Entering service in 1978, the F-16 Fighting Falcon—now popularly known as the Viper—is a lightweight, short-range multi-role fighter renowned for its agility. More than three thousand of the type will serve in the air forces of twenty-seven countries this year. The Viper has seen plenty of action over the decades, and is credited with shooting down seventy-six aircraft in air-to-air combat in exchange for one or two losses by one count.

While there are larger twin-engine fighter jets like the F-15 Eagle that can go faster and farther and carry heavier combat loads, the Viper is more maneuverable and can still perform the majority of combat missions just as well at a lower price. For example, by one accounting an F-16 costs $22,000 per flight hour, compared to $42,000 for the F-15.

India previously turned down the F-16 for its medium-fighter competition in favor of a small order for thirty-six French Rafale fighters. Let’s take a look at why the new proposed joint venture could mark a dramatic turnabout for the world’s second most populous nation.

On June 19 this year, Lockheed Martin announced in advance of a U.S. visit by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi that it had reached a joint-venture agreement with TATA Advanced Systems to move its F-16 production line to India. This deal would be contingent on the Indian Air Force selecting the F-16 to fulfill a new requirement for one hundred to 250 new single-engine fighters, which could total up to $13 to $15 billion. If the agreement does come through—the major competitor remains the Swedish SAAB Gripen E fighter—then India would become the exclusive producer of an advanced new Block 70 variant of the iconic fighter jet, and might also export the type to countries such as Bahrain, Colombia and Indonesia.

Entering service in 1978, the F-16 Fighting Falcon—now popularly known as the Viper—is a lightweight, short-range multi-role fighter renowned for its agility. More than three thousand of the type will serve in the air forces of twenty-seven countries this year. The Viper has seen plenty of action over the decades, and is credited with shooting down seventy-six aircraft in air-to-air combat in exchange for one or two losses by one count.

India previously turned down the F-16 for its medium-fighter competition in favor of a small order for thirty-six French Rafale fighters. Let’s take a look at why the new proposed joint venture could mark a dramatic turnabout for the world’s second most populous nation.

This would be the first U.S.-designed jet fighter to enter Indian service. The jets will be built in India, and not in the United States

India has a large fleet of aging and accident-prone MiG-21 and MiG-27 jet fighters that will soon be leaving service. New domestically built Tejas light fighters have consistently disappointed with their sub-par performance, and thus are not being considered as a full replacement for the MiGs.

The F-16 deal is another sign of a deepening U.S.-India alliance, which was already evident in a major logistical agreement struck in 2016 permitting the two countries to share military bases. In fact, this drift in U.S. foreign policy follows the logic of the United States’ confrontation with China. China and India have perceived one another as a strategic threat since a border war in 1962, and Beijing has developed a close alliance with Pakistan as means of “encircling” India. Conversely, Washington now sees partnership with India as a means of hedging against China’s military dominance in Asia.

This obviously brings tension to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. However, whenever the flow of American arms to Pakistan wanes, Islamabad can count on Beijing to fill the gap: the latest fighter type to enter Pakistani service is the JF-17 Thunder, a joint Pakistani-Chinese collaboration.

Washington is not the only capital where economic nationalism is in fashion: domestic production in India was as a requirement for the single-engine jet competition, as part of Modi’s Made-in-India initiative. Lockheed claims that the American F-16 production line will instead be repurposed to producing F-35s anyway, and that parts suppliers in the United States would still benefit from the deal. India would thus become the sole supplier of newly assembled F-16s, and have the right to export them as well. The proposed F-16 agreement was first green-lit under the Obama administration, though Lockheed claims that the Trump administration has been briefed and has yet to object.

Though the F-16 has an excellent track record, and the Block 70 version would be substantially modernized, some Indian defense analysts have expressed disappointment that India is acquiring another fourth-generation fighter dating back to the 1970s. The fact that it could easily take three to five years or more for the production line to start producing F-16s also places the deal in question.

To be fair, even the U.S. Air Force will keep hundreds of F-16s in service for some time, but fourth-generation fighters are at a steep disadvantage against stealth fighters. However, fifth-generation fighters are both extremely expensive and politically difficult to obtain. India is already working on its own HAL AMCA stealth fighter, and is a partner in the Russian Pak FA T-50 stealth-fighter program—though this has been beset with major problems and delays, much to the Indian military’s dissatisfaction.

Another criticism is that India may receive little in terms of technology transfer from the F-16 deal, due to the fact that many of the more advanced components, such as the engines, computer systems and data links, are proprietary to numerous companies other than Lockheed.

Regardless, the fact that India is seriously considering becoming the sole assembler of the F-16 going forward—an airplane type that will remain in service in the United States and across the world for many more years—is a good indicator as to the current drift of U.S. foreign policy in Asia. (With inputs from Sebastien Rolin of War is Boring)

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