SAAB Gripen
SAAB is ready to make Gripen in India.Creative Commons/US Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Christopher Mesnard

The Narendra Modi government is ready to buy single-engine combat jets that can give fillip to its fast depleting combat fleet strength, but they must toe the Prime Minister's pet project Make in India, where a foreign manufacturer will have to tie-up with a local partner and make the jets in India.

India could buy as many as 200 jets, which could eventually rise to 300 if the foreign manufacturer makes it in India, Reuters quoted IAF officials as saying. The deal, one of the biggest for the country, could be worth $13-$15 billion.

India faces trouble from two neighbours, China and Pakistan, though the sanctioned strength in case of two-pronged attack is 45 squadrons of fighters, its current combat squadron has come down to 32 squadrons of fighters, which is the lowest in a decade.

The IAF is also dealing with the phasing out of Russia-made MiG 21 squadrons, which is expected to bring it down to 31 squadron strength. So, in order to give impetus to the fighter squadron, the Central government signed a deal with France in August to buy high-end Rafale twin-engine jets from Dassault, worth $8.8 billion.

The Rafale deal also include weapons package Meteor radar-guided Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile and Scalp long-range air to ground missiles. But the 36 jets fall short of its required strength to counter any threat from two theatres.

PM Modi is, however, looking to kick-start India's nascent defence manufacturing industry by making foreign companies build in India.

Two companies have shown interest -- US aerospace major Lockheed Martin and Swedish aerospace major Saab.

Lockheed Martin has said that it is ready to set up production line for its single-engine F-16 fighter jets in India. The US giant has also said that it is also ready to export the jets that are made in India.

Similarly, Saab has said that it is also ready to set up production line for single-engine Gripen fighter jets.

"The immediate shortfall is 200. That would be the minimum we would be looking at," an officer was quoted as saying by Reuters. Building in India also implies transfer of technology, something that many have detested from.

Defence Ministry Manohar Parrikar has written to companies asking them if they are ready to set up shop and the extent of transfer of technology, said a government source.

The Modi government had to cancel the previous government's MMRCA deal, known as the mother of the deals for 126 Rafale fighters being made in India after the two sides could not agree on the terms for producing them in India. The government instead had to go in for only 36 of them, which will be arriving in fly-away conditions.

Moreover, the indigenously made LCA Tejas, is further being delayed with only two aircraft being handed over to Indian Air Force and its maker, HAL, still conducting tests on several prototypes.

Saab's Gripen offer

Saab on the other hand is not only ready to set up Gripen fighter jet production line but is also ready to help build the local aviation industry.

"We are very experienced in transfer of technology – our way of working involves extensive cooperation with our partners to establish a complete ecosystem, not just an assembly line," said Jan Widerstrom, Chairman and Managing Director, Saab India Technologies.

Widerstrom also confirmed of receiving a letter from the Indian government seeking a fourth generation fighter. The facility needs to produce at least 100 planes, said a source close to company.

Lockheed Martin's F-16 offer

Lockheed Martin too confirmed of getting a letter from defence ministry and said that it offered F-16 fighter jets. It also said that it offered to transfer the entire production line of F-16 to India.

"Exclusive F-16 production in India would make India home to the world's only F-16 production facility, a leading exporter of advanced fighter aircraft, and offer Indian industry the opportunity to become an integral part of the world's largest fighter aircraft supply chain," said Abhay Paranjape, National Executive for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Business Development in India.

Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet offer

Earlier this year in March, reports emerged that Boeing has offered twin-engine F/A-18 Super Hornets under the "Make in India" framework of the Indian government. The F/A-18 jets were also competitors at the previously cancelled MMRCA deal.

US defence cooperation

US dislodged India's traditional military supplier, Russia as the top arms supplier in recent years. India and US are also fast expanding their military ties with India ordering military hardware like Apache and Chinook helicopters. India is also looking to buy BAE Systems' M777 Howitzers.

"We have never had control over technology. This represents the most serious attempt to build a domestic base. A full or a near-full tech transfer lays the ground for further development," said M Matheswaran, a retired Indian air marshal and former adviser at HAL to Reuters.