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SINGAPORE: Boeing moots possibility of Indian F/A-18 E/F deal

Boeing has resurrected the possibility of a sale of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter to India, as part of a broader concept to support New Delhi’s development of an indigenous aerospace sector.

Jeff Kohler, vice-president of international business development for Boeing Defense, says discussions are underway between the US and Indian governments about the potential for the US to support New Delhi’s “Make in India” initiative, which envisages local production across a range of industries.

Speaking at a Singapore media briefing, Kohler, however, stressed that India has not resurrected its 126-unit Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest - won by the Dassault Rafale before being abandoned last year.

“In our view it’s not a competition yet, and the Indian government is evaluating all the same players that were in the MMRCA competition,” says Kohler. “It’s a little different because there is not a set of requirements for the aircraft, but we think we it’s much more about the Make in India on the industrial side than it is about the airplane.”

The long-running MMRCA acquisition saw five fighters vying for the deal: the F/A-18E/F, Saab Gripen NG, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and RAC MiG-35. It stipulated an initial purchase of 18 fighters in fly-away condition, with the balance to be produced locally by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL).

The Rafale was eventually announced as the winner in 2012, but negotiations to produce the aircraft in India dragged on for years. In 2015, the MMRCA competition was abandoned altogether, and New Delhi decided to instead buy 36 France-built Rafales.

While this will help shore up Indian air force fighter numbers, it would appear to contradict New Delhi’s “Make In India" aims.

Kohler says that Boeing’s deep presence in both defence and commercial aerospace makes it a strong potential partner.

“How can a company go in and help India jump-start their aviation ecosystem?” he asks. “Primarily around defence, but you can’t sustain an aerospace industry on defence alone. Who else can bring the commercial piece and everything with it? We think we can go in and help India make that larger, more robust aerospace ecosystem, and we can do it a lot faster.”

Although concerns have been voiced about the long-term prospects for Boeing's existing St Louis production facility for the F/A-18E/F, Kohler says a second, India-located line is certainly possible.

“We envision there could be two [F/A-18E/F] lines for a while,” he says. “The US Navy could keep a line in St Louis and you could replicate a lot of it [in India]. If you’re talking about 150 to 200 airplanes, that’s built a good business case for a second line.”

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