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.