In 2007, India began an official tender process for 126 multi-role, medium-range combat aircraft (MMRCA) with Paris-based Dassault at a cost of about $11 billion. It was the world’s largest fighter jet deal at the time. Since then the deal has unraveled. Negotiations stalled over price and quality and, ultimately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opted to purchase only 36 “ready to fly” aircraft from Dassault. Even this more modest version of deal has yet to fully fructify. Since the original bid, the Modi government has added a “made in India” component as part of all future acquisitions.
Amidst the French fiasco and the reality that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is down to just 33 fighter squadrons, numerous producers of fighter aircraft have sought to woo the Modi government for a slice of India’s aviation pie. Competitors who are lining up include Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, SAAB’s Gripen E, Eurofighter Typhoon, RAC MiG-25, as well as Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70.
In April 2016, Lockheed Martin surprised MMRCA watchers when it offered to relocate the entire F-16 assembly line to India. The announcement came on the tail of the U.S. government’s announcement that it would sell eight F-16s to Pakistan. (That deal with Pakistan subsequently floundered when the U.S. Congress, irked with Pakistan’s enduring and seemingly endless perfidy, refused to subsidize the sale.), Not surprisingly, Indian officials tended to rebuff the idea of inducting the F 16s for several reasons. First, India has a strong preference to “leap frog technologies.” The F-16, frequently dismissed because it is a “fourth generation aircraft,” ostensibly lacks the allure of other options. In reality, India is unlikely to get a so-called “fifth generation aircraft” on the terms that the aircraft be “made in India” and the concomitant technology transfer such terms require. A second reason why the F-16 has little traction in India is the fact that Pakistan has long flown a version of this platform, albeit a far inferior version to that offered to India presently. Third, analysts often underestimate the quality and capabilities of this platform because they fail to appreciate that the most important elements of the airframe are the sensor technologies, avionics suites, munitions capabilities, and range, among other attributes in addition to its extreme speed and maneuverability. Even though the transformation of modern air combat increasingly emphasizes the above attributes while diminishing the utility of traditional properties such as extreme speed and maneuverability, by any measure the F-16 remains a superb platform.
There are many reasons why India should pay closer attention to what is on offer from Lockheed Martin despite the above-noted reservations. First, Millet, Murray, and Watman in Military Effectiveness argue that military organizations which aim to be effective strategically, operationally, and tactically must “consistently secure the resources required to maintain, expand and reconstitute” themselves. This usually requires the military organization to obtain the cooperation of national political elites to obtain these resources. The authors further note that “the effort to obtain resources for military activity and the proficiency in acquiring those resources constitute political effectiveness. Resources consist of reliable access to financial support, a sufficient military-industrial base, a sufficient quantity and quality of manpower, and control over the conversion of those resources into military capability.”
Why are these academic insights relevant to the decisions surrounding the MMRCA? Simple. No major power has existed without having a robust military-industry base which allows a country both to satisfy its own defense needs and export variants of those weapon systems to subsidize the developments of the same. No serious analyst would dispute the claim that India currently lacks such a military-industry base. Such an offering will provide much-needed competition to India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which continues to enjoy a monopoly on research, development, and defense production. For this reason, DRDO is likely to resist any serious competition, even though it is this kind of friendly rivalry which major powers use to inspire excellence within their defense industry. For reasons that I will note below, the current Lockheed Martin proposal is the only offer that will permit India to take a serious and large step in the direction of developing this kind of base.
Unlike the other competitors in the MMRCA race, the F-16 is truly a global system with a globalized market and supply chain. Countries that currently fly this platform include: Bahrain, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, the United States, Venezuela, and more recently Romania. Most importantly, the F-16 is the backbone of the fighter force structure of these countries. If the entire production were to shift to India, the price of the platform would likely decrease. Countries that would like to purchase a fourth-generation aircraft but which currently cannot afford to do so may enter the market if prices decline. This deal will afford India enormous opportunities to become the sole supplier of a truly international platform with a proven and viable market. Thus while the F-16 may lack the allure of some of the sexier competitors, the F-16—with apposite avionics, sensors and munitions—remains one of the best combat platforms available and the demand for this aircraft is global and proven.
