Lockheed Martin says India could become F-16 fighter jets maintenance hub
New Delhi: US defence and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. could make India the global maintenance hub for its F-16 fighter jets if the country chooses them in an ongoing selection process, a top company executive said.
Lockheed has tied up with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd to bid for India’s $12-billion multi-role fighter jet deal, where it is competing with Gripen jets made by Swedish company SAAB. Days after the partnership was made public at the Paris Air Show, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Marillyn Hewson during his visit to US late June.
Keoki Jackson, chief technology officer, Lockheed Martin said the group will build jets with Tatas if and when the deal goes through. “We would love to build F-16 line here in India, and that would, of course, be a partnership with Tatas and if that works out, it will be a huge benefit for both India and the United States in terms of broad manufacturing expertise capabilities, engineering capabilities here in India and jobs both in India and US,” Jackson told Mint in New Delhi, on Wednesday.
Jackson said there were around 3000 F-16s worldwide and India could become a hub to service them.
“The other thing to think about is that there is an installed base of 3000 F-16S around the world; so long term, if you think about the opportunities, there is MRO...because there is a large installed base we would anticipate ongoing large support logistics to sustain those activities for our fleet for many years to come,” he said. MRO stands for maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft.
Lockheed already has a partnership with Tatas under which it manufacturers aircraft and aerostructures in Hyderabad. These include empennage and wing boxes for C130 Hercules turboprop military transport aircraft and cabins for Sikorsky helicopters.
“It's a state-of-the- art factory; both the engineering and production quality is extremely high,” Jackson said.
At least 100 such C130 kits from India have been supplied since 2013, he added.
Deliveries of all the C130s will be completed to India by end of the year, he said, adding there were “no fresh requests for C130” from India. In 2008, India ordered six C130 aircraft from Lockheed Martin, followed by another six.
Some analysts have said the Indian deal was critical to keep the production of the legacy jet alive beyond 2020s and maintained that Gripen was ahead in technology. However, Jackson said the Block 70 version of the F-16 was the top-of-the-line aircraft.
“(It is a) decision for the India and US governments (to make) and we are ready to proceed whenever that decision would be,” he said.
Bharat Karnad, professor for national security studies at New Delhi based Centre for Policy Research said SAAB’s Gripen is far ahead in technology and is the unstated choice for the Indian Air Force.
“The Block 70 is an updated version of a 70s vintage fighter aircraft, so it is a bit like a granny dressing up for a debutante’s ball,” he said adding, “About the MRO hub and all that, well, everybody’s taking that...(statement with) a ton of salt. Recall that the original offer was to produce all orders for this aircraft from anywhere from the India source. But under Trump’s pressure, LM decided to continue producing some F-16 and spares for USAF use in order to retain jobs at the Fort Worth F-16 plant in Texas,” he added.
Karnad also said he remained unsure if India will even go ahead with this deal at all.
“Post-Modi’s visit with Trump, an evaluation has been ordered and will take years (with this assessment not available before the 2019 elections), thereby all but killing its prospects,” he said adding it may eventually not happen, “(It will go) through the motions to make the case to Washington that we are giving it careful consideration.”