India offers to buy over 200 fighter jets if produced locally

India today said it is ready to buy at least 200 fighter planes from foreign companies if these are manufactured in India along with a local partner as the Indian Air Force looks to boost its operational strength and phase out its older fleet, mostly acquired from the former Soviet Union.

Reports quoting Air Force officials said a deal for 200 single-engine planes produced in India - which could rise to 300 as the IAF fully phases out aging Soviet-era aircraft - could be worth anything from $13 to $15 billion.

India, which last month signed a scaled-down deal with French company Dassault to acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets, is desperately trying to speed up other acquisitions and arrest a fall in operational strength, now a third less than required to face both China and Pakistan.

The Narendra Modi government, however, wants any further military planes to be built in India with an Indian partner to kickstart a domestic aircraft industry, and end an excessive dependence on imported defence equipment.

Meanwhile US defence major Lockheed Martin and Sweden's Saab have shown interest in setting up production lines in India for local manufacture of fighter planes.

Lokheed Martin is interested in setting up a production line for its F-16 plane in India for not just the Indian military, but also for export, while Sweden`s Saab has offered a rival production line for its Gripen aircraft.

The Indian Air Force need several hundreds of fighter planes to build up deterrence against twin rivals Pakistan and China

"The immediate shortfall is 200. That would be the minimum we would be looking at," said an air officer briefed on the Make-in-India plans under which a foreign manufacturer will partner local firms to build the aircraft with technology transfer.

The defence ministry is reported to have suggested local manufacturing or setting up assembly lines in the country along with domestic partners to several aircraft manufacturers, which would in turn promote technology transfer and local production and job creation.

The deal size could actually be over 300, once the Air Force decides to fully phase out its ageing Soviet-era aircraft and could be worth anything from $13 billion to $15 billion, experts say, potentially one of the country's biggest military aircraft deals.

"We are testing the waters, testing the foreign firms' willingness to move production here and to find out their expectations," a defence ministry spokesman said.

The move comes after India and France managed to finalise a deal for 36 twin-engine Rafale fighter jets form Dassault after they failed to agree on a deal for 126 planes over India's demand for local production with a state-run Indian firm.

India's three-decade effort to build a single-engine fighter of its own, which was meant to be the backbone of the Air Force, is yet to materialize as only two of those Light Combat Aircraft, called Tejas, have been inducted to the IAF which has ordered 140 of them.

The Indian Air Force is operating with just 32 operational squadrons compared with the 45 necessary – a number that is far from the operational strength needed to fight a two front war against China and Pakistan.