India eyes Boeing fighter jets in latest procurement twist
NEW DELHI/SINGAPORE: Boeing Co, considered the frontrunner in the race to supply the Indian navy with new fighter jets, is now in contention for a much bigger $15 billion order after the government abruptly asked the air force + to consider the twin-engine planes.
Until recently, Lockheed Martin Corp's F-16 and Saab AB's Gripen were in a two-horse race supply at least 100 single-engine jets to build up the Indian Air Force's fast-depleting combat fleet.
Both had offered to build the planes in India in collaboration with local companies as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's drive to build a domestic industrial base and cut back on arms imports.
But last month the government asked the air force to open up the competition to twin-engine aircraft and to evaluate Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet, a defence ministry source said. That jet is a finalist for the Indian navy's $8 billion to $9 billion contract for 57 fighters.
The defence ministry plans to within weeks issue a request for information (RFI), the first stage of a procurement process, for a fighter to be built in India. The competition will be open to both single and twin-engine jets, the official said, but both Lockheed and Saab said they had not been informed about the new requirements.
The latest change of heart is a major opportunity for Boeing, whose only foreign Super Hornet customer so far is the Royal Australian Air Force.
It also illustrates how dysfunctional the weapons procurement process and arms industry are in the world's second-most-populous country. The need for new fighters has been known for nearly 15 years, but after many announcements, twists and turns, the country's air force has only three-quarters of the aircraft it needs.
An indigenous light combat aircraft, the Tejas, is still not operational, 35 years after it was first proposed.
An Indian Air Force source said fighter procurement was urgent: the branch's operational strength has fallen to just 33 squadrons, its weakest level in four decades, as it decommissions Soviet-era MiG-21s.
"The IAF wants the RFI issued within weeks and get the process started," said the source, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "The problem is that government keeps shifting what it wants."