In 2007, as the dust settled on the Tata Group’s audacious takeover of European steelmaker Corus, the storied Indian conglomerate quietly began work on expanding its footprint into aerospace and defence. A company, Tata Advanced Systems (TASL), was launched without fanfare the same year. Its first public announcement would come only in February 2008 when TASL teamed up with US aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky to build helicopter cabins in India.
Then on, it’s been a remarkable flight path, as TASL racked up partnerships with some of the world’s biggest aviation companies, including Boeing, Airbus, and United Technologies.
On June 19, however, the decade-old Tata company dropped a bombshell: TASL and Lockheed Martin are coming together to build the F-16 fighter jet in India. In a statement issued at the ongoing Paris Air Show, the world’s biggest aviation expo, the two companies said:
This unprecedented F-16 production partnership between the world’s largest defense contractor and India’s premier industrial house provides India the opportunity to produce, operate and export F-16 Block 70 aircraft, the newest and most advanced version of the world’s most successful, combat-proven multi-role fighter.
TASL and Lockheed Martin presumably have their eyes set on the Indian Air Force’s upcoming order for up to 250 fighter jets, which could cost around $20 billion. With the Narendra Modi government insistent that any global manufacturer have an Indian partner to help spruce up the domestic defence industry, this new alliance will likely tick a lot of boxes for New Delhi mandarins.
For TASL, a potentially game-changing partnership like this has been years in the making. After getting off the blocks with Sikorsky (now owned by Lockheed Martin), the Tata company moved quickly to expand its capabilities. By 2014, it had entered into a joint venture with Lockheed Martin to make components for the C-130 J military transportation aircraft, a partnership with Switzerland’s RUAG Aviation to manufacture the fuselage and wing for the Dornier 228, and an agreement with British defence firm Cobham to make air-to-air refuelling equipment.
In July 2015, Boeing and TASL announced a strategic aerospace partnership to manufacture in India, which was converted into a joint venture by November that year. As of April 2017, TASL was working on sub-assemblies for Boeing-777 components and manufacturing parts for the Boeing AH-6i, Boeing CH-47 Chinook, and Boeing AH-64 Apache military helicopters. TASL’s other areas of focus include missiles, radars, aerospace, military communication systems, and unmanned aerial system.
“We follow a two-fold approach,” Sukaran Singh, TASL chief executive, told an in-house publication in 2014. “One, to work with the best global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as partners and feeders to their supply chains, by meeting world-class standards of delivery and quality. And two, to develop indigenous capabilities to meet the requirements of India’s defence forces.”
But Tata and TASL are hardly the only domestic players competing for India’s defence market, where an estimated $130 billion could be spent on military hardware over the next few years. Rivals include the Mahindra Group, the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, the Kalyani Group via its flagship Bharat Forge, and the London-based Hinduja Group.
So far, though, none of them has pulled off anything in the league of the F-16 deal. Then again, it’s useful to remember that not every big Tata gamble pays off.