“Lockheed Martin willing to partner India on LCA Tejas Mk-II and AMCA”

F-21 offer is complementary to the LCA, campaign lead Dr Vivek Lall tells Vishal Thapar of SP’s Aviation in an exclusive interview

Issue: 7 / 2019Photo(s): By Lockheed Martin
Dr Vivek Lall, Vice-President Aeronautics Strategy and Business Development, Lockheed Martin

The world’s largest defence contractor does not believe that the Indian Air Force (IAF) commitment to the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) kills the market for foreign single-engine fighters in India. While pitching the F-21, Lockheed Martin is also offering technical assistance to increase the production rate of the LCA.

With its F-21 campaign pegged on a robust ‘Make in India’ proposition, Lockheed Martin brought 26 Tier-I suppliers for the F-16/F-21 to its Indian Suppliers Conference at New Delhi recently to dialogue with 70 shortlisted Indian companies in the run up to the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) competition. Excerpts from the interview with Dr Vivek Lall, Vice-President Aeronautics Strategy and Business Development, Lockheed Martin:

SP’s Aviation (SP’s): What sort of Transfer of Technology (ToT) and partnerships are you discussing at the Indian Suppliers Conference?

Dr Vivek Lall (Lall): We’ve got 26 of our Tier-I suppliers here as well as over 70 Indian companies here. This three-day conference will have more than 540 meetings. The whole idea is to continue to build the aerospace ecosystem here in India, so that once we’re are tasked to build a fighter, we have all the building blocks here, and the suppliers vetted, not just us but also our Tier-Is.

So, there’s a ToT and the indigenous content bit. ToT is dependent upon ability to absorb technology. It’s a range of ToT being looked at depending upon the component.

At our two JVs at Hyderabad, we have delivered 108 C-130 empennages, over 150 Sikorsky S-92 cabins. The 5,000+ precision components that go into the Sikorsky cabins have all been indigenised. That shows the progress made in indigenisation.

As we announced last year, all future wing production of the F-16s, regardless of the outcome of the competition, will be done jointly with the Tatas. The manufacture of the prototype wing has already started. Once the EoI (Expression of Interest) is out (for the MRFA programme), we’ll be able to better define what ToT is included in our offer. The intent is to create an indigenous fighter platform here in India just like we’ve done in other countries. We’re proven to do that.

SP’s: What attributes are you looking for in potential partners?

Lall: Our Strategic Partner for the F-21 programme is Tata. We’ve had a great experience with 2 JVs with Tata in producing the C-130 empennage and the S-92 cabins over the last 10 years for the global supply chain and as we’ve fleshed out that eco system, what we’re looking for obviously is performance, capability, quality, cost schedule but above all, a vision of the roadmap of technology absorption as well as take not just the present project but what’s the future and put this in the wrapper of integrity and shared common values.

In any robust ecosystem, the founding blocks are those of MSMEs and so it’s very imp for them to come up the value chain in terms of their expertise. And as we go over 200 companies in India. we’ve found that expertise, pockets of excellence, in terms of being able to deliver. So we look at the same attributes across the supply chain. We’ve incubated a lot of start-up companies for the Tata programme.

We have a dedicated team performing Indian supplier onsite assessments. We have found over 200 companies in India. The Suppliers Conference is an opportunity for Tier 1s to have a dialogue with Indian industry.

SP’s: You seem fairly committed to the Tatas. But the Indian Strategic Partner (SP) for the F-21 programme has to be selected by the Government of India. Are you flexible in your choice of a partner for this competition?

Lall: We have two very successful JVs with the Tatas over the last 10 years. All future wing production for the F-16s globally will also be done with the Tatas. For the F-21, we are strategic partners. But obviously, as the competition plays out, we will be following the Government of India guidelines and we will be compliant.

SP’s: Under this SP model, foreign OEMs are allowed to be part of multiple bids. Should Tata not make it, would you be willing to go with another group?

