Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar earlier this year said “Under the Make in India process we may have one or two more jet fighter plants in India by the private sector,”. This is apart from the 100 LCA order for which is already placed and the 36 Rafale that India is still negotiating.

The statement threw open a number of possibilities with the contenders who lost out during the MRCA tender to acquire 126 jets opening communications with India to make their jets in India and are agressively pitching their offers.

The statement of making two more jets in India was interpreted as one for a twin engine fighter & one for a single engine. 

Now the rationale behind making another single engine jet is debatable particularly as the current government has reposed faith in the Indian made LCA Tejas and placed orders for it and the defence minister has also talked about opening a second production line for the Tejas.

Having said that, with the Rafale jet stuck, the Boeing made F-18 Super Hornet is seen as a leading contender for the twin engine fighter jet category. Boeing has already said it will open a production like in India should India decide to purchase its jets. 

It’s for the single engine jet where there is heated competition with the contenders being the American Lockheed Martin F-16 which is offering a new block 70 version and the Swedish SAAB Gripen which has recently launched its E/F model.

Both companies claim their jets to be the best ever versions.

A quick comparison on some of the specs will tell us that the GE F-110 engine on the F-16 bloc 70 will produce a thrust of 143 kN whereas the Volvo engine on Gripen has thrust of 80.5kN. 

The F-16s have conformal fuel tanks extending its range and it can carry a bigger weapons payload than the Gripen. 

Both jets come with the latest avionics package & sensors.

At the end of it, in terms of mission requirement both jets will fit the bill for the IAF but it’s what else they are offering to India that will decide on who wins the contract IF it’s in fact a direct competition between these two jets. This will be in terms of their proposals to make in India, technology transfer and the geological benefits leveraging such a big purchase.

Lockheed Martin has offered to shift its only production line that is in Fort Worth,  Texas to India provided India orders the jets for the Indian Air Force. Lockheed also has projected an export potential of 100 jets worth $15 billion over the next few years for this jet which it says will be made & exported from India. The F-16 is one of the world’s widely used fighter jet in service in 26 countries with over 4500 jets producer since it was first introduced. If the F-16 line is moved to India, then India as the sole producer of the F-16s should be in a position to supply the spares for these jets around the world and also take up upgrades of these jets from time to time earning additional revenue. 

Making the F-16 in India & exporting large numbers of it will decrease India’s acquisition cost. 

The engine on the F-16 is made by GE which also makes the engines that will go on the India’s own LCA albeit a differnt version. Setting up a plant to make GE engines in India should be negotiated as the total requirement for aero engines will run into hundreds especially if India also chooses to get a production line of the Boeing F-18 which is powered by the same engines as LCA will be in the future. 

  The US has agreed to allow GE to help India with aero engine technology  for India’s 5th gen fighter jet the AMCA. 

The proposal to transfer various technologies especially the AESA radar & other electronics will also play a major role in deciding which jet India chooses.

On the other hand SAAB has also offered a production line for its Gripen jet. But this will not be the lone production line. It has already signed a contract for a production line in Brazil for Brazil’s requirement for a fighter jet. So the production line will be specific to India with no export potential that LM is offering India. 

The engine on the Gripen is made by Volvo and is a derivative of the GE F404 which earlier powered the jet. India already has a deal with GE for its engines. 

Gripen features advanced avionics and is open to transfer technology to export countries and adapt it as per customer requirements. Customer can chose which country’s weapons and electronics it wants which leaves a lot of options open for the customer choosing the best of the world to integrate on the Gripen.

SAAB has offered to help India with its LCA MkII program. 

So in terms of the offerings where there is scope to not only make jets in India but also export, sale of spares to other countries, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 has a clear edge over SAAB Gripen.

In terms of technology transfer, India could use the Indo-US Defence technology & trade initiative or DTTI to negotiate transfer of critical technologies and also co-develop. SAAB offers multiple sources of technologies that can be integrated on the Gripen. So India will have to work with individual countries that make those equipments to get their technologies.

Then there are other considerations in India which may not valid to make a decision on which jet to go for. Many in  India argue that F-16 is a jet that Pakistan flies and India shouldn’t have the same. It would be very tricky if the US decides to sell F-16s to Pakistan and it’s only production line is in India. India may well negotiate with the US the right to veto sales and have the right to sell to anyone it sees fit. So that can be of an advantage to India. 

Last but importantly, the decision on which jet to buy has to factor in the geopolitical benefits. The F-16 or for that matter the F-18 made by US companies score in this regard. Indo-US relations are on an ascendancy and the US has made it its policy to help India become a great power. Buying an American jet and making them in India will go a long way in cementing those ties.  

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