Dr. Vivek Lall, Vice President and Country Head of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems (IDS) in India, in a wide-ranging conversation with StratPost last week, discussed the scale of his company’s intended operations in India, the impact of the growing US-India ties on Boeing’s defense business in India, products on offer and the tender for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft floated by the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Sitting in Boeing’s offices in a shiny new tower block in one of the commercial centers in New Delhi, Vivek Lall makes sure you know that the company has been operating in India for a while, declaring at the outset, “Boeing has been doing business with India for- has been in India for 60 years in terms of the airlines on the commercial airplane side. We’ve been buying and selling airplanes for a long time in the country.”
Boeing’s defense business unit IDS is his baby in India and Lall is free about admitting that part of its success has been due to growing US-India ties. “In the last 4 to 5 years, we have the other side of our business, which is the defense business, interact and engage with India. It’s clearly a result of the increasing bilateral relationship between the United States and India that opened up the defense market here for us,” adding, “We have been engaged in the last 4-5 years with the Indian Air Force, Indian Navy, Indian Army – well basically the services and MoD (Ministry of Defense).”
“The improving bilateral ties between the US and India are clearly very important. Things like End User Monitoring Agreements being put in place. A few years ago it was unthinkable that such an advance fighter like the F-18, which is going to be relevant for the next 30-40 years, with AESA technology – and not like some of the competition that’s coming to the end of its production life – this is a platform that’s going to be relevant in the US for the next 30-40 years – would be offered to India, with AESA technology and other things. It was unprecedented – if you look at how much progress has been made in that bilateral relationship in the last few years,” he elaborates.Lall is not worried about having to compete for attention in the backdrop of India’s strong, historic defense relationships with countries like Russia, even with respect to the MMRCA. “India’s had a long-term trusting relationship with Russia and we deeply respect that. I think as India modernizes its forces – I think the pie is getting bigger and it’s not one versus the other, but one more strategic equipment for the war fighter. And so as the footprint grows there are products that could help in India’s modernization drive, so I don’t think it’s a compete per se. With the MMRCA, I think it’ll be the best platform suited for India’s requirements that the decision-makers will pick because that again is the mandate as established by the RFP (Request For Proposal).”
“The US-India bilateral relationship has been improving and that has got us to where we are in 3-4 years, and we’ve had a large defense sale,” he says, referring to the P8I deal.
But he also submits that Boeing has advantages as a company that few others can match. “Boeing is a large company – we’re in space, we’re in homeland security – so we’re into various aspects and the breadth and depth of this company is huge. And I think that’s our strategic advantage. The fact that we are in the commercial domain, we are in the defense domain, we’re in the space domain. So sharing of technologies, people – that we feel is our USP, if you will.”
Boeing, besides winning a contract for the supply of eight P8I aircraft for the Indian Navy, has also bid to meet the heavy lift requirements of the Indian Air Force, pitching 15 Chinooks and C-17s as well as the attack helicopter requirement offering 22 Apaches, not to mention, racing for the MMRCA order.
The PhD in Aerospace Engineering is especially optimistic and confident about Boeing’s offer of the CH-47. “The Chinook is in a class by itself. It has three applications. One is the military application, one is humanitarian and the third is nation-building. That machine can get into places -,” he trails off. “It was used in the tsunami rescue operations, it was during the earthquake in Kashmir. The Chinook can go in places where others can’t,” he says.
“I don’t know if you can see those photographs of where they can just tip on one end and land and unload. That kind of maneuverability, robustness of platform, getting to the altitudes you need to get to, picking up the weight you need to pick at altitudes, I frankly don’t see any – the platform speaks for itself,” he says, as his enthusiasm also comes through for the other behemoth.“The C-17 – tremendous platform. It’s very impressive in the kinds of locations that India – the high altitudes, the heavy lift requirement – it is an ideal fit.” But Lall would also like to enlarge the scope of Boeing’s offering to India. “We have the AEW&C – the 737 AEW&C, which is another uniquely capable platform.”
