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Want to Sell Fighter Jets to India? Make Them There.

April 11, 2018

The Indian government is requiring that most of the planes it buys under the new contract be assembled in India. In other defense deals, the Modi government is taking a less strict approach, encouraging — but not mandating — foreign arms manufacturers to team up with local companies to make parts, or entire products, within the country.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi arriving on Thursday at the defense conference in Chennai, where he spoke about “the strategic imperative to make in India, to make for India and to supply to the world from India.”Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In essence, India wants foreign companies to transfer key technologies to their local partners so they can eventually do it all themselves.

“Today we live in an interconnected world where the efficiency of supply chain is a key factor in any manufacturing enterprise,” Mr. Modi said on Thursday in a speech at India’s defense exposition, held every two years, this time in the southeastern coastal city of Chennai. “Therefore the strategic imperative to make in India, to make for India and to supply to the world from India is stronger than ever before.”

Throughout the show, potential bidders for the fighter aircraft contract were showing off their capabilities in hangar-sized, air-conditioned tents.

Boeing, which intends to submit a bid to supply its F/A-18 Hornets, announced that it would partner with the government-owned aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and one of India’s largest conglomerates, Mahindra Group, to build the planes locally. At a booth at the show, it was offering visitors a chance to fly a Hornet simulator.

Lockheed, a leading rival, has partnered with Tata Sons, another Indian conglomerate, to pitch its F-16s. As part of the bid, the American company will offer to move its sole F-16 production line, currently in Greenville, S.C., to India to make the planes at a joint factory with Tata.

About 250 South Carolina workers could lose their jobs with the move, which would not occur for several years. But Lockheed said there was little other demand now for F-16s, which were originally designed in the 1970s, and that India’s large order would support jobs at American parts suppliers.

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The Trump administration — which is threatening a trade war with China in part over that country’s demand that American companies transfer technology to Chinese firms — has been more supportive of the concept in India.

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A display for Brahmos missiles, a Russian-Indian joint venture.Credit Arun Sankar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The U.S. is going to be very forward-leaning in technology, the transfer of technology, and indigenous production that we can offer to India,” Kenneth Juster, the United States ambassador to India, told a panel at the conference in Chennai on Wednesday.

He added that the United States planned to offer India “certain technology and platforms that we have offered to no other country in the world.” A fighter jet deal could lead to even more cooperation, he said.

Such sharing of sensitive technology is something the Russians have historically been reluctant to do, said Sameer Patil, director of the Center for International Security at Gateway House, a Mumbai think tank.

“Now the hope is that the private sector would get some technology transfer because the American partners have more confidence in the Indian ones,” he said.

The Trump administration sees weapons sales and technology transfers as part of a strategy to rely more on New Delhi to counterbalance Beijing in Asia.

At this point, India’s military is vastly outspent by China’s. Beijing unveiled a defense budget this year that was three times larger than New Delhi’s. However, India is investing in its navy, creating its own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines that American officials hope can help counter China’s navy, which has made vast inroads into the Indian Ocean.

After India gained independence in 1947, it decided to rely primarily on government-owned military suppliers for its needs. But those companies have a mixed record on quality, execution and technological innovation.

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In some cases, the Indian military has not wanted to buy locally made products, the country’s defense minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, acknowledged on Wednesday. “It is their final call that I have to respect,” she said at a news conference.

So over the last few years, India has been encouraging the growth of private defense suppliers, from large industrial houses like Tata and Mahindra to hundreds of small and medium-sized companies.

The government is also requiring that foreign defense suppliers reinvest 30 percent of the value of their Indian contracts back in the country, a target that Mr. Modi said has largely been achieved during his tenure.

To help win an Indian contract for AH-64 Apache helicopters, Boeing started a joint venture with Tata to build the Apache fuselages in the central Indian city of Hyderabad. The factory will eventually be the sole supplier of that part for Boeing’s worldwide operations.

“It saved us money, gave Indians a capacity they didn’t have before, and it opened the doors for a $3.1 billion sale for us,” Pratyush Kumar, president of Boeing India, said in an interview.

Tata, a 150-year-old conglomerate with interests in everything from truck manufacture to management consulting, has a lot to learn about the defense business, according to Banmali Agrawala, its president of infrastructure, defense and aerospace. Partnerships like the ones with Boeing and Lockheed, he said, were important steps.

“We want to make sure whatever we do is globally competitive and meets global standards,” he said. “Let’s first gain some expertise by plugging ourselves into the global supply chain.”

Follow Vindu Goel on Twitter: @vindugoel.

Maria Abi-Habib contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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