F-35s for India: Is America About to Make a Big Stealth Sale?
Lots of money and sensitive tech involved.
Key Point: New Delhi still likes Russian technology, but Washington is trying to make a sale and enhance American-Indian ties. If a deal happens, it will further remove India from Russia's influence.
When the Times of India revealed that the Indian air force was revising its single-engine fighter competition to encompass twin-engine jet designs, a collective groan likely rang from New Delhi to Washington—and even Stockholm.
This first appeared in 2018 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
The competition was meant to acquire a new generation of short-range jets suitable for defending India’s borders. The Indian air force is gradually retiring its 1950s-era MiG-21 single-engine fighter jets over the next few decades. Currently, it has only thirty-three squadrons of combat aircraft out of a planned forty-four, with ten more squadrons set to retire their aircraft over the coming decade.
An analyst quoted by the Times of India characterized India’s Ministry of Defense as “constantly changing their rules, changing their minds” and having a “knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” The exasperation stems from two factors. The first is that the single-engine competition had narrowed down to just two choices, the American F-16 and Swedish JAS 39 Gripen. If the government had simply stuck to the original guidelines, the Indian air force could have begun receiving 115 new fighters by the early 2020s and retained domestic production facilities to build even more if desired.
The second factor is that the Indian government is notorious for its incredibly slow arms procurement process—that often results in dysfunctional weapon systems and partially or completely cancelled orders. Take the preceding Medium Multi-Role Competition (MMCR) which began in the year 2001: even though the Indian air force wanted to order more Mirage 2000s, New Delhi insisted on holding a competition that took so long that the Mirage 2000 stopped being available for production. Fifteen years later, bickering over technology transfers led India to order just thirty-six more advanced and expensive Rafale fighters—out of the 126 aircraft originally stipulated.
Then there is the domestically built single-engine HAL Tejas (“Radiant”) Light Combat Aircraft, which India began developing in the 1980s. Over three decades later, the delta-wing fighter has proven so underpowered that the Indian navy refused to adopt it into service and the air force reduced the size of its order. Although HAL is working on an improved Tejas Mark IA and II which may correct some of the aircraft’s flaws, production is lagging behind schedule.
So, unless the Ministry of Defense moves more quickly than before, selection and procurement of replacement fighters could drag on for years while the fighter force continues to shrink.
Bargaining for Better?
The single-engine requirement was supposedly revised because the Indian air force never really wanted to constrain the competition to light fighters in the first place. Instead, the Indian air force wanted to procure the rest of the medium fighters the MMCR project failed to obtain. This may have coincided with recent public furor over the cost-per-plane of the Rafale, causing the Modi administration to open up the new competition to a wider range of fighter types.
Single-engine fighters are significantly cheaper and more cost-efficient to operate than their twin-engine counterparts. Twin-engine fighters tend to boast greater range and weapons capacity. As India’s chief likely adversary, Pakistan, is a short hop across the border, short-range fighters have a viable role to play in India’s defense strategy. A downside of single-engine jets is that they tend to suffer higher accident rates because they lack a backup engine.
The single-engine competition had narrowed down to either the updated F-16 Block 70 or the Saab JAS-39 Gripen-E. While the Swedish jet is more advanced, the super F-16 would have been cheaper up front and come with advantageous export conditions due to the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. Though both aircraft would have been manufactured in India by partner companies, the F-16 deal would have involved an opportunity for India to become the sole distributor of the popular airframe.
Some critics of the single-engine competition grumbled that investing top dollars on an upgraded version of a fighter developed in the 1970s was not a sound investment for the future. However, the Gripen-E and F-16 Block 70 technically both remain on the table, even though the number of eligible competitors has increased.
Notable new twin-engine contenders now include the American Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the French Rafale, and the Russian Su-35 or MiG-35. The Russian fighters offer good bang-for-buck on paper, but India has been frustrated by poor after sales support and frequent breakdowns in much of its Russian hardware—including the MiG-29 and Su-30MKI jets.
Another factor is the Indian navy, which has to account for fifty-seven naval fighters operating from its current ski-jump-style aircraft carriers as well as a planned catapult-equipped flat top carriers. The aircraft under consideration are the FA-18E Super Hornet, the Rafale-M, a navalized Gripen, and the MiG-29K—all of which have land-based counterparts. If both the Indian navy and air force end up choosing similar aircraft, there could be significant cost-savings in terms of spare parts and training.
The Super Hornet is favored to win the naval contract and recent reports indicate it may be the leader in the revised fighter competition as well. Though the Super Hornet does not quite match earlier twin-engine fighters such as the F-15 in terms of raw performance, the newer aircraft are designed with modern digital avionics, and also has a comparatively stealthy radar cross section of only one meter squared. The new Block III model comes equipped with conformal fuel tanks for greater range at lower aerodynamic cost, an infrared search-and-track system and a sophisticated networkable targeting computer.
The Stealth Angle
Fourth-generation jets like the F-16 and Super Hornet are highly capable in most regards, but aerial war games have suggested one major limitation—they lose by lopsided margins when pitted against fifth-generation stealth fighters. Stealth fighters also have much better odds of successfully penetrating hostile air space defended by ground-based surface-to-air missiles.
New Delhi has wanted its own stealth fighters for a while—and has invested the equivalent of over five billion dollars in Russia’s PAK FA stealth fighter program, now designated as the Su-57, in the hopes of getting an India-specific variant called the FGFA. However, the program has suffered major setbacks and Moscow has downsized its production run to only twelve Su-57s. Indian officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with the Su-57, publicly complaining about underpowered engines, subpar stealth characteristics and a lack of transparency as to what lay behind these problems.
Separately, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization has invested significant resource drawing up plans for its own HAL AMCA stealth fighter, with hopes for a flying prototype in the mid-2020s. However, a viable AMCA would require India to acquire or develop key technologies including the manufacture of radar-absorbent materials, high-performance domestic jet engines and advanced AESA radars.
As it happens, a Hindustan Times article from March 11, 2018 indicates that the light-fighter competition will now be linked to the transfer of technologies necessary for producing the AMCA. This naturally leads to the question: who actually has that stealth technology to share? India is already linked to Russia’s Su-57 program but is dissatisfied with the collaboration. Both Boeing and Rafale have some experience with stealth technology, but the clear leader in the field is Lockheed-Martin, manufacturer of the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter and the earlier F-22 Raptor.
The single-engine F-35 has long been the elephant in the room, as it is being exported to U.S. allies at a price of roughly $100 million per airframe. Though the Lightning isn’t as fast, maneuverable or heavy-lifting as top fourth-generation fighters, it’s stealth characteristics and advanced sensors and avionics allow it to lob missiles at adversaries from far beyond the range it can be tracked by opposing X-Band targeting radars. Furthermore, it’s avionics are designed to share sensor data with less stealthy friendly fighters, enhancing their effectiveness.
Washington would love for India to join in on the deal, and not just because India could pitch in more money to control the bloated per-unit cost of the F-35. The F-35s would be an expensive, long-term and ongoing commitment that would tie the Indian military closely to the United States and help counterbalance China’s modernizing air force. On the other hand, both the U.S. military and Lockheed are tight-fisted when it comes to sharing both stealth technology and the F-35’s networked operating system, which could leave both end users and service providers vulnerable to hacking.
India had historically relied on the Soviet Union and then Russia to furnish its military hardware, so spurning the Su-57 program in favor of the F-35 risks cooling that relationship. Indeed, New Delhi has steadfastly maintained it is not seeking to purchase F-35s. However, India is increasingly concerned with with China’s rapidly growing military capabilities, which include new J-20 stealth fighters and Russian-built Su-35s. This means New Delhi’s geopolitical interests are drawing it closer to Washington instead of Moscow, as evidenced by a base-sharing agreement struck in 2016.