And he hopes that Boeing will emulate the success of a deal signed with the Indian government in the beginning of this year, which he says shows the extent of the willingness of the US to partner and share new technologies with India. “The P8I was the first sale here. It’s the largest US-India defense contract thus far. The United States Navy as well as the Indian Navy will be receiving similar state-of-the-art technology into their fleets. And so the level of trust, the level of interoperability, the level of sharing is unprecedented, as a result of this sale – we signed a contract on the first of this year,” adding, “The P8I sale is very symbolic in that it gets the state-of-the-art technology, it gets the latest equipment and the Indian Navy would be receiving its first aircraft in 2013, and all eight would have been delivered by 2015. So I think it certainly is of great significance to both countries that you have sale of that magnitude going through.”
The former NASA employee is also clear about the increasing scale of Boeing’s operations and ambitions in India. “There’s been a paradigm shift – we’re no longer just buying and selling. We are creating an industrial footprint here in India. Like the P8I deal I talked about – so over $ 600 million worth of offsets – we have started placing contracts for that. We have an R&T center – a Research and Technology center – in Bangalore that we recently launched.”
He even points out that HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) has started supplying parts for F-18s for the US. “We’re working with HAL – we signed a $ 1 billion dollar MoU with them in December 2007. And the first F-18 gunbay doors for the United States are being built by HAL. In fact the first set has already been shipped, very recently – a few months ago.”
Boeing, well aware of the offsets requirements in Indian defense tenders, has made extensive tie-ups with Indian companies for the IAF’s MMRCA tender. “On the (M)MRCA – the fighter competition – we have partnered with 38 companies. We’ve signed MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) with 38 companies. Both public and private partnerships. So should we be successful we’ll be working with quite a large cross-section of companies.”
Boeing has also worked to convince its contractors in the US to tie-up with Indian vendors. “Now we do supplier conferences in Bangalore and we try to make sure that not only us, but our Tier 1 suppliers in the US – so 16 of the Tier 1 suppliers for the F-18 for example, in the US, with net revenues of $ 454 billion – you can imagine the consortium of Tier 1 companies. That group of 16 has partnered with these 38.”
Lall says Boeing doesn’t plan for its tie-ups to be restricted to Indian big business. “Because, it is not just Boeing – Boeing with Tata, Boeing with L&T, Boeing with HAL and all of that. We have combed the market in India, over the last two years. Not only the large companies – the Tatas and L&Ts and HALs and BELs – but also the Tier 2 – Tier 3 companies and we find a tremendous opportunity to partner. We find there are niche technologies – it’s an up-and-coming industry and clearly there’ll be a lot of sharing and learning.
He does, however, admit that getting to a point where all players are confident of the skill-sets and capabilities of partner companies could take time. “So it is a learning of skill-sets and so forth but clearly it’s an evolution over time. But we view India as a market where there’s tremendous resources on the ground in these companies and tremendous potential.”
All of this, according to Lall, is being seen as an opportunity for Boeing to grow its presence in the Indian market. “In fact, we’ve done $ 40 billion dollars worth of offsets around the world and we have never failed on our offset commitments. But we treat offsets as a catalyst for bigger things. We treat offsets as really spawning off an industry and we’ve done that around the world in different companies. So we really hope to keep doing the same kind of philosophy that we’ve followed around the world even in India. We’re very bullish on this market – we think there’s tremendous potential. And so we hope to continue partnering and looking for opportunities to partner with Indian industry.”
Moving on to discuss the big prize that the Indian government has to offer, Lall says, “The heart and soul of our effort is the fighter campaign – the (M)MRCA. We have successfully gone through two phases of the field trials. And we look forward to the third phase, which will be in February, in the United States.” So how did the F/A-18 do at Leh? “Leh is a very challenging field,” is all he’s willing to say.
But he denies the idea that because of the growing US-India relationship, Boeing might be getting some sort of a free pass in the contest. “I think the competition is incredible. You have six very capable platforms – five countries. And the requirements are clearly spelt out in the RFP. Whether it’s the 50 per cent offsets, or what-have-you – transfer of technology. It’s very specific in the RFP. So everyone has to comply with that, if you’re going to play in this game.”
