The re­quire­ment of the IAF is not for a light­weight fighter but for a medium to heavy­weight com­bat air­craft ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing over long range with­out in-flight re­fu­elling, prefer­ably pow­ered by two en­gines for en­hanced safety and should have a high pay


As­tate­ment in mid-Fe­bru­ary this year by Manohar Par­rikar, the Min­is­ter of De­fence, that “In­dia will se­lect one or two fighter air­craft which will be man­u­fac­tured lo­cally by a pri­vate com­pany un­der ‘Make in In­dia’ ini­tia­tive”, has led to a flurry of ac­tiv­ity not only in the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try in the pri­vate sec­tor, but also amongst the lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers of com­bat air­craft in the world. How­ever, be­hind-the-scene ac­tiv­ity in this re­gard had be­gun much ear­lier, to be pre­cise, soon af­ter the ten­der for the 126 Rafale medium mul­ti­role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA) was can­celled in April last year. While the fresh ini­tia­tive of that time by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to pro­cure 36 Rafale jets in fly-away con­di­tion in a di­rect deal with the Govern­ment of France was wel­come, the global aero­space in­dus­try was well aware that this would only par­tially al­le­vi­ate the dif­fi­culty the In­dian Air Force (IAF) is in with re­gards to the rapidly de­plet­ing strength of its fleet of com­bat air­craft. By 2020, the IAF will be short by as many as 300 air­craft in its com­bat fleet.

Saab of Swe­den was per­haps the first in line with the of­fer to man­u­fac­ture in In­dia, the lat­est ver­sion of the JAS 39 Gripen which is claimed to be a fifth-gen­er­a­tion plat­form, with full trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy. In com­pe­ti­tion fol­lowed two com­pa­nies from the aero­space in­dus­try of the United States of­fer­ing man­u­fac­ture of com­bat air­craft in In­dia un­der iden­ti­cal terms re­lated to trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy.

In Oc­to­ber last year, the Boe­ing com­pany of the US had al­ready re­vealed in­ten­tions of of­fer­ing to build its lat­est ver­sion of F/A-18 Su­per Hor­net in In­dia if given an op­por­tu­nity by the IAF. This first in­di­ca­tion of this of­fer came from James McNer­ney, Chair­man of Boe­ing, when he was ad­dress­ing the gath­er­ing at an aero­space sum­mit in In­dia wherein he stated that he was look­ing for­ward to a part­ner­ship to “bring the best of Boe­ing to In­dia and the best of In­dia

One dis­tinct ad­van­tage that would favour the se­lec­tion of the F/A-18 E/F Su­per Hor­net over the F-16 IN Fight­ing Fal­con is the fact that the for­mer would be em­i­nently suitable for the In­dian Navy as well

to Boe­ing.” He also went on to say that In­dia did need com­bat air­craft in fairly large num­bers and that his com­pany would be will­ing to man­u­fac­ture a suitable fighter air­craft in In­dia pro­vided the or­der was large enough to jus­tify the in­vest­ment which un­doubt­edly, would be size­able. While McNer­ney did not spec­ify the air­craft that Boe­ing was pre­pared to of­fer, Chris Chad­wick, Pres­i­dent and CEO of Boe­ing De­fense, Space and Se­cu­rity (at that time), went on to make a spe­cific of­fer of the F/A-18 E/F Su­per Hor­net for man­u­fac­ture in In­dia.

Not to be left be­hind, the US aero­space ma­jor Lock­heed Martin Cor­po­ra­tion has also come up with an of­fer to man­u­fac­ture the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con com­bat jets in In­dia, once again un­der the ‘Make in In­dia’ scheme. This dec­la­ra­tion was made to the me­dia by Phil Shaw, CEO of Lock­heed Martin In­dia Pri­vate Ltd, at the Sin­ga­pore Air­show 2016. He also re­vealed that talks with the In­dian au­thor­i­ties on this sub­ject had been in progress for some time.

Brief His­tory of De­vel­op­ment

De­vel­op­ment of the F-16 and the F-18 be­gan in the US around the same time that is in the early 1970s. In a com­pe­ti­tion to de­velop a light­weight fighter air­craft for the US Air Force (USAF), Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics (now Lock­heed Martin Cor­po­ra­tion) was awarded a con­tract to de­velop a sin­gle-en­gine fighter air­craft that was des­ig­nated as the YF-16. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Northrop (later McDon­nell Dou­glas) was con­tracted to de­velop a com­pet­ing twin-en­gine com­bat air­craft dubbed as the YF-17. The pro­to­type of the YF-16 un­der­took its maiden flight in De­cem­ber 1973 and the YF-17 took to the air in June 1974. Af­ter ex­ten­sive eval­u­a­tion, in Jan­uary 1975, the YF-16 was cho­sen over the YF-17 in the light­weight fighter com­pe­ti­tion. Soon af­ter, in the Navy Air Com­bat Fighter com­pe­ti­tion held on May 2, 1975, the US Navy se­lected the YF-17 as the ba­sis for what would evolve as the McDon­nell Dou­glas F/A-18 Hor­net in sin­gle and twin-seat vari­ants clas­si­fied as C and D. The Boe­ing sin­gle-seat F/A-18E and the twin­seat F/A-18F Su­per Hor­net multi-role com­bat air­craft are larger and more ad­vanced de­riv­a­tives of the F/A-18C and D Hor­net and are ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing from air­craft car­ri­ers as well.

