of the USA. In September 2018 India and USA signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), thus increasing inter operability between two nation’s militaries. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 72% Americans viewed India favourably. Bilateral trade in goods and services grew at an average annual rate of 7.59 per cent from 2008-2018, doubling in value from US$ 68.4 billion to US$ 142.1 billion. India and US are targeting to increase bilateral trade to US$ 500 billion, and both the governments are working on “hiccups”. President Barrack Obama became the first US president to be the chief guest at the Republic Day on 26 January 2015. President Trump visited India in February 2020. Among the increasing cooperation in defence, aviation has seen the fastest results.
Boeing’s India Aviation Connect
Nearly 75 years ago, Tata Airlines operated a Boeing DC-3 aircraft in India. Since then, with the 707, 747, 757 Freighter, 777, 737 and the game-changing 787 Dreamliner, Boeing has been the mainstay of India’s commercial aviation sector. Boeing’s military aviation connection with India began in 1940s, when Indian Air Force (IAF) acquired the T-6 Texan (Harvard Advanced Trainer) and the C-47 Skytrain transport, a military variant of the DC-3. Today, with IAF’s C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifters and Indian Navy’s P-8I maritime surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft, Chinook and Apache helicopters, Boeing has become a great partner in India’s military mission-readiness. Additionally, the IAF operates four 737-200s as Signal Intelligence platforms and three 737 Boeing Business Jets for VVIP commitments. Two VVIP Boeing-777 jets are likely to be delivered to Air India, to be operated by IAF by September 2020.
Boeing Defense, Space & Security Connect
In 2011, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III airlifters were ordered for IAF and began inducting in 2013. IAF has eleven C-17. The 4-engine C-17 Globemaster III can carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh terrain up to 4,500 kilometres away and land in 3,000 ft. or less on a small unpaved airfield in day or night. It will augment India’s ability for inter-theatre movement of troops and equipment. C-17carries a payload of 77.5 tonnes vis-à-vis the IL-76′s 50 tonnes and has delivered cargo in every worldwide operation since the 1990s. IAF’s C-17s have seen action from day one moving men and materials for flood and cyclone relief operations and humanitarian missions, including in Bihar, Odisha, Jammu and Kashmir. C-17s were actively used during Nepal earthquake and in the Yemen evacuation. They were instrumental in moving supplies including T-90 tanks to Leh in Ladakh in the recent Galwan India-China crisis. The C-17s are also operated by the UK, Australia, Canada, Qatar, UAE, and NATO Airlift Wing. India ordered eight P-8I Neptune aircraft, an India specific variant of P-8A Poseidon. The P-8I is a long-range, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft capable of broad-area, maritime and littoral operations. It is a military derivative of the Next-Generation Boeing 737-800 and combines superior performance and reliability with an advanced mission system that ensures maximum interoperability. An agreement was signed in January 2009 for eight P-8Is at a total cost of US$2.1 billion. Contract for four additional P-8Is was signed in 2016, In November 2019, the Indian government approved the procurement of another 6 P-8Is.
In September 2015, order was placed for 22 AH-64E Apache Longbow attack helicopters to replace IAF’s Mi-25/Mi-35 fleet and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters to replace Mi-26. The $1.4-billion Apache deal was also through the FMS route. The AH-64 Apache is a twin-engine helicopter that features a nose-mounted sensor suite for target acquisition. The four stub-wing hard-points allow carriage of a mix of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Hydra 70 rocket pods. 2100 AH-64s have been produced to date and have served in conflicts in the Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. It has a service ceiling of 6,400 m giving it high altitude ability. Boeing Apache Longbow AH-64E have begun replacing the IAF’s older Russian Mi-25/35s attack helicopters. Eight aircraft were inducted to form the first squadron at Pathankot in September 2019. The second squadron will form soon at Jorhat in the Assam Valley. All 22 aircraft will be in by end 2020. In April 2013 Indian government decided that hence forth the Indian Army will also have its own Attack helicopter fleet. Additional 6 Apache helicopters are planned for Indian Army.
The around US$1.0 billion contract for multi-mission, heavy-lift transport 15 CH-47 D/F Chinook helicopters brings new capabilities. The Chinook is used in air assault missions and inserting troops into fire bases. It can carry up to 55 troops or 12,700 kg cargo. Its primary mission is to move troops, artillery, ammunition, fuel, supplies and equipment into the battlefield. The secondary missions include medical evacuation, disaster relief, search and rescue, aircraft recovery, fire-fighting, parachute drops and heavy construction. Chinook has seen operations since Vietnam. Newer variants were central element in the Gulf War and Afghanistan. A total of 1,179 Chinooks have been built. They were formally inducted into IAF at Chandigarh airbase in March 2019. The second airbase will be in the North East. All aircraft will be delivered by 2020.
