CAUGHT BETWEEN THE BEAR-HUGS

There is no doubt that the charismatic Narendra Modi has taken the world by storm and his travels around the globe generate a whole lot of interest, not only in India, but also in the countries he visits. There is always a ‘Take Away’ in terms of bi-lateral commercial and economic exchanges that are invariably a fallout of his visits to those nations. A recent post attributed the following to him :-

Superman of India, Age 65 yrs.
Countries visited:USA, Portugal,
Netherlands
Journey Time: 96 hrs
In-Flight Time:33 hrs
Meetings/ Engagements:33
Night Halts: One (Sleeps during his flights)

Power-packed, with a wholly business approach, Modi’s most recent tour of the United States had the defence media all abuzz with stories of the possible inking of a F-16 deal. The obvious lobbying by the world’s largest defence manufacturer at the doorstep of the world’s largest arms importer activated an ever-hyper Indian media into a state of frenzy, upsetting the IAF’s single engine fighter requirement and virtually relegating SAAB aircraft industries and their Gripen E to runnersup, even before the competition had started. The evidence of ‘paid media’ sometimes is so painfully and overwhelmingly obvious. In a recent TV interview the anchor kept asking the defence expert, “So how many F-16s will we be able to produce in a month/year? What is the sustainability one can expect from the F-16s? Which countries are we likely to supply F-16s?” And all this when the defence expert repeatedly reiterates that nothing has been inked, in fact there is but just a memorandum of intent!

Ever since the doddering DRDO and HAL have progressively fallen back on their promises of beefing up the IAFs depleting fighter squadrons with the LCA, in a definitive time frame, talk of procuring a single engine multi-role fighter has played the air waves. It is now a reality and the two best contenders, the Lockheed Martin F-16 (Block 70) and SAAB Gripen E have been identified. To be able to address not only the high evaluation standards of the IAF which is looking to the future but also to target the Prime Ministers “Make in India” program, both parties are floating their futuristic models. The stakes couldn’t be higher. For Lockheed Martin, a lease of life on a closing production line and for SAAB, the introduction of a new production line.

Numerous comparisons abound between the two Gen 4++ deliverables— from Lockheed Martin trying to offload a vintage platform against the, always stylistic, new Swedish design. One battle proven, against a ‘yet to be bloodied’ competitor. One acquiring its enhanced technology from an already existing 5th Generation fighter, the F-35, which is in production, against a technology architecture which promises immense potential to ‘add-on’ elements which may not necessarily be endemic to Swedish technology but rather take on a mix of Russian/Indian/(whatever) components to suit the user (indeed a tempting offer). But the game changer could possibly be the issue of “Transfer of Technology,” which is so important to our “Make in India” program, with its associated impact on the development and growth of the Indian defence industry. The transfer of the entire production line of the F-16 to India would make it the future supplier of aircraft and spare parts to numerous other countries who operate the aircraft and will continue to do so in the future. But the Swedes say that the US may not be willing to part with source codes which virtually form the basis for technology to be effectively transferred. The Swedes offer their production line with source coding, if their offer is to be believed. The user needs to give the whole thing a long hard look under the magnifying glass.

The other issue which seems to be hanging like a shroud in the background is India’s Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program. It is no great military secret that all is not well in the Indo- Russian FGFA program. From delays to cost over-runs to work-share to technology sharing, it has become a complex matrix of disagreements. With the Russians demanding more funding, which has already reached astronomical proportions, India has actually set up a committee to evaluate if there is a need for the FGFA vis-a-vis the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). In the midst of this ‘lovers tiff’ comes the F-16 debate with a tantalising ‘carrot’ that it could pave the way for a follow-on offer of the 5th generation F-35. (Bollywood would be proud of this setting!). One just has to compare the timeframes between development of a new platform to the acquisition (albeit in the queue with other potential buyers) of an existing one, to understand the dynamics. What about the monies invested with the Russians? The FGFA program was expected to generate potential and provide technology for the development of the AMCA. What about that ? The complexities of the conundrum are still being kept close to the chest. Unraveling the mess (and it’s not the first time) will have its own repercussions. Having had the Russian bear hug, was Modi’s bear hug to Donald Trump a portent of things to come ?

An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.

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