The first part of an 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.
The issue of the F-35 being made available to India came up intermittently during the six-fighter contest to supply the Indian Air Force (IAF) with 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) – a tender that was eventually withdrawn with a stopgap order for 36 French Dassault Rafale aircraft. Every so often, during the MMRCA contest, allusions were made to the F-35 being offered to India eventually, if the IAF selected the F-16, without a formal offer ever being made.
Today, with a contest for single engine fighter aircraft being contemplated by the IAF, the F-16 (and the Swedish Saab Gripen) are back on the minds of people.
The F-16 on offer today is the latest Block 70 model – something which didn’t exist during the MMRCA contest – although some of the requirements of the RFP were offered as add-ons or mods to the F-16 and are now common to the Block 70.
Lockheed Martin also says the Block 70 model incorporates spin offs from the fifth generation F-22/F-35 family. Implicit in the current pitch is also a reiteration of the F-35 being made available to India, some day, if it decides to take the F-16 assembly line – just like during the MMRCA days.
Changed Times and Strategic Constructs
But times have changed since then and Indo-U.S. relations have come a long away in the intervening period, as is being repeatedly pointed out by U.S. government officials.
Buying the F-16 is not necessarily a prerequisite for an offer of the F-35. Of the twelve countries who have ordered the F-35, the United Kingdom and Australia have never operated the F-16, although it could be argued that their relationships with the U.S. are on a different plane altogether. It should be remembered, however, that if not the F-16, Australia for one, has operated legacy F-18 Hornets and now operates Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets.
So while Indo-U.S. relations have come a long way, how far have they actually reached?
The designation of India as a sui generis Major Defence Partner (the only country designated such by the U.S.), the attention to the new ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct, the formation of the ‘Quad’ and the new U.S. National Security Strategy announced by President Donald Trump are all markers and pointers to a direction of coordinated, if not joint, strategic thought.
U.S. Ambassador to India, Ken Juster, in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in New Delhi, earlier this month, said, “The U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes, India is “a leading power” in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. For India and the United States, the Indo-Pacific is vital to the security and prosperity of our people as well as others,” also pointing out, “For the first time in ten years, we have held quadrilateral consultations with Australia, discussing our vision for increased prosperity and security in a rules-based Indo-Pacific region.”
And while the Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba told reporters in December that the Malabar exercise would remain a tri-navy exercise, this could change with the return of the Royal Australian Navy.
A Reuters piece in November titled Indian navy the odd man out in Asia’s ‘Quad’ alliance pointed out that ‘while the navies of the United States, Japan and Australia can easily operate together – based on common U.S.-designed combat systems and data links – India is the outlier.’
Former Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, said at the Raisina Dialogue last week, “Because we don’t have a treaty alliance with India, Major Defence Partner is really important because it says we’re going to treat India as if it were a closest ally and partner for purposes of technology transfer and so on.”
Without getting into the merits of the return of the Royal Australian Navy to Malabar, it is important to note that all the countries in the Quad operate, or will operate the F-35, except India, to which it has not been made available.
Time to have the Conversation
So why haven’t the two countries discussed this? Ask U.S government officials and they say, “India hasn’t asked for it.”
Indian officials say, “It hasn’t been offered to us for consideration.”
The possibility continues to remain imponderable.
Cost & Capability
But what is certain is that the IAF is looking for its next fighter and it wants to make sure its next fighter has the most compelling possible case for acquisition. And the first factor in a compelling case is simply cost.
A February 2017 statement by Lockheed Martin said, “The approximate per variant unit prices, including jet, engine and fee are…F-35A: $94.6 million.”
In December, Lockheed Martin said, “As production ramps and additional improvements are implemented, Lockheed Martin’s goal is to reduce the cost of an F-35A to $80 million by 2020.”
If this is achievable and realised, the IAF could do worse for itself than partake the opportunity to consider the fifth generation capability of the F-35.
Although the IAF has a requirement for 127 fifth generation fighter aircraft separate from the current fighter acquisition under consideration, according to IAF sources, it is not averse to weighing the cost-capability matrix of a straight jump to an F-35 acquisition in comparison to a matrix that first looks at, say, F-16/Gripen acquisition cost-capability in addition to that accruing from a subsequent acquisition of fifth generation fighter aircraft.
What, then, will it take to have this conversation?
Read 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: Enabling Indo-U.S. dialogue on the F-35