Confirming a thread that has long been speculated upon in Indian defence circles, Boeing today told FlightGlobal’s Asia Managing Editor Greg Waldron that the company was seeking clearance from the U.S. Government to make a formal offer of the F-15EX fighter to India. This would be for an upcoming contest in which India is looking to build at least 110 fighters in country as part of a ‘Make in India’ effort. Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, a long-standing contender for Indian fighter requirements, has already been pitched by Boeing as part of the 110 jet contest.
The FlightGlobal piece quotes a Boeing executive as saying, “While awaiting further definition on the Indian air force’s requirements, we have requested a license for the F-15 so that we’re ready to share the full spectrum of potential solutions across our fighter portfolio when appropriate. We continue to offer the F/A-18 Super Hornet to both the Indian navy and Indian air force, and our F-15 is experiencing a resurgence in interest in the US and around the world.”
It was Kelli Seybolt, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for international affairs, who had told FlightGlobal on February 9 that Boeing was looking for clearance to pitch the F-15EX to India. Boeing India confirmed the development to Livefist.
The Indian government is expected to detail next steps in the ambitious fighter buy-and-build project later this year. If Boeing receives clearance to add the F-15EX to the mix, the list of prospective contenders would swell to 8: apart from the two Boeing jets, the Indian government will also be considering the Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-21, Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen E, MiG-35 and Su-35. Russia had similarly decided last year to make the Su-35 available in addition to the MiG-35 pending greater detail from the Indian Air Force on its requirements.
Speaking to Livefist from the Singapore Air Show, FlightGlobal’s Waldron said, “The curious thing about India’s competition is the broad range of types, which go from the Saab Gripen all the way up to the F-15 — should Boeing decide to move forward with such an offer. What is needed is more clarity from New Delhi about what, exactly, is needed.”
The bigger picture is cloudy at best. It remains unclear whether the quest for 110 jets will follow the path set down thus far. Budgetary pressures stand hugely amplified in the throes of economic woes in a country now looking to return to a path of growth. India’s first of 36 Rafale jets arrive in May this year. The IAF, buffeted by said budgetary pressures, is also looking to boost numbers incrementally by deciding to order a dozen more HAL-built Su-30 MKIs and, if cleared, 21 MiG-29 UPGs. India’s new Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has also recently weighed in on the burden of big acquisitions. Boeing’s quest for a license to pitch the F-15EX comes, therefore, in this sort of hazy atmosphere.
The F-15EX is the latest iteration of the highly successful Eagle program, with a raft of improvements. The US Air Force will receive the first two of eight F-15EX jets by the end of this year as part of a $985 million deal approved by U.S. Congress in December last year. The F-15 programs resurgence has so far been confined to U.S. interest, with efforts on to also weigh international interest in the improved jet. The licence to pitch the Indian government is part of that effort.
“Unsurprising that F-15 is finally being brought to the table, given Su-35 is also in the fray for MMRCA 2.0. Honestly, this was always the best fit US offering, but for the existence of the Su-30MKI. That challenge remains,” says aviation analyst Angad Singh.
Boeing’s tryst with the Indian fighter acquisition program began in the mid-2000s when the F/A-18 became a surprise entrant into the then M-MRCA (medium multirole combat aircraft) contest — an endeavour that spiralled into oblivion and finally saw the Indian government contract for a fraction of the intended 126 jets and settle for 36 French Rafales. The F/A-18 has hovered around India’s twisting and turning acquisition program, and now sees itself as a frontrunner for both the Indian Air Force’s 110 jet build program as well as the Indian Navy’s hunt for 57 new generation carrier deck fighters.
The F-15EX pitch is, in many ways, unsurprising. The F-15 program is currently headed by Pratyush Kumar, who took over the reins of the program after a very successful stint as Boeing’s country head in India. Under Kumar, Boeing scored a list of significant contracts for military aircraft, including the AH-64E Apache, CH-47F Chinook, C-17 and P-8I.
Boeing outsources the manufacture of certain F-15 parts to India already as part of its global supplier chain. Indian firms that make parts for F-15s include Rossell Techsys and SASMOS HET