A Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jet performs at the Farnborough Airshow. The company’s deal with Ammroc will enable it to provide service on Lockheed’s platform. Image Credit: Bloomberg

DUBAI: It could well be a game changer in India’s defence manufacturing and hitherto the most definitive push towards realising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-vaunted ‘Make in India’ dream.

Over the next two years, the Indian government will be awarding its orders for the manufacture of 200 single-engine medium-range fighter jets for use by the Indian Air Force (IAF).

And eager to seal the approximately $10 billion (Dh367 billion) deal (at an estimated average price of $50 million per unit) is the who’s who of the global defence aviation manufacturing industry with their array of cutting-edge technology offerings and promises to build fighter planes “in India, for India, by India” — as one senior official from a Swedish defence firm put it during a chat with Gulf News recently.

Whichever way one looks at it, it’s a win-win for the IAF.

Click here to see the comparisons between F16 and Gripen

From “advanced avionics” to being “future-proof”, from helmet-mounted target views to on-the-field engine overhaul ... Lockheed Martin, Saab, Boeing, Airbus, Dassault and MiG, some of the most revered names in defence avionics, have spread out their gizmos in an attempt to woo IAF for what will undoubtedly be the most significant defence deal to be inked by New Delhi since the procurement of the 155mm howitzer field guns from Sweden’s AB Bofors in the 1980s.

A joint venture signed between Lockheed Martin of the United States, manufacturer of the time-tested F-16 fighter planes, and India’s Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show in June this year, has clearly set the ball rolling towards what is being termed a “dogfight in the Indian skies”!

When contacted by Gulf News last week, Ministry of Defence officials in New Delhi declined to comment on the timeline for the manufacture of single-engine fighter planes in India.

According to a section of defence analysts, a final decision on the manufacture of these planes may not come through until the next general elections are over in 2019.

However, there are others who believe that in view of China’s aggressive posturing at the border with India and also in view of Beijing raising its geopolitical game several notches higher with the proposed Belt-And-Road Initiative and the inauguration of its first military base outside China in Djibouti, New Delhi will be compelled to seek a more aggressive defence procurement policy in the near term.

Added to this is the fact that India’s bilateral ties with Pakistan have been going through a rather scrappy phase over the last several months.

With both Beijing and Islamabad playing diplomatic hardball, New Delhi’s concerns can be easily understood. In view of the threat perception of a two-pronged attack on its flanks in the future, the Indian government needs to go for a major revamp of its ageing fleet of MiG-21s, MiG-27s, MiG-29s, Mirage 2000s and Jaguars sooner than later.

The plan to manufacture 200 single-engine, medium-range fighter jets is a strategic move with far-reaching implications in terms of IAF’s combat-readiness in fending off a surprise attack and mounting a quick retaliation.

India’s planned procurement of 126 planes in the multi-medium range combat aircraft (MMRCA) category only bolsters this theory.

The MOD scrapped the competition that it was conducting for MMRCA, in 2015, and instead decided to buy 36 twin-engine Rafale jets for €7.8 billion (Dh33.68 billion) from French plane maker Dassault, thereby further underscoring the urgency factor.

Truly path-breaking

However, unlike an off-the-shelf purchase like the Rafale, what makes the single-engine project truly path-breaking is the fact that whichever plane India finally opts for, the contract will be contingent upon the manufacturer setting up shop in India.

And this is precisely where Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-16, believes it holds the edge.

“Lockheed Martin has a strong history of working in partnership with the Indian government and defence industry,” Randy Howard, project director for the F-16, told Gulf News from Texas.

“Our partnership and joint venture with TASL in India has already proven that Indian industry can manufacture airframe components for the C-130J [Hercules] airlifter and the S-92 [Sikorsky] helicopter,” he added.

With a highly successful partnership already going with an Indian firm, obviously Lockheed Martin has reasons to be buoyant about the F-16 Block 70 aircraft that it has offered to manufacture in India.

However, the F-16 joint venture with TASL is just a memorandum of understanding and there is no guarantee that India will opt for the F-16 Block 70.

“The F-16 is far from a done deal. It is merely in the running for the single-engine fighter race that has just started and in which Gripen [manufactured by Swedish firm Saab] is preferred by IAF,” cautioned Bharat Karnad, research professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

And Karnad couldn’t have been any closer to the truth, given that for the moment, the toughest challenge to Lockheed’s bid is being thrown up by Saab.

Like its American competitor, the Swedish firm too has promised to produce its Jas-39 Gripen E fighter jets in India.

Underscoring the ‘Make in India’ plank, Robert Hewson, vice-president and head of communications for Saab Asia Pacific Co Ltd, told Gulf News: “Saab has been ‘making in India’ on a variety of programmes for more than 40 years now. With a project the size of ‘Gripen in India’, we expect to build long-term partnerships with Indian companies.”

Lockheed Martin has tried to fight off charges that the F-16 is a fourth-generation plane that is at the fag end of its service life-cycle, citing the fact that the US Air Force (USAF) has already planned to extend the service life of 841 F-16 Block 40/42 and 50/52 aircraft to 13,856 equivalent flying hours. “This signals that USAF sees the F-16 flying and fighting up to 2048 and beyond,” Howard reasoned.

Future capabilities

Saab, meanwhile, has been banking on the futuristic ele-ment of the Gripen E as its USP.

“Air forces need, and must have, a future-proof aircraft. Gripen E is the future of fighter capability. Saab’s design philosophy focuses on continuous development, which means that future capabilities can be added to India’s aircraft by Indian engineers and we are looking at systems and design capabilities that will be in demand 30 years and more from now,” Hewson explained.

With more than 3,000 F-16 aircraft currently in service, operated by air forces in 26 countries, Lockheed Martin is pushing the legacy factor hard and for good reason.

On the other hand, Saab claims that in terms of advanced avionics and continuous development of what it terms as a “system-design approach”, its Gripen E is a smarter package.

But hang on. We aren’t done yet.

Keeping a close eye on this slugfest are a few other contenders: Boeing, with its F/18 Super Hornet; French Dassault with its Rafale; Eurofighter Typhoon, built by a consortium that includes Airbus; and Russian MiG-35.

However, according to a section of defence experts, with India having already purchased 36 twin-engine Rafales, it is unlikely that it will once again opt for more twin-engine variants.

The focus for now is more on single-engine and this is where F-16 Block 70 and Gripen E see a huge window of opportunity.

Both are single-engine aircraft, while Super Hornet, Rafale, MiG-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon are all twin-engine planes.

So the dogfight is now primarily between the Fort Worth behemoth (F-16) and the Stockholm aspirant (Gripen E).

Interestingly, it has been reported that during initial trials, IAF pilots have given thumbs-down to both the F-16 and Gripen E and instead suggested that India show a more robust enterprise in developing its own light combat aircraft Tejas.

The Government has kept all its options open to make sure whichever single-engine plane it opts for, it’s the best that the IAF can fly.

And there is no doubt that it is the IAF that stands to gain as major fighter plane makers from around the world seem to have engaged their autopilot with ‘DEL’ (New Delhi) locked in firmly as the destination code!