The contours of the “single-engine fighter” contest are therefore emerging — Lockheed Martinand Saab seem poised to be the only contenders. As this newspaper reported (August 16, “Gripen, F-16, compete in MMRCA re-run”), both companies had earlier submitted what IAFboss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, described as “unsolicited offers” for building single-engine fighters in India. Now, with Lockheed Martin having responded positively to the IAF’s inquiry, Saab’s acceptance, when received, will formally kick off a multi-vendor acquisition process.
The F-16 is amongst the older fighters still in frontline service, but Lockheed Martin describes to Business Standard an attractive offer that would make India the F-16 global hub, galvanizing aerospace component fabrication in the country. The offer involves transferring the world’s only F-16 production line from Forth Worth, Texas, to India. Thereafter, every F-16 built, and a large share of the spare parts and sub-systems for every F-16 flying across the globe would come from India. “Our offer is not for just building a hundred F-16s in India; or even another hundred F-16s for the export market.
The real value would come from the tens of thousands of spare parts, components, sub-systems and systems that would sustain the 3,200-plus F-16s still flying in the US, and in 24 other countries”, says Howard. Intriguingly, that could mean spares and expendables for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet would be sourced largely from India. Lockheed Martin points out that bringing the production line to India would be “a strategic opportunity”.
In truth, India would have little control over the F-16 components it builds for the global F-16 fleet, including Pakistan’s. Governed by a “global F-16 sustainment programme”, the components would go into a chain of US-controlled warehouses across the globe, from where user air forces would draw their requirements. In discussions with Lockheed Martin officials, it is evident that they are concerned by the negativity in India caused by Pakistan’s long association with the F-16.
Yet the company is banking on an attractive business case to tamp down Indian reservations. For Lockheed Martin, shifting the F-16 line to India would be a double benefit. With the F-16 ending its prodigious production run (of 4,588 F-16s ordered over the years, just 15 remain to be delivered), Lockheed Martin now wants to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Forth Worth. Yet, an F-16 line is essential, since the US Air Force (USAF) plans to operate its late-model F-16s (Block 40 and Block 50 versions) for another 30 years, till 2045.
Transferring the production line to India would assure Washington that its F-16s would be reliably sustained. Howard argues that F-16 production is not yet closed. Bahrain and other West Asian countries are negotiating purchases and there are potential buyers in former Soviet countries in NATO, Indonesia and Columbia. He holds out the possibility of building these orders in India. It remains unclear how much weightage cost would have in selecting a light fighter for the IAF.Lockheed Martin is confident of offering the cheapest fighter in its class, having more than amortised its production line while building over 4,500 fighters. “Transferring the line to India will make the F-16 even cheaper.
And that will bring in even more export orders”, predicts Howard, optimistically. There is little clarity, however, on whether Washington or New Delhi would have the casting vote on foreign sales of F-16s built in India. It seems likely that both governments would have to concur on third-party, export sales. Lockheed Martin strongly rejects the notion that the F-16, first built in the 1970s, is obsolescent. Howard points to the Block 70’s battle-proven Northrop Grumman APG-83 airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a key fighter combat system.
That leverages technologies developed for the F-35’s fifth-generation AESA radar. “Nothing in the world compares with the experience in AESA radars that Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman bring to the table”, argues Howard. To be sure, the F-16 Block 70 is a versatile combat platform. It flies faster, climbs quicker and carries more armament than most fighters in its class.
The “conformal fuel tanks” in late-version F-16s allow long-range operations. With two additional 370-gallon drop tanks and predominantly air-to-air armament, the F-16 has a combat radius of 1,500 kilometres — comparable to the much bigger Rafale. With the heavier air-to-ground weaponry that the F-16 carries for strike missions, the radius of action is still an impressive 700 kilometres. Alongside an aggressive marketing pitch to the IAF, Lockheed Martin is also moving ahead strongly with developing vendors in India, and a supply chain that would feed into an Indian F-16 line. On November 7 and 8, a vendors’ conference is planned in Bengaluru.