NEW DELHI • Lockheed Martin's offer to shift all of its F-16 manufacturing to India comes with an added benefit for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: a strategic win against nuclear rival Pakistan.
The proposal would give India partial control, along with the US, over which countries can purchase F-16 fighter jets and spare parts, according to people familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified because the information is not public. That may allow India to choke off key supplies to Pakistan, which has relied on F-16s as its main aerial defence for decades, if the US allows it to do so.
"Some components may be produced only in India," Mr Abhay Paranjape, director of business development at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said in an interview about the company's F-16 proposal.
Asked whether Pakistan would still be able to source F-16 jets or parts elsewhere under the arrangement, Mr Paranjape said questions about foreign military sale policies should be referred to the US government. Mr Roger Cabiness, a spokesman for the US Department of Defence, in turn referred questions on the sale of F-16 spare parts to Lockheed.
The strategic element is a key selling point as Lockheed pushes to win an order that may exceed 100 fighter jets, part of Mr Modi's plan to spend US$150 billion (S$202 billion) on the armed forces and create jobs under his "Make in India" policy. A deal would breathe new life into the F-16, an older model than the stealth F-35 warplane, and further boost US-India defence ties at the expense of Pakistan.
"What we are doing is putting India as the centre of the supply base," Mr Randall Howard, Lockheed Martin's aeronautics business development director, said on Aug 4 in New Delhi. "Today, there is no potential Pakistan sale."
India and Pakistan have been enemies since Partition when Britain exited the region in 1947. The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three wars over disputed territory, and have few economic ties.
US relations with Pakistan have worsened in recent years. Congress in May refused to give subsidies for Pakistan to buy new F-16s, prompting it to consider buying used ones from Jordan instead. The US this month withheld another US$300 million in military aid to Pakistan over its failure to take action against terrorists carrying out attacks on US troops in Afghanistan.
Mr Nafees Zakaria, a spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, declined to answer questions about Lockheed Martin's F-16 proposal, as did Mr Nungsanglemba Ao, a spokesman for India's Defence Ministry.
The company's overtures to India will prompt Pakistan to look more to China and Russia for military hardware, according to Mr Najam Rafique, director at Islamabad's Institute of Strategic Studies.
While many obstacles remain, an agreement with Lockheed Martin would cement closer ties between the nations if the US government doesn't prevent the transfer of advanced radar or avionics technologies, according to Mr Anit Mukherjee, an assistant professor at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.