F-35 jets in India – what changed?

Russia has offered to develop and make fifth-generation fighters in India, while Washington is stuck with bad choices.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter planes participated in the Aero India 2023 international air show for the first time. This is the first appearance of a fifth-generation aircraft in India. The US representatives at the expo have not stated whether the presence of the F-35 aircraft at the air show means that Washington is ready to sell them to New Delhi.

Rear Admiral Michael L. Baker, the American military attaché in India, was previously quoted in the media as saying that the participation of such fighters at the air show reflects strong cooperation between India and the US.

When asked if the jet would be offered to India, Rear Admiral Michael L. Baker told Reuters that New Delhi was in the “very early phases” of deciding whether to take it.

The opinions of the United States and India had shifted since 2018 when the media stated that New Delhi was interested in F-35 aircraft. These rumours, however, were quickly debunked. On April 26, 2018, Air Chief Marshal Berender Singh Dhanoa stated there was no talk about obtaining the F-35. The Indian Air Force has shown no interest in this project, and the F-35 has not been discussed with anyone, he said.

In the year 2019, in preparation for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to India on June 25 and 26, 2019, officials from the State Department requested that allies and partners, including India, refrain from engaging in any transactions with Russia that have the potential to result in CAATSA fines. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017 is a piece of legislation that threatens to penalise nations that purchase weaponry from Russia. There have been rumours circulating that the United States would present India with an offer to purchase the F-35 fighter jet in the event that the S-400 contract is terminated.

In response to Turkey’s S-400 purchase, Pompeo stated that it is not viable to fly both the F-35 and the S-400 in space where the S-400 is significantly operable.

To go off-topic, the US offered India other options besides the S-400 system. But it was hard for the US to convince India to back out of the S-400 deal or choose US-made alternatives, which don’t meet Indian defence needs because they have a short range (PAC-3) and can’t hit air targets (THAAD).

The S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system is a powerful weapon that can hit targets up to 400 km away and ballistic missiles up to 15 km away. The PAC-3 and THAAD options are different from what S-400 can do. Unlike the S-400, which has 40N6 interceptors that can stop targets at 400 km, the PAC-3 can only stop targets in the air at 180 km and ballistic missiles at 100 km. THAAD, on the other hand, is only able to stop missiles. It can’t shoot down planes.

To get back to the point, a waiver and the deployment of the S-400 in India will make it impossible for India to buy F-35 fighter planes. 

Since India has already put S-400 in place, why is the US showing off F-35s in India? After all, bringing F-35s to the air show is optional and not an absolute necessity to show that India and the US are working together closely. We all know that the US is picky about which countries are allowed to buy the F-35.

The question is whether the US has accepted that India will use S-400 and should sell F-35 anyway or if India is thinking about getting rid of S-400.

Russia makes it even more complicated

India wants to make more defence equipment at home with the help of big companies from around the world, first to meet its own needs and then to sell sophisticated weapons platforms to other countries. Russia knows that the US will not be able to let India make the F-35.

Russia has offered to develop and make fifth-generation fighters in India, while Washington is stuck with bad choices. Alexander Mikheev, General Director of Rosoboronexport, told TASS at Aero India 2023 that Russia is ready to keep working together in this area, including on the fifth-generation fighter, to make new planes after signing a contract with the HAL corporation. He added that it depends on what the Indian side decides. He was answering a question about the chances of Russia and India working together, which includes making a fifth-generation fighter for Delhi that is based on the Su-57.

We’ll have to wait and see how far the US will budge—or how far it can get India to budge—on the F-35 subject.


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