Boeing gets US govt approval to offer F-15EX fighter jet to India

May join fray for IAF's acquisition of 114 medium fighters

Topics  Boeing | Indian Air Force | US India relations

Capable of flying at Mach 2.5 (two-and-a-half times the speed of sound), the F-15EX is the world’s fastest fighter aircraft | Photo:

The Boeing Company revealed on Thursday that Washington had granted it a licence to market its newest heavy fighter, the F-15EX, in India.

Capable of flying at Mach 2.5 (two-and-a-half times the speed of sound), the F-15EX is the world’s fastest fighter aircraft | Photo:

The Boeing Company revealed on Thursday that Washington had granted it a licence to market its newest heavy fighter, the F-15EX, in India.

Seven of the world’s premier fighter manufacturers have already indicated interest in competing for the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) ongoing acquisition of 114 medium fighters -- a contract worth an estimated $20-30 billion. 

The fighter manufacturers that have responded to the IAF’s ‘request for information (RFI)’ floated in 2019 include Boeing with its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Lockheed Martin with its single-engine F-21; Saab with its single-engine Gripen E/F, Dassault with its twin-engine Rafale, Eurofighter GmbH with its twin-engine Typhoon, and Russia with two twin-engine fighters -- RAC MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35.

Offering the F-15EX would result in Boeing pulling out the Super Hornet from the contest. "There is no way Boeing would field two fighters in the same competition," said Pratyush Kumar, who heads the F-15EX project in Saint Louis, USA. Kumar said Boeing was waiting to see the performance requirements of the IAF. Boeing will then decide which fighter it will offer.

More likely, Boeing will decide to offer the F-15EX to the IAF, while offering the Super Hornet to the Indian Navy, which is separately pursuing the acquisition of 57 fighters for its aircraft carriers. The US military uses the Super Hornet only as a naval, carrier-deck fighter, though it has sold countries such as Australia the F/A-18E/F as a land-based fighter.

The F-15 Eagle entered US Air Force (USAF) service in its original form over four decades ago. However, it has been continually upgraded to remain state-of-the-art. The USAF’s confidence in the F-15 platform was underlined in July 2020, when it awarded Boeing a floating $23 billion contract for up to 144 F-15EX fighters – the F-15’s latest version. That means the F-15EX sustainment and upgrading programmes will continue for at least another three decades.

The F-15 Eagle, which is flown by several air forces, including that of Israel, has a formidable air-to-air combat record of 104-0. Along the way, Boeing developed a ground strike version called the Strike Eagle. Now, equipped with a new cockpit, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, integrated electronic warfare suite and fused sensors and data links, the F-15EX has been transformed into a multi-role fighter capable of the full range of missions.

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The aerodynamics of the F-15 have always been top-of-the-line. Capable of flying at Mach 2.5 (two-and-a-half times the speed of sound), the F-15EX is the world’s fastest fighter aircraft. It carries 13.5 tonnes of armament, more than the Rafale or the Sukhoi-30MKI. Its range of 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 kilometres) enables it to strike targets deep inside enemy territory.

Based on publicly available US budget figures, the F-15EX costs $80.3 million per fighter, including the cost of its twin engines. However, India wants the aircraft to be built in India, which involves setting up and certifying a new factory and training workers. That would take the cost up significantly.

Asked whether building the fighter in India would raise its cost unacceptably, Kumar said: "We will sell the F-15EX on the terms and condiations the Indian government wants to buy it."

On Thursday, Boeing also launched the so-called Boeing India Repair Development and Sustainment (BIRDS) Hub. This effectively amounts to localising the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of Boeing platforms being used by the Indian military. 

India is one of the world’s largest Boeing defence customers. It currently operates 11 C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, nine P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft with three more on order, 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, with six more on order and 15 CH-47F Chinooks heavy lift helicopters.

The BIRDS Hub can also provide support, with New Delhi’s acquiescence, to Boeing platforms in service with other regional countries. This could significantly raise India’s defence export earnings.

Stating that this would “shape India as a strategic destination for aerospace engineering, maintenance, repair and sustainment services”, Boeing said the BIRDS “training programs would increase skilled manpower by developing sub-tier suppliers and medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) to build high quality MRO capabilities in India”.

The IAF’s procurement of 114 fighters follows the cancellation in 2015 of its 2007 tender for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), and the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters as a stop-gap measure in 2016. Short of numbers, the IAF has launched the procurement of 114 medium fighters in an exercise that closely mirrors the MMRCA tender.



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