NEW DELHI: The dogfight among global aviation majors over Indian skies is once again set to take off. Ahead of PM Narendra Modi's visit to the US early next week, the world's largest armament company Lockheed Martin on Monday signed a pact with Tata Advanced Systems to produce the latest version of its F-16 fighter jets in India if the joint venture actually bags the multi-billion dollar project.
With India last month finalizing the new "strategic partnership (SP)" policy in defence production, which envisages joint ventures between global armament majors and Indian private sector companies under the "Make in India" framework, the Lockheed-Tata tie-up now firmly pitches the F-16 against the Swedish Gripen-E fighter manufactured by Saab.
Both F-16 and Gripen were the only single-engine jets (less expensive than twin-engine ones) among the six contenders in India's original MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project to acquire 126 jets, in which the French Rafale fighter had eventually emerged the winner. But the Modi government had gone in for the direct purchase of only 36 Rafales for Rs 59,000 crore after scrapping the deadlocked and exorbitant MMRCA project in 2015.
The defence ministry now wants a second single-engine fighter production line in India to supplement the long-delayed indigenous Tejas fighter in the backdrop of IAF grappling with just 32 fighter squadrons when it needs 42-44 squadrons for the "collusive" China-Pakistan threat.
As reported earlier by TOI, the F-16 and Gripen-E fighters are the main contenders for this second line, under which at least 100 fighters will be produced and the order could go up to over 200 jets, since the F-18s, Rafales, Eurofighter Typhoon and MiG-35s are all twin-engine.
MoD sources on Monday said the "actual deal or contract" for the second assembly line is "still a long way off" since the process for selecting the Indian private sector firm as the "strategic partner" for production of fighters will itself take "several months", which will be followed by the extensive bidding and negotiation process. Under the SP policy, foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will be selected in a parallel process.
But the Lockheed-Tata venture, announced at the Paris Air Show on Monday, has made its intention clear to "produce, operate and export the F-16 Block 70 aircraft" (the latest technologically-advanced version of the jet that first made its debut almost four decades ago) under the "Make in India" framework if selected.
Tata, incidentally, already builds airframe components for Lockheed's C-130 military transport aircraft. India has inducted six (one has crashed) of the 13 C-130J "Super Hercules" contracted for $2.1 billion.