It’s been almost a year since Lockheed Martin, the US defense equipment major, had taken the first definite step to pitch for a strong footing in India by partnering local conglomerate, Tata Group. Lockheed Martin is ready to relocate its entire product line of the F16 Block 70-72 fighter aircraft to India if it wins the prestigious deal for 120 single-engine multirole fighters that India desperately needs. India will be replacing its frontline squadrons of aging Soviet-era Mig 23 and Mig 27 fighters and the American F16, the avowed rival of these two Soviet-era fighters, is in the race as a frontrunner in this project.

If the deal goes through and production starts in right earnest, this will be the biggest ‘Make in India’ project to date with excellent long-term benefits for the Indian defense supply chain.

India can become the global hub of F16 production and service

Questions have been raised over this keenness on the part of Lockheed Martin to sell the F16 to India. Some critics say, the aircraft has outlived its strategic potential and is now outdated. The truth is a little different though, as Lockheed Martin points out – the F16 is still a critical part of the frontline fleet of the US Air Force, which intends to extend the service life of over 840 of the F16 fighters in its fleet. Most importantly, in the context of India, Lockheed Martin isn’t just offering an assembling unit but what it calls, the introduction of two new words – ‘India’ and ‘exclusive’ that are written all over the deal if it materializes.

The scale of production can meet India’s requirements in just three years

This will mean that Lockheed Martin together with local partners Tata Group will set up the complete ecosystem of fighter plane production in India with the capacity to roll out at least three F16 Block 70 aircraft every month. That can complete the supply of 120 odd single engine multi-role frontline fighters to the Indian Air Force in just three years.

This will not just be a huge boost to India’s air defense supply chain but also create excellent opportunities for export earnings through service contracts that Lockheed Martin has for many of the F16 fighters; it has supplied over the years. An estimated 3000 F16s will be in active service all over the world for a couple more decades, making it a large and profitable captive market that India can leverage.

Indian bureaucrats creating avoidable hurdles

Procurement of defense equipment has been a problematic area for India since the very beginning with the defense ministry bureaucrats entangling the entire process with endless reams of red tape. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has identified defense as a key priority and a major area of manufacturing growth. To that extent, it has charted a new roadmap with a clear aim to broad-base India’s defense procurement sources. India has not only shed its Cold War inhibitions about dealing with the US for military equipment but is now actively cooperating with the US, Japan and Australia in ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific maritime region.