Will compete for contract with Gripen E, built by Saab-Adani combine
US defence giant, Lockheed Martin, and India’s Tata Group signed an agreement on Monday to jointly build the F-16 Block 70 fighter in India, should New Delhi opt for the American aircraft in the procurement of single-engine fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF) that was initiated last October.
Highlighting the importance of this contract for the Tata Group’s aerospace and defence aspirations, Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata personally attended the signing ceremony at the on-going Paris Air Show in France.
The Tata Group has earmarked Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to actually build the F-16 in India with technology and manufacturing facilities transferred from Lockheed Martin.
Coming ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States this month, Lockheed Martin’s inking of this joint venture (JV) – which would have required formal clearance from Washington – indicates that, despite President Donald Trump’s promises to keep skilled jobs in the US, his administration is willing to transfer the ageing F-16 production line from Texas to India.
TASL and Lockheed Martin already have a joint venture (JV) that manufactures airframe components in Hyderabad, including for the C-130J Super Hercules airlifter and the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.
C-130J production from that JV goes towards fulfilling Lockheed Martin’s offset obligations. However, the manufacture of F-16 Block 70 would be a far more ambitious project. This would first require the ministry of defence (MoD) to select the Tata Group as an Indian “strategic partner” for aircraft production.
Next, the IAF and MoD would have to choose the F-16 Block 70 as the IAF’s single-engine fighter aircraft. That multi-billion dollar procurement has already kicked off with the issue of a global Request for Information (RFI) by the IAF.
MoD and IAF sources confirm aviation market intelligence that the IAF’s chosen fighter is likely to be either the F-16 Block 70, or the Gripen E fighter that Swedish company, Saab, has offered India.
In case the IAF opts for Saab’s Gripen E, the role of Indian partner is likely to fall to the Adani Group, say senior Saab executives. The Adani Group, despite its lack of experience in defence or aerospace, is positioning itself to be chosen as a “strategic partner” for this purpose.
Lockheed Martin expects the IAF will choose the F-16, based on the calculation that transferring the world’s only F-16 production line to India “creates new manufacturing jobs in India, and positions Indian industry at the centre of the most extensive fighter aircraft supply ecosystem in the world”, as a company release today stated.
Lockheed Martin points out that over 4,500 F-16s have been built since the 1970s, of which approximately 3,200 fighters remain in operational service in 26 countries. An Indian production line could expect to benefit from their custom, including, ironically, from the Pakistan Air Force.
The IAF’s global procurement of single-engine fighters stems from the failure of its high-profile acquisition project for 126 “medium multi-role combat aircraft” (MMRCA), which fizzled out into the procurement of just 36 Rafale fighters from French company, Dassault.
The shortfall of 90 fighters this created, along with the likely retirement of almost 200 MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters this decade, drives the IAF’s requirement for the early production of single-engine fighters.
Exacerbating the IAF’s fighter shortfalls is Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s slippages in building 100 Tejas light fighters, designed and developed in India by the Defence R&D Organisation.
Defence planning guidelines require the IAF to operate 42 fighter squadrons, with 21 aircraft in each. It is 10 squadrons short of that level at present.