Bottomline | Choose Wisely

That’s what the IAF should do before selecting a single-engine fighter aircraft

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The Indian Air Force’s critical need for single-engine fighter aircraft can be addressed by putting four issues into perspective: operational urgency; geo-politics; requirement for ‘best technologies’; and contribution to ‘Make in India’ policy.

Speaking at the media interaction on October 5 prior to the Air Force Day, the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa made it amply clear that procurement of single-engine fighters to arrest the fast dwindling combat strength was his priority. Against the 42 combat squadrons that the Indian Air Force (IAF) needs to fight the two-front war, it officially has 33 squadrons, with another five to six squadrons literally on ventilator support. Thus, while the initial requirement is for 100 aircraft, this number, depending on the timely progress made on the LCA Mark 1A (doubtful), could shoot up to 250 aircraft. Given this huge quantity and limited funds, India would be looking at the best deal which balances its operational, geo-political and indigenisation targets.

On the table are the US’ F-16 Block-70 and the Swedish Gripen-E. In order to meet India’s Defence Procurement Policy-2016’s requirement of the Strategic Partner, US’ Lockheed Martin has signed a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), while Sweden’s Saab has done it with the Adani Group. Both foreign vendors have promised to move their single-engine production line to India in order to add value to ‘Make in India’. And both have offered ‘best technologies’ with the President Saab, Hakan Buskhe telling me, “Gripen-E will be a totally Indian aircraft where even the source codes would be transferred.” While this could be dismissed as rhetoric since no nation would give away its ‘propriety technologies’, Saab does not even own up to 30 per cent of the aircraft’s key technologies — the propulsion system and the ASEA radar. Moreover, Saab’s claim of Gripen-E being 4.5 generation technology also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is either 4th or 5th generation. Both aircraft, if you please, are fourth generation aircraft.

A digression at this stage is necessary to understand the geo-politics. The US Trump administration has gone steps ahead than any previous US administration in offering an extraordinary strategic partnership to India. The US wants India to be a partner for ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific region.’ Washington wants to arm and push India deeper into East Asia and the Pacific Region as a balancing power against non-conventional, natural calamities, and conventional threats (read China). The US secretary Rex Tillerson has publicly named China as the ‘power for disorder and predatory economics’. Give this, during his recent meeting with the Indian leadership, Tillerson proposed an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR), with India as a partner, for road and port connectivity across the Indo-Pacific.

Since pragmatic geo-politics should be supported by military power, the US wants to build interoperability with the Indian military, especially the Indian Navy and the Air Force. Interoperability implies commonality of equipment and sharing of classified data for optimal results in common missions. Given this, selling of combat hardware would not be enough; there is the need for assured information confidentiality for good mission results as well.

While the US has been selling military hardware (mostly combat support) to India since a decade, the permission for full exploitation of military equipment, especially combat platforms, is enshrined in the fundamental agreements that the US wants India to sign. Without this, for example, India would not be able to get the ‘best technologies’ of the F-16 Block 70 under the ‘Make in India’ policy.

After a decade of procrastination by India, the Modi government signed the Logistics Support Agreement — renamed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) —, but two other fundamental agreements are still pending. These are Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

These fundamental agreements are caught in heated political and foreign policy debates in India. Critics of these agreements believe that too much closeness with the US will harm India’s interests. Moreover, it has been argued that India would no longer be able to pursue an independent foreign policy, which has been the time-tested principle since Independence.

Then there is the Russian angle to be considered. Russia, it has been said is India’s time-tested friend and the biggest supplier of high-end technologies (its help in India’s nuclear-powered submarine being the prime example). Signing the fundamental agreements would, it is feared, make India a de facto ally of the US with serious implications for its strategic ties with Russia.

While all these and many more such arguments might have some merit, India, today is faced with two major foreign policy and security objectives. The first concerns China, which post-Doklam crisis and the recent 19th Party Congress, is expected to be more assertive on the disputed border with India. While no nation would fight India’s wars with China or Pakistan, strategic ties with the US could help in two ways. With US’ ‘Best Technologies’, India might be able to build its own military power for deterrence faster. And, China, which desires a peaceful rise, would feel constrained with its border machinations by the strategic partnership between India and the US.

The other reason for the Modi government to seriously consider the US’ fundamental agreements is the need to push its Act East policy. With the incredible US offer to partner India in the Indo-Pacific, in addition to the Tillerson suggestion to jointly counter China’s OBOR, Prime Minister Modi might consider the opportunity to marry his Act East policy with US’ regional geo-political goals. This could well be Modi’s foreign policy legacy. Whatever India might finally decide is not known. What is known is that the purchase of F-16 Block 70 brings unmatched geo-political heft for India.

Coming to the F-16 Block 70 capabilities, I was fortunate to recently meet up with two senior Lockheed Martin officials, the executive director, International Business Development, Abhay Paranjape and the F-16 Business Development, Randall L. Howard. The idea was not to seek their opinion on what was well understood, but on what was, for reasons, sufficiently hazy about the platform’s capabilities.

