Fresh Look at the Proposal for F-16 Combat Jets for India

The US aerospace major Lockheed Martin wants to push ahead with plans to shift the production facilities of its F-16 Fighting Falcon combat jets to India. However, it is understood that the administration under President Donald Trump may be desirous of taking a ‘fresh look’ at the proposal. With no more orders for the F-16 combat jets from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin plans to use its aircraft manufacturing facilities at Fort Worth, Texas, to produce the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the United States Air Force (USAF) is switching over to. Lockheed Martin is prepared to relocate the F-16 production line to India as long as the Indian Government agrees to order hundreds of the planes that the Indian Air Force (IAF) desperately needs.

Issue: 6 / 2017By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By USAF

The number of combat squadrons in the IAF currently stands at 32 as against the existing authorised level of 39.5. The size of the combat fleet is expected to reduce further with the retirement of older fleets of MiG-21 and MiG-27 by the end of the decade. With the progressive retirement over the next decade of the other fleets inducted in the 1980s, the size of the combat fleet will dwindle further. Meanwhile, the government has approved the enhancement of the strength of the combat fleet to 42 squadrons and given the evolving security scenario in the region, it would not be surprising if this figure is soon enhanced to 45. In December 2016, the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had stated that the IAF would need to induct around 250 combat jets over the next 10 years if it has to retain its operational edge against its adversaries.

After the cancellation of the tender for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) and a scaled down order for 36 Rafale jets from Dassault of France, the Ministry of Defence sought proposals from global aerospace majors for the manufacture of combat jets in India under the newly conceived ‘Make in India’ programme. The former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had stated that apart from the light combat aircraft Tejas, India would choose at least one more single-engine fighter aircraft to be manufactured in India.

In response, in July 2016, Lockheed Martin offered to move its production line to a location in India as decided by the Government of India, to manufacture the F-16 Block 70. Equipped with advanced avionics, the latest AESA radar and better data processing capability, the aircraft would have increased lethality, survivability and interoperability. With these features, the F-16 would be the latest and near fifth-generation version of this legendary combat platform with enhanced operational capabilities. Apart from meeting with the requirements of the IAF, the platform and spares would be available to the 25 odd customers across the world currently operating this machine as also to new customers if any.

However, with the change of political leadership in the US, proposal by Lockheed Martin to manufacture the aircraft in India appears to have got mired in some controversy on account of which plans of the IAF to add punch to its combat fleet has been engulfed in uncertainty. To begin with, the Trump administration has serious reservations about companies in the US moving their manufacturing facilities overseas and then selling their products from establishments abroad back to the US. In the proposal by Lockheed Martin, the plan is to manufacture the F-16 in India primarily for the IAF and other customers, but not for the US as the USAF is phasing out this platform. The proposal by Lockheed Martin therefore to move the existing F-16 production line to India and manufacture the aircraft for the global market excluding the US, does not militate against the policy of the Trump administration.

The other major thrust of policy changes by the Trump administration is to stop further loss of jobs for US citizens. The Trump administration also plans to implement measures to bring jobs back to the United States. As per Lockheed Martin, moving the F-16 production facility to India would create 200 engineering jobs in the US to help support the production line in India. It has also said that about 800 workers in the US engaged in the production of the non-Lockheed parts for the F-16, would continue to retain their jobs if the production facility shifts to India.

Thus the proposal by Lockheed Martin in respect of production of F-16 fighter jets in India would not lead to loss of jobs for US citizens. On the contrary, it well help retain jobs or even improve upon prospects for employment for American citizens in a segment of the industry which otherwise would have to shut down.

But perhaps the most important factor that the Trump administration needs to take into account is that India is expected to spend around $250 billion over the next decade on the modernisation of its armed forces. Rejection by the Trump administration of the proposal by Lockheed Martin to manufacture the F-16 combat platform in India in large numbers, would not only hurt Lockheed Martin, but would also be detrimental to the interests of the other American defence majors such Boeing, Northrop and Raytheon who have substantial business opportunities in India in the defence sector. Besides, the Trump administration cannot ignore the fact that the United States has made India a “major defence partner.”