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Boeing eyes India tie-ups for drones, digital technology

LiveMint logoLiveMint 08-08-2017 Tarun Shukla

New Delhi: Boeing Co. is in talks with Indian companies to collaborate on drones, digital technology and aerospace services, a top company executive said.​

The US-based aircraft maker is already making the fuselage of its Apache attack helicopters and floor beams for some of its planes in collaboration with the Tata group in India and has also invested in an engineering unit in Bengaluru.

Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, said Boeing is casting its “anchor deep into India” and more announcements are likely soon.

“You see that we are producing the structure for Apache (helicopters) but what’s ahead now will be the progression (of this),” he said in an interview on 1 August. “We have talked around a variety of possibilities whether it is autonomous systems or whether it is systems themselves on another platform. None of them are announced yet, so I am not going to make news... but there are a number of discussions ongoing, so that’s going to continue growing.”

Drones with artificial intelligence for autonomous functioning are able to do surveillance, track targets, and fire on targets, said Bharat Karnad, professor for national security studies at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

Boeing’s Insitu ScanEagle, for example, is a small, long-endurance, low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle and is used for reconnaissance. The firm has also stepped up its research in autonomous systems. Boeing is also looking to work on digital technology and services out of India, Allen said.

Boeing has won contracts worth about $14 billion from India over the past few years including C17 Globemaster transport planes, Harpoon missiles, P-8 anti-submarine warfare jets, besides Apache and Chinook helicopters. In lieu of that, it has an offset obligation to source products and services worth about 30% of the value from India. “The bigger piece what should not be missed is the inflection point in the relationship between both countries,” said Allen, 44, who is also on the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum.

“It’s natural progression. If you (Boeing) looked at the market 10-15 years ago, as we started the earlier conversation after civil nuclear arrangement, it was just a matter of what do US companies have to sell to India? Today, that’s not the conversation. Today, the conversation is where can we partner together to create mutual benefit for India and the US, the US and India, and those efforts only advance with trust with shared capability and with real tangible projects to work on. All three of those are present now,” he said.

Boeing, he said, is already sourcing $1 billion worth of products annually from India.

“That scale is feeding the trust, it’s feeding the shared capabilities and now you have specific projects coming along—the two-engine fighter (F-18s) that is giving us the opportunity to build on that scale to reach a new framework and a new architecure,” he said. “So at this point, the easiest way to think about is (that) we are hitting an inflection point for bilateral trade security efforts between India the US and for industrial engagement.”

Boeing’s F-18, French Rafale, Swedish Saab Sea Gripen, Russian MiG-29K are contenders for a proposed $15 billion, 57 fighter aircraft purchase by the Indian Navy.

“Boeing has the single largest offset obligation among foreign vendors. Initially, there were some hiccups in implementation, but with the streamlining of the offset policy over the years, implementation is expected to be smooth,” said Laxman Kumar Behera, research fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

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