PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi’s visit to the US to meet President Donald J Trump is now on the front burner, with an emphasis on ‘deliverables’. If Delhi is keen on easing the H1B visa regime for Indian techies, Washington is eager that Modi sign up for the fourth generation F-16, a deal seen as ‘open sesame’ for endless future transactions on military hardware, and implement the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. If the fourth generation F-16 is the key, what does it say about India that the BJP Government is interested in an antique American combat aircraft, optimised for air warfare of the 1970s, as a frontline fighter for the Indian Air Force well into the 21st century?
The fact though is that with the up-front payment for the transfer of the F-16 assembly line to India and for the full complement of SKD and CKD kits for aircraft assembly, there’s no incentive for Washington not to shut down the F-16 or any other supply line at will should Delhi not conform to the contingent US policy interests. In light of Trump’s ‘America First’ outlook, there’s already some backsliding with Lockheed saying that 25 per cent of the production of F-16 spares and critical assemblies would be retained at its Fort Worth plant in Texas, which could be a precursor to its deciding that continued production of this aircraft in small numbers in the US serves its interests, just so workers don’t lose jobs and Trump is kept happy. In the event, paying an awful lot of money for a vintage aircraft and, instead of facilitating the country’s entry into the global supply chain, seeing the F-16 become an albatross around India’s neck, is a real prospect.
Then again, how does the Tejas compare with the other planes? According to the just retired LCA project chief, Commodore CD Balaji in an interview to Aeromag Asia, the LCA “is far superior to the MiG-21 in all aspects”, and “far ahead in terms of technologies and performance …to the Chinese JF-17 [flown by the Pakistan Air Force], and [is] at par with Gripen.” But which aircraft has the operational edge? In aerial warfare with Beyond Visual Range weapons, the ability to locate an adversary aircraft is of paramount importance, and here a fully loaded LCA has a lethal edge in terms of its very small radar cross section of 0.5 sq m. Relative to Gripen’s RCS of 0.7 sq m plus, and of between 3 sq m and 6 sq m for the F-16 and Rafale, the Tejas, is virtually invisible. Making the LCA stealthier still is the fact that 40 per cent of its body is made of radar-absorbing carbon composites versus 25 per cent for Gripen, and 10 per cent for F-16.
Moreover, armed with an entirely tested and proven all-Indian designed and developed ordnance suite of the Surdarshan laser- guided bomb, Astra air-to-air radar-homing missile, and outfitted with the Uttam Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, the Tejas weapons system is powerful. The weapons (like the French Meteor missile at $5 million each) carried by Gripen and Rafale, on the other hand, are all inordinately expensive and will incur very high expenditure to obtain and periodically to replenish the weapons stocks for the lifetime of the aircraft. Further, unlike Gripen E, which has yet to pull speed taxi trials, will enter Swedish service in 2020, and whose AESA radar has tested ‘unstable’, the Tejas has logged over 3,000 flying hours, successfully negotiated the most onerous flight regimes, and proven itself in war exercises in the air defence and ground attack roles.
Notwithstanding everything in its favour, including national pride, should the Tejas be sidelined, it will perpetuate India’s status as an arms dependency and mock the country’s technological ambition. If the F-16 is chosen, it will end up reducing India to a spear-carrier for the US. Were Gripen to get the nod, then as the long-time DRDO’s resident wit, the now retired rocket engineer, V Siddhartha punned, it will be because Modi believes in ‘SAAB ke saath, SAAB ka vikaas’
Published in the Open Magazine dated March 32, 2017 at http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/comment/india-doesn-t-require-f-16s-when-it-has-tejas
World Action and Reaction News (WARN) has the above piece in video-audio at