India – An emerging fighter market

The thriving Indian defence industry is all set to spectate a major procurement process as there is a new found progress in the Indian Air Force’s and Navy’s plans for the acquisition of several multi-role fighter aircraft. With the deal being pegged at well over US $15 Billion, India has effectively re-emerged as one of the most competitive markets for global aerospace companies.

In stark contrast to India’s self-reliance mission, acquisition of foreign fighters is crucial to address the short fallings in the strike capabilities of the forces. The acquisition of these aircraft has gained greater importance as aging platforms are bleeding the country off its regional aerial superiority, which is crucial to tide over a two front war scenario.

Air Force heralded the beginning for this multi-billion dollar acquisition process, way back in November, 2016, by forwarding an informal RFI through its embassies to aerospace companies in USA, Sweden and Russia. The informal RFI which was received by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab and Mikoyan intrigued these companies in jointly developing a single-engine fighter aircraft for the Air Force.

According to several sources, it has not listed the required numbers of aircraft, but has assessed the company’s offer and its willingness to transfer requisite technology to Indian firms. A Senior Executive, working for one of these companies, has confirmed that a letter – an informal RFI – was indeed received by the companies and it was  extremely short with a provision to reply using ‘YES’ or ‘NO’.

Former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement in Jan 2017, had confirmed that the Air Force is primarily scouting for a single-engine medium multi-role fighter to replace aging MiG-21 aircraft. Saab and Lockheed Martin remain the sole contenders, given that these are the only companies manufacturing single-engine fighters.

A MiG-21 Fighter Aircraft Takes off on a routine sortie; Courtesy – Madpix.


With the rapid decommissioning of MiG – 21 aircraft, which for years served as backbone of the Air Force, acquisition of single-engine fighters remains to be the need of the hour.  Of the currently active 33 squadrons of fighter aircraft under the command of the Air Force, at least 12 squadrons are composed of MiG aircraft, which are to be retired by 2022.

The multi-billion dollar deal is being routed through the Government’s celebrated ‘Make in India’ initiative and it promises to arm the country with an able fighter and make India capable of developing its own indigenous aircraft in the future.

Sweden based Saab has offered Gripen – E fighter to the IAF. Saab claims its ‘Smart Fighter’ to be one of the most advanced 4th generation aircraft and the most cost-efficient air power package available in the market. The company says, its modular design promises to make Gripen – E, one of the most efficient aircraft with an availability rate of anything upwards 90%, if the need arises.

Jan Widerstrom, CMD, Saab India, speaking to Life of Soldiers about the aircraft said -“Saab is offering India, not just the aircraft, but the true capabilities to make it a self reliant manufacturer. Gripen has been termed as a sixth and seventh generation technology by American experts who reviewed the program.”

Levelling against Gripen is Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter, which remains to be the most manufactured fighter worldwide. The surging Indo-US ties have only fortified Lockheed Martin’s ‘Make in India’ offer. The company is offering the Air Force, its F-16 Block – 70, the latest version of the legendary fighter.

If India opts for hundreds of these aircraft, the company promises to make India as the sole manufacturer of these aircraft by shifting its Texas manufacturing line to India. However, reservations exist within the Air Force in choosing a fighter which is being replaced by fifth-generation fighters by its primary user – USAF.

On a brighter note, F-16 remains to be one of the most versatile and the most manufactured aircraft till date. The venerable fighter aircraft is currently in operations with over 25 armed forces and at least half of the 4,500+ aircraft built till date are still in operation.

The fighter market in India has further heated up following the issuance of RFI by the Indian Navy to acquire at least 3 squadrons of carrier-borne fighters. The Navy in December, 2016, had turned down the indigenously developed N-LCA aircraft, citing its inability to take-off from a carrier with full weapons load.

A Saab Gripen fighter taking-off on a routine sortie; Source – Saab AB.

According to sources, the RFI has received response from Saab, Boeing and Dassault Aviation. While Boeing is offering its proven F-18 Advanced Super Hornet, French based Dassault Aviation is offering Rafael-M, a naval version of the Rafale fighter. Saab is set to offer it’s under development Gripen – M fighter, which is a marinised version of the Gripen – E aircraft.

The aircraft acquired by Navy will be arming, it’s under construction carrier IAC – I cherished ‘Vikrant’ and also the future carrier of the Navy, IAC-II, which is expected to feature nuclear propulsion and electro-magnetic aircraft launch system.

The ball has been set rolling by MoD following the notification of much awaited ‘Strategic Partnership’ model. The deal, besides promising India with an efficient strike platform and a comprehensive aerospace ecosystem, provides the private sector an opportunity to establish themselves in the global supply chain.

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