Lall: That’s a hypothetical question. But suffice it to say we’ve talked to over 200 companies in India and it (Tata) is our Strategic Partner along with an entire ecosystem. That’s why we’re doing these supplier conferences (together).

SP’s: How would the entry of public sector undertakings (PSU)s in a SP programme change the competition?

Lall: These are hypothetical questions. We’ll wait for the EoI and RFP to come out and comply with Government of India guidelines, but suffice it to say that we’re interfacing with both private and public companies. In fact, recently, we’ve signed an MoU with BEML. That’s a public company, and so, we’re talking across the spectrum, and once the requirement becomes clear from the Government of India, we will comply with them.

“The LCA is an air defence asset. The F-21 is deep penetration strike aircraft. And so, the operational profiles are different. The F-21 flies farther. It stays on station longer, and it gets there faster. So, it has a very different operational profile. The F-21 is very complementary to the Tejas. We’ve also extended our support, in any way possible, to the Government of India on the LCA”

Here (at the Suppliers Conference), we have both public and private companies present. I think to have a robust eco system, it’s less about the ownership and more about the capability to perform and absorb technology, and those are some of the factors that go into a successful programme that could be public or private. Whatever drives competitiveness in Indian industry is good.

SP’s: While this is indeed a hypothetical question, your competition, Boeing has already tied up with the public sector HAL, which is the only one which has existing manufacturing facilities. Doesn’t that put you at a disadvantage?

Lall: No, I think we have the best ‘Make in India’ offer on the table. We have the most robust package. Not only that, if you look at the sustainment market, we have the world’s largest fighter ecosystem: 3,000+ fighters flying. So, when you look at the after sales support and the MRO market, the scale that we have to offer India to plug into this eco system is completely unmatched by any competitor.

SP’s: The IAF has a big commitment to the indigenous LCA Tejas fighter. Will this kill the market for foreign single engine aircraft in India?

Lall: The LCA is an air defence asset. The F-21 is deep penetration strike aircraft. And so, the operational profiles are different. The F-21 flies farther. It stays on station longer, and it gets there faster. So, it has a very different operational profile. The F-21 is very complementary to the Tejas. We’ve also extended our support, in any way possible, to the Government of India on the LCA.

SP’s: Does that mean there’s potential for (international) cooperation on the LCA Mk-II?

Lall: Absolutely. We’re willing to work with the Government of India whether it’s the LCA Mk2 or AMCA.

SP’s: What’s your offer?

Lall: Depends upon their requirements. And we will work with the Government of India. Everything is caveated to US Government approval and what the Government of India desires a foreign OEM to assist with.

SP’s: You are a seasoned observer of the Indian scene. What could be the possible areas of cooperation on the LCA or AMCA? What could be on offer?

Lall: We have a system called the Auto GICAS, which is a collision avoidance system. It can be integrated on to the Indian platform. It’s a unique system that saves lives. It’s able to correct when the pilot is disoriented. The other technical expertise can be in terms of increasing production rates and capacities.

SP’s: Lockheed Martin’s earlier offer of the F-16 in the MMRCA programme was not found technically compliant. How is the F-21 offer different in capability terms?

Lall: So, there are several unique aspects to the F-21. One is that it’s the only aircraft in the world with dual refuelling – both the probe and drogue and the boom refueller. The second aspect is that it has an India unique EW suite. The third thing is that it has 40 per cent more weapon carrying capability through the triple rail launcher that we have on the F-21. Then, we’ve added an aft dorsal fin which gives increased growth capacity to it, and finally it’s got a modern cockpit.

SP’s: Will the F-21 lead in to the F-35?

Lall: To start with, the F-35 would be a government-to-government conversation. I can’t really comment on that. But having said that, Lockheed Martin is the only company in the world which has two operational fifth-generation fighters. All these technologies are leveraged for the F-21 platform.