SOURCE: SOUMIK PYNE / MYINDMAKERS
The prospect of an F-35 sale to India has at various times excited imaginations in both India and American media with multiple magazine and newspaper articles talking of an imminent offer of the F-35 to India between 2007 till as recently as during DEFEXPO 2020 when there were news reports of a full size mock-up of the F35 making its way to Lucknow. The truth was that a formal proposal on the same has never been discussed till date. That may now soon change, on 30/06/2020 Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner of the US Senate moved amendments to the US National Defence Authorization Act 2021 wherein they requested that the US look towards increasing cooperation with India in the field of 5th Generation aircraft including sharing of American technologies in the development of the indigenous 5th generation aircraft program of India .
Senator Cornyn also asked the US Defence secretary to provide India with a briefing on the 5th generation fighter aircraft programmes of the USA within 180 days of the passing of the legislation. It is worth noting here that while Senator Cornyn is the Republican whip, Senator Warner is a Democrat and vice chairman of the House Intelligence committee. These facts in themselves denote deep bipartisan support for a possible F-35 sale to India as well as showing support from the highest echelons of the US national security apparatus for the same.
A possible F-35 sale to India would help serve the American Geopolitical objective of containing China by arming and equipping friendly nations to help contain the Chinese while also helping Lockheed Martin earn export income. The Indian Air Force is currently engaged in a number of new fighter aircraft acquisition programmes the largest of which is the MMRCA which will see 114 new fighter aircraft acquired from a foreign manufacturer with the bulk of these aircraft getting assembled in India. For India this serves multiple purposes of boosting up squadron numbers while also helping build up new greenfield facilities for fighter aircraft manufacturing along with transfer of technology. The USA is already engaged in the MMRCA with the F21, F/A-18SH & F15EX already on offer to India . That said the entry of the F-35 into this competition could really shake up the competition in more ways than one as it would become the only recognised 5th generation aircraft on offer in what is essentially a 4++ generation competition.
The USA may also look at offering the F-35B VTOL aircraft to the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy in 2017 released a requirement for 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne fighter aircraft that will be deployed on the INS Vikramaditya and the upcoming INS Vikrant. As of now the Boeing F/A18-SH and the Dassault Rafale-M are in competition here but the entry of the F-35 could provide the Indian Navy with an interesting possibility. Multiple navies in the Indo-Pacific are now looking at converting LHDs into light aircraft carriers by basing F-35B detachments on them .The Japanese, Korean and US Navy have all taken significant steps in this regard with the US recently inking a $200Mn agreement with BAE to convert a 5th Amphibious assault ship into a F-35 platform. The Indian Navy had planned to acquire a 65000T $15Bn aircraft carrier but may not be able to do so in view of budget complications, a different acquisition plan to acquire four large LHD platforms for an estimated $3Bn is still in progress. It could be possible for the Indian Navy to work with Lockheed Martin and the OEM of the selected LHD to try and look at a possibility of converting these vessels into V/STOL aircraft carriers capable of operating the F35B as well, this could in essence give the Indian Navy four light aircraft carriers if required which along with the two full sized carriers would make for a very formidable shipborne aviation capability.
The above possibilities notwithstanding there are deep barriers that have to be crossed first. Much of the Indian Military and political establishment still looks at the USA with views tinted by adverse cold war incidents like when Nixon sent the US Navy 7th fleet to attack India in 1971 during the Bangladesh liberation war. There is also the matter of the S400 air defence net that India is putting into place to secure its airspace. The US has explicitly raised concerns about the F35 being operated within an area where the S400 could map its radar signature. Much work on the ground remains to be done before India could possibly sign a deal for the F-35 but with the amendments floated by Senators Warner & Cornyn a beginning has definitely been made.