After concluding a 7.8-billion-euro deal with France’s Dassault Aviation for 36 Rafale fighter jets, the Indian Air Force is looking for the next round of combat aircraft acquisition. The Gripen fighter plane manufactured by Sweden’s Saab and American giant Lockheed Martin’s F-16 are seen to be top contenders for grabbing the lucrative IAF contracts and both firms are open to setting up production lines in India under the Modi government’s Make in India drive, official said.
US firms Boeing and Lockheed have made several presentations to the Indian defence ministry where they discussed manufacturing top-line aircraft with high-end technology in India as well as technology transfer and licensing parameters.
Lockheed, sources said, has offered to move its lone production line of the latest version of fighter aircraft F 16-Block 70 to India from Texas to meet Indian and global requirements, but with a rider that the IAF has to choose the world’s largest-sold fighter aircraft for its fleet.
From India’s perspective, besides the 36 Rafale fighter planes from Dassault, there is an urgent requirement for almost 100-plus aircraft. “The number of squadrons has gone down to 32 from the required 45. In 2007, IAF was looking for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft, with a follow-on order, bringing the number to 200. There is still a need for another 100 aircraft with a follow on for another 50 machines to meet the requirements,” said a senior IAF officer.
As far as the IAF is concerned, the F-16, which is presently being operated by the Pakistan Air Force, would be unsuitable from operational, strategic, and technological angles. The F-16 is a 40-year-old airframe, and all the upgrades that are possible are already done. There is no room for any more growth. A 40-year-old design does have its limitations that cannot be overlooked.
Industry sources, however, have pointed out that if the competition is between Lockheed and the Swedish firm, then probably the US giant will have a tough time getting a local partner. “The company does not have a strong partner to work with here locally. However, its partnership with Tata is not exclusive as it is also partnering with Boeing,” said a source.
“The offer we have given to the Indian government is unmatched and from our side unprecedented,” Randall L Howard, F16 business development head at Lockheed had said here. He said the company wants to make F 16-Block 70 “for India, from India and export to the world”. But some analysts have added a cautionary note. Air marshal M Matheswaran (retd), former deputy chief, integrated defence staff, said: “The F-16 has outlived its time. By proposing this Lockheed Martin is aiming to convert the winding up of the F-16 production line into a cash cow for another three decades.”
Meanwhile, Saab has offered to provide India’s state-run Aeronautical Development Agency assistance with the light combat aircraft Mk II, which is being developed for the Indian Navy.