Lall also brushes away the notion that the Indian defense procurement procedure is too lengthy, tedious or bureaucratic. “I think the Indian Air Force is doing a phenomenal job of very meticulously and thoroughly going through. Every country has its own ways of procuring aircraft. It’s a very important acquisition for India. It’s one that – if you get the aircraft in your fleet – which ever it is – it’s there for the next 30-40 years. Very likely the numbers will go up too. So it has to be a very thorough and thought out (process).”
He takes the example of the P8I order to bolster his argument. “And I’ll make reference to the P8I for example. That was a very thorough and deliberate process, again. A very transparent, a very thorough process of evaluation, of flight trials, of down select, of negotiations of understanding what’s on the platform – what’s needed on the platform. Again, very meticulous process. So some people ask me, did it take too long? Do you think it’s too bureaucratic? What do you think?”
“And I say no. Because if you compare this to international standards of procurement of any major platform, two and a half years from RFP to signing a contract is really well done.”
Dr. Lall thinks the Indian government too is seized of the importance of defense procurement and the need to build up a domestic defense industry. “I certainly know that the modernization drive is there. There is a real need for strategic platforms. And what we hope to bring, not just in terms of products and platforms is an industrial footprint in the country. So its a dual-pronged approach and we feel we want to bring the best of Boeing to India and the best of India to Boeing in this process of partnering together.”
Understandably, Lall is enthusiastic about Boeing’s starter in the race, the F/A-18. “The uniqueness of that platform – the fact that it has an operationally proven AESA radar, which is very important. And it’s a proven combat aircraft and that’s also very important to know. The design of the aircraft – it was designed for having the AESA integrated into it, which is different from adding a sensor later. It’s an integrated weapons system – the F/A-18 – compared to the competition.”
“It has been designed keeping everything in mind that exists on it. So it’s one integrated weapons system rather than an aircraft with a couple of engines, with a few missiles, with radar, which is typical and that’s what’s unique about it.”
But he also adds that F/A-18 also offers scope for choice to the customer. “There are a huge number of weapons configurations, so it is open architecture. It’s just the design of the whole system is such that it is – from day one – the inception, the conception of the platform is keeping everything in mind. It’s not like – what about – let’s add an AESA now. You have to integrate it with the electronic warfare suite etc. If you’ve got all the parameters, it doesn’t mean you can’t make it modular or open architecture. I think that’s very critical.”
“Because things like – you can swap out an engine in thirty minutes. Anywhere. It’s probably unheard of. That you don’t have to go in for scheduled maintenance for 9000 plus hours – flight hours. Unheard of. In fact a lot of people are alarmed that you don’t have to do anything for that long. So but these are operationally proven jets and so clearly the platform speaks volumes for itself.”
He also says the US plans to continue development of the aircraft to induct new technologies. “The United States will continue to insert technology in this platform – for the next 30-40 years. And it’s called Continuous Technology Insertion. So if India chooses to buy this now, ten years from now – it’s not like it’s ten years old – but it’ll have the latest technologies that are being inserted in the platform – which is very unique. Again.”
Interestingly, Lall, while talking about Boeing’s receipt of a Request For Information (RFI) from the Indian Navy for the aircraft, also points out the advantages to India if both the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force opt for the same aircraft.
“We have received an RFI on F-18s from the Indian Navy. The United States Navy, by the way, is the fourth largest air force in the world. 75 per cent of those aircraft are land-based. It’s a very formidable platform that can be used off of aircraft carriers as well as land and I think should the Indian Navy pursue it, clearly a platform that’s proven on aircraft carriers,” he says, adding, “It would make tremendous sense from a joint forces standpoint to have that capability, because economies of scale will play in and operationally you’d be further ahead form a joint forces standpoint. That’s for the government to answer.”
Of the six aircraft competing in the MMRCA, only the French Rafale and the F/A-18 have both air force as well as naval variants. The MiG-29K/KUB, which some might uncertainly argue to be a naval relative of the MiG-35, is already being supplied to the Indian Navy.
But would the aircraft be compatible with Indian carriers like the Viraat and the much-delayed Gorshkov? “We have checked out with some modeling that that’s possible. We have done simulations that they can be used off of the Indian carriers,” says Lall, adding that test flights to prove the simulations would only be done as and when the need arises.