Pitching its F/A-18 Super Hornet to India’s air force and navy, US military contractor Boeing Co. has said the twin-engine fighter plane is cheaper to operate than a single-engine jet, citing a US government study.
In an interview, Boeing Defence Space and Security chief executive Leanne Caret, speaks about the company’s plans to pursue an upcoming multi-billion dollar fighter programme, Make in India opportunities and the defence ecosystem in the country. Edited excerpts:
What brings you here?
I have been doing business in India for almost a decade. There’s incredible talent here and I have always had a general mindset that as a global firm, we need to have that global reach and that local presence, and need to provide that uncompromising service to our customers around the world. I am so excited by all the incredible progress we have made here in India not only in the products and services that we provide but also in how we have a localized workforce of more than 1,500 and we are continuing to grow every day.
Tata Boeing Aerospace (TBAL) inaugurated its facility in Hyderabad today. What is this joint venture (JV) all about?
When you talk about being a global firm and especially if you are US-based, many times it means you are exporting outside the US. However, we believe that a win abroad is a win at home. So this partnership is really critical and as we have looked at future opportunities…just thinking through the lens of exporting the goods wasn’t going to be good enough.
It’s about making sure we take full advantage of the talent and capability here in India. So, the JV is just a series of steps we have taken over the years…One of the first outputs of TBAL will be the Apache fuselage that will be provided to the global market space. It won’t be just for customers here in India but for all our customers.
But Indian customers are also going to get the real benefits of having that product made here. So, it’s a pretty exciting time and we will build upon that. There are the IAF Apaches and the army Apaches… both will benefit from this JV on day one.
India is looking at building war planes locally under the ‘Make in India’ plan and the IAF has been asked to come up with its requirements. Will you build F/A-18s here?
We believe the F/A-18 provides great capability to the Indian government. We believe it’s a viable candidate in the competition. We obviously need to wait for procurement to begin and for the government to decide whether they are going to have a two-phased competition or a single competition. Boeing will respond appropriately. What we have always committed to from day one is that we are looking to put significant work content here in India, and the actual requirement of fighters will determine the final outcome.
In a scenario where India is keen to go for F/A-18s, will you consider setting up a factory in the country and also export?
We are assessing all options. It goes back again to what is the quantity. If you are talking about a small quantity of aircraft—because they have not come out with the official number—it will dictate what is affordable, because whatever we do has to be affordable.
I met many of the services today. The number one comment across the service branches—army, navy and IAF—was ‘we need affordable’. And making certain we do the right thing that provides best value for money is our focus, and how we can best do that, is where our intent will be.
What is your sense of the Indian requirement for fighters? What will be a good number to set up a production line here?
This is one of those where it is important for the customer to lead. It is important they put out their requirement and then we respond in kind. They have had numerous requests for information on capability and different things that we have responded to.
But I very much respect the process the government is going through in terms of what is the capability they need and how do they best want to fulfil that—and then we will respond appropriately.
What makes you feel the F/A-18 is a viable platform for India, considering that Boeing was knocked out of an earlier competition?
I am not going to go back to the outcome of that competition. The US Navy continues to show great confidence in the F/A-18, and we are moving forward with an upgrade and continue to put modernization efforts into it, called the Block 3.
You know about the recent announcement by Kuwait to buy additional planes. This is a viable capability that continues to prove itself in conflicts, and is a great strategy in terms of a fleet mix for a number of countries. For that reason, and based on how the air force and navy operate their fleet, we think the capabilities are a good fit and look forward to the competition.
How different is the F/A-18 you are offering now from what was offered a decade ago?
It once again goes back to what the customer’s requirements are. If we wanted to push just a point solution, that would be one conversation….rather, Boeing prides itself on a close relationship with customers by listening to them and responding appropriately to bring forward affordable solutions to meet their capability needs. That’s really what is at the heart of our strategy.
The defence sector ecosystem in India is work in progress. Your comments on the strengths and weaknesses?
Talent here is most important and India is recognized for having amazing technology and innovation. This is something that as a global company we really want to take full advantage of, and make it part of the fabric of what we do.
I think that is a win-win for the country as well, because when you have firms like Boeing and others that see this type of capability and talent, and we can invest in these projects together…it helps by definition in creating that ecosystem. There is no lack of expertise and talent here and we want to take full advantage of that.
India has ordered 36 Rafale fighter jets and there’s buzz about the F-35 stealth fighters being offered to the IAF. And you are offering F/A-18. What do you make of it?
Each country has its own needs and will determine its own fleet mix and how they operate. I think it will be inappropriate of anyone in the industry to say what that fleet mix should be like.
That again goes back to our fundamental belief that we want to listen to what the customer wants. There is a multitude of products that they rely upon and how they wish to execute their missions during both peacetime and wartime. And what we want to make certain is… to allow them to get the best capability that they need in whatever mission they are serving.
Does the F/A-18 match the Rafale and F-35?
Let’s put it this way. My point continues to be that we need to know what the customer’s requirements are, and then we will put forward our best offer in support of that requirement.
If numbers make a good business case, would you be willing to set up a production line in the country? And have you done any math on what kind of production opportunities could arise from India for your other global customers?
We have clearly looked at a range of options. This conversation has been ongoing for a number of years and so quantities will dictate how we can provide the best value. It wouldn’t be the first time or the last time we have looked at opportunities to do more work for nations outside the principal location.
Going back to the example of TBAL, I think it gives you exactly the point, that we are not just building fuselages for Apaches here in India but are building fuselages for our worldwide supply.
And therefore, we have already put on the record and proven that we are willing to do that. Again, it is about the business case closing and making certain all the numbers work out.
Will Tata be the partner for other platforms too? Or are you exploring other options ?
Both. I am not going to divulge names of other companies we are having discussions with. What I will say is, we are continuing to look for ways to localize our presence. It is part of the commitment.
Are all agreements in place for unhindered transfer of technology? Or are there any barriers?
Some of the overarching technologies are at a government-to-government level, where parameters have been set when it comes to certain products and certain pieces of equipment.
There is a process that governments work together on to get the (technologies) released and those are done on a case-to-case basis, as requirements pop up. I think it’s a very cooperative process…And if for some reason some piece of equipment wasn’t approved, then what are alternative pieces providing similar capability…is all part of the process we work through.
Which bureaucracy is more difficult to deal with—Indian or US?
(Laughs.) We all have our plusses and minuses. I think we have been growing together.
When did you last fly in an F/A-18?
I flew in a Super Hornet last year. I didn’t pull as many Gs (G forces) as my contemporaries have pulled. Let’s just say, we flew around for quite a while and I flew upside down. It was the ride of a lifetime.
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