Surendra Ahuja is Managing Director of Boeing Defence India (BDI). A retired Rear Admiral, Ahuja is in charge of delivering on Boeing’s commitments to its Indian defence customers while positioning it for new business opportunities. In an interview to Ajit K Thakur, Editor. Raksha Anirveda, he delved into the details of Boeing’s ‘For India, By India’ aircraft sustainment strategy besides describing how valuable F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III is for India and Indian Navy in particular. Edited excerpts:
RA: Boeing has made a strong pitch for F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III for the India Navy. How this advanced new generation aircraft is different from competitors especially in terms of technology and cost? Kindly elaborate.
SA: An advanced, multi-role, frontline fighter of the US Navy, the Super Hornet Block III was designed alongside the US Navy to meet its mission requirements through the next decade and beyond. Indian Navy stands to gain from the multi-billion dollar investments that have gone into the platform resulting in a most lethal and highly networked naval fighter.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III will offer the Indian Navy several unique and differentiated capabilities. Its single-seat and the two-seat versions are carrier compatible. Recent demonstrations conducted by Boeing and the US Navy proved that the F/A-18 Super Hornet can operate from a ‘ski jump’ ramp, validating the aircraft’s suitability for the Indian Navy’s aircraft carriers.
The two-seat variant (F/A-18 F) shares the same mission scope as a single seat (F/A-18 E) while allowing for carrier-capable training and the ability to fly advanced missions from the carrier that benefit from a second crew on-board. Most importantly, carrier based naval aviation technologies related to manned-unmanned interface can also be effectively operationalized with a two-seater carrier compatible version.
The aircraft can interface with P-8I and other US origin assets that the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force have, or are in the process of acquiring. This will further augment lethality of these platforms and enhance India’s force projection capabilities.
The Super Hornet automatically lends itself to enhance maritime cooperation between the US Navy and Indian Navy in several areas of naval aviation. The commonality and interoperability benefits that Indian Navy will get as a result of F/A-18 Super Hornet on Indian Navy carriers would be unmatched.
As part of Boeing’s “For India, by India” aircraft sustainment strategy, we are exploring the possibilities of the Block III Super Hornets being serviced in partnership with the Indian Navy, US Navy and industrial partners from India and the US throughout the lifecycle of the aircraft. This will further develop advanced expertise in aircraft MRO in India, resulting in higher availability of the aircraft.
We’re confident that the multi-role F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III will offer unrivalled value to the Indian Navy, that can be appreciated in the current economic environment, as it not only has a low acquisition cost, but also costs less per flight hour to operate than any other tactical aircraft in the US forces inventory.
RA: Please elucidate on Boeing’s experience with local manufacturers of aerostructures and compo-nents even for F/A-18 Super Hornet and creating an aerospace and defence ecosystem in India, including the active role it plays in Make in India / Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.
SA: Boeing has always supported the development of indigenous aerospace and defence capabilities in India, and has through the years invested in partnerships with the Indian aerospace ecosystem in skilling, research & technology, and manufacturing. Our growing partnership with the country’s defence forces, airline customers and expanding supplier base makes it imperative for us to invest in, develop, and nurture talent.
Our sourcing from India stands at US$1 billion a year from over 250 suppliers who are manufacturing critical systems and components for some of Boeing’s most advanced products.
For instance, SASMOS HET Technologies manufactures electrical panel assemblies for the F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-15 Strike Eagle. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) manufactures F/A-18 gun bay doors. They are only two of our many supplier partners who manufacture components for some of our advanced aircraft.
Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL), Boeing’s joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Limited, is an example of our strategic focus on Make in India and makes fuselages not just for the six Apaches that the Indian Army is on contract with Boeing for, but also hundreds of Apaches for customers around the world, including the US Army.
