US Air Force chief flies Tejas even as US is in the race for IAF's fighter hunt

by Pradip R. Sagar

Chief of staff of the United State Air Force (USAF) Gen. David L. Goldfein flew a sortie on India's indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas on Saturday morning. Goldfein, the first service chief of a foreign country to fly on the Tejas, was accompanied by Air Vice Marshal A.P. Singh, principal director flight test at National Flight Test Centre (NFTC).

The 40-minute sortie by top US official came at a time when the US is competing in the Indian Air Force's global hunt for over 100 single engine fighter jet. American's F-16 and Gripen of Saab, Sweden, are considered to be the front runners for the multi-billion dollar deal of IAF, which will be floated globally very soon.

Goldfein, accompanied by General Terrence O'Shaughnessy, Commander of US Pacific Air Force, is on an official visit to India and believed to have discussed wide-ranging issues pertaining to defence cooperation between the two nations.

To fill its widening gap of IAF's combat fleet, the force is targeting to procure 114 fighter jets under the strategic partnership model which involves manufacturing the planes in India in partnership with a private sector partner.

US major Lockheed Martin, last year, struck a partnership with TATA Group to participate in the bid for single engine fighter jets. The US firm has also offered to set up its production line for the F-16 in India. While on the other side, Swedish company Saab tied up with ADANI group as a collaboration plan for defence manufacturing, keeping in mind the strategic partnership model focusing on the design, development and production of its single engine Grippen fighter jet aiming to set up production hubs in India.

Currently, IAF has 32 squadrons, but need at least 42 squadrons to tackle two-front scenario. While 36 Rafale and additional fleet of Sukhoi jets will be part of the fleet by 2019, another 83 LCA Tejas are expected to join the IAF fleet by 2020.

In July 2016, IAF operationalised the first Tejas squadron ‘45 flying daggers', but with only five aircraft and without Final Operational Clearance (FOC), required for an aircraft to battle-worthy.