The Indian Air Force (IAF) has officially denied reports that it has requested a classified briefing by U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin on the capabilities of its fifth-generation stealth multi-role F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, the aircraft’s conventional takeoff and landing version.
“We have not officially asked for a briefing on the F-35 nor has any request been made to the Americans,” the commanding officer of the IAF, Air Chief Marshal Birender Sing Dhanoa, told The Indian Express last week. Indian media reports emerged in February that the IAF is considering the F-35A to fill a requirement for up to 126 fighter jets as a deal for 126 French-made Dassault Rafale multirole fighter aircraft was abandoned.
Under the so-called Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, French aircraft maker Rafale was supposed to partner with India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in assembling 108 out 126 fighter jets locally, with only the first batch of 18 aircraft imported from France in fly-away conditions. The single-engine F-35A was thought to be a good alternative to the Rafale by some senior IAF officers.
For example, the F-35A would have been cheaper than the Rafale ($115 million against 95 million per aircraft). However, plans to procure the F-35A would encounter multiple difficulties including India’s requirement under the framework of the 2016 Indian Defense Procurement Procedure to establish a local F-35A assembly line, which would mandate the sharing of sensitive aircraft technologies with India. New Delhi and Washington are not allies, although India has recently been designated a Major Defense Partner.
As India remains engaged with Russia in the co-development and co-production of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), known in India as the Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF), any close-technology collaboration on fifth-generation aircraft technology was always seen as more than unlikely. Indeed according to a number of sources, Russia also exerted pressure on India to abandon plans to purchase the F-35A as it saw the procurement undermining the already troubled joint Indo-Russian stealth fighter project.
The IAF is purportedly also considering Sweden’s Gripen-E and the U.S. F-16 Block 70, although recent reports indicate that the latter is no longer sought to be a genuine contender as the aircraft lacks a “probe-and-drogue” air-to-air refueling system. India’s Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has emphasized this week that the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has shelved plans to procure a single-engine Western fighter for now is instead accelerating the induction of the indigenously designed and developed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).
The IAF “issued a tender to HAL in December 2017 for the procurement of 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft including 73 single-engine Tejas LCA Mark-IA and 10 tandem two-seat LCA trainer aircraft,” I explained last month.” The IAF plans to induct a total of 123 Tejas Mark-IA, next to 40 Mark-I Tejas LCAs. HAL is currently increasing production capacity from eight to 16 aircraft per year, although as of this month, the company has failed to meet the target of producing eight Tejas LCA per annum.”
The aircraft is inching closer to final operational clearance, as I reported in February. However, the IAF has repeatedly stated the aircraft does not fulfill its operational requirements. The IAF intends to procure 200 to 250 single-engine aircraft in the medium weight category over the next decade as it pushes to increase the number of operational fighter squadrons, currently at 31, to 42 (the authorized strength) by 2027.