Trump to press Modi on F-16 fighter contract in Manila

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump. File photo
On Monday, when they meet in Manila, President Donald Trump plans to urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi to move quickly on finalising the selection of a single-engine fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF), say US defence industry sources.

While the Modi-Trump meeting has not yet been announced, India's foreign ministry said on Friday that it is "in the process of being finalised". However, Trump's talking points for the meeting include following up on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to New Delhi last month, when he announced Washington would support transferring F-16 and F/A-18 technology to India.

The US has high stakes in this purchase of 100-200 single-engine fighters that could be worth $15 billion. The frontrunners are Lockheed Martin's F-16 Block 70 and Swedish company Saab's Gripen E. Washington has thrown its weight behind Lockheed Martin's proposal to shift the F-16 production line (which is closing down due to lack of orders) from Fort Worth, Texas, to India.

The F-16 line will be shifted only if the IAF opts for that fighter. Lockheed Martin says that after the F-16 line is re-established in India in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), it will be the world's sole source of F-16 fighters and major spares.

Trump is using his on-going 11-day Asia visit to hard-sell US weaponry to friendly Indo-Pacific nations. In Japan last week, he urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to buy "a lot of military equipment from the United States".

But while Japan has been a traditional buyer of US weaponry, India's defence ministry has not yet plumped in favour of a foreign fighter. The IAF is under pressure to buy more indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) instead of a more expensive (if more capable) foreign fighter.

As India Today reported on Friday, the defence ministry "asked the IAF to scrap its plans of acquiring single-engine fighters from global [vendors]". The IAF top brass was asked to explain to the ministry why the Tejas could not do the job instead.

This is unsettling for Lockheed Martin and Saab, both of whom have responded to the IAF's "request for information" (RFI) issued in October 2016.

However, it is part of a pattern for India's military procurement organisation. A tender that the IAF issued in 2007 for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) dragged on for six years, eventually culminating in September 2016 in the procurement of just 36 Rafale fighters from French vendor Dassault.

After the collapse of that tender and with the IAF facing a shortfall of 10 fighter squadrons, the RFI for the single-engine fighter was issued. The IAF currently has just 32 squadrons against a requirement of 42.

While the previous two US administrations, headed by Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, pursued their relationships with India more on the basis of strategic convergence than weapons sales, Trump makes no bones about expecting New Delhi (like Tokyo) to buy American weapons.

Over the past decade, Washington has run up $15-18 billion in defence sales to India, including the C-130J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, and CH-47F Chinook and AH-64E Apache helicopters. It is now eyeing a second wave of defence sales, worth $18-25 billion, including F-16 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters, naval helicopters, and the Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicle.

Modi and Trump are in the Philippines capital to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

On Monday, Trump will be marking the 40th anniversary of US-Asean relations, and meeting world leaders, probably including Modi, on the sidelines.

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