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Indian Air Force restructures $17 billion fighter jet program

The Indian Air Force is overhauling its plan to induct 114 medium-weight multirole fighters, with a senior service official saying the aircraft will be built in India with significant foreign technology transfer and no foreign procurement.

The effort will cost about $17 billion under the Make in India economic policy.

The Air Force official said the project is very much alive, but that the “final nitty-gritties have yet to be worked out, and that will take time because it will require manufacturing capability building in the country.”


Daljit Singh, a retired Indian Air Force air marshal and current defense analyst, agreed that India must move quickly to create the capability to manufacture high-tech systems at home.

“The main aim should be to extract the maximum [transfer of technology] from the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] and start manufacturing subcomponents through Indian companies," Singh said.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced Saturday that the government will create a separate budget for domestic procurement of weapons and equipment to help reduce the imports bill.

A Ministry of Defence official said a formal budget allocation of about $17 billion for the multirole fighters project will be granted sometime next year, and will be launched under the Strategic Partners procurement policy.

Under that policy, the multirole fighters will be manufactured by domestic private defense companies with one of the original equipment manufacturers approved by the government. The process for selecting contractors is yet to begin, but the MoD official said the businesses will be selected within three years.

No private defense company in India has made fighter jets before, but several have expressed interest in participating in the program, including Tata Advanced Systems, Adani Defence, Reliance Defence, Mahindra Defence and Bharat Forge Limited.

Reliance Defence has created a joint venture with France’s Dassault Aviation, which currently manufactures components for Rafale fighters.

Meanwhile, Tata Advanced Systems has teamed with Lockheed Martin, an American company that produces the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Adani Defence has announced a teaming arrangement Sweden’s Saab AB, which makes the Gripen jet.

Another Indian Air Force official said a request for information was sent in June 2018 to foreign original equipment manufacturers for the multirole fighters. Among those who have responded to the RFI are: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Dassault Aviation, Saab AB, Airbus Defence and Space, Russian Aircraft Corporation, and Sukhoi Company.

The Indian Air Force plans to induct all 114 multirole fighters within 12 years after the contract is awarded.

The official added that the RFI included the requirement for transfer of technology, including the transfer of design, development, manufacturing and repair expertise. It also included the requirement for the unilateral capability to integrate weapons, systems and sensors. The capability to upgrade the aircraft and a provision on exporting the aircraft is also part of the program. India is also seeking transfer of technology for stealth technology, active electronically scanned array radars, avionics, electronic warfare systems and engines.

“The advantage of making a fighter aircraft in India is that the customer can select the types of sensors, EW equipment, avionics and weapons, as per operational requirements. Subsequently, the customer is assured of full logistic and upgrade support without any restriction. However, it is important to embed most of these systems in the aircraft design itself to ensure low observability and systems compatibility,” he said.

However, Singh, the defense analyst, said any transfer of technology agreement would need to make business sense to the OEM. “Propriety Items could still be under the control of the OEM,” he said.

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