By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Jun 17
There will be no announcement of the sale of F-16 fighters to the Indian Air Force, or even of Indian interest in the F-16, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Washington DC on Sunday and Monday.
Contrary to widespread media speculation about an impending announcement of a purchase by India of F-16 Block 70 fighters, and the transfer to India of the integration line in Fort Worth, Texas, New Delhi has told Washington its decision would follow a careful selection procedure, say reliable government sources.
New Delhi has even turned down Washington’s proposal to mention the possible “Make in India” of F-16 fighters in the joint statement that will follow Modi’s meeting on Monday with President Donald Trump in the US capital.
“We are not expecting any announcements [related to the sale of F-16s] in the next six months”, says an official who is aware of US-India negotiations.
Officials in both capitals understand that New Delhi is reluctant to commit itself to either side of a competitive procurement for single-engine fighters, which is still at a preliminary stage. Last October, the Indian Air Force (IAF) sent out a Request for Information (RFI) to global aerospace manufacturers, but has not yet followed that up with a formal tender.
Senior officials in New Delhi indicate that, besides the F-16 Block 70 offered by Lockheed Martin, Saab of Sweden has offered India its new Gripen E fighter, which made its debut flight on June 15.
Fuelling speculation over Saab’s continued relevance in the fighter procurement, Modi phoned up his Swedish counterpart, Stefan Lofven on Wednesday morning. Following what he lauded as a “good discussion”, Modi tweeted: “I deeply appreciate Sweden’s support for Make in India.”
Lockheed Martin has waged an aggressive, American style campaign to push the F-16 -- employing media briefings, sponsoring think tank papers and, at the ongoing Paris Air Show, announcing a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to build the F-16 in India on an integration line transferred from Forth Worth, Texas.
At the Paris Air Show on June 20, Lockheed Martin’s vice president, Orlando Carvalho, told DefenseNews that the Trump administration, notwithstanding its commitment to keeping jobs in America, was not opposed to transferring F-16 production to India. Carvalho stated: “We’ve briefed various members of the administration on the program, on what that program would mean for the United States and what it means for India, and throughout all of the briefings and discussions that we’ve done, we haven’t seen any resistance to the program by the administration.”
A key reason for this is that Lockheed Martin does not envisage transferring more than a few hundred jobs to India, of workers involved in final assembly of the F-16 at Fort Worth. Meanwhile, some 6,000 American jobs connected with producing assemblies and sub-assemblies for the F-16 would get a lease of life. Without an Indian order, these jobs would be lost, since there are no other buyers for the F-16.
While Lockheed Martin is pitching to India the opportunity to build F-16s for all future purchases worldwide, DefenseNews quotes Heidi Grant, deputy under secretary of the US Air Force, as stating that interest from potential F-16 buyers was directed mainly towards the used F-16s of countries that were upgrading their fleet to the F-35 Lightning II.
If no new buyer emerges for the F-16, a line transferred from Texas to India would have to shut down after building India’s requirement.
While Lockheed Martin has planned to transfer its existing line to India, Saab has offered to set up a brand new line, while its existing line in Linkoping, Sweden, continues to build the Gripen E for the Swedish and Brazilian air forces.
Saab has sweetened its offer by undertaking to help India in developing and manufacturing the Tejas Mark 1A – an improved version of the current indigenous fighter – and also helping in the development of India’s planned next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.
India’s proposed procurement of single-engine fighters stems from the failure of a decade-long competitive acquisition process for 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). That resulted only in an $8.85 billion agreement with French company, Dassault, for 36 Rafale fighters, leaving a shortfall of at least 90 fighters, and up to 200 if one took into account the IAF’s fast-depleting fleet of vintage Russian MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters.