In a letter to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the US-India Business Council (USIBC) has sought guarantees that US firms would retain control over sensitive technology — even as joint venture junior partners — when participating in the Modi government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative. Since technology transfer is at the heart of the government’s drive to build a domestic defence industrial base so that critical military equipment are designed and manufactured in India, this has put a question mark over the US firm Lockheed Martin’s offer to shift its F-16 fighter jet production line to India if New Delhi were to order at least 100 of these single-engine fighters. Desperate to replace its Soviet-era fleet of MiG 21s and MiG 27s, which have earned the ominous epithet of “Flying Coffin”, India wants to buy fighter jets from foreign companies, but they are to be manufactured in India with a local partner. Apart from Lockheed Martin, Swedish company Saab is in contention for the order with its JAS Gripen NG fighter.
Lockheed Martin has offered what it says is the most upgraded version of the 1970s vintage F-16 fighter to India and has even picked Tata Advance Systems as its local partner. It has also said that if the deal goes through, India will be the sole producer of F-16s in the world henceforth, and would have a decisive say in which air forces can get future upgrades. However, attractive that may sound, if technology transfer is not on the table, New Delhi must reject it. It should make this stand clear to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is visiting India this week. Saab’s Gripen NG offer could be equally problematic since it, too, has American technology, including the GE F414 engine that powers it. Sweden and Saab can only part with non-American technology.
India’s best choice, therefore, would be to push the pedal on the development and production of indigenously designed fighters. The long and painstaking development of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has not only delivered a fairly capable fighter that is now being slowly inducted into the Indian Air Force, but also an entire aerospace ecosystem that was not there earlier. We must build upon both. Indeed, more than 60% of components in Tejas Mk-I are indigenous, and this can be raised in pursuing a Tejas Mk-II version. We should also move ahead with the development of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Otherwise, the nation will lose all that it has learnt and the fledgling aerospace industrial base it has built up. A nation that aspires to be a Superpower cannot let that happen.