Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. defense contractor, and Boeing may bid to supply fighter jets to India for the first time, competing with MiG and Dassault Aviation for an order of as many as 126 aircraft.
Boeing, based in Chicago, will offer its F-18 jet, the senior vice president, Thomas Pickering, said in an interview last week at the Bangalore airshow organized by the Indian Defense Ministry. Lockheed Martin will offer its F-16 fighter, according to the company's vice president, Dennys Plessas.
Improving political, defense and business ties between the United States and India may help Boeing, Lockheed and other U.S. companies win contracts in India. In the past, the South Asian nation has bought its fighter planes from Russia and other European countries.
"This deal is of great significance for U.S. companies," Rahul Bedi, an analyst and correspondent for Jane's Defense Weekly, said in New Delhi. "It's the first time American companies are included in an Indian assessment for plane purchases by one of the world's top 10 military equipment buyers, and that in itself is of great significance."
India's air force is seeking government approval for 126 "multirole" combat aircraft to replace aging Russian MiGs, according to Air Chief Marshal Satish Tyagi of India.
"I want the best machine for my people to fight a war," Tyagi said in an interview in Bangalore last week. "It is for the government to decide which country they want to buy it from. From my point of view as a military commander, I want the best machine for my boys."
About 157 pilots have been killed in accidents involving MiG aircraft in India since 1971, the government said in November. Those accidents cost the air force as much as 17.7 billion rupees, or $405 million, the government said.
"We need to broaden our sources of procurement," Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee said at a conference in Bangalore on Wednesday.
India last year signed a $1.5 billion agreement with BAE Systems, Europe's biggest weapons maker, for 66 Hawk trainer aircraft as part of its plan to modernize its air force. Dassault of France, which has sold 56 Mirage fighter jets to India, said Wednesday that it would bid to supply more fighters. MiG has also said that it would compete for the order.
Boeing is looking for new markets for its defense business, which includes F-18 fighters and C-17 cargo planes, because commercial demand has declined since 2001. Boeing's defense sales surpassed commercial sales for the first time in 2003.
The U.S. Congress would need to approve the sale of U.S. fighter jets to India, Pickering and Plessas said.
"We want to do more business with India," said Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to that nation. "We've been held up a little, while the governments try to get the situation straight."
The United States imposed sanctions on India after India carried out nuclear tests in 1998. The sanctions froze nuclear and other high-technology trade between the countries. India's offer of support to the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led Washington to end sanctions, and last year the countries agreed to expand cooperation in high-technology trade.
The United States is considering a request from Pakistan for Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, the Associated Press reported Feb. 3, citing Douglas Feith, U.S. under secretary of defense. An agreement Pakistan reached with the United States to buy 24 F-16s in the late 1980s was scrapped in the early 1990s because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.