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The F-16 Could Soon Be Made In India

June 25, 2017

On June 19 Lockheed Martin announced a partnership with India’s Tata conglomerate for licensed F-16 Block 70 manufacturing. Details of the agreement with Tata Advanced Systems Limited were scarce except for a glowing press release. The breakthrough was hyped some more at the Paris Air Show the following day and it was suggested the long-term goal is helping Tata become a hub for global F-16 sales and supplies.

Ignoring the fact that India’s archnemesis Pakistan flies its own F-16’s this private sector breakthrough does inspire enthusiasm; it appears the US is grooming a rising world power as an ally while India is being drawn closer to the American, instead of Russian, military-industrial periphery.

It also marks Lockheed Martin’s most serious attempt at cornering a South Asian client since it competed in the MMRCA program that was won by France’s Dassault.

Lockheed Martin’s generosity with Tata isn’t without precedent. It’s operations in the subcontinent goes back years. Besides, F-16 production has been offshored on a handful of occasions, albeit with strict US involvement. Countries like Israel, South Korea, Turkey and the Netherlands were allowed to assemble their own tailored variants of the F-16 while Japan even built a derivative, similar but not the same, called the Mitsubishi F-2.

The latest variants of the F-16, the C/D, Block 50/52 and Block 60, remain attractive despite the model’s age. But the reason why the newfangled Block 70 is now being introduced to the Indian market is worth examining.

In late 2016 the Indian government allowed the air force to launch a new program for a multirole single engine fighter that will replace its MiG-21’s–an effort that’s taken decades of aimless buying without satisfying results.

It was believed that Saab’s Gripen E was best positioned to fill this niche. But for a European firm to succeed on such a grand scale–providing anywhere between 200-300 single engine “medium weight” fighters–was and is never guaranteed since state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) is finishing tests on the Tejas Mk.1A, a single engine delta wing fighter-on-a-budget whose deliveries commence in 2017. The Tejas line is intended to enter service from the 2020s and beyond, with hundreds shared among the IAF and the Navy.

This is the same problem facing Lockheed Martin. It will take a handful of years before F-16 Block 70 production can begin in earnest at an Indian facility. There’s also the logistics involved with spare parts and avionics. Can these be provided by local firms or must the airframes be delivered to the US (in Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas plant) and then returned for testing by the Indian Air Force (IAF)?

No wonder the Lockheed Martin-Tata joint venture has attracted its fair share of skeptics. An official announcement from Delhi or even the ministry of defense on acquiring F-16’s has yet to materialize. The recent cancellation of a deal with Sikorsky for S-70 naval helicopters is a sobering reminder to Western suppliers that business with India comes with steep requirements. The IAF’s own biases must be taken into account as well. It prefers its Sukhois and MiGs to a fault, with leftover affection reserved for an aging pool of ground attack Sepecat Jaguars and sturdy Dassault Mirage 2000s.

What’s the appeal of the F-16 Block 70 anyway?

It’s the most advanced variant so far, with subsystems optimized for target acquisition, detection, and information warfare. The pilot will be flying a Mach 2 platform that excels at combat air patrols, close air support, and precision strike. The F-16 Block 70 isn’t a stealth fighter, but it manages a small radar cross section and is superior to the J-7, MiG-21, MiG-23, and Mirage III’s that are flown in the region.

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