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SP's Aviation - - NEWS WITH VIEWS - —By Air Mar­shal B.K. Pandey (Retd)

IN RE­SPONSE TO AN

in­vi­ta­tion by the Indian Min­istry of De­fence last year, the US aero­space and de­fence ma­jor Lock­heed Martin had come forward with a pro­posal to re­lo­cate to In­dia its func­tional pro­duc­tion line for the F-16 fighter air­craft in Fort Worth, Texas. The pro­posal was for the man­u­fac­ture in In­dia of the F-16 Block 70 which is an im­proved ver­sion of the F-16IN Block 60 that had been of­fered to In­dia in 2008 against the ten­der for 126 medium multi-role com­bat air­craft. The Block 70 is the lat­est and most po­tent ver­sion of the plat­form which is de­signed with at­tributes that cat­a­pults this four decades old de­sign to the near fifth-gen­er­a­tion cat­e­gory.

The of­fer by Lock­heed Martin was con­di­tional to the Indian Air Force (IAF) or­der­ing this com­bat plat­form in large numbers, the min­i­mum or­der be­ing for 100 air­craft. On the face of it, the pro­posal was at­trac­tive as a fourth-gen­er­a­tion plus plat­form would be avail­able to the IAF in all like­li­hood, at a cost lower than that of com­bat air­craft with sim­i­lar ca­pa­bil­i­ties if ob­tained from else­where. Be­sides, the pro­posal was in con­form­ity with the ‘Make in In­dia’ pro­gramme ini­ti­ated by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and would pro­vide a quan­tum leap in the ef­fort at in­di­geni­sa­tion of the Indian aero­space in­dus­try. As for the size of the or­der, the IAF cur­rently needs around 300 com­bat air­craft, a fig­ure that will only in­crease by the end of this decade. An­other ad­van­tage for the Indian aero­space in­dus­try would be the avail­abil­ity of a large global mar­ket as cur­rently air forces of 25 coun­tries in the world are op­er­at­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of this plat­form. It is un­der­stood that there are prospec­tive cus­tomers as well.

The com­pet­ing pro­posal was from Saab of Swe­den to set up a pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in In­dia to man­u­fac­ture the JAS 39E Gripen sin­gle-en­gine, fourth-gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft that in vin­tage is 10 years younger than the F-16. Saab has also of­fered to col­lab­o­rate in the de­vel­op­ment of the light com­bat air­craft Te­jas Mk II, a pro­posal that would be wel­come by the Indian aero­space ma­jor Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited that does not ap­pear to be con­fi­dent about han­dling the project without com­pe­tent for­eign col­lab­o­ra­tion. But it seemed that the F-16 was the fron­trun­ner.

Un­for­tu­nately, in the re­cent past, pro­grammes for the ac­qui­si­tion of ur­gently re­quired com­bat air­craft for the IAF have gen­er­ally been af­flicted with pro­ce­dural com­plex­i­ties and un­cer­tainty about the time frame for in­duc­tion, thus se­ri­ously un­der­min­ing the op­er­a­tional po­ten­tial of the ser­vice. The last in­duc­tion of com­bat air­craft into the IAF was of the Su30MKI that was fi­nalised 20 years ago. There­after, the plan to in­duct 126 Rafale jets was aban­doned in 2015 af­ter eight years of ef­fort. And now, the al­ter­na­tive course of ac­tion to go for a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort with a well es­tab­lished orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer to set up a fa­cil­ity in In­dia and pro­duce the re­quired cat­e­gory of air­craft in the numbers the IAF needs ap­pears to have once again got shrouded in un­cer­tainty.

In the lat­ter half of 2016, there was a flurry of ac­tiv­ity on this front with both the com­peti­tors mak­ing pre­sen­ta­tions to the gov­ern­ment and the me­dia as also in­ter­act­ing with the Indian aero­space in­dus­try both in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor, to ex­plore op­tions for col­lab­o­ra­tion should the con­tract be fi­nalised in favour of any one of the two as­pi­rants. This had gen­er­ated con­sid­er­able op­ti­mism in the Indian aero­space in­dus­try as well as in the IAF. How­ever, nearly six months have passed since then; but there has not been any forward move­ment. The ma­jor road­block the project ap­pears to have run into, is the pol­icy frame­work of the new Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment in the US. Al­though the pro­posal by Lock­heed Martin had re­ceived a nod from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion de­sires to have a ‘fresh look’ be­fore any fur­ther steps are taken. The pro­posal there­fore is in a limbo.

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, re­ports in the me­dia about the visit of the Indian Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Ajit Do­val to the US and dis­cus­sions on a wide range of strate­gic part­ner­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion is­sues held with all the se­nior func­tionar­ies of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, there was no men­tion of In­dia’s re­quire­ment of com­bat air­craft. The IAF will have to wait for the out­come of the ini­tia­tive by the two Se­na­tors who have taken up the is­sue with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for the sale of F-16 com­bat air­craft to In­dia. If this does not suc­ceed, In­dia will have to turn to Saab.

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