By N. C. Bipindra
Lucknow: Lockheed Martin has drawn the attention of India to an enticing $165-billion F-16 combat aircraft ecosystem market globally, as it prepares to bid for the world’s biggest combat aircraft order.
The world’s largest defence firm has pitched its F-21, with substantial capabilities that are India-specific and unique to the Indian Air Force (IAF), apart from offering to establish a manufacturing facility for the aircraft in India, in partnership with Indian company Tata Group.
Lockheed Martin is competing for the Indian Air Force’s procurement programme for 114 combat jets, estimated to be over $15 billion, against global aerospace and defence giants such as compatriot Boeing Co. and Swedish Saab AB.
“In addition to production in India, an F-21 partnership integrates Indian industry into the world’s largest and most successful fighter aircraft ecosystem — a $165 billion market,” Lockheed Martin’s Vice President for Strategy and Business Development Vivek Lall said in a recent interview.
“We have this large ecosystem of 3,000-plus fighters from across the world. The F-21 provides unmatched opportunities for the Indian companies of all sizes, including large, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), and startups throughout India, to establish new business relationships with Lockheed Martin and other industry leaders in the US and around the globe,” Lall said.
India had issued a Request for Information for 114 fighter aircraft in April 2018 and the competing companies for the programme, including French Dassault Aviation and Russian aircraft manufacturers, are awaiting an Expression of Interest to select the foreign firm that would join hands with an Indian company to execute the contract.
The Indian Air Force is pursuing the combat jets programme under the Strategic Partnership model of the Defence Procurement Procedure-2016 through which India will make combat jets and other big ticket defence system of systems domestically using foreign technology from the original equipment manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin.
“The F-21 will be a game-changer for the Indian Air Force, the Indian industry and the India-US strategic ties. Approval by the US government for such an important strategic move signals firm movement forward and maturity in US-India relations,” Lall said, talking of the larger benefit that this combat jets India-US partnership may accrue to both the nations.
Getting new aircraft is crucial for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the South Asian nation faces increased risks from neighboring Pakistan and China at a time when the Russian MiG fighters — India’s mainstay for five decades now — are being phased out. Local production is at the heart of Modi’s ‘Make in India‘ policy, which aims to promote domestic manufacturing.
India’s air force is currently in need of 200 each of single-engine and twin-engine fighters, after its efforts over the last two decades to shore up its falling combat squadron strength has met with failures.
After going through eight years of a 2007 commercial tender for 126 combat jets, Modi scrapped the process under which Dassault Aviation was chosen to supply its Rafale jets, and instead signed up for 36 Rafale aircraft in an emergency purchase through government-to-government contract with France.
The Indian Air Force’s current fleet strength stands at 30 combat squadrons against sanctioned 42 squadrons. As India retires the MiG-series fleet, there is a fear that the combat strength may fall further below the 30 squadrons level that India has maintained for two decades now.
The Indian Air Force is also awaiting the signing of a deal for buying 83 ‘Tejas‘ Light Combat Aircraft Mk1A variant to make up for four squadrons, even as it is keenly looking forward to raising two Rafale squadrons, both scheduled later this year.