U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing is in talks with the Indian government to manufacture its F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters in India, according to comments by the company’s chief executive officer, Dennis Muilenberg. Muilenberg, who is visiting India for the first time, said that Boeing is in “conversation” with India to manufacture the F/A-18, a multirole fighter, in India. Muilenberg’s remarks come after Boeing’s chairman, James McNerney, said in October that the company would be happy to manufacture the F/A-18 in India provided the Indian Air Force would express interest in purchasing and operating the jets.
“We are taking a hard look at the opportunity for the F18 fighter jet as an area where we can build industrial capacity, supply chain partnerships, technical depth, design and manufacturing capability in India, providing an operational capability that is useful for Indian defence forces,” Muilenberg said in New Delhi earlier this week. “Make in India is an enabler aligned with that strategy,” he added, referencing the Indian government’s program to encourage indigenous manufacturing.
The F/A-18 was considered as part of India’s now-dead medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender, losing out to France’s Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter. Having left the MMRCA tender behind officially, New Delhi has chosen to still stick with the Rafale, opting to conclude the deal through a government-to-government deal with no domestic manufacturing component. (Instead, talks on the Rafale deal are hung up on the issue of offset spending clauses, which would require France to reinvest part of the revenue from the deal in India.) The final deal is for 36 fighters—far short of the 126 envisaged under the MMRCA.
That comments from Boeing regarding the possibility of F/A-18 manufacturing in India are occurring now is not entirely surprising. The U.S. firm could see an opportunity with the still held-up Rafale deal. In fact, the offer to manufacture the F/A-18 in India addresses one of the main lost attractions of the MMRCA procurement program—a domestic manufacturing component with technology transfer.
“Our intent here is to build an industrial framework for the long run that builds on the aerospace investments being made not only by programme, but also by long-term industrial capacity that is globally competitive,” Muilenberg noted in India, clearly marketing his comments to those in India who would love to see a major firm like Boeing invest in India’s homegrown manufacturing sector.
The F/A-18 could be attractive to India for a variety of reasons. Notably, New Delhi is modernizing its carriers and working on its next-generation 65,000 ton Vikrant-class aircraft carrier. India and the United States have a working group on carrier cooperation, and it’s possible that India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier could implement General Electric’s Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) with a Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) launch system for its air wing. If Boeing is serious about talking to India about the F/A-18, that may give U.S.-India cooperation on carrier technology a boost, making the adoption of EMALS CATOBAR system more likely.
There’s a lot to consider with these comments from Boeing’s chief executive. As the MMRCA saga and ongoing talks over the Rafale deal attest, India has faced its share of difficulties in procuring a fourth-generation multi-role fighter. The conclusion of the Rafale deal, which is very likely, will make an F/A-18 acquisition unlikely given the complicated logistics and high maintenance costs for the IAF in managing a fighter fleet consisting of a hodge podge of Russia, French, and U.S. jets.
Muilenburg’s remarks open an interesting door for India. The IAF continues to run a fighter shortage that won’t be solved by the conclusion and delivery of 36 Rafales. The F/A-18 prospect has its problems, but it’s far from an unthinkable option at this point. As always, however, the devil will be in the details. If Boeing and New Delhi open the door to official talks and start discussing an order, history tells us that it could be years before Indian pilots are flying U.S. fighters.