7 minute readEnabling Indo-U.S. dialogue on the F-35
The unsaid issues that need to be resolved for a potential Indian F-35 order

Lockheed Martin F-35 Chief Test Pilot Alan Norman piloting Australia’s first F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter on its inaugural flight on September 29, 2014 | Photo: Lockheed Martin/Liz Kaszynski & Alexander Groves

A breakdown of the issues that need to be resolved for the two countries to have discussions on a potential Indian fleet of F-35 aircraft, in the concluding part of this analysis.

The U.S. India relationship has had it’s share of ups and downs. When you talk to people here in India – the prime minister has said that ‘we’ve overcome the hesitations of history in our relationship’. Depending on who you talk to – a lot of people have not necessarily overcome the hesitations of history and they will remind you about 1971 and ’72 when the U.S. Navy was actually deployed to deter Indian behaviour in this region. And I think about how the carrier – the U.S. carrier used to be a symbol of great division between our countries. Now, fast-forward to 2018, we have an Aircraft Carrier Working Group talking about how to build a carrier together. – Ambassador Richard Verma at the Raisina Dialogue

There are four broad issues that will need to be discussed between the two countries as part of any conversation on approval for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA)

This first issue is probably the least problematic of the four to resolve.

For such a conversation to take place, India would have to formally end its involvement in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft development program based on the Russian PAK-FA/Sukhoi-57 fighter.

The IAF is already wary of continuing its involvement with the program, given the development cost and time overruns and projected maintenance costs. The aircraft is now expected to cost USD 250 million per unit for delivery in 2027-2028. The IAF is also not impressed with the demonstrated supercruise and stealth capability of the aircraft.

In spite of the costs already sunk by India into the development program, the IAF would not be unwilling to walk away from a project that will be subject to delayed delivery and significantly higher costs, if more cost-effective and timely alternatives are available to them.

No doubt, the Russians wouldn’t be happy about this, but India has substantial existing and future plans for cooperation with their defence industry that would offset the impact of a withdrawal from the FGFA and could placate their old strategic partners.

U.S. Export Controls

One of the standard reasons cited by U.S. officials for the absence of an offer of the F-35 are export control laws denying India access to the technologies within.

But U.S. government positions have evolved since the MMRCA contest. Ambassador Ken Juster said in his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in New Delhi earlier this month, “The United States has gone from a restrictive policy regarding the export of dual-use items to India to a much more liberal one.”

Notably, he cited the exemption approved for the export of General Atomics Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to India, last year, “positioning India to be our first non-NATO partner or treaty ally to acquire this advanced platform.”

The approval for the export of the Sea Guardian UAVs is now being seen as, not only an exception, but also a precedent for Indo-U.S. relations. Such an exception has not been approved in the case of even Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and major customer of U.S. military equipment.

Ambassador Richard Verma said last week, “I think a very interesting model we ought to look at – where we have a qualitative military edge between the U.S. and Israel. And I think we can do the same thing with India. Now it would be fairly a big idea but I think the time is right to do that. It’ll take export control reform, it’ll take the help of Congress, but I think that is the next chapter, making it clear that we want India to have the technology and platforms to prevail in contested domains.”

“This will require some reciprocal obligations on the Indian side,” said Verma, explaining further, “Part of the technology decisions are not just ‘Will India be a good steward of the technology?’ Part of the question is why should we give the technology? What kind of burden sharing or information sharing will India do or provide in the context of this advanced technology?”

According Ambassador Juster, “A combination of interests underpins the future success of these initiatives – the Indian government interest in technology and engaging in the co-development and co-production of military equipment; the U.S. Government interest in safeguarding information and technology; our mutual interest in increasing the inter-operability of our forces; and the shared interests of our companies in growing and creating jobs in both countries. These interests will never be perfectly aligned, and the burdens cannot fall only on one party or another. Rather, as we did earlier with dual-use technology, all parties need to be creative in finding commonalities and mutually beneficial solutions that will enable them to derive value from the process. We need to patiently make step-by-step progress on these defense initiatives rather than expect to resolve all issues at once.”

At this point, it is worth noting that since June 2016, India has joined the three dual-use technology export control groups – the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenar Group and, most recently, the Australia Group.

Foundational Agreements and Security

Key to any potential for a dialogue on an F-35 sale to India could be the conclusion of and adherence to the three foundational agreements between India and the U.S.

While a version of the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), called the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, was concluded in 2016 and is in operation, the fate of the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) remains up in the air.

CISMOA permits the exchange of sensitive information over secure channels while BECA facilitates the exchange of geospatial data between the two countries.

Besides these, there would be additional sanitisation and quarantine arrangements required to be negotiated for securing sites and data with respect to any potential Indian F-35 fleet.

Lowered Expectations for Make in India

The F-35 is built in 10 partner countries. Like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which was the result of coordinated manufacturing by multiple partner companies in multiple countries, it experienced a lot of initial production problems. These production issues are in the process of being resolved with year-on-year increased efficiencies resulting in lowered costs.

If faced with a Make in India requirement, neither the U.S. government nor Lockheed Martin and its partners would be willing to disrupt their production of the aircraft in any substantial way.

Now defence manufacturing is a pillar of the Make in India initiative and India would find it difficult to contemplate discussion of such an order without domestic manufacturing being a key issue on the agenda. But theoretically, such a discussion could pivot to other areas of analogous cooperation and much would depend on imaginative flexibility and a willingness on both sides to pursue the conversation.

It remains to be seen if a reduced Make in India component for an acceptable cost and fifth generation capability mix manages to make a compelling case. But in such an eventuality there would be no tender competition, say the IAF sources, adding that this would be a direct government-to-government order.

The four issues listed above are formidable challenges to dialogue on a possible Indian F-35 fleet. But a determination of solutions to these issues will always be ethereal until the two countries actually have a conversation.

Read the first part of this analysis that examines whether the time is right for the two countries to finally have a discussion on a potential Indian order of the F-35 fifth generation fighter aircraft: Will the U.S. & India finally talk about the F-35?

So what do you think?