India shelves $10bn single-engine fighter deal, to push for Indigenous Tejas

After much dithering the government has finally taken a decision to shelve the $10-billion project on procuring only single-engine fighter from foreign vendors even as it plans to push for Tejas Light Combat Aircraft Mark-2 for the Indian Air Force, which is in dire need of modern fighter jets.

In 2016, the plan to procure imported single-engine warplane got a major push when the Air Force had sent letters to foreign vendors seeking their interest in building a single-engine fighter aircraft in India in collaboration with an Indian player. Finally, the choices narrowed down to US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 and Swedish Gripen E manufactured by SAAB.

Both these companies also came out with exhaustive plans under ‘Make in India’ with the promise to set up production units here and eventually transforming India into a global export hub. While Lockheed Martin joined hands to Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), SAAB announced its partnership with Adani Group for the programme.

However, it seems that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has now decided that it will not specify the number of engines “inviting unnecessary controversy” by restricting itself to number of engines and only in between a couple of players, sources told BusinessLine.

Keeping in mind the requirement of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the government has decided to push for the home-grown Tejas Mark 2, which is much cheaper than F-16 Block 70 or Gripen E, given the paucity of financial resources even as the government continues to face political heat over procuring 36 French Rafale jets off-the-shelf.

Procurement plan

Apart from this, scrapping the single-engine project will also serve the government’s twin objectives of reducing it reliance on imports thereby strengthening the domestic defence industry and keeping the order books of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) steady, sources said.

The plan is to procure at least 120-150 Tejas LCA Mark 2 for the Air Force, according to sources.

Interestingly, the Indian Air Force, which is in dire need of at least 200 fighter planes, rejected the domestically built Tejas last year. In a detailed presentation to the government, the IAF made a case of procuring the jets only from global vendors.

However, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, along with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, have decided that either the IAF places an order for Tejas Mark 2 or open up the competition to all, much on the lines of the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal that was floated by the previous UPA government in 2010 in a bid to buy 126 jets. Finally it was Rafale and Eurofighter that were shortlisted.

When contacted the Indian Air Force declined to comment.

Besides, with the roll-out of the ‘Strategic Partnership’ policy the process of procurement has undergone a major change. Unless the policy is fully implemented no big-ticket programme can take off. Moreover, the negotiations also hit a deadlock over the issue of transfer of technology. “We need to have an India-made plane where the design is ours, the intelligence inside the aeroplane is ours while we can source some of the components globally. But importing a whole plane is regressive. We just cannot end up strengthening the foreign aerospace industry while looking down on your own,” said Bharat Karnad, Research Professor in National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research.

By: The Hindu Business Line

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