Defense enthusiasts have often debated the possibility of India acquiring the coveted F-35 stealth fighter jet with even some media reports, at one point, claiming the US had given a green signal for its India sale.
With the lawmakers in the US introspecting on the worth of the hugely expensive fifth-generation platform that was supposed to be a “lightweight and affordable,” it’s pertinent to put things in perspective in the Indian context.
The F-35 is branded as the machine that combines high-end stealth with unmatched situational awareness to conduct mission operations electronically, aided by advanced data capturing and a robust communication suite.
The fighter’s advanced sensor package collects tremendous amounts of data than any previous fighter has in the history of combat aviation, which gives its pilots a decisive advantage in a battle.
Unarguably, the most technologically advanced airplane ever built, F-35 serves as the backbone of allied airpower for 13 nations and counting.
Can India Get F-35 Jets?
One major complication with integrating the fifth-generation F-35 with the Indian Air Force (IAF) is the issue of compatibility.
Firstly, the fighter will be unable to avail of air-to-air refueling because of a different configuration in its design. Its inability to interface with India’s Integrated Air Command & Control System (IACCS), consisting of a wide range of radar types, with customized data-links renders the viability of the aircraft futile in the country’s combat environment.
F-35 employs the most advanced radio communications equipment available, which again renders it incompatible with India’s Russian-origin communication suites.
Its induction into the IAF will mean a replacement of almost 80 percent of the software and hardware employed by the Indian systems. Most importantly, almost none of the weapons in the current Indian inventory can be integrated with the aircraft, which would have to be separately purchased resulting in cost overruns.
The most important aspect of buying this aircraft is its huge cost, which not only includes the cost of purchase of the aircraft but the additional weapon systems that come with it and the lifetime cost of maintenance and upkeep that reportedly runs into billions.
According to Defence New, flying the F-35 currently costs $36,000 per hour, and it has a projected lifetime cost of a whopping $1.7 trillion.
That is the reason the fighter which was originally conceived as an affordable fifth-generation platform is creating commotion in the US political circles about its viability in being a reliable defender of the country’s skies.
The F-35 program is now becoming the world’s most expensive weapons platform because of the vast number of upgrades and enhancements it had to undergo over time.
Furthermore, it may make sense for a country like Israel or Japan to possess this aircraft since most of their systems are compatible with the fifth-generation fighter.
While in the case of India, it would require large-scale uprooting of existing communication and electronics architecture and replacing it with a new one, involving the procurements of additional infrastructure to support the aircraft.
— F-35 Lightning II (@thef35) March 22, 2021
Understandably, India has never requested its ally US for the procurement of the F-35 realizing all the complications that come with it. India’s need has since beginning been unequivocal about what it wants in a fighter jet – a medium multi-role capability.
Given the operational environment that India confronts, F-35 would be an unnecessary burden on the country’s exchequer. When India rolled out its requirement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), the choice was clear – it had to procure the least expensive, mature, combat-proven fourth-generation fighters that could take on a variety of roles and be able to confront the immediate adversaries – China and Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, the F-35 is not needed against Pakistan, the experts say, arguing that the operational environment is different. A fighter like the French Rafale that the IAF is currently inducting meets that requirement, they add.
The F-35 was not built as an air superiority fighter and its role was envisaged to be that of an air-to-ground strike aircraft, with an ability to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses and find and disable threats.
With the limitation on the number of weapons it can carry, the F-35s need the support of fighters like the F-15X to carry out missions successfully. So, it’s not an ideal fighter for India.
US Not Selling F-35s To India
While the Indian media has made speculations public many times in the past about the US agreeing to sell F-35s to India, such news was denied both by the Indian and US government authorities from time to time.
It would be hard for the US to sell the much-sought fighter to India considering that it will have to part with stealth technology and the jet’s networked operating system, raising the vulnerability of hacking endangering both end-users.
Even Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the aircraft, has maintained that India is not yet ready for such a weapon system, as it will take the country time to progress to this technological stage. The country has no US aircraft in its fighter fleets and directly going for the fifth-generation fighter would not be feasible.
In an earlier statement by Lockheed Martin’s Vice President for business development – JR McDonald – the F-16 could serve as a stepping stone to the Lockheed F-35 jets – sales of which are tightly controlled by the Pentagon and permitted only to the US’ most-trusted partners.
“Not every country in the world is ready today for an F-35. And, that can be either because they from a policy perspective haven’t become that level of partner with the US yet, or maybe just the maturity of their military: it’s hard to jump from a MiG-21 directly into an F-35,” he said.
“An F-16 is the perfect pathway to F-35. You gain that familiarity with the United States, you become a reliable partner with the United States and then the next step into the F-35 is not such a stretch.”
Now, with even the US government feeling the heat of the exorbitant costs involved with the operation of the F-35 fleet, other countries are less likely to show any curiosity.
In a shocking turn of events, House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith expressed his consternation with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter early this month, saying, “What does the F-35 give us? And is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending that much money for such a low capability because, as you know, the sustainment costs are brutal.”
Could this be an indication of the beginning of the end of America’s most expensive weapons program? Going by the cost estimates that the F-35 fleet is projecting for its lifetime sustainability and with the platform delivering unsatisfactory performance in tests so far, it certainly could be.