TATA Emerges ‘Hot Contender’ To Develop Fighter Jets For IAF Under ‘Buy Global, Make In India’ Model?

The Indian Air Force (IAF) appears to be anticipating that the upcoming procurement of new fighter jets would follow the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ model, which is already being successfully adopted by the Tata-Airbus partnership to manufacture C-295MW transport planes in India.

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This would allow for the rapid procurement of new-age fighter jets for the Indian Air Force, which New Delhi desperately needs to counter a possible two-front war with China and Pakistan. 

The approximately $20 billion deal for 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) was first processed via the Strategic Partnership (SP) framework, which involves an Indian business partnering with a foreign supplier to manufacture major platforms in India. 

However, this approach has yet to prove successful, with two navy-led projects failing to move forward, which is why the Indian Air Force is leaning for the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ approach over the strategic partnership strategy mode, reported the Economic Times.

This development comes as US Defense giant Lockheed Martin promotes its relationship with Tata Advanced Systems to supply the F-21s (claimed to be the most advanced version of F-16s and customized for India) to the Indian Air Force, promising the ‘Highest Level Of Indigenization.’

File Image: Su-30MKI that Indian Air Force operates

Buy Global, Make in India

‘Buy Global, Make in India’ is a procurement category established by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 to facilitate the procurement of foreign military systems and their manufacturing in India as part of the ‘Make in India’ defense initiative.

Furthermore, the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ strategy has shown to be effective with the signing of an agreement to produce C-295 transport aircraft by a Tata-Airbus joint venture. This structure is simpler and entails a shorter shortlisting process, giving the Indian partner more freedom in selecting a technological collaborator. 

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The Economic Times reported that the Indian Air Force considered at least four different procurement options before deciding that Buy Global, Make in India would be the best approach to ensure that the project runs successfully and on schedule.

Similarly, defense sources told India Today that “Work is already going on the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and the 5th Generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft project. The 114 MRFA project would also be required by the IAF to maintain an edge over both the northern and western adversaries. We would prefer to go for the ‘Buy Global Make in India’ route, which is preferred by the vendors who are also expected to take part in the program.”

The Indian Air Force Tejas performs at the opening ceremony of the Singapore Air Show on February 15, 2022.

There are two Navy programs that are now in jeopardy. The Strategic Partnership concept has a number of flaws, with the first project to acquire Naval Utility Helicopters under it on the edge of failing.

After state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was initially forbidden from joining the competition, the agreement has been frozen for almost two years and is unlikely to move further.

Naval utility helicopters have already been placed on an import prohibition list by the defense ministry, and a naval variant of HAL’s Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) is currently viewed as the leading candidate for the contract. 

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Likewise, the intention to purchase conventional submarines under Project 75I has run into difficulties, with foreign technology providers voicing their reluctance to satisfy what they call unjustified “joint and severe liabilities” for a product that would be produced by the Indian partner.

Tata Group To Develop F-21 For Indian Air Force? 

Three American aircraft, the F-18, F-15, and F-21, as well as the Russian MiG-35 and Su-35, the French Rafale, the Swedish Saab Gripen, and the Eurofighter Typhoon, are competing for the Indian Air Force contract

Lockheed Martin, the US defense company, has been actively marketing its F-21 fighter aircraft for India’s sole usage, claiming that it would the finest aircraft for the Indian Air Force. For this, the company has already formed a partnership with Tata Advanced Systems.

F-21 – Lockheed Martin

In Dec 2021, Lockheed Martin established a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems to manufacture F-21 fighter wings at a production facility in India.

The successful development of a prototype wing for the combat aircraft, according to Lockheed, demonstrates that Tata can be a future co-producer of aerospace equipment. It also enables both firms to show the Indian military that they can build a manufacturing environment in India. 

Lockheed Martin also said that the partnership with Tata group is a strategic business move that underlines the importance of their relationships with India and trust in Tata for sophisticated defense manufacturing.

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There has been no update on Lockheed Martin’s decision to adopt the “Buy Global, Make in India” approach presently. However, India Today reported that the majority of companies favor the Buy Global Make in India strategy. And, because of their cooperation with Tata,  Lockheed Martin will be able to implement this method far more quickly than other businesses.

Besides Lockheed Martin, Boeing has partnered HAL and Mahindra to manufacture F/A-18 Super Hornet jets. In contrast to the Lockheed-Tata partnership, however, no progress has been made in the case of Boeing. 

F-21 Fighter Jet

The F-21 resembles the F-16 Block 70 combat fighter in appearance. The F-22 Raptors and the F-35 reportedly share around half of the F-21 and F-16 supply chains. However, The F-21 is distinguished by its airframe, armament capabilities, engine matrix, and engine alternatives available.

The F-21 fighters are said to be the most sophisticated F-16 version ever manufactured, with avionics borrowed from the F-35 Lightning II and the F-22 Raptor. It was renamed “F-21” as a customized offering to India to distinguish the improved performance and capabilities.

The F-21 fighters include an extensible hose-and-drogue refueling probe in addition to the usual boom-delivered refueling facility. The F-21 is thought to be a significant “Make in India” opportunity since it puts together the combined might of Lockheed Martin and Tata Group.

As per an earlier EurAsian Times analysis, it appears that the biggest challengers to F-21 fighters would be the French Rafale jets that the Indian Air Force recently procured from France and is touted as IAF’s’ favorite’ by many defense experts and former officials.