2 December 2020 06:36 PM

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BHARAT KARNAD | 23 JANUARY, 2018

Sleight of Hand: Lockheed Martin Turns F-16 into F-35, and Creates Markets WhereThere Are None

Fairy tales about the ‘Indian’ F-16


A pink paper carried a startling bit of news suggesting that Lockheed Martin had readied a variant of its frontline F-35, in service with the US military and allied air forces, for offer to the Indian Air Force. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/lockheed-proposes-making-custom-built-fighter-jets-in-india/articleshow/62580903.cms

But scroll down the story a bit and one sees the catch. Vivek Lall, head of Lockheed, India, is talking about the Northrop Grumman APG-83 AESA radar with supposed 95% commonality with the radar on the F-35, being on the F-16 Block 70 pitched to India.

This feature has led Lall to purposely obfuscate issues and try and sell the F-16 as another version of the F-35. To tweak that old saw some, sticking small tusks on a pig doesn’t turn it into a dangerous warthog.

As I long ago warned in my posts, Trump very early talked about retaining at least 25% of the F-16 production in the US itself — mainly to fulfill his promise to keep manufacturing jobs in America. The last F-16 inducted in the US Air Force was in 1997. And , it is in the interest of Lockheed to replace as fast as possible all F-16s in the US — whether in USAF or in the various state Air National Guard (of which George W Bush was a member — his rich and influential Pappy and former President, George HW Bush, having arranged this safe posting in the Texas unit than see his son risk his neck in the Vietnam War) with F-35s.

This essentially means that the supposed 2,000-odd F-16s in the US are not going to be there to be serviced by the aircraft spares and assemblies produced in India.

That should at a stroke eliminate a big chunk of the incentive for India to manufacture this late-Sixties vintage — 50 year old — combat aircraft that will be ready to move right off the Indian assembly line and into museums or the junk yard. (This last was the denouement faced, incidentally, by the underpowered Marut HF-24, which were flown out of HAL premises straight to IAF aircraft graveyards!)

That’s the reason why Lockheed is canvassing furiously with the Trump White House to relent on this issue of keeping part of the F-16 production in its plant in Forth Worth.

In any case, with the F-16 phasing out of the USAF, America’s traditional allies and partners too will hanker for the successor F-35, which Lockheed will happily undertake to replace as well. This will motivate Lockheed to open more assembly lines for the F-35 to meet the rush demand from foreign customers. So, where exactly is the “international market” that Lockheed is promising for the Indian-made F-16 and for its spares, etc.??

It surely is not merely enough to “make in India”. There has to be a market for whatever is produced here by foreign companies beyond what the Indian market can offtake. In this context, what to make of the song and dance that Lockheed, the Pentagon, Ashley Tellis, the US thinktanks — Carnegie, Brookings, based in Delhi and in Washington, and the army of F-16 pluggers in the Indian media make about India becoming part of a “global supply chain”??

Sure, the period to replace the F-16 in the fleets of numerous air forces with the F-35 will stretch over the next 10-15 years at most. But the Blk 70 entering IAF will stay on for 40-50 years from the year of its entry into the fleet — should this happen — by, say, 2022. Is it anyone’s argument that this old crone of an aircraft can realistically serve until 2060-2070, when advances in air defence technologies, evident since the late 1980s, are already making manned combat flying a frightfully dangerous undertaking, and by 2030 will make it extinct? Like the Dodo bird. Or, the dinosaur.

It provides further proof, if it was needed, that the Indian military, like the Indian government and its agencies, including DRDO, are not perspicacious spotters of technological trends. Or, India wouldn’t be in the mess it is now.

Meanwhile, the wily Fiza’ya (Pakistan Air Force), which has operated the F-16 for the last 30 years, will be desperately hoping the GOI-IAF combine afford it the opportunity to make a meal of the prospective Indian F-16 contingent. Meanwhile, the contempt PLAAF, that is bidding fair to achieve parity with the USAF with its unending series of new aircraft, especially the J-20, that it seemingly effortlessly rolls out of it aircraft design bureaus and factories, feels for its Indian counterpart will be reinforced.

So, what’s new?
 

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