F-18 E/F Super Hornet
The Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet are twin-engine, carrier-capable, multirole fighters based on the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The Hornet had first flown in November 1978. The Super Hornet first flew in 1995, and joined US Navy in 1999. The Block III F-18 E/F Super Hornet offers affordable stealth, and extensive capability upgrades that include enhanced network capacity, longer range, even better stealth performance, an advanced cockpit system and new sensors, with the life of the aircraft extended from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours. Boeing has offered to make its top-end fighter jet Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in India and taking Indian manufacturing to global standards if the IAF were to buy it. This twin-engine, supersonic, multi-role fighter is same as operated by the US Navy. Raytheon APG-79 AESA radar has been offered on the aircraft. Boeing proposed joint manufacture of the jets with Indian partners. It also planned to offset the cost by setting up a US$100 million maintenance and training hub in Nagpur. This would be the first time the Super Hornet has been offered for production in a foreign country. Boeing and Tata Industries agreed to form a joint-venture company. The new entity would supply components for Boeing military aircraft world-wide, including for the Super Hornet. Proposal would include transfer of technology and significant amount of the production to India. Combined Hornet requirements for IAF and Indian Navy could be around 200 and may justify production.
On the naval front, the F/A-18 faces a competition with the Rafale-M, 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. In February 2019, Boeing entered into a three-way partnership with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and the Mahindra Group to support the F/A-18 pitch to India.
F-15E Strike Eagle and F-15EX
The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is an American twin-engine, all-weather tactical fighter aircraft designed by McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing). The Eagle first flew in July 1972, and entered service in 1976. It is among the most successful modern fighters, with over 100 victories and no losses in aerial combat, with the majority of the kills by the Israeli Air Force. The Eagle has been exported to Israel, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. The F-15 was originally envisioned as a pure air-superiority aircraft. Its design included a secondary ground-attack capability that was largely unused. The aircraft design proved flexible enough that an all-weather strike derivative, the F-15E Strike Eagle, an improved and enhanced version which was later developed, entered service in 1989 and has been exported to several nations. As of 2017, the aircraft is being produced in different variants.
In 2018, the USAF and Boeing discussed a proposed F-15X, a single-seat variant based on the F-15QA intended to replace the USAF’s F-15C/Ds. Improvements included the AMBER weapons rack to carry up to 22 air-to-air missiles, infra-red search and track, advanced avionics and electronics warfare equipment, AESA radar, and revised structure with a service life of 20,000 hours. In the FY 2020 budget, the U.S, Department of Defense (DoD) requested US$1.1 billion to procure eight F-15EXs of a total planned procurement of 144 F-15EXs. The USAF opted for the F-15EX in order to maintain fighter numbers after the premature termination of F-22 production, its aging F-15C fleet, and F-35 delays. Although it is not expected to be survivable against modern air defences by 2028, the F-15EX could perform homeland and airbase defence, no-fly zone enforcement against limited or no air defence systems, and deploying standoff munitions. In January 2020, the USAF were set to buy the first two F-15EXs, while the remaining six of the initial order to be bought later. The F-15EX is based on the F-15E variants sold to Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the past decade and, according to Boeing, it “delivers more payload, capacity and range than any fighter in its class”.
Flight Global, a global aviation website, had reported in February 2020 that US aerospace giant Boeing was contemplating offering its F-15EX fighter to the IAF and has sought clearance from the Donald Trump administration. Boeing has already offered its F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet to the IAF and Indian Navy, which is seeking to buy 57 aircraft to operate from its aircraft carriers. Flight Global reported that Kelli Seybolt, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, had revealed that “Boeing had sought an export licence for India for the F-15EX. The licence will allow Boeing to discuss the F-15EX with Indian officials…”
In the Air Force Technology report dated February 28, 2020, Harry Lye writes that F-15EX is to act , as an in-the-air arsenal for the F-35 and, in future, to possibly fly alongside unmanned wingman drones. The fourth-generation plus fighter is being eyed by the USAF as being a means of carrying a large number of missiles in support of the F-35 to support the advanced sensors and stealth capabilities of the fifth-generation fighter. The idea is where the F-35 can penetrate, the F-15EX can follow behind and bring the firepower to destroy threats the F-35 detects. In December 2019, US Congress enacted the 2020 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), giving the USAF $1.1bn to acquire the first eight F-15EX aircraft; the new requested budget ups this funding to $1.6bn for a further 12 fighters. Under the NDAA, however, the USAF has been limited to buying two F-15EX initially before funding is made available for the next six, making a total of eight aircraft. The further acquisition and purchase of a full fleet of F-15EX will be on condition of the USAF delivering a report on the programme. The USAF’s service acquisition executive Dr Will Roper touted the F-15EX as a unique opportunity to ‘inject fifth-generation capabilities into a fourth-generation asset’.
