The US Air Force’s F-35 stealth fighter at Aero India 2023, in Bangalore

The participation of F-35 stealth fighter jets and B-1B Lancer heavy bombers as well as the heavy turnout of US defence majors at Aero India 2023 underline the importance Washington gives to its strategic partnership with New Delhi

With Russia engaged in war with Ukraine for almost a year now, the United States may well be aggressively eyeing opportunities to break Moscow’s dominance in the Indian defence market. About 70 per cent of the Indian military’s weaponry is Russian and while the US has gradually increased its presence here over the past decade, Washington understands that there is room to make further inroads.

The US push to tap the Indian defence market can also be gauged by its presence at the ongoing Aero India 2023 in bANGALORE. This is the largest-ever US delegation to participate in Asia’s biggest military aviation exhibition, which concludes on February 17.

The US Air Force’s F-35 stealth fighter jet has already stolen the show with its maiden presence in India. The US Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighters—the stealth, supersonic, multirole F-35A Lightning II and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter—made their first appearance at Aero India. After a journey from the Hill Air Force Base in Utah, United States, the F-35A Lightning-II demonstration team impressed military aviation enthusiasts with a demo of the jet’s aerial capabilities.

The F-35’s engine produces 43,000 pounds of thrust and consists of a three-stage fan, a six-stage compressor, an annular combustor, a single-stage high-pressure turbine, and a two-stage low-pressure turbine. Interestingly, the fighter jet is being closely guarded by US Air Force personnel at Aero India, with nobody, including top Indian defence officials, allowed to come in close proximity. The F-35s are parked at distance from other aircraft.

Besides the F-35, an F-16 Fighting Falcon duo has been conducting daily aerial demonstrations over the Bengaluru sky, showcasing the capabilities of one of the US Air Force’s frontline fighter jets. On static display are the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet, both multirole fighters.

“The F-35 represents the leading edge in US fighter jet technology. Aero India is an ideal forum to showcase the most advanced, capable, lethal and interoperable weapons systems that the US has to offer. These are designed to penetrate and defeat advanced adversary air defences,” said Major General Julian C. Cheater, assistant deputy under secretary of the air force, international affairs, department of air force, Pentagon.

While the US is silent about whether it has offered New Delhi the F-35, India is developing its own stealth fighter jet, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), after the failure of its programme with Russia to develop a fifth-generation fighter jet.

Day two (February 14) of Aero India 2023, being held at the Yelahanka Air Force Base, saw the US spring another surprise with the arrival of two B-1B Lancers. The planes had made a journey from their temporary duty location at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The B-1B Lancer, a supersonic heavy-bomber, is capable of carrying out missions worldwide from its bases in the US as well as from forward deployed locations. It carries the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the US Air Force and is considered the backbone of America's long-range bomber force.

At the last edition of Aero India in February 2021, the B-1B had landed in India for the first time and conducted a flyby on the inaugural day of the show, escorted by an Indian Air Force Tejas fighter. The return of the long-range, supersonic, heavy-bomber to India to participate in Aero India 2023 underscores the importance the US gives to its growing strategic partnership with India. “The United States and India continue to deepen defence cooperation. We have two great militaries that are even better when we work together,” said Rear Admiral Michael Baker, senior defence official and defence attaché at the US Embassy in New Delhi.

Besides aircraft from the US Air Force, the major US defence companies participating in Aero India are Aero Metals Alliance, Astronautics Corporation of America, Boeing, GE Aerospace, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, and TW Metals.

Amit Pathak, regional director with the US-based Collins Aerospace, said the company had engaged with the Indian aerospace industry for 25 years and plans to invest over $200 million (Rs 1,657 crore) in engineering and manufacturing capabilities in India. “India is strategic to our global growth and investment strategy,” Pathak said.