F-15 offer could disrupt Indian fighter contest But only if the Indian Air Force is ready to buy American

by Saurabh Joshi

Flight Global‘s Greg Waldron broke the news out of the Singapore Air Show 2020 last month of the U.S. Government considering an application for an export licence for its F-15 fighter aircraft to India.

Although there is a lot to unpack here in terms of implications (which we will get to in a minute), StratPost can confirm that an export policy approval has been granted in the form of an ITAR-waiver. ITAR stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations that govern the control of arms exports by the United States. Separately, F-15 manufacturer Boeing also applied for a DSP-5 licence in the fourth quarter of 2019, which would allow them to market the aircraft to India. Both the ITAR-waiver and the DSP-5 licence allow the sharing of information that is not already in the public domain, for the purpose of marketing. According to the U.S. State Department, ‘The DSP-5 can include hardware, software, or documents and is the mechanism used to obtain a Marketing License for information that is not public domain’.

Finally, StratPost can confirm that representatives of the U.S. government and Boeing have already conducted early conversations on the aircraft with the Indian Air Force (IAF) on their request, under the ITAR-waiver.

The IAF’s interest in the F-15 has emerged from the U.S. Air Force order for an upgraded model of the fighter, the lessons from the air defence battle that followed the Balakot raid and tacit recognition of the distinction between the F-15 and other U.S. fighter aircraft that have been offered to India.


As we know, the Indian Air Force has a contest gathering steam for the acquisition of 114 fighter aircraft. This contest came about after the IAF withdrew its earlier contest for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) and ended up placing an order for 36 Rafale fighters.

Eye-rollingly called MMRCA 2.0, it includes the Russian Sukhoi-35, a relative of the Sukhoi-30MKI currently in service in the IAF, in addition to the MMRCA 6 (Saab Gripen, Lockheed Martin F-21/F-16 Block 70, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and MiG-35).

Separately, the IAF is ordering, or plans to order an additional 18 Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft, 21 MiG-29 fighters and 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS Mk1A in addition to the earlier order of 40 TEJAS. There has also been talk of a second order for Rafale fighters further down the road.

Impact On Perception

A potential U.S. offer of the F-15, as a standalone pitch or part of MMRCA 2.0, could alter the balance of the contest, currently weighed in favour of the Rafale, as well as, calculations on other future acquisitions with the emergence of a uniquely new option.

The two U.S. fighters on offer, the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the ‘F-21’ have both struggled with some of the baggage they are perceived to carry in India.

The Lockheed Martin ‘F-21’ is the F-16 Block 70 renamed for the Indian market, for the rather obvious reason that older variants of the F-16 are operated by the Pakistan Air Force. The F/A-18 Super Hornet is still seen somewhat dismissively by IAF puritans as primarily a navy fighter, even though the aircraft is also in service in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and earlier models are in service in multiple air forces around the world.

These perception problems have worked to the advantage of the French.

The F-15 suffers from none of these difficulties.


The Indian Air Force, enamoured as it is with the French Rafale, has remained unchanged in its propensity to sniff at the other aircraft competing with it, for some reason or another.

The terms of the new contest are, so far, broad enough for the aircraft on offer to range from single-engine lighter fighters like the Saab Gripen and the Lockheed Martin F-21 to the no-bullshit-seriously-heavy Sukhoi-35. The Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F/A-18 Super Hornet and MiG-35 fall somewhere between these two extremes, with the F-15 bringing up the far end, followed by the Sukhoi.

But the contrast in availability and capability at this far end is not easily dismissed, given it’s something that actually works out when you need a fighter to come for an air defence battle and not just an air show. This has become clear since Balakot, with semi-official statements lamenting, ‘Rafale hota toh aisa hota, Rafale hota toh waisa hota‘.

The forthcoming RFP (Request For Proposal) could narrow this weight and performance spectrum if the IAF decides to display clarity of intention about exactly what they want.

But could the F-15 sway the IAF from its preference for the Rafale, given the IAF has had its heart set on the French fighter (really, any fighter as long as it was French)?

It’s not Russian, it’s not a ‘navy fighter’ and it’s not a renamed F-16. It’s certainly not the Gripen and even though the Eurofighter Typhoon was the Carl Lewis of the first MMRCA race, Airbus has not displayed any enthusiasm in chasing this particular IAF order. All the competing manufacturers are painfully aware the Rafale is the aircraft to beat, already having been ordered by the IAF.

U.S. Air Force F-15EX Order

Part of the reason for the IAF’s interest in the F-15 is the U.S. Air Force commitment to the latest model, the F-15EX, solidified recently with an intention to order the first eight aircraft and plans to buy a total of 144 aircraft.

It has evolved a multi-role capability on top of its air-superiority pedigree and notched a hundred victories without loss across variants.

But development and production potential, combat record, performance and specs, though important, are not necessarily sufficient for an Indian acquisition, given the pursuit of customised and expensive ‘India-specific enhancements’ in the past.


First and before anything else, are decision-makers in Delhi comfortable with the idea of fielding a fleet of U.S. fighter aircraft — the first ever in the IAF?

Although the IAF might have listened with interest to an offer for the F-35, that can has been kicked down the road — at the very least, after India’s order for the Russian S-400 system. And even if the government of India succeeds in making nice by ordering the NASAMs kit, it would still be insufficient for a heart-to-heart on the F-35.

Indeed, given the inevitable strings attached, the IAF might even consider itself fortunate not to be the recipient of an F-35 offer.

Again, the F-15 is different. Not a ‘navy fighter’ or a ‘renamed F-16’, it is possibly the most capable and acceptable U.S. fighter the IAF would want offered to it.

But if an American fighter remains outside the field of imagination of decision-makers in the Government of India, the U.S. Government and Boeing would be wasting their time, in spite of offering a formidable competitor to the Rafale.

Relationship Status

The opportunity to supply offensive capabilities to a country like India is a prize far beyond a sales victory. Such sales create and define levels, shifts and milestones in bilateral relationships, potentially influencing, for example, votes at the UN Security Council. India has long relied on the Russian nyet and increasingly, more recently, on the French accent.

Cost will still matter, even though the IAF had to dump the life cycle cost-joke after the MMRCA and placed an eye-watering order for the 36 Rafale fighters.

This might not necessarily work against the F-15, given the unit price and volumes involved in the U.S. order for the latest model, even after the sunk one-time costs for the Indian infrastructure to operate the Rafale.

Should the French be worried? They might have good reason, for the first time in a long time, if an American fighter is acceptable to Delhi.