Officials are working overtime to complete negotiations on moving the assembly line for the F-16 fighter jet to India to enable Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump to jointly make an announcement on the deal.
While there are still too many gaps to be filled, officials are trying to finalise at least the framework before Modi travels to Washington on Saturday. Well-informed sources told us that the two sides were hammering out details to ensure India was in compliance with US law on proprietary technology.
The information could not be officially confirmed as both sides are keeping a tight lid on the substance of Modi’s visit. US laws governing sale of sophisticated military technology are extremely intricate with overlapping jurisdictions by the Defence, State and Commerce departments.
India too has hesitations about dependence on the US, especially at a time of flux in the international system. The announcement, if it comes when Modi meets Trump on June 26 at the White House, would be a good example of India’s designation by the Obama Administration as a “major defence partner,” especially if the deal is studded with significant transfers of technology.
It would show that “Make in India” and “America First” can meet somewhere in the middle. In 2015, Modi made a surprise announcement while on a visit to France in 2015 to buy 36 “ready to fly” Rafale aircraft after negotiations with Dassault for 126 multi-role, medium-range combat aircraft or MMRCA unraveled. On Monday, Lockheed Martin announced it had signed a “landmark agreement” with Tata Advanced Systems Limited “affirming the companies intent to join hands to produce the F-16 Block 70 in India,” causing waves of excitement on Twitter.”
The two companies are still working out details but Lockheed is clearly making a big push to win the deal. An Indian official told us the government is yet to make a decision and Lockheed was taking “a leap ahead” with its announcement.
The signing is in anticipation of the government of India’s decision in Lockheed’s favour and against Sweden’s Saab whose Gripen fighter is in competition to supply the IAF. But the IAF is yet to place an order for the 100 or more single-engine aircraft it needs to replace the MiG-21s.
Although there are many unknowns on the Indian side, Lockheed executives have apparently been working on the Trump Administration with some success. Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed’s aeronautics division, told Defence News at the Paris Air Show that his company had “briefed various members of the administration on the programme” and there is confidence that the Trump Administration would be supportive.
“We haven’t seen any resistance to the programme by the administration” Carvalho was quoted as saying.Trump has emphasised keeping jobs in the US under the “Buy American, Hire American” slogan.
So far, his administration has not said anything about the F-16 line moving to India. The Obama Administration gave both Lockheed Martin and Boeing the green signal last December to build production facilities in India.
It’s unclear at this stage if the US government is willing to part with crucial technology – a key Indian demand. Since the Pakistan also flies the F-16, it’s unclear whether India would exercise control on future orders.