The Pentagon has backed proposals from US aviation giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin to manufacture top-line fighter aircraft as part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative. The proposals, including breakthrough offers on transfer of technology and licences, were conveyed by US defence secretary Ashton Carter to defence minister Manohar Parrikar last week.
Boeing’s offer is for the versatile F-18 twin-engine fighter while Lockheed Martin’s is for the single-engined F-16. Since every F-18 costs about $100 million and F-16s are close to the $70-million mark each, the proposal represents a very large investment. If either comes through, it will mean setting up of a production line, and will translate into a giant leap for the aviation sector in India.
Government sources said the US has also accepted an Indian non-paper on broader export controls in light of the latter being designated a major defence partner of Washington. The two sides also discussed sharing of sensitive data related to top-end defence technology and possible transfer of high-altitude long-duration drones for maritime surveillance.
The possible Indian acquisition of the battle-proven Predator drone was also discussed. “Defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to the US had significant outcomes with Pentagon agreeing to work on the Indian non-paper for easier export controls,” said a senior official.
New Delhi is pleased with the Pentagon move, but the US departments of commerce and state will have to be partnered to make this happen as clearances on licences and transfer of technology lie within their ambit. “Since a major component of Grippen NG fighter, including the engine and the radar, are US, the latest developments show that there would be no obstacle from Washington on even transfer of technology for Swedish fighter. The Pentagon, however, understands that all these proposals will have to go through the competitive route,” said the official.
During his three-day US visit, Parrikar visited the Boeing Apache and Chinook helicopter factory in Philadelphia with the Indian Air Force (IAF) showing interest in the newly-developed KC-46 strategic tanker to augment the Indian mid-air refuelling tanker fleet.
The IAF’s requirement has been pegged at 126 multi-role fighters. This means at least 90 fighters are to be made in India as the remaining 36 will be Rafales, the deal for which is in the last lap. The IAF’s squadron strength has dwindled to 33, with the mandated strength being 42 squadrons of 18-20 planes each.