The recent Pentagon report on U.S.-India Security Cooperation, which suggests the possible sale of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to India, has created a hubbub in the Indian media. Some observers have even suggested that New Delhi scrap its ongoing, half decade-long, effort to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, and instead buy the F-35 – the only fifth-generation fighter that’s available for international customers.
However, a careful look at the possibilities shows that the F-35 isn’t actually an ideal choice for India for a variety of reasons, ranging from the delay in its development schedule, the tight production line and prohibitive cost, to India’s own efforts to jointly develop and produce a fifth-generation fighter with its traditional supplier, Russia, as well as the few technological or industrial benefits that would accrue to India from the F-35 purchase.
The first and foremost reason why F-35 isn’t the best fit for India is that the fighter is yet to emerge from its developmental phase to the production floor for export. The radar evading plane, the biggest ever collaborative project involving the United States and eight international partners (Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy Turkey and Australia), is still facing many design and technological challenges, which have pushed back the original induction schedule by three years, from 2013 to 2016. Even if New Delhi believes in the revised induction schedule and places orders now, deliveries to India are unlikely to commence immediately. With over 3,000 assured orders for the F-35, including 2,443 units from the United States alone, Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the plane, would be constrained in its ability to meet its export obligations before executing the existing orders.
Another reason why the F-35 is of little relevance to India is because of New Delhi’s own efforts to jointly build and develop a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) with Russia. As a result of a government-to-government agreement in 2007, India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Rosoboronexport of Russia signed an agreement in 2010 for the preliminary design of the FGFA at a cost of $295 million. As per the agreement, HAL and Sukhoi Design Bureau (Russia) will undertake the preliminary design for 18 months. India has already made it clear that it wishes to procure around 250 FGFAs, with induction likely to proceed from 2018. Given this, it will be quite difficult, if not impossible, for India to go with the United States, which would be the only county in the world to operate two classes of fifth-generation fighters (F-22 and F-35) in the coming years.
A third reason problem with the F-35 is the fighter’s prohibitive cost. As reported by the Pentagon’s Select Acquisition Report, issued in December 2010, the unit procurement cost of the F-35 (at 2010 prices) stood at $132.8 million. For non-cost sharing international customers, the unit cost would be much higher because they are expected to pay a part of the F-35’s developmental cost, which had ballooned to nearly $55 billion at the end of 2010. The higher price for non-partnering nations is evident from the unit cost of $144.7 million that Israel has agreed to pay for 19 of these fighter aircraft. At this price tag, affordability becomes the key issue for India, whose whole annual defense capital acquisition budget barely matches the United States’ one year F-35 acquisition costs. Although it can be argued that a few F-35s can perform the role of many existing or planned planes in the Indian Air Force’s inventory, the balance is still in favor of India developing an alternative option.
Last, but not least, from the defense industrial and technological point of view, there’s little that India can benefit from the procurement of the F-35, which would most likely be an off-the-shelf purchase, rather than involving technology transfers to India for license production. Technological secrecy has been a major cornerstone of the U.S. defense program in general and the stealthy F-35 in particular. It’s noteworthy that despite the F-35 being a multi-country developmental project, core technologies have reportedly been denied by the United States to its partnering nations. Compared with this likely technology denial, India’s initial contribution to the FGFA is believed to be around 25 percent, which can progressively increase if HAL shows maturity in its indigenization process.
It’s clear, then, that given the technological and industrial benefits of the FGFA, and the absence of such benefits with the F-35, it makes little sense for India to choose the F-35. New Delhi should continue looking elsewhere.
Laxman K Behera is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.