The US is moving swiftly to clear the decks for offering Danish F-16 A fighter jets for the Argentinian Air Force. But it seems India is not ready to throw the gauntlet so easily regarding their Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and put the “full diplomatic force” behind the sale.
“The full diplomatic force of the Indian MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) is behind the sales. Negotiations are in the advanced stage led by Indian Ambassador (Dinesh Bhatia). We don’t work on hope. We work,” a senior Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) told the EurAsian Times, requesting anonymity.
The HAL is the Indian public major that manufactures the indigenous single-engine fighter jet Tejas (meaning Brilliance). In the making since the 1980s, the LCA has now entered the services of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and will replace the aging fleet of the Soviet-vintage MiG-21s. The last unit of the MiG-21 is expected to phase out in 2025.
As reported by the EurAsian Times earlier, Argentinian Defense Minister Taiana and Secretary of International Affairs for Defense Francisco Cafiero visited India in July 2023. Besides meeting Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, the Argentinian team visited the Indian defense companies to explore the purchase of LCA Tejas and BrahMos.
The Argentinian Air Force has been aggressively looking to fill the capability void left by the retirement of its 16 Dassault Mirage III fighter jets in 2015. Its current operational inventory includes at least 10 A-4 fighter bombers, which are armed IA-63 Pampa jet trainer supplements.
The Argentinian defense ministry has allocated US$664 million to acquire 12 new fighter jets in September 2021. With the UK putting an arms embargo in place against Argentina, the choices for it have been reduced to Russian-built MiG-29 and MiG-35, China-Pakistan-built JF-17, and Indian-made LCA Tejas.
Can LCA Tejas Fly Against British Embargo?
The Argentinian pilots have already flown LCA Tejas. However, Argentina has identified 16 British embargoed components that can scuttle the deal. Argentina has asked India to look for the replacement of these components. Among other British-made components is the Martin-Baker ejection seat in LCA.
The Indian administration is not oblivious to the British government’s influence on the sale and purchase of fighter jets because of its lion’s share of the global aircraft ejection seat market.
Martin Baker has been fitted into aircraft from many countries. The HAL is already working on indigenously developing an aircraft ejection seat to circumvent the British embargo.
Diplomatic pressure from London has previously blocked any deal involving American or European airplanes, including replacement Mirages, Swedish JAS Gripens, Israeli Aircraft Industries Kfirs, and Korean Aerospace Industries FA-50 light fighters. Because of the British embargo, only the Chinese are free to take Argentina as a client.
Then the Biden Administration, in its bid to contain the growing Chinese influence in its backyard, sought Congress approval to sell the second-hand F-16 fighter jets from Denmark to Argentina.
Washington has sweetened the deal by offering four Lockheed Martin’s P-3 Orion turboprop anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft. However, it has been feared that this could mean “the end of the road” for the LCA as far as Argentina is concerned.
“If Argentinians desire second-hand aircraft, older Tejas will cost a trickle of F-16s. But the overall cost of ownership of Second-Hand Aircraft is always more than newer ones,” the HAL official cautioned.
Copenhagen is in the process of replacing its 33 aging F-16As with Lockheed Martin F-35A fifth-generation fighters. Denmark plans to acquire 27 F-35s, according to Lockheed. Denmark is also expected to send F-16s to Ukraine.
“LCA has just begun. Phrases like ‘the end of the road’ do not belong here,” he added.
“The urgency of the United States to seal the aircraft deal with Argentina is aimed at countering the proposal for the JF-17s produced by China and Pakistan, which comprises fewer units (15) but are new and offer the possibility of ordering a second and third batch,” a report in local Argentinian media said.
In the technical specifications, the F-16 qualifies as a more powerful aircraft with more weapons capacity than the JF-17, according to the FAD experts. However, its engine intake port is very low, which tends to ingest many foreign objects and ‘would require investment in improving airport infrastructures.
“I think that by the end of [this] year, we will have seen all the offers and analyzed all of them,” Defense Minister Jorge Taiana was quoted as saying. “This is a decision that has to take into account not only the technical aspects and the quality of the aircraft’s weapons systems but also issues related to financing, delivery times… these are political decisions to be taken at the highest level by the President of the Republic,” he added.
F-16 Vs Tejas
The first and foremost difference between the two aircraft is that while the F-16 Fighting Falcon is a seasoned war hog, Tejas is just starting its aviation journey.
The US Air Force (USAF) is not buying the Fighting Falcons anymore. Whereas, the IAF presently has two squadrons of LCA Tejas in its inventory and is all set to begin induction of the LCA MK1A variant in the first quarter of 2024.
Deliveries of the 83 LCA MK1A variant, including ten trainers, are expected to be done by 2029.
As opposed to this, the US F-16 multirole fighter is one of the most successful and widely operated in the world, with 4600 operational combat aircraft in service in over 25 countries.
Both the F-16 and LCA started as the lightweight fighter program of their respective countries. In terms of technical specification, the LCA is much lighter than the F-16 and is smaller in size when seen from the top. The F-16s have a better range than the LCA.
The US has sought the UK to lift its embargo to facilitate the sale of F-16s to Argentina. The question, however, remains if that would involve future spare parts too. On the contrary, Tejas aircraft will be the mainstay of IAF’s fleet for the next few decades to come. Its operational use is bound to increase.
Reports indicate that Tejas will soon be deployed in operational roles in the northern sector, where it would have to go one-on-one against Pakistan’s F-16s and China-Pakistan Joint Venture JF-17 should conflict happen between these countries.
India is developing the LCA Mk2, a multirole aircraft more capable and powerful than its earlier variants, to replace the aging western-origin Jaguar, Mirage-2000, and the Russian-origin MiG-29s.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com