The foremost question which is regularly tossed around by F-16 critics, analysts and even a few IAF officials is that the airframe is decades old (F-16 series have been in service since 1978 having made a total of 4,500 aircraft with 3,200 still in service). This, it is said, would affect the F-16’s manoeuvrability and structural modifications into the future. According to Randall, who has given presentations at the Air Headquarters in New Delhi, these criticisms are not fair. “The design service life of the F-16 Block 70 has been increased to 12,000 flying hours, far beyond the aircraft’s original life of 8,000 hours,” he said. This was recently done under the US Air Force authorised F-16 Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP). (Incidentally, the service life of Gripen-E is 8,000 hours). Given the popularity and the market of F-16, Lockheed Martin envisions further growth of “Block 80 and Block 90 aircraft into the future.”

Moreover, F-16 Block 70 uses “The GE F-110 series of engine which produces more than 29,000 pounds of thrust,” said Randall. The Gripen-E, in comparison, with the GE-414 engine has 21,000 pounds thrust. Given this, “The Block 70 has 30 per cent faster acceleration — an unmatched transonic speed from Mach 0.8 to1.2 —, and its combat radius is 30 to 40 per cent more than its competitor (Gripen-E),” he added. Elaborating further, Randall said, “The Block 70 with full fuel can achieve 1,500 to 1,700km range for air-to-air load and more than 1,200km for air-to-surface load configuration.” This is not all. “The aircraft can stay longer in the air; up to 40 per cent more time than its competitor.”

While the Block 70 has a new and faster mission computer, unparalleled survivability with modern internal electronic warfare system, advanced identification Friend-or-Foe, its biggest strength is the Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 scalable agile beam radar. “This is fifth generation radar capability since the ASEA radar’s software is 95 per cent similar to that of the F-35,” Randall said. What Randall did not say is that if India were to sign the fundamental agreements, then, under the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) spin-offs of the F-35 technologies could be available for Block 70 upgrade.

While the above should answer queries regarding the Block 70 airframe, capabilities and future possibilities, another issue that regularly props up is that the F-16 does not have new takers and so the production line in the US might be shut in the near time. According to Randall, “There are at least half dozen countries in Central and South-East Asia who have shown keen interest in the F-16. For example, we are in competition in Indonesia.” Then, “There are approximately 325 aircraft, already under contract for upgradation with this radar. We believe there could be another 500 aircraft up for upgrades.” He added that (a) variants of F-16 are being flown and sought worldwide, and (b) Block 70 is an entirely new platform with ‘Best Technologies.’

On Lockheed Martin’s offer of transferring F-16 production line to India, Abhay said, “The F-16 production line in Fort Worth has been shifted to Greenville in South Carolina in order to accommodate the F-35 production line expansion in Fort Worth. There are no plans to close the F-16 line. What we have proposed is the shifting of the line to India under the ‘Make in India’ policy. All future exports of F-16s would then be from India with the opportunity for F-16 upgrades and maintenance.”

How much of F-16 technology would be transferred to India? Not hedging his bets, Abhay was forthright, “Each company, and Lockheed Martin is no exception, has its proprietary technologies on which years of research and money has been spent. It will be difficult for any company to part with such technologies without appropriate protection agreements. Beyond this, we will be happy to give India what could become its sovereign capabilities. In this, India and the IAF would be free to upgrade, maintain and modify the platform with their own.” In other words, while certain manufacturing techniques (source codes) or core technologies would not be available to India, they rest could be given.

On the cost of F-16 vis-à-vis Gripen, Abhay said, “This would depend upon what India wants. Would Lockheed set up the production line or would India set up the line with Lockheed’s help? How many platforms would the IAF need, what modifications would it ask for, what indigenous systems would be used in the India-specific Block 70 and so on. All this would be clear once the RFP is issued.” Moreover, “The cost is not about the aircraft alone. It concerns the entire life cycle cost of the platform, for example, what sort of maintenance and product support would be needed by the IAF,” he added.

Lockheed Martin is also upbeat about partnering with TASL. “See the amount and quality of work Tata has done with commercial and military aircraft,” Abhay pointed out. Tata has been working with commercial aircraft since years by delivering them world-class aero-structures like C-130 empennages. In 2015, it entered into a joint venture for creating a manufacturing centre of excellence to produce indigenous aerospace ecosystem, which would include AH-64 fuselages. TASL is also engaged with making components for P-8I and C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter.

Would the name F-16 be a sticking point with India since Pakistan has the same aircraft? According to Abhay, since F-16 has been an extraordinarily successful single-engine multi-role aircraft, Lockheed Martin does not see the need to change its name which is its identity.

“Block 70 has the ‘Best Technologies’ from the F-35 and even the F-22. It is the most advanced F-16 ever offered,” he added.

Here is what India would get if the IAF selects the F-16 Block 70

  • The most advanced F-16 variant with almost medium-weight category capabilities.
  • ‘Best Technologies’ with possibilities of getting spin-offs from F-35 and F-22.
  • The proven F-16 will be easy to evaluate and would cost less than the Gripen-E.
  • One-source stop for all technologies exclusively owned by the US.
  • Production line would be set-up faster and cheaper since Lockheed Martin has enough world-wide experience in this.
  • Criticism of F-16 having old airframe no longer relevant since the service life of Block 70 has been increased to 12,000 equivalent flight hours.
  • Lockheed Martin’s Indian strategic partner, TASL, has enough experience with building commercial and military aero-structures. Thus, building up the indigenous aerospace ecosystem would be faster.
  • The supply chain would be simpler, and parts would be available faster in wartime.
  • Buying F-16 could bring huge geo-political heft with strategic implications for China and Pakistan
  • India and the US would move forward in achieving inter-operability. This would provide muscle to ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific region’ vision.


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