The F-15, despite being a fourth-generation fighter, has seen continued upgrades, with international purchases of the aircraft adding more advanced systems to the existing airframes. The purchase of the F-15EX is seen as good news for Boeing’s fixed-wing fighter business which delivered 34 fighter jets in 2019, compared with Lockheed Martin which delivered 134 F-35s in the same period. F-15EX can carry 22 sidewinder and AMRAAM missiles, an upgraded digital ‘backbone’, new mission computer with capacity for upgraded and more advanced software, better display systems and a new threat detection system. Plans for the F-15EX include scope include the aircraft supported by an unmanned Valkyrie drone as an autonomous wingman.
F-15 and the MMRCA Competitors
In terms of Max Take-off weight and aircraft length (36,741 kg and 19.446 m), the F-15EX is significantly larger than the Super Hornet (29,937 kg and 18.31 m) and Rafale (24,500 kg and 15.27 m) and well over twice the size of the Gripen E/F offered by Sweden’s Saab. The F-15EX maximum take-off is quite near the Su-30MKI (38,800 kg and 21.935 m), the IAF’s main fighter. F-15EX can carry 10.4 tons of external loads compared to Rafale’s 9.5 ton. The F-15E and F-15EX have conformal fuel tanks to increase range and advanced navigation equipment for low-level ground-attack missions. It is reported that F-15EX will cost $80 million apiece. Israel is known to be considering to buy 25 F-15EX jets adding to its already existing 25 F-15I.
How will Boeing make the F-15EX compete with the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet in IAF’s proposed competition is unclear. Numbers wise both the aircraft have had a production run of around 600 total aircraft, vis-a-vis 4,500 F-16s. The F-18 had lost out to Rafale in the MMRCA competition, and to the F-16 in USAF competition in 1970s. One advantage the F-18 has is that it is powered by the General Electric F-414 engine which is part of the India’s LCA variants and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programs. Chances are that F-18 will be pitched for the Indian Navy only and F-15 could be a stand-alone order of some two squadron specialised force. Only time will tell.
Defence analyst Shiv Aroor of Livefist spoke to Ankur Kanaglekar, Head of India Fighter Sales at Boeing and in his report of July 6, 2020 explains how Boeing will shortly receive a requested license to formally market the F-15EX to the IAF, with an announcement possibly imminent. 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. 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.
Boeing Presence and Make-in-India
The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block III will be offered with ‘Make in India’ long-term partnership commitment. A public-private partnership brings together Boeing, Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Mahindra’s global scale, manufacturing and supply chain expertise. HAL has been the single-source producer of 757 over-wing exit doors. HAL has also manufactured the 777 up-lock boxes, F/A-18 gun bay doors, F/A-18 wire harnesses, P-8I weapons bay doors, and P-8I identification friend-or-foe transponders. BEL is also on contract to provide F/A-18 flight deck cockpit panels. HAL recently delivered the 150th gun bay door for the F/A-18.
Boeing’s joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) is for aerospace and defence manufacturing including unmanned aerial vehicles. In September 2014, Dynamatic Technologies (DTL) and Boeing inaugurated a plant to manufacture critical parts for Chinook helicopters. Dynamatic recently delivered 100 ramp and pylons for Chinook. DTL has earlier been working on the P-8I since 2010. Dynamatic Technologies and Tata Advanced Materials Limited (TAML) have already delivered P-8I power and mission equipment cabinets, and TAML is making auxiliary power unit door fairings and composite tail-cones for the P-8I. Boeing created a state-of-the-art facility with TAL Manufacturing Solutions Ltd to manufacture floor beams for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. TAL also makes ground support equipment for the C-17. Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) has delivered the Indian-designed Data Link II for the P-8I. Data Link II is a communications system that enables exchange of tactical data and messages among the Indian Navy aircraft, ships and shore establishments. Dynamatic Technologies and Tata Advanced Materials Limited (TAML) have already delivered P-8I power and mission equipment cabinets, and TAML is making auxiliary power unit door fairings and composite tail-cones for the P-8I. BEL has also delivered the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) interrogator. Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL) has provided the speech secrecy systems for the P-8I. BEL is also on contract to provide F/A-18 flight deck cockpit panels. Hyderabad based Avantel Ltd has delivered the mobile satellite systems for P-8I. Hyderabad-based Cyient (formerly Infotech) has supported a number of critical design-engineering projects for Boeing airplanes, and currently provides design and stress support on the 747-8 Freighter and the 787-8 and 787-9.
