F-16s Built in India? Thinking Through the Strategic Impact


2017-06-25 By Danny Lam

The F-16 deal for India – if it goes through – has the potential to become a game changer for not just the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. 

Uninformed critics of the deal derided it as a deal for an obsolete light fighter that dates from the 1970s, though the Indian version will be a relatively advanced Block 70. Few analysts see the potential of this deal as a game changer beyond a few hardware upgrades.

Facing off against Indian F-16s will be PRC’s latest fighters like the J-31 stealth fighter, J-20s, Su 27/35s and Su-30s and Pakistan’s fleet of F-16s, FC-20s, and J-31s, the F-16 appear to be a rather dated design with severe limitations in range, payload, and stealthiness.

What critics overlook is the F-16 is the most widely sold platform in the history of 4G western aircraft with over 4,000 sold and over 3,000 in service:  the world’s largest fleet of combat aircraft in service.  

Competing options like the Gripen do not come close to the F-16’s installed base, upon which fixed costs of development are amortized.

This is critical in a world where software, with increasing returns to scale and network effects are the path to rapidly improve system performance.

The deal with India is unique in that it transfers manufacturing to India rather than just license production as in previous deals.   India will take over the production of F-16s and be the principal supplier of parts, equipment and support not just for their own fleet, but potentially, for most if not all of the installed base and new customers of F-16s worldwide subject to a US veto.

India will more likely than not, acquire the ability to modify and upgrade the F-16s both for their own and other fleets.

UAEAF F-16F block 60 #3009 is buzzing by the lens at Aero India. The aircraft is used by Lockheed as demonstration aircraft for the Indian F-16IN tender for 126 multi-role aircraft. Note the ‘F-16IN’ markings on the tail base. [Photo by Rahul Devnath]

The F-16 platform is a very versatile platform that still have considerable upgrade potential. The GE F110-132 engine presently rated at 32,000lbs thrust is by no means obsolete and can potentially benefit from technology developed from the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine.

The additional power can be used either to increase aerodynamic performance or as exportable electricity for directed energy weapons or sophisticated radar and ECM systems. Conformal fuel tanks is an upgrade that have successfully extended the range of Israeli F-16s and readily added.

F-16 Block 70s can also be readily upgraded to become optionally manned aircraft.

But there is more to the deal besides taking over production of the most widely sold and presently in service fighter in the world.

The key to 5th Generation combat capability like the F-35 is not the ability of the platform.

While the F-35 is now proven as effective BVR and no less maneuverable than any other 4G fighter, the key to its capability is its tight integration into a combat cloud.

Combat clouds, however, is not about any platform, but about integration of all platforms, space, air, land, sea, undersea, into a fabric of capabilities that detect, identify, and destroy with nodes of the network doing the job by efficiently and effectively using the network’s capabilities.

What each platform has on board is much less significant than systemic capabilities.

Having the resilient, high bandwidth and secure communication networks between many different pieces, devising the doctrine and concept of operations that enable networked resources to be deployed for effect while offsetting the inherent weakness of one’s own suite is a key part of a fifth generation enabled combat force.

And also, generating a more effective legacy combat force can be enabled by shaping effective combat clouds tying together the combat force.

A highly effective combat cloud can be built with older platforms like the F-16, or for that matter, European, Russian and Chinese gear.

How might an Indian F-16 without “stealth” but tightly integrated in a combat cloud defeat a PRC J-31 stealth fighter?  

Detection of the J-31 might be accomplished by off-platform sensors (e.g. UAV or land based) that spot a J-31 from one of its less stealthy angles, and in turn, datalink the information to the F-16 node, who in turn, utilize a ground based or BVR missile or direct a UAV to shoot at a target the F-16 cannot see because of the J-31’s frontal aspect stealth.

The missile can in turn, be cued by other sensors en route until it acquires its own target.

Let’s expand this concept to India’s fighter fleet.

India operate the biggest fleet of Russian/Soviet fighters in the world, and is a major operator (one of the biggest after France) of French fighters.   No one, presently, have the capability and motive to network these planes together into a combat cloud.

