One of the important objectives of the ‘Make in India’ programme and the Strategic Partnership model is to ultimately develop a credible technological and industrial base in India
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is critically short of aircraft in its combat fleet as the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters and their several variants whose acquisition had commenced over five decades ago from the then Soviet Union, have been overtaken by obsolescence and are in the process of being retired from service. Efforts to procure 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) to replace some of these for which the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France had been identified by the IAF as the preferred platform, unfortunately, did not go fructify as there were serious differences with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) over issues that turned out to be insurmountable. Consequently, after seven years of effort, the tender was cancelled in 2015.
As the strength of the combat fleet continued to dwindle, in 2016, the then Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar initiated a process to identify a foreign OEM to set up a facility in India and manufacture a proven combat aircraft jointly with an Indian company from either the public or private sector of the Indian aerospace industry. Full transfer of technology was integral to the plan that was initiated under the Make in India programme and the Strategic Partnership model, both conceived by the NDA government.
Although the tender is yet to be issued, there has been favourable response to queries in this regard from three global OEMs two of which are from the United States (US) namely Lockheed Martin offering the single-engine F-16 Block 70 and Boeing fielding the F/A 18 twin-engine fighter aircraft that also has a version that can operate from an aircraft carrier for which the Indian Navy has floated a Request for Information. Although both these aircraft are of 1970s vintage, these have been periodically upgraded and their latest versions are projected to be of the fourthplus generation. The third OEM is Saab of Sweden with the offer of their latest combat platform, the JAS 39E Gripen, also a fourth-plus generation single-engine fighter. The three OEMs are prepared to set up their production facility in India to manufacture the platform jointly with a selected Indian partner to meet with the requirements of the IAF and the Indian Navy as also of customers in the international market if there would be any. However, one precondition is that the initial order must be large enough to justify the heavy investment. This will not be an issue as the IAF is already short by 200 aircraft and by the end of the decade, this figure is likely to go up to 300. The minimum order indicated by Lockheed Martin is for 100 platforms. Ironically, the three combat jets now under consideration, had also been offered by the respective OEMs against the tender for 126 MMRCA; but had lost the race against the Rafale.
While all seemed to be going well with the new plan to restore the strength of the combat fleet through the Make in India programme, there was a temporary road-block when on taking over, the Trump administration ordered a review of the proposal to verify whether shifting of the production line to India would result in loss of jobs for citizens of the US. This issue appears to have been resolved and there is now green signal for the proposal from the US government to relocate production lines to India. However, the American OEMs have come up with some issues that could prove to be a serious impediment for the proposal to manufacture combat aircraft in India. In September this year, the US-India Business Council (USIBC) that represents 400 firms, wrote a letter to the Indian Minister of Defence seeking a guarantee that American OEMs would retain control over sensitive technologies even while being junior partners in the joint venture. “Control of proprietary technologies is a major consideration for all companies exploring public and private defence partnerships,” said the letter from USIBC.
One of the important objectives of the ‘Make in India’ programme and the Strategic Partnership model is to ultimately develop a credible technological and industrial base in India and thereby progressively reduce dependence on technology available with the major players in the global aerospace and defence industry. Without the capability to innovate and develop high-end technologies, the Indian aerospace and defence industry that had so far been monopolised by the public sector, was capable only of assembling knock-down kits for aircraft produced under license from the foreign OEMs. The message from the intervention by the USIBC is that unless the nation acquires the capability to develop the required high-end technologies on its own to compete with the global aerospace industry, it can never be able to shed the tag of being the biggest importer in the world of military aircraft and weapon systems.