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) was the single-source producer of 757 over-wing exit doors. HAL has also manufactured the 777 up-lock boxes, F/A-18 gun bay doors, F/A-18 wire harnesses, P-8I weapons bay doors, and P-8I identification friend-or-foe transponders. Boeing’s India partners are already delivering world-class quality for company’s worldwide supply chain for most advanced aircraft in the world.
Boeing has set up Research & Technology Centre in Bangalore. Boeing has invested in engineering centres at Bengaluru and Chennai with a talent pool of 3,000 engineers. Boeing’s joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) is for aerospace and defence manufacturing including unmanned aerial systems. The joint venture (JV) will manufacture aero-structures for aircraft and collaborate on integrated systems development opportunities in India. TASL is already manufacturing aero-structures for CH-47 Chinook and Apache helicopters, including for global customers.
Boeing is in India as a long-term strategic partner and committed to help India develop indigenous aerospace industry. Boeing wants to combine its technological know-how and world-wide presence with India’s software and industrial skills for a win-win combination for both. Their presence is a mutually beneficial relationship. They have set up Research & Technology Centre in Bangalore and field service offices in Mumbai, IAF’s Hindon airbase, Indian Navy’s INS Rajali and at New Delhi. Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen—a flight navigation solutions provider is in Hyderabad. They have another subsidiary, Continental Data Graphics (CDG) in Chennai. Boeing in India has around 500 employeesand many more support the civil aircraft systems supply chain. Boeing is also keen to offer the ScanEagle UAV to India for internal security. Catapult launched 4-foot long aircraft with 10 foot wing span; ScanEagle has 20-hour loiter time and very little operational and logistical requirements. It can carry a 15 kilogram payload for greater than 15 hours.
Research & Technology Partnerships
Boeing has had research and development (R&D) presence in India since 1995 when it establishedresearch collaboration with the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in Bangalore and subsequently ran projects also with Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur. IISc is one of only 10 universities worldwide that has such a special relationship with Boeing. Aerospace Network Research Consortium (ANRC) was set up with IISc along with industry partners HCL Technologies and Wipro. In 2009, Boeing established the Boeing Research &Technology Centre. Also set-up in Bangalore, Boeing Strategic Development and Experimentation (SD&E) Centreto provide defence experimentation and decision-support services to understand the future needs of the Indian armed forces. In collaboration with IIT Bombay and Department of Science and Technology (DST), Boeing helped conceptualize the National Centre for Aerospace Innovation and Research (NCAIR) in 2009 to support world-class research and manufacturing development in aerospace in India. NCAIR has resulted in 20 patents and technology breakthroughs. Boeing invests in an externship program with IITs and other top engineering colleges every year to select students to work with industry partner. Boeing is partnering with the National Skill Development Corporation India (NSDC) to provide vocational training to Indian students.
In 2012 US President Barack Obama initiated a foreign policy shift to look east to neutralize rising China. China has had significant border disputes with many of its neighbours. It has tried to use old historic maps to justify territorial claims. The unilateral Chinese action in South China Sea, the new Hong Kong Security law, and specific to India, the Doklam crisis of 2017, and the ongoing Galwan border crisis are indicators of bull-dozing approach that China often likes to take. U.S. has been conscious of this though have been delaying action. Pentagon currently deploys 60 percent of US submarines in Asia. Funding for US Pacific Command (PACOM) has been on the increase. India is key to the US’ ability to create a stable balance of power in the larger Indo-Pacific and at a time of resource constraints, it needs partners like India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in face of Chinese onslaught. The key areas of action in US “Pivot to East Asia” regional strategy have been strengthening and re-balancing bilateral security alliances; deepening working relationships with emerging powers; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights. United States has thus been establishing military, economic, and diplomatic ties with countries adjacent to China. End August 2019, the new US Defence Secretary Mark Esper discussed future steps needed to be taken for India and the United States to work together more closely, during his conversation with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. In December 2019 they met agaain during the 2+2 meeting.
Rising China and common security concerns have brought USA, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and India closer on strategic approach in the region. The world’s biggest democracies finally stand on a shared platform; have some congruence in their world view; and most importantly feel the need to work together on many counts. Aerospace is the real place for joint action. And India and USA have taken a conscious first big steps. Clearly having become part of Indian Armed Forces’ transport, helicopters and maritime aircraft fleets, USA is keen that India inducts a fighter aircraft for better long term geo-strategic partnership. What fighter aircraft will be selected for IAF and Indian Navy will be evolved by the two services and the specialists in government. Surely Boeing is a very significant partner in India’s aviation eco-system.
Picture Source: military.com