China-India Deadlock: Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet Joins Tender For A New Jet For The Indian Air Force

Lee Jin-manAP Images

Boeing’s own F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is now contending with the Lockheed-Martin F-16 and the Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen for the $15 billion tender to provide 100 new jet fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF), The Times of India reported.

This competition mostly involved the two single-engine fighters, but the Indian government has suddenly asked the Air Force to consider the Super Hornet. This airplane, which is currently the main aerial asset of the U.S. Navy, is larger and heavier than the other contenders and is also being considered for the $9 billion tender for the acquisition of 57 jets for the Indian Navy.

This development happened just a week after France proposed the sale of additional Dassault Rafale jets to New Delhi. At the end of the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, in 2012, the Rafale emerged as the victor and the perspective new jet for the Indian Air Force.

However, the negotiations faced several impediments, especially on the subject of technology transfer, which India had been adamant about. In the end, only 36 jets were acquired from the proposed 126. Despite these issues, the Indian government is favorable to the acquisition of additional Rafales, The Economic Times reported.

These developments show that Boeing has found a significant opportunity in India, but will also be facing stiff competition.

The Indian Air Force requirement for a new jet stems from the need to properly counteract New Delhi’s regional enemies: China and Pakistan. The sanctioned strength implies 42 squadrons comprised of 18 aircraft each. However, the decommissioning of older models, like the MiG-21 and the MiG-27, and the severe attrition rates of these aircraft have brought the number of active squadrons down to 31.

Still, these older jets still form the backbone of the IAF, meaning that once they are gone, by the next decade, the number of active squadrons may become even lower. In order to avoid this situation, New Delhi has been attempting to procure new jets in the international market.

Given the way the MRCA was handled, the need to find large numbers of new jets remained, which led to a smaller competition involving only single-engine fighters. The manufacturers involved in the newer tender, Lockheed-Martin and Saab, admitted having been caught off guard by the recent developments, but remain committed to their local partners.

Concurrently, the Indian Navy has also been introducing Russian-made Mikoyan MiG-29K naval jets to its carrier force. These aircraft have proven disappointing, and the service has been looking for alternatives. The Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is probably the most serious contender in this bid.

Boeing Super Hornet lands on the USS Carl Vinson carrier.
Featured image credit: U.S. NavyAP Images

The American jet had also participated in the MRCA, having been eliminated before the final round of the contest. The competition between the Super Hornet and the Rafale is, thus, back in full swing.

This opposition encompasses both the IAF and the Navy, given that the French jet is also offered as a naval model, which serves currently in the Marine Nationale. The Rafale, though, has been accused of being far too expensive for its capabilities and has been produced in relatively small numbers, with foreign clients only buying one or two squadrons per nation.

The Super Hornet is also facing a dilemma regarding foreign sales. The jet is a larger and heavier development of the previous Hornet series, with a wider array of abilities, including a dedicated electronic warfare variant. Although capable, it was only acquired by the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Air Force. A victory in India would represent a major breakthrough for Boeing.

Nevertheless, it faces another opponent in this contest, one which may be even more challenging than the French airplane.

India has been producing aircraft for decades and had been attempting to find a direct replacement for the MiG-21 in the form of the Tejas program. This small fighter jet was proposed 35 years ago and has yet to materialize into an actual combat-capable fighter, as discussed in Poder Aereo.

New Delhi has committed to acquire 123 units of the current model, and 200 additional ones if they meet the new requirements. However, even if the Tejas Mark III does enter production, it will only become operational during the next decade.

Even though the production of small fighter jets is facing such daunting issues, India still envisions the creation of a domestic fifth-generation stealth fighter. The Drive reports that not only will the new bids for the renewed jet tender be offered by mid-April, but they may imply the cooperation in the development of technologies for an Indian stealth fighter.

Although New Delhi has been involved in the development of the Russian stealth jet, the Sukhoi Su-57, it seems it may not be happy with how that project is being handled. Lockheed-Martin is currently producing the F-35, and it has been reported that it could be trying to sell it to New Delhi, although such a dialogue remains somewhat murky.

What the American company did propose openly was the possibility of transferring the production of the F-16 to India, which would meet the technology transfer clause. This, along with the company’s expertise in stealth fighter production, would make it a compelling partner for India and, thus, a fierce competitor for Boeing.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the search for a new jet for the IAF has been convoluted and bared little in the way of results. Bureaucratic hurdles within the Indian government and inability to find an agreement with partners have been dragging the tender for almost two decades. The solution for the fighter gap issue hasn’t been found.

The Super Hornet will face stiff competition in India, for sure, but if the bid goes through, the gains may be tremendous.