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SOURCE: THE HINDU

Defence ties between India and US witnessed a major development last month that might well turn out to be a defining moment in the history of India-US bilateral relationship and that was the appointment of Vivek Lall at the helm of American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

Lall, who has already become a name to reckon with in the corridors of South Block that houses the Defence Ministry, was instrumental in clinching a deal under which America will be selling unarmed Sea Guardian drones, manufactured by General Atomics where he was Chief Executive.

Deal maker

In fact, it is unknown to many that it was Lall who spearheaded the deals on Harpoon Missile Systems, P-8Is (Poseidon Eight India) Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft, Apache attack choppers and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from behind the curtains when he was with Boeing. These deals amounted to $12 billion out of the total $15 billion defence trade between India and the US.

At a time when the US is keenly watching each and every strategic step being taken by India in its quest to become long-term partners in the Indo-Pacific region, Lall’s appointment at Lockheed Martin spells positive news not only for the US but also for India.

An aerospace and defence expert, Lall will continue to be a frequent visitor to Delhi as he has always been a believer in offering the best to India. It appears there is great interest by both Indian Air Force and Indian Navy for the world’s only operational stealth fighter Lockheed’s F-35 and a growing inclination in Washington to offer it to Delhi.

In November last year, Fort Worth, Texas, F-16 production line stopped to give way to F-35 Lightning II, a single-engine all-weather stealth multirole fighter. The F-16s, which are not seeing much demand in the US, will now be produced from Greenville, South Carolina. It appears the surge in demand for F16s is in the international market and India could become a net exporter if it chooses to accept a production line.

Daunting task

Lall, 48, now faces the daunting task of selling over 200 fighter jets to India to augment the squadron strength of the Indian Air Force. Lockheed Martin is keen to sell its latest F-16 Block 70 to India even as it has committed to shift its entire production line to India from Fort Worth, Texas, where the F-16s are presently manufactured from.

India’s Defence Ministry has short-listed F-16 Block 70 of Lockheed Martin and SAAB’s Gripen E fighter jet for the Indian Air Force’s $10-billion single-engine fighter jet deal.

In such a situation, Lall’s job will not only be challenging to keep the demand for these warplanes growing but also dynamic as he explores customers around the world. However, being a person of Indian origin, it may be a tad easy for him to carry on his business development mandate in India, at a time when the Air Force faces a two-front challenge from Pakistan in the West and China in the East.

Even when he was with General Atomics, Lall enabled the US government to sell Category 1 drones to India after the country became a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and not the Category 3 drones.