Boeing hopes to find middle path for F-18 fighter jet sales to India


Bangalore: Boeing Company which is trying to sell its F-18 fighter jets to the Indian Navy is trying to work out a middle path that will satisfy the domestic manufacturing demands of both US and India, a top company executive said.

“We are willing to work with both Indian Navy and the US government to find a solution that works for everybody–that’s compelling when it comes to technological cooperation and industrial cooperation but that meets the objectives of both the governments,” Thom Breckenridge, vice-president, global sales, Boeing (India) told Mint.

The Indian Navy on 25 January put out a request for information (RFI) for 57 fighter planes to be submitted by May, and Boeing is pitching its F-18s. Meanwhile, rival Lockheed Martin with its F-16s is vying for a much bigger single-engine jet order for the Indian Air Force. Lockheed Martin has said it was reviewing clearances granted by Obama administration to make its F-16 jets in India, as the Donald Trump administration in US is keen to push US manufacturing.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has already held long meetings with Trump administration officials that were widely publicized. It is not clear if this matter was raised during those meetings.

“I am not going to comment on company’s discussions with the administration. I would say the company is in dialogue with the US government and we look forward to continuing the conversation with them as and when this particular opportunity moves forward,” Breckenridge said.

While the RFI does not specify requirements to manufacture F-18s in India, Boeing feels India will ask for it over time.

Under its planned strategic partnership model—recently proposed for the IAF order—India will select private local companies to exclusively manufacture military equipment for a specified period. The Indian partner will be identified through a model prescribed by a government committee, while the foreign partner will be chosen on criteria such as transfer of technology and the financial pitch.

“There is a reference to licence production, there are couple of references not directly to Make in India,” Breckenridge said, “There is no specific requirement yet but in the future, when the Indian Navy gets to the point they are releasing an RFP (request for proposal) or further down the process, we can expect to see some requirements.”

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has made it clear that no relaxations will be granted.

“This question you have to put to Boeing, Lockheed,” Parrikar told reporters on the sidelines of the 11th Aero India Show in Bengaluru on Tuesday. “What I am saying is what I want—I want it to be Made in India. Export to third nation is an additional bonus (and) if someone wants to shift the facility from somewhere else or whether he sets up a new one—it is his choice. I am in no way concerned with it.”

To a question on whether the F-18 be compatible with India’s aircraft carriers, some of them Russian, Boeing said it is working with Indian Navy.

“We need to continue to discuss with Navy to learn more about existing carriers but based on what we know so far, based on the modelling we have done, we feel confident,” he said, adding, “We will definitely compete; we can’t say we will win or not, but I do think we have a very good case. It was designed for carrier-based operations. It is operating in US Navy as a frontline fighter. We have done 700 deliveries of F-18. It has scale, low costs to maintain, and it has life ahead of it with continued investments out to 2040.