India is considering plans to produce American F18 fighter jets in India with Tata as the main indigenous supplier, according to sources in the Ministry of Defence. The proposed sale is still in early stages. It will be discussed and drafted during the visit of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to India. US-based defence manufacturer Lockheed had proposed the sale of F16 IN aircraft to India, but it was blocked by the Indian Air Force because of the single engine nature of the aircraft and Lockheed’s ties with Pakistan. The F18s also give the ministry another option to choose from if it is not able to agree on the terms with France for the Rafale jets.
“There are a lot of important issues on agenda during Carter’s visit. These talks are in very early stages. They will need to be discussed and drafted during his visit and only then we can move forward. But the Rafale deal is not the reason for looking towards the F18s. We had agreed with the US to help develop our fifth generation AMCA planes. The F18 deal will help. It will give interoperability and compatibility. So there are good takeaways if things work out. But these things take years to materialise. It’s very early to say anything,” an MoD source said. Questioned whether the jets, if cleared, will be built indigenously, the source said: “There have been solid talks with the Tatas to be the indigenous supplier. Initial talks have been about the jets to be built in India.”
With India and France not able to come to a price agreement on the French Rafale aircraft, some people are of the opinion that the F18 deal will act as a fallback cushion. Also, if India ends up purchasing both the F18 and the Rafales, there would be possible logistical nightmares since pilots will have to be trained on separate platforms. Ammunition incompatibility will be an issue. This will also mean that there will be no scope for interoperability. The one big positive of the F18 over the Rafale is that the F18 supports Indian and Israeli air-to-air missiles.
US major Boeing, which makes the F18 aircraft, has cultivated sound relations with India over the past several years. The recent inking of AH64 and CH47 deals along with Boeings memorandum of understanding with TATA are good examples to back that. F18 IN, the fighter aircraft offered to India by Boeing, is an advanced variant of the F18 E/F version. The IN version also has larger Indian sub components installed that will allow the aircraft to carry Indian and Israeli made weapons and payloads.
Sources didn’t reveal exactly how many aircraft will be built in India. However, no delays are expected by both sides as was seen earlier. Sources say that the Department of Defence Production allows quicker negotiations and also faster contract agreements.
Many options available in the F18 aircraft can also be used in the Indian made Tejas and the upcoming Advanded Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme of India’s HAL. The AMCA will be a fifth generation fighter aircraft. The powerful F414 jet engine by GE is crucial for the AMCA to reach optimal capabilities. Also, the need of the F414 engine numbers may go over 3,000 over the next two decades. General Electric has already signed a contract with an Indian manufacturer to produce those engines in India.
The F18 is also certified to be operated from aircraft carriers. It can be operated from the upcoming IAC 2 carrier. One of the more advanced variants of the F18, the FA18 G is also on offer, which is a good choice for dedicated jamming. It has been the Air Force’s long-standing requirement to operate a dedicated airborne squadron for long distance jamming and to alert threats after retiring the MiG 25.
The F18 jet is a multi-role aircraft, akin to the French Rafale. It carries a wide variety of ammunition and more number of weapons than the Rafale. The F18 IN will come with advanced modern AESA radar AN/APG 79 made by Raytheon. The new F18 also comes with advanced modern AESA radar AN/APG 79 made by Raytheon. The jet will have 11 hard points that will allow it to carry a greater number of air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-ship missiles and bombs. It will also be capable of being equipped with modern missiles like AIM 120 D, JDAM taken from the Indian Hornet jet.
The F18 has advanced avionics, electronic warfare and jamming suites, towed decoys et al. It costs less than the Rafale also in terms of weapons and acquisitions. But the Rafale leads the way in terms of pilot impression, according to testing charts put out by the Air Force, and less operating and maintenance cost.