India is considering the purchase of 200 to 300 fighter planes from foreign manufacturers – as long as the jets are made in India and with a local partner. A deal for 200 single-engine planes produced in India, to fully phase out ageing Soviet-era aircraft – could be worth anything from $13-$15 billion – potentially one of the country’s biggest military aircraft deals. India had earlier, scaled back the proposal to buy 126 Rafale Jets from France’s Dassault to just 36 aircraft. at a cost of Euro 7.87 billion.The Indian Air Force is now looking to speed up other acquisitions and arrest a fall in operational strength, which now is a third less than required to face both China and Pakistan. However, the BJP led NDA government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants further military planes to be built in India with an Indian partner to kickstart a domestic aircraft industry, and end an expensive addiction to imports.
Lockheed Martin has expressed interest in setting up a production line for its F-16 plane in India for not just the Indian military, but also for export. Sweden’s Saab has also offered a rival production line for its Gripen aircraft, setting up an early contest for one of the biggest military plane deals in play. An Air Force official, who briefed on the Make-in-India plans under which a foreign manufacturer will partner local firms to build the aircraft with technology transfer, said that…“the immediate shortfall is 200. That would be the minimum India would be looking at.” Consequently, India’s defence ministry has written to several companies asking if they would be willing to set up an assembly line for single-engine fighter planes in India and the amount of technology transfer that would happen. “We are testing the waters,” said a government official, “we are testing the foreign firms’ willingness to move production here and to find out their expectations.”
The Indian Air Force originally planned for 126 Rafale twin-engine fighters from Dassault, but the two sides could not agree on the terms of local production with a state-run Indian firm and settled for 36 planes in a fly-away condition. Adding to the military’s problems is India’s threedecade effort to build a single-engine fighter of its own which was meant to be the backbone of the IAF. Only two of those Light Combat Aircraft, called Tejas, have been delivered to the IAF, which has ordered 140 of them. The IAF has pegged its fighter squadron requirements to 45, but as of now it is down to just 32 operational squadrons. In March 2016,the Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal B.S. Dhanoa told parliament’s defence committee that it didn’t have the operational strength to fight a two front war against China and Pakistan.
Amongst the foreign manufactures, Saab has stated that it was ready to not only produce its frontline Gripen fighter in India, but also help build a local aviation industry base. According to Jan Widerstrm, Chairman and Managing Director, Saab India Technologies, they were…“very experienced intransfer of technology – our way of working involves extensive cooperation with our partners to establish a complete ecosystem, not just an assembly line.” Jan confirmed Saab had received the letter from the Indian government seeking a fourth generation fighter. A source close to the company said that while there was no minimum order set in store for it to lay down aproduction line, they would expect to build at least 100 planes at the facility. Lockheed Martin said it had responded to the defence ministry’s letter with an offer to transfer the entire production of its F-16 fighter to India. “Exclusive F-16 production in India would make India home to the world’s only F-16 production facility, a leading exporter of advanced fighter aircraft, and offer Indian industry the opportunity to become an integral part of the world’s largest fighter aircraft supply chain,” Abhay Paranjape, National Executive for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Business Development in India said in an email. Lockheed’s offer comes on the back of expanding US-India military ties in which Washington has emerged as India’s top arms supplier in recent years, ousting old ally Russia. Earlier this year Boeing also offered India its twin-engine F/A-18 Hornets, but the level of technology transfer was not clear.
India has never previously attempted to build a modern aircraft production line, whether military or civilian. State-run Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) has assembled Russian combat jets including the Su-30, but these are under licensed production. For India, this represents the most serious attempt to build a domestic base. According to Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, full or a near-full tech transfer lays the ground for further development and that the Indian government would be looking at producing at least 200 fighters, and then probably some more, to make up for the decades of delay in modernising the IAF.