To do so, they have to have the combination of critical mass (units operating or on order), experience operating / supporting them, technological base, and incentive / motive to do so.

Chinese or Russians are not going to network US or European planes.

French will do US/European, but not Russian or Chinese gear.

US can integrate European (including French), but will not work on Russian or Chinese kit.

Countries that do operate or intend to buy large fleets of European, American and Russian aircraft like Saudi Arabia, UAE or Iran do not have the technical capability of India in software and communications, the familiarity and logistical support of having operated aircraft from Europe, Russia/USSR, and USA when the F-16 deal goes through.

Israel in theory have the technical capability, but not the critical mass or the motive to do so without an export customer.  For Israeli arms makers, amortizing the cost over one customer (except India) is difficult when India can do much of the work themselves.

Beyond this is integration of aircraft, there is the problem of mating platforms into resources from space to air to sea and undersea. i.e. air defense systems, command and control networks, land or sea based SAMs and ECM resources, etc. which hardly anyone is interested in working with the hodgepodge of older gear that India has in abundance and is familiar with.

India is virtually alone in this opportunity to bring to market products and services for many smaller militaries with tight budgets.

There is not just a big base of F-16 customers to tap, but also many Air Forces operating poorly (or not) integrated platforms bought ad-hoc over the years.  (e.g. Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, etc.)   Many of these air forces are an ad hoc collection of Soviet/Russian, European, US, Chinese and other gear that are vertical silos and/or unintegrated. Few European or US arms suppliers can competitively price systems integration services for these small markets.

Beyond this are geopolitical implications of any Indian arms sales.

India is presently holding talks with Vietnam for sales of Brahmos anti-ship missiles that, if sold, will severely curb the PLAN’s ability to operate in the South China Sea.  Sales of modernized F-16s, Brahmos and associated combat cloud integration of existing inventory of arms in southeast Asian states like Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines have the potential to make the South China Sea a contested air and sea space for the PRC.

Likewise, central Asian republics like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan that are presently Russian customers are potentially Indian opportunities for highly effective and moderately priced equipment.

Then there is the ultimate geopolitical trump card of Indian arms sales to Taiwan.

Doing so would immediately inflict substantial costs on the PRC’s longstanding policy of arming Pakistan and present land grab / salami slicing strategy against India.  This option will have seismic impacts in Beijing and  Shanghai; upend PRC’s Pakistan and Central Asia policy including their “One Belt One Road” scheme; and the PRC’s move into the Indian Ocean and the horn of Africa. PRC’s arms proliferation policy may suddenly become very expensive for Beijing.

The Trump Administration was briefed on Lockheed-Martin’s proposed F-16 deal with India. Post briefing, no objection was raised despite the apparent conflict with Administration policy to promote American manufacturing.  Given what is at stake for the United States, it is not surprising that President Trump is on board.

The question is, will Indian negotiators see the potential of the deal.

India traditionally drives a hard bargain for technology transfers or demand expansive offsets that the US will unlikely concede such as state-of-the-art engine, AESA, and other technologies.  Rather than drive a traditional Indian bargain on these items for the sake of tightly controlled and restricted licenses, by getting their foot in the door with the F-16IN program, India can indigenously develop many marketable add-ons, upgrades, and system integration that do not compete with offerings US firms.

The question is, will Indians see the opportunity in front of them.

Editor’s Note: One does not have to agree with everything which Lam has argued in this article but there clearly are three key takeaways which are very significant for India.

First, what are the benefits of having a manufacturing line for the most widely used 4th generation aircraft? How can one leverage a global user base and support or supply such a user base?

Second, how will the Indian armed forces connect their platforms?  For the Indian Air Force this is absolutely critical given their propensity to buy a wide variety of platforms.

Third, given the experience Indians have in the software business, how can this be transferred to the defense business, notably in terms of shaping a combat cloud for the armed forces? How will India shape a connected combat force which can overmatch the Chinese forces?

Fourth, if India can build real competence on connecting its disparate air combat force, there clearly will be markets globally for such a competence and again if one is building an aircraft which is already the largest 4th generation deployed air combat aircraft, then that simply opens up significant market opportunities.