The US secretary of defence, retired Lieutenant General James Mattis, has a two-point agenda for his trip starting September 25: get New Delhi to commit to purchasing the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 combat aircraft along with its assembly line under the aegis of the bilateral Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and to give assurances that India’s Afghanistan policy will not undercut the American strategy to prevent the restoration of Taliban rule in Kabul. The F-16, a 1970s-era aircraft with zero potential for further development, is a hard sell. The Afghanistan issue will be just as tricky because, from the Indian perspective, the Pakistan angle skews what’s asked of India.
The F-16 was the first to be dropped by the Indian Air Force when short-listing aircraft for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition. Lockheed Martin has not had much success pushing this aircraft as a single engine aircraft buy for IAF through the political channels either. It had hoped President Donald Trump would induce Prime Minister Narendra Modi to do a ‘Rafale’ – i.e., peremptorily announce a deal for the F-16 as he had for 36 of the French fighter aircraft when he was in Paris in April 2015. But that didn’t happen. Dassault Avions, the maker of Rafale, was advantaged because the IAF backed the deal, hoping to use the initial transaction to leverage the procurement of 100 more of this aircraft. But the F-16 is not favoured by the IAF over the newer Swedish JAS-39 Gripen E.
This is so for two reasons. The F-16 is obsolete and has exhausted its potential for further development. Upgraded avionics cannot make the F-16 fly and manoeuvre better than the version of the aircraft with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which is its other negative. PAF long ago passed on an F-16 to China for its aircraft designers to study and to reverse engineer many of its technologies. So this plane is an open book for India’s two adversaries – a bad situation for any “frontline” IAF aircraft to be in.
Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Washington has argued for the F-16 as a flagship DTTI initiative less in terms of its flying and fighting qualities or its survival prospects in the lethal air warfare environment of the 21st Century than in terms of India joining the defence industrial “global supply chain”. However, as a US-India Business Council report makes clear that Lockheed Martin will not transfer proprietory technologies nor guarantee the performance of any Indian-made F-16. What will therefore eventuate is the chosen “strategic partner” – Tata Advanced Systems (TAS) getting locked into the same mode of assembling aircraft from imported kits involving screwdriver technology that has stunted Hindustan Aerospace Ltd (HAL). How TAS’ doing what HAL has been doing for the last 60 years will advance India’s indigenous combat aircraft design, development, and manufacturing capability is a mystery, and makes a mockery of the ‘Make in India’ policy.
Moreover, depending on how keen the Trump Administration is to close US’ $24.3 billion 2016 trade deficit with India, Washington could veto Sweden’s sale of Gripen aircraft and technologies as 35%-40% of the components of this aircraft are sourced from the US. This is how an India relying on imported armaments gets shafted.
Mattis’ request that India moderate its support for TTP will put Delhi in a fix because TTP is useful as an Indian counterpart of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad deployed by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Jammu & Kashmir. Severing relations with TTP will mean India surrendering an active card in Pakistan and a role in Afghanistan as TTP additionally provides access to certain Afghan Taliban factions. This, together with the Abdul Ghani regime’s desire for India’s presence and the tested friendship with Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Tajik-dominated ‘Northern Alliance’, ensures that no solution for peace in Afghanistan can be cobbled together without India’s help.
Mattis’ returning home empty-handed will not hurt relations with the US at all because there’s China; and the US needs India to strategically hinder it.