None of the other MMRCA competitors can make this claim because their markets are substantially smaller. Boeing’s F-18 is flown by Australia, Canada, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland. The Eurofighter Typoon has been successfully delivered to six countries thus far: Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Saudi Arabia. The MiG 25 is flown by Algeria, Armenia, Syria, Bulgaria, India, Iraq, and Libya. SAAB’s Gripen is flown by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom (training only) and has recently announced a deal to produce the aircraft in Brazil. Given the relatively small market for for the Gripen and the recently-announced deal with Brazil, it would be doubtful that a similar deal with India would be profitable. Moreover, it is not clear which if any of these competitors will offer to shift complete production of the platforms to India even if they offer other concessions to comply with the “made in India requirement.”
Among these various options, only the F-16 will provide India with a serious leap forward in developing a robust military-industry base that will position India to become a serious exporter of fighter aircraft as well as satisfying an important component of its own requirement. Proponents of the F-16 contend that it can simultaneously provide the Indian Air Force with extreme speed, agility, and range that exceeds that of the F-18 and Gripen. Moreover, the range of the F-16 can match or even exceed that of the Rafale at a lower price point.
There are other considerations that India should further pursue with the United States. Currently, a country cannot acquire a U.S. weapons system without going through an approval process in Washington. India should assert its equities in being a part of this consideration process both in denial and in acceptance of would-be purchasers. This would permit India to fully extract the strategic value of having the world’s only F-16 production line being housed in India. With respect to denial, India should insist upon having an explicit position to deny Pakistan further purchases under such an arrangement. Second, let’s consider acceptance authority. Imagine a future when a new potential buyer for the F-16 emerges to whom India would like to sell the platform but for whom the United States has reservations. India should negotiate a process by which Indian concerns are deemed as valuable as those of the United States when considering denial of production to certain countries and admission of new countries into the F-16 club.. Admittedly, it would be hard to imagine a case where both India and the United States would disagree, but the mechanism should be discussed and developed.
Another possible consideration is the production and sale of spare parts. Currently F-16 components are part of a global supply chain with myriad producers manufacturing the various components that go into the platform. India should consider forming partnerships with manufacturers to permit the production of key components India. This would permit India to further derive profit and technology transfer from the F-16’s global market position.
Related to the issue of sales of platforms and spare parts, when Pakistan came under American sanctions in mid-1990, Pakistan was unable to purchase spare parts for its fleet of American platforms or obtain lifetime maintenance of the airframes and it was not allowed to take ownership of subsequent aircraft. This rendered these platforms very difficult to sustain and seriously degraded the readiness of Pakistan’s combat capabilities. India, as the potential sole producer of this aircraft, should also press its significant concerns about Pakistan with the United States to ensure that when countries undermine India’s security, India should have ultimate veto power to not sell to that country and there should be a consultative process by which countries posing such a threat can be denied spare parts and lifetime maintenance.
These decisions about who can and cannot purchase the platform and/or acquire spare parts and system maintenance are not in the hands of Lockheed Martin. These issues must be negotiated between the United States and India through the appropriate bodies set up for this purpose such as the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) within the U.S. Department of Defense.
These are reasonable requests which would both make the deal more politically palatable to India and also address some of India’s core concerns about security and its core interests in being an equal partner with the United States. Should India make these political demands, the United States should be willing to accommodate them. After all, if the United States is serious about helping India become a global power, it needs to treat India as one. That begins by taking its various equities as seriously as it does any other American partner.
C. Christine Fair is an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown’s Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War. Fair does not represent any aircraft manufacturer and has not been compensated in any way for this article. These views are her own.