We are also working with Indian companies to develop capabilities in the country so they can perform aircraft maintenance locally, including heavy checks and supply of indigenous equipment. In addition, we’re accelerating our skill development and engineering involvement in India. Through our skilling and up-skilling initiatives, we are training aircraft maintenance engineers, technicians and frontline factory workers across India with our industry partners like Tata, Rossell Techsys, Jaivel and Lakshmi Machine Works. We are committed to India for the long term, and our vision is a robust, globally competitive aerospace and defence ecosystem in India.
RA: Boeing considers India as a unique market like no other. Kindly provide insights into Boeing’s future plan and long-term goal to further consolidate its dominant presence in India.
SA: We want to bring the best of Boeing to India and the best of India to Boeing… and to the world! Boeing has been working with India’s defence forces for many years supporting their mission-readiness and modernization objectives. Our portfolio of products and services offer unmatched operational capabilities across the entire mission spectrum.
In addition to our response to the Indian Navy’s (IN) MRCBF with the F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, there are several other opportunities we are pursuing here in India. The US Government recently approved our license to market the F-15EX to India. The F-15EX is a future-ready, multi-role solution in the form of unmatched payload, performance, and persistence by integrating leading edge technologies, networks, weapons and sensors. The Indian Air Force has information regarding F-15EX as per the RFI released for the Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) program. We look forward to working with IAF on their detailed requirements.
In 2020, the Ministry of Defence signed the contract for the acquisition of an additional six Apaches for the Indian Army. We’re also having discussions with IAF on their tanker requirements.
We are seeing the growth of our services business and with it, in the value Boeing is able to provide through the lifecycle support. We are working with the IAF and the IN to provide high operational capability and readiness for the P-8Is, the C-17s, and the Head of State aircraft through sustainment contracts, and the Chinooks and Apaches through warranty.
The recent developments in India’s space arena that allow the private sector to participate in this sector are positive. We look forward to partnering with ISRO in their endeavours related to the human space flight.
RA: Boeing has offered KC-46 as the best solution to India’s long-pending need and requirement for air-to-air refueling. What makes KC-46 different and with an edge from other mid-air refuellers in fray?
SA: As India expands its Air Force and increases its defensive capabilities, the KC-46 is the perfect choice for a multi-role tanker-transport aircraft. The brand-new KC-46 is designed from the ground-up to be a combat-ready tanker. This means that unlike other tankers, it can operate closer to the fight, covertly and with the ability to protect itself. The recent contract award from the US Air Force (USAF) for an additional 27 KC-46A Pegasus aircraft is a testament to the versatility of the air-refueling platform by Boeing which is enabling the US Air Force to provide in-flight refueling services to bombers, fighters, airlifters, surveillance aircraft, and other aircraft flown by the US military. Recently, Japan became the KC-46 program’s first international customer and is scheduled to receive its first jet this year.
With the IAF’s expeditionary status, the air refueler of the type of KC-46 has already become a necessity. The IAF is enhancing its operational reach by enabling most of its aircraft and helicopters for mid-air refueling. The most reliable and economical tanker to operate, purpose-built, KC-46 will provide India with the combat capability IAF needs for sovereign operations and will also serve as an aircraft to move people and material. Pegasus is the best choice for today and decades to come.
RA: Boeing has been a regular participant in Aero India. Kindly share your experience from Aero India 2021 and the major take away from the event.
SA: We designed our presence at this year’s Aero India by taking all necessary precautions to safely engage with our customers, suppliers and the media. We had a delegation of senior leadership from the US at the show despite the pandemic. Aero India provided us the opportunity to meet our customers to discuss their existing and future needs, and strengthen our commitment to them. Our presence at the show also conformed to the guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Defence and the State Government to ensure the safety of our team members and visitors at the exhibit.
Aero India provided us an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to India and highlight our strategic investments in developing India’s aerospace ecosystem. The show allowed us to showcase our capabilities in multi-role fighter aircraft, vertical lift platforms, aerial multi-role tankers, unmanned systems, and commercial platforms, in addition, to our services, technologies, and local sustainment capabilities.
