Home >Industry >Manufacturing >Aircraft manufacturers eye the next big deal for single-engine fighter jets

Bengaluru: For a decade aircraft manufacturers brought their fighter jets to Aero India hoping to win the multi-billion-dollar 126-fighter jet tender floated by India.

The country decided to buy 36 Dassault Aviation-made Rafale jets last year and scrapped that deal.

The goalpost has now shifted to the next big deal— one for single-engine fighter jets.

India says it needs 200 of these to help the Air Force beef up its ageing Soviet MiG-21 fighter fleet. The deal is expected to be worth about $10 billion. That’s not all, the Indian Navy is also eyeing fighter jets for its aircraft carriers, which could be worth another $15 billion.

ALSO READ | Aero India air show starts in Bengaluru today, to focus on Make on India

The new single-engine fighter jet deal however comes with caveats. Under a new strategic partnership model being firmed up by defence minister Manohar Parrikar, the government will select private Indian firms to exclusively manufacture military equipment for a specified period. The Indian company for the single-engine fighter jet will be identified through a model prescribed by a government committe while the western partner will be chosen on criteria such as transfer of technology and the financial proposal of the Original Equipment Manufacturer like Saab or Lockheed Martin.

Saab of Sweden with its Gripen E and Lockheed Martin of US with its F-16s are the two big contenders for the order. Saab says it will create one of the “world’s most modern fighter aircraft facility in India" if it wins the order.

The state-of-the-art facilities for India would include a dedicated Gripen design centre, a major production facility equipped with the latest manufacturing technologies and robotics systems, a radar and sensor centre, final assembly plus test and verification centres. The facilities would also deliver depot-level maintenance, repair and overhaul and design services. This fighter technology ecosystem would support the full spectrum of production capabilities for India, including parts manufacturing and sub-assembly, the firm said during a presentation ahead of the Aero India show on Friday.

“Saab is offering an industrial facility that will be the centre of gravity for the Made-in-India Gripen. It is an unrivalled offer that will set new standards in aeronautical engineering excellence for decades to come, should India procure Gripen," says Saab India chairman Jan Widerström.

In close cooperation with Saab, engineers and technicians from Indian partner and supplier companies will live and work in Sweden and at the global partners’ sites. They will be trained at production facilities to help them acquire the knowledge and experience needed for transfer to Indian-made Gripens once India’s own facilities are operational.

Saab will set up a training academy for pilots, technicians and aerospace engineers and said it has started to identify and evaluate Tier 2 and Tier 3 partners from all over India. Saab’s partnership and procurement teams have met many Indian companies to assess capabilities and areas of cooperation. In addition, Saab has evaluated potential sites in a number of states and entered into discussions with several state governments.

US defence firm Lockheed Martin wants to push ahead with plans to move production of its F-16 combat jets to India, but would like a nod from President Donald Trump’s administration, Reuters reported on 9 February.

With no more orders for the F-16 from the Pentagon, Lockheed plans to use its Fort Worth, Texas plant instead to produce the fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the United States Air Force is transitioning to.Lockheed would switch F-16 production to India, as long as the Indian government agrees to order hundreds of the planes.

“We’ve briefed the administration on the current proposal, which was supported by the Obama administration as part of a broader cooperative dialogue with the government of India," a Lockheed spokesman was quoted as saying by Reuters. “We understand that the Trump administration will want to take a fresh look at some of these programmes, and we stand prepared to support that effort to ensure that any deal of this importance is properly aligned with US policy priorities."

India’s defence minister Parrikar, in a telephone conversation with his opposite number, the US defence secretary James Mattis, last week decided to expand cooperation, according to the defence ministry.

“The defence minister and secretary Mattis expressed satisfaction at the progress in defence cooperation between India and the United States, especially in recent years, and noted its significance in the regional and global context. They emphasised the special significance and high priority placed by both countries to the relationship, and resolved to work together to further consolidate and expand this partnership in the future," the ministry said.

The US too mentioned the call in its briefing.

“Secretary Mattis and minister Parrikar affirmed their commitment to sustain the momentum on key bilateral defence efforts to include the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative," Pentagon press secretary Jeff Davis said.

Last month, the then defence secretary Ashton Carter had said that the India-US defence relationship is on the right path with the two nations discussing ways to develop this partnership through technology sharing and co-production.

The US-India defence trade has grown from $300 million in a decade to approximately $15 billion in about a decade.

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