US policy review casts shadow on prospective fighter deal with India

US policy review casts shadow on prospective fighter deal with India

 The change of guard at the White House has cast a shadow on India’s plan to acquire single-engine fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force.

As the Donald Trump administration plans to review Lockheed Martin’s plan to shift the F-16 assembly line to India, its European rival Saab is also concerned with the US development as Gripen aircraft’s engine and some systems are of American origin.

Due to the IAF’s dwindling squadron strength, the Union government had contacted US major Lockheed Martin and Swedish firm Saab in October 2016, enquiring whether they have the capability of supplying single-engine fighter aircraft to the IAF under the Make in India scheme.

Both offered to shift their assembly line to India if a minimum order is guaranteed. A month later, they made presentations to defence ministry officials. But with the Trump administration indicating review of Lockheed’s plans, there are worries on the prospective deal.

On Wednesday, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had a telephonic conversation with US Secretary of Defence James Mattis. They expressed satisfaction with the progress in defence cooperation between India and the US, and resolved to work together to further expand this partnership, a ministry official said.

Make in India

Behind the scene, however, officials conveyed to Lockheed representatives to seek clarifications from the Trump administration on its willingness to participate in the Make in India scheme as new US policymakers are concerned about the job loss.

Though Lockheed representatives asserted there would be no job loss at its plant in Fort Worth, Texas, which would be used to produce the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets for the US Air Force, the Trump administration wants a relook.

“We, too, have some concerns about the US content in our aircraft, but don’t have any reason to worry because of the US-India relations,” Mats Palmberg, vice president at Saab AB, said here. The aircraft uses American GE 414 engines — the same as used by the LCA Tejas.

While Saab is pushing its Gripen-E for the IAF, the company has designed a maritime fighter Gripen-M for the Indian Navy. Though the company is yet to make a prototype of Gripen-M, it would respond to the navy’s Request for Information for 57 carrier-borne fighter jets.

Both Gripen and F-16 were in the race to supply 126 combat jets for the IAF in the last decade. They lost out to the eventual winner, Rafale from Dassault Aviation, even though the entire deal was later cancelled by the government.

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