by Lindsay Hughes

It was reported in the Indian media (see, for instance, here and here) that India had sought a confidential briefing from US defence contractor Lockheed Martin on its F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighter aircraft. At a time when China is beefing up its defences in Tibet, citing India’s own military build-up as a threat, New Delhi would be acutely aware that while it does not need an arms race at this time, it would be na├»ve not to ensure it has the means to thwart any Chinese aggression in that region and elsewhere. In purchasing the military platforms – the aircraft and other military technology – that it requires to plug the many gaps in its defences, India has few alternatives to the US. India, however, is usually able to use the promise of such purchases to ensure that it continues to enjoy favourable trading terms.

According to the reports cited, India has asked Lockheed Martin to provide a confidential briefing on how well-suited the F-35 could be for its particular requirements. India is the world’s largest arms importer, its indigenous manufacturing base proving incapable of producing the technology it requires to counter potential aggressors such as China and its proxy, Pakistan. Until that situation changes, India is forced to buy its arms and armaments from foreign suppliers. It has, however, sought to use that situation to its benefit by requesting favourable terms of many of its foreign suppliers of other products.

Other than the F-35, India also needs to purchase fighter aircraft that have been optimised for carrier-based operations. India’s main aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, was sourced from Russia and, true to Russian design philosophy, sports a take-off ramp. That mode of facilitating take-off ensures a compromise in the amount of fuel that an aircraft taking off from the carrier can carry, thus reducing its operating range, or the amount of ammunition and/or missiles it carries, reducing its effectiveness.

To overcome that deficiency, India requested the US to give it the electro-magnetic aircraft launch system that it had developed. Washington has reportedly agreed to the request. The acquisition of the Catapult Assisted Take-off But Arrested Recovery system enables Indian aircraft operating from carriers equipped with the technology to carry an enhanced fuel supply and more armaments. It also gives Indian planners the ability to choose from more aircraft types than solely from Russian aircraft that were configured for the ski-ramp-equipped carriers. India, on the other hand, can no longer use Russian aircraft on carriers equipped with the new launch system because they are not designed for that launch system. American aircraft, on the other hand, are designed for just that, making the purchase of, say, Boeing F-18/E carrier-based fighter aircraft almost an automatic choice.

There is little doubt that if New Delhi does indeed acquire the new launch system for its carriers it is likely that it could purchase the Boeing aircraft as well. Purchasing the F-35 is a different matter altogether. For a start, the US has not formally agreed to sell those aircraft to India. It is quite possible that it would, given that it sees India as a major defence partner. The difficulty lies in the fact that India’s own acquisition policy requires that around 60 per cent of the aircraft be manufactured in India. It is very unlikely that either Lockheed Martin or the US Government will permit that, given that the componentry is sourced from established partners and some assembly is carried out in Italy. Further compounding the issue is the matter of maintenance. Indian technicians would need to be introduced to US systems and trained extensively on maintaining what is a cutting-edge aircraft. The learning curve would be very steep. The aircraft’s stealth is attributed to a large degree to its coating. That coating, however, requires that the aircraft be housed in air-conditioned hangars that would need to be constructed across India.

India would need to provide the US with solid guarantees, again, that the technology available in the F-35 would be kept confidential and not leaked to its strong strategic partner, Russia. The form of those guarantees could potentially derail any sale of the fighters to India. Any plan to purchase 126 of the aircraft, as one report suggests India might do to instead of the 126 Rafael fighters it originally planned to purchase from France, could be construed by Russia as an indication of New Delhi’s further move towards the US camp.

On the other hand, the promise to reduce the cost of a single aircraft from its current US$90 million or so to around US$80 million, makes it a viable option in comparison to, say, the French Rafael, of which India has already agreed to purchase thirty-six.

Whether Washington would sell the F-35 to New Delhi is debatable. Whether India has the political will to successfully conclude a large-ticket sale, such as this one, is even more so.

Lindsay Hughes, is a Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Program