Earlier this month, a delegation of U.S. government and business officials flew to New Delhi. Its mission: to reassure the Indian government that the U.S. really wants them to replenish its fighter fleet with F-16s. It’s the right move for a lot of reasons — some of them potentially uncomfortable to the new Trump administration.
The Indian Air Force is working to replace its aging fleet of third-generation, Soviet-era jets with up to 250 fighters that could defend its interests against China and Pakistan should a conflict arise. Late last year, India agreed to purchase 36 French Rafales, but most of its new fighter-jet orders will be filled through a competition between the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen and America’s F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Performance and cost will help determine the outcome, but the Indian government has also stipulated that the winner will also have to commit to producing the fighter in India. It’s a precondition that may not sit well with Trump administration officials focused on preserving American jobs. But sealing a fighter deal would be an important step in strengthening U.S.-India ties. That’s desirable because the two countries share both democratic values and a growing geopolitical concern about China.
Last year, President Obama declared India its first “Major Defense Partner,” the latest development in a defense relationship that grew steadily closer over the past two U.S. administrations. Selling them the F-16 would be another concrete demonstration of America’s commitment to this vital strategic relationship. And solidifying India’s role as a major defense partner will go a long way toward keeping that region of the world in balance.
Performance and Cost
The original JAS 39 Gripen, designed by SAAB in the 1980s and initially fielded in the late 1990s, was a fourth-generation multirole fighter. The JAS 39E, which first flew in 2008, is a significantly improved version. The E-model boasts an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a robust sensor package that includes Infrared Search and Track (IRST), and a processor that allows real-time data fusion. The jet reportedly costs $85 million a copy, roughly the same as the projected price tag for the stealth F-35A when it enters full-rate production.
The Gripen’s competition is Lockheed’s 4+-generation F-16 Block 70, a variant of the Block 60 developed for and sold to the UAE. Thanks to more than $3 billion in UAE-funded research and development, the new F-16 has a fiber-optic data bus that can handle a thousand times more information than its predecessor. With an estimated price tag of $55 million, the Block 70 also has an AESA radar, an internal IRST, and fuselage-hugging conformal fuel tanks that free up wing stations for more weapons.
Other factors that India will consider include cost per flight hour and the logistics for acquiring munitions and major subcomponents made outside the country. The Swedish-designed Gripen, for example, is powered by U.S.-made General Electric motors, and its munitions will come from both American and European suppliers. This makes the logistics a bit more complicated for SAAB’s candidate.
But the Gripen costs $4,700 per flight hour, far lower than the F-16’s $7,000 hourly rate. That may be enough to even out the initial price difference between the two competitors over time.
Both jets are solid performers and, like Gripen, Lockheed has offered to produce or even move the F-16 production line to India. In the end, the decision will likely come down to logistics and the military-to-military relationship—both factors that favor the F-16. But the production line move may become a sticking point in the U.S.
Producing the F-16 in India
Both the JAS 39 and the F-16 have already been either assembled or produced outside their countries of origin. But the impending closure of the F-16’s production line in Fort Worth complicates matters.
The U.S. Air Force bought its last F-16 in 1997. Since then, the production line has been sustained solely by foreign military sales. Unfortunately, those sales have dwindled in the last several years due to global competition and a vacillating U.S. policy on foreign military sales.
Bahrain and Taiwan, which both operate the F-16, have petitioned the U.S. to allow them to buy more, but those sales were thwarted by the Obama administration. With no other purchase in the works, Lockheed Martin plans to shut down the line at year’s end.
Lockheed can’t win the contract unless President Trump, who won his election on a buy-American platform, allows F-16 production to move, at least in part, to India. But if the Trump administration blocks the move, New Delhi will likely buy the Gripen and the Fort Worth production line will close as scheduled — and that will dim the futures of some 450 American manufacturers and businesses that supply F-16 parts.
Maintaining F-16 production in India would help shore up those companies. Over time, some of those jobs may also shift from the United States to India, but the complexities of production and the sheer number of independent suppliers will leave room for negotiations and decision space on the best way for both countries to fulfill this deal.
Finally, New Delhi’s fighter decision will also affect the United States’ global security posture. A U.S. victory would bolster our bilateral alliance and improve India’s military capacity, capability, and interoperability with U.S. forces. This would help balance Chinese assertiveness without requiring a greater U.S. military footprint in the region.
This is a golden opportunity for the new administration. By approving this sale and allowing India to produce the F-16, President Trump would strengthen our global security posture, bolster our relationship with India, and save American jobs that would otherwise be lost if and when the last F-16 rolls off the line in Fort Worth.