New Delhi: The Indian defence establishment is showing “increasing interest” in the American offer to supply F/A-18 “Super Hornet” fighters to IAF under the Make in India programme, even as US defence secretary Ash Carter is all set to come visiting from April 10 to 12 to further crank up the bilateral strategic partnership.
With IAF down to just 33 fighter squadrons, and the much-touted Rs 60,000 crore acquisition of 36 French Rafale fighters yet to be clinched a year after the Modi-Hollande summit in Paris announced the proposed deal, sources say India is now also actively exploring the possibility of going in for the F/A-18 fighters manufactured by Boeing.
Ahead of Carter’s three-day visit to India, US government representatives as well as Boeing and F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin have made “detailed presentations” to the Indian establishment on the suitability of establishing an American fighter production line in India. “Both the offers (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) are attractive for the Make in India strategy. No final decision has been taken,” said a source.
But India may well pitch for the twin-engine F/A-18s over the single-engine F-16s. For one, Boeing is offering “a new-generation production line” to be set up in India. For another, the Navy could also consider the F/A-18s in the years ahead since the multi-role fighters are capable of operating from aircraft carriers.
India, of course, remains upset with the Obama administration’s recent move to sell another eight F-16s to Pakistan for $699 million on the specious ground of counter-terrorism, which will now also be followed by nine AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters for $170 million. Overall, Pakistan will now have 84-85 F-16s primarily directed at India.
The move to get a second fighter production line, in addition to Tejas light combat aircraft project, ties up with defence minister Manohar Parrikar recent remark that “a fighter project” was in the “zone of consideration” under the Make in India policy.
This is considered critical since the 36 Rafales — if and when they come — will not be enough to plug IAF’s rapidly-dwindling fighter numbers. Both the F/A-18s and F-16s were part of the hotly-contested race for India’s original $20 billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project to acquire 126 fighters. Though Rafale was selected over its five rivals, the entire MMRCA project was scrapped early last year. India had then decided to directly buy only 36 Rafales.
Besides, Carter will also push again for India to ink three bilateral “foundational agreements”: the logistics support agreement, the communication interoperability and security memorandum agreement and the basic exchange and cooperation agreement for geo-spatial cooperation.