Com­bat Air­craft for the IAF

The ver­sions of the two com­bat air­craft from the US aero­space in­dus­try that were com­pet­ing for the con­tract for 126 MMRCA were the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con and the F/A-18 Su­per Hor­net. Both the plat­forms were of the fourth plus gen­er­a­tion. Un­for­tu­nately for the US aero­space in­dus­try, both the air­craft were elim­i­nated in the In­dian MMRCA com­pe­ti­tion as the Rafale from Das­sault Avi­a­tion of France emerged as the win­ner. How­ever, eight years af­ter the re­quest for pro­posal for the MMRCA was floated, the ten­der was can­celled leav­ing the IAF in se­ri­ous dif­fi­culty with re­gard to its com­bat fleet. Prob­lems for the IAF were com­pounded as the project to de­velop a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft (FGFA) jointly with Rus­sia was and is not pro­gress­ing at the de­sired pace. The need to ex­plore al­ter­na­tives for speedy in­duc­tion of medium to heavy­weight com­bat air­craft in the num­bers re­quired has there­fore be­come even more ur­gent.

With the strength­en­ing strate­gic part­ner­ship be­tween In­dia and the US, in­clud­ing the ex­pand­ing re­la­tion­ship in the regime of de­fence, both driven par­tially by the in­creas­ing bel­liger­ence of China es­pe­cially in the South China Sea, it would only be rea­son­able to ex­pect that In­dia would ac­cord higher pri­or­ity to de­fence deals with the US. In­dia in now in a sit­u­a­tion wherein it has to make a choice be­tween the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con and the F/A-18 E/F Su­per Hor­net, the two read­ily avail­able op­tions. To be­gin with, the re­quire­ment of the IAF is not for a light­weight fighter but for a medium to heavy­weight com­bat air­craft ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing over long range with­out in-flight re­fu­elling. The re­quire­ment of the IAF of a light­weight fighter is ex­pected to be met through the in­dige­nous light com­bat air­craft (LCA) Tejas Mk I and IA ini­tially and sub­se­quently by Tejas Mk II. As for the re­quire­ment of a heav­ier plat­form, prefer­ably, the air­craft should be pow­ered by two en­gines for en­hanced safety and should have a high pay­load car­ry­ing ca­pa­bil­ity. It is also de­sir­able that the air­craft be able carry a crew of two to pro­vide for bet­ter ef­fi­ciency when de­ployed on long range and long du­ra­tion mis­sions. Com­pared with the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con, the F/A-18 F model of the Su­per Hor­net is much larger in size, has a max­i­mum take-off weight that is over ten tonnes higher, has a 31 per cent higher com­bat ra­dius and can carry weapon load that is sig­nif­i­cantly larger and of wider spec­trum. As com­pared to the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con, the F/A-18 F is def­i­nitely more suitable for op­er­at­ing against tar­gets in China.

One dis­tinct ad­van­tage that would favour the se­lec­tion of the F/A-18 E/F Su­per Hor­net over the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con is the fact that the for­mer would be em­i­nently suitable for the In­dian Navy as well. The Su­per Hor­net has been and con­tin­ues to be the main­stay of the avi­a­tion wing of the US Navy for sev­eral decades.

Ad­van­tages of Boe­ing’s Of­fer

It is un­der­stood that the of­fer from Boe­ing in­cludes trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy and sub­stan­tial in­dige­nous con­tent. The IAF may thus have the op­tion of se­lect­ing from a wide range of Is­raeli and French avion­ics made in In­dia as well as from a range of weapon sys­tems de­vel­oped in­dige­nously or pro­cured from Europe or the US again through the ‘Make in In­dia’ route. Th­ese is­sues will have to be re­solved through ne­go­ti­a­tions in the ini­tial stages it­self. Boe­ing has re­cently made in­roads into the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try through the two other pro­grammes that are on­go­ing, namely the or­der for the 22 AH-64E Apache at­tack he­li­copters and 15 CH-47F Chi­nook heavy-lift he­li­copters for which com­po­nents are be­ing made by com­pa­nies in the pri­vate sec­tor of the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try. The US thus sees im­mense op­por­tu­ni­ties in In­dia for its own aero­space in­dus­try.

An­other ma­jor ad­van­tage of opt­ing for the Su­per Hor­net will be the GE-F414 en­gine. As Boe­ing has of­fered to set up the en­tire pro­duc­tion line in In­dia, it would be rea­son­able to as­sume that the GE F-414 en­gine, that pow­ers the F/A-18 Su­per Hor­net, will also be man­u­fac­tured in In­dia. This en­gine has also been se­lected to power the Tejas Mk 2 which is now un­der de­vel­op­ment. The IAF will be as­sured of the avail­abil­ity of life-cy­cle sup­port within In­dia for the en­gines for both the fleets of the Su­per Hor­net and the Tejas Mk 2. This would re­sult in huge cost sav­ings through economies of scale and also pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to the In­dian aero­space in­dus­try to ac­quire the ca­pa­bil­ity to de­velop power plants for air­craft in­dige­nously, some­thing that it has not been able to achieve so far.

Per­haps the most com­pelling rea­son why In­dia should not and will not opt for the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con is the de­ci­sion by the US Govern­ment to con­tinue to sup­ply the lat­est ver­sions of this plat­form to Pak­istan.

A RAAF’s F/A-18 Hor­net and a USAF’s F-16 Viper and in a train­ing sor­tie


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