We announced a strategic agreement with Air Works for the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of two key Boeing defence platforms in India, the P-8I operated by the Indian Navy (IN) and the VIP transport fleet operated by the Indian Air Force (IAF). We also announced the addition of a new production line at our joint venture, Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL) in Hyderabad, Telangana, to manufacture complex vertical fin structures for the 737 family of airplanes.
Aero India 2021 enabled us to continue our discussions on India’s future aviation, defence, and security requirements, as we leverage and develop in-country manufacturing and engineering skills.
RA: The defence MRO market segment in India is projected to reach an approximate figure of $2.5 billion by 2025? Do you propose to offer any solutions on this front? Also, tell us about Boeing’s recently launched BIRDS hub initiative.
SA: We’re seeing growth in the localization of MRO services and training, and the value Boeing is able to provide through the lifecycle of its products. We continue to work with the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy to provide exceptional operational capability and readiness to the P-8Is, C-17s, and Head of State aircraft through local sustainment services as also warranty services on Chinooks and Apaches. Through the lessons learnt from supporting C-17s and P-8Is in India, coupled with Boeing’s in-depth experience in sustaining aircraft worldwide, we’ve been able to set processes to develop similar sustainment concepts for other aircraft. It means deploying the best global expertise gleaned from the experience of operating these aircraft in different conditions, and to suit different needs.
As part of shaping and strengthening our MRO and services strategy for the country, we recently launched the Boeing India Repair Development and Sustainment (BIRDS) Hub initiative. BIRDS Hub is an in-country network and alliance of our suppliers and brings together ecosystem partners to shape India as a strategic destination for aerospace engineering, maintenance, repair, skilling and sustainment services. This is an important step in our commitment to the government of India’s Atmanirbhar Bharat vision of developing India as an MRO hub.
The first-of-its-kind initiative will benefit customers with best-in-class solutions, efficient turnaround times, and optimal economic value, all available in-country. An important aspect of the hub is training programs to increase skilled manpower by developing sub-tier suppliers and medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) to build high quality MRO capabilities in India. The focus on skill development and knowledge transfer programs will help suppliers develop capabilities and gain experience across Boeing platforms.
RA: Can you also provide an update on Boeing India’s engineering work in India?
SA: Boeing believes in building indigenous capabilities towards driving innovation and contributing to the growth of the Indian Aerospace and Defense (A&D) industry. Teams in India undertake high-quality, advanced aerospace work spanning engineering design of structures and systems, manufacturing support, developing systems to test our aircraft, and providing digital solutions to our airline customers. Cutting-edge R&D in traditional and emerging areas such as next-generation airplane health management, environment-friendly coatings, advanced networks and secure-communication are areas where teams are leveraging new-age technologies to replace traditional approaches, enhancing safety and productivity.
Boeing engineering design teams are working with the R&D team to leverage Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning methods to introduce automation in the process, resulting in a significant reduction in time taken for tasks, and also enhanced quality of output. Digital aviation efforts are helping airlines reduce fuel consumption through route optimization, and make effective utilization of their crew. Digital engineering is being used to enhance the manufacturing environment and provide value to customers. Digital threading is being used to create a digital twin before manufacturing aircraft systems, resulting in fewer manufacturing issues. This drives efficiency, optimizes product design, and enhances manufacturability, making the end-to-end supply chain more digital.
Boeing Research & Technology India has delivered commercially viable solutions for Airplane Health Management (AHM) and Air Traffic Management (ATM). Its ATM experts are currently working with the Airports Authority of India to develop a roadmap for air traffic management modernization in the country. Today, the research center is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the quality of wide-body airplanes that Boeing delivers. Using Internet-of-Things (IoT) technologies, its engineers are finding ways to improve passenger experience during air travel.
So, as you can see, there’s lots that Boeing is doing in this space as well.