|Lockheed Martin released this artist’s impression of an F-16 in Indian air force colors in 2011, when the type was previously evaluated for the MMRCA contract. (Image: Lockheed Martin)|
After confirming the acquisition of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters off-the-shelf from France, India has invited proposals from the U.S., Sweden and Russia to transfer technology and produce a single-engine fighter in-country. The latest move seems to preclude any “Make in India” offers from Dassault for the twin-engine Rafale, as well as Eurofighter (for the Typhoon) or Boeing (for the F/A-18). India has a requirement for approximately 100 more fighters.
The invitation was in the form of letters handed to the ambassadors of the three countries. Lockheed Martin has already responded, offering an upgraded “F-16 Block 70.” It is believed that Saab will follow, with an offer for the Gripen E. It is unclear what Russia might offer, since both the MiG-29/35 and Sukhoi Su-30/35 series are twin-engine designs.
“What we have offered, we believe is unprecedented,” said Randy Howard, head of F-16 business development for Lockheed Martin. The company has committed to transfer F-16 production from Fort Worth to India in phases. The proposal would make India the world's largest supply base for F-16s. Lockheed Martin has sold 4,588 F-16s to 29 customers, and many of those aircraft have a 30-year life that requires the continuing supply of spares and support.
“Bringing the production to India will have a positive impact on affordability for India and the global fleet,” said Howard.
The Block 70 appears to be an alternative designation for the F-16V upgradethat is currently in flight test. The upgrade’s APG-83 AESA radar is a big plus, according to Howard. “It has commonality with the APG-81 on the F-35, a wide field-of-view, and picks up 20 targets,” he said. The F-16V also features a one-gigabyte Ethernet data system and a 6x8-inch center pedestal cockpit display. Lockheed Martin is currently producing one F-16 per month for Iraq at Fort Worth, but the line could close at the end of next year when that country’s order for 36 C/D models is completed. (The aircraft are being delivered slowly, because of U.S. concerns about Iraq’s stability. The company had handed over 10 to Iraq by the end of August.)
A dampener could be India’s concern about neighboring Pakistan, which has acquired 41 upgraded Block 52 F-16s. “Given the warming of the U.S.-India strategic relationship, it is unlikely that Pakistan will be given the upgraded aircraft, nor would it like to buy from India,” said a retired air force official. Recently, Pakistan’s efforts to purchase eight more F-16s from the U.S. failed following a row over financing.
Saab is offering the soon-to-fly Gripen E, already the subject of a licensed production deal with Brazil. In a media briefing earlier this year Richard Smith, Saab’s head of Gripen marketing and sales, noted that in the previous Indian evaluation of the Swedish jet “we were ruled out before the commercial bids were opened.” But, he continued, “we are a perfect fit there.”
Saab has offered India co-development of an airborne AESA radar that it has been designing in Sweden. This benefits from Gallium Nitride (GaN) technology that Saab has introduced on the Giraffe ground-air surveillance radar. This radar is an alternative to the ES-05 AESA radar designed by Leonardo (formerly Selex Gallileo) that will be fitted to the Gripen Es for Brazil and Sweden. The Swedish GaN radar could also be fitted to India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), and Saab has offered to assist India with the LCA Mk II. This jet is to be powered by the same GE F414 engine that is to be found on the Gripen E.
At the time of the Rafale contract signing, Dassault boss Eric Trappier seemed confident that the French jet would be considered for additional licensed production. Early last month, Trappier and Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani signed a joint venture, Dassault Reliance Aerospace, for aerospace technology transfer. The venture will help the French company meet the 50-percent offset obligation in the Rafale contract. Whether it will lead to the Rafale being produced in India now seems less likely.
“I’m sure whoever gives the best deal will win. All the aircraft are very capable,” said Indian Air Force commander ACM Arup Raha.
“It will depend upon who provides the best transfer of technology; and, of course, the price tag,” he continued.