Capability jump: IAF looks to buy fifth-generation F-35 fighter - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 14 February 2018

Capability jump: IAF looks to buy fifth-generation F-35 fighter

IAF to request for classified briefing from Lockheed Martin

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Feb 18

In what would be a huge capability jump, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is increasingly interested in procuring the American F-35 Lightning II for its depleting fighter fleet.

Business Standard learns the IAF top brass is formally requesting for a classified briefing by the F-35’s prime builder, Lockheed Martin, on the capabilities of the sophisticated, fifth-generation fighter developed under the US Joint Strike Fighter programme.

The US government has not formally offered the F-35 to India. A classified briefing would require formal clearance from the US Department of Defence (the Pentagon) and the State Department. The grant of such a clearance would be an important first step towards permitting the sale of F-35s to India.

It is learnt the IAF wants to procure 126 of the variant called F-35A – the air force version of the fighter that incorporates “conventional take-off and landing”, or CTOL. Another variant, the F-35B, incorporating “short take-off and vertical landing”, or (STOVL), has been developed for the US Marine Corps. A third version, developed for the US Navy, incorporates “catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR).

The Indian Navy, which has never ruled out operating the F-35 off Indian aircraft carriers, has received a briefing on the F-35 as far back as 2010, Lockheed Martin official Orville Prins told this correspondent. However, at that stage, the F-35 was still grappling with serious development challenges.

The F-35’s affordability is also attractive for New Delhi. In contrast to the bare-bones price of $115 million for each Rafale fighter (with India-specific enhancements, spares, logistics and weapons all extra), the F-35A cost customers $94.6 million last February. Lockheed Martin says it will reduce the cost to $80 million by 2020.

A fifth-generation fighter is characterised by a “stealth design”, making it far more difficult for radar to detect; “supercruise”, or the ability to fly at supersonic speeds without engaging engine afterburners; and highly networked avionics that detect and engage enemy aircraft using a range of sensors and weapons across the battle-space.

The only true fifth-generation fighters in service are the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. China is developing two stealth fighters – the J-20 Chengdu and the J-31 Shenyang. Russia is developing its own fifth-generation fighter, the PAK-FA, and has offered India a partnership role in developing the PAK-FA into the eponymous Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) for the IAF. Negotiations on roles and costing are over, but the Indian defence ministry is yet to accept.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) defence minister, AK Antony, had ruled out buying the F-35, stating that India would meet its short-term requirement of fifth-generation fighters with the FGFA. For the IAF’s long-term needs, the Defence R&D Organisation is developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Sources close to the Pentagon say India would not be sold the F-35 as long as it is partnering Russia in the FGFA co-development project. That is because Washington would guard against the leakage of F-35 technology into the FGFA.

Senior officers say the IAF is not enthused about the FGFA project. They point out the F-35 is further advanced in development and has already entered service with the USAF and six-seven air forces of American allies.

For Lockheed Martin, an Indian request for the F-35 would create a dilemma. The US company would rather have the IAF buy the F-16 Block 70, which it has offered to build in India in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL).

For Lockheed Martin, that would keep alive the F-16 assembly line, which has long functioned from Fort Worth, Texas, and has now moved temporarily to Greenville, South Carolina, where it is building a $2.8 billion order from Bahrain for 19 F-16V fighters.

The Fort Worth facility has been made over to building the F-35, of which over 3,000 are already on order.

Meanwhile, the assembly line in India would build new F-16s for the IAF, as well as for orders that Lockheed Martin expects from southeast Asian and central European countries. It would also provide overhaul and upgrade facilities for the estimated 3,000 F-16 fighters in service worldwide, in some 25 air forces.

As this newspaper reported (December 16, “Lockheed Martin says F-16 orders flowing in”) Lockheed Martin calculates that an Indian line would benefit, in the medium term, from new fighter orders worth $16 billion, and $6.5 billion in upgrading old F-16s.

Simultaneously, American jobs would get a lease of life, as F-16 suppliers in the US would continue feeding into the integration line in India. At least 50 per cent of the F-16 by value would continue to be made in America.

For all these reasons, Lockheed Martin is painting the F-16 Block 70 sale to the IAF as a stepping stone to eventually obtaining the F-35.

While the US has supplied the F-35 only to close allies, Washington insiders say India’s recent designation as a Major Defence Partner (MDP), and a groundswell of goodwill towards New Delhi, make conditions propitious for an Indian request. An indicator is the recent permission granted for the sale to India of the Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicle – so far sold only to close allies.

In 2011, the influential US Senate Armed Services Committee requested the Pentagon to study the feasibility of an F-35 sale to India. Senators John Cornyn (co-chair of the Senate India Caucus) and Joseph Lieberman spearheaded the proposal.

But US officials in Washington also complain about fatigue at New Delhi’s tardiness in following up discussions with formal requests. The mood in the Pentagon, say these officials, is: “Let New Delhi ask for the F-35. Then we’ll take things forward.”

The defence ministry and the IAF have not responded to an emailed request for comments. 


  1. This will be probably happen when USA has deployed a hundred 7th gen aircraft.

    Our MoD goofed even on buying extra C-17s, even after knowing as last production lot. Even after knowing there is hardly any decent alternative to this plane, even after knowing horrible availability of IL-76, even after US trying to book a few for us.
    Even die hard supporters in other countries will lose interest in us.

  2. The deal, if comes through will be....

    Death nail for Indigenous efforts !


    a big boost to IMPORTEOMANIA - the deadly disease OCD.... Obstructive Compulsive Desire to IMPORT !

    Will anyone ask why is the finalization of AMCA project is being delayed by those who dropping saliva dreaming of F35 deal !?!

  3. How many type of fighters only does the air force want are they kids at a candy store .They wanted the fifth generation russian fighter the an they wanted the Rafael now they want a f35 .It's better if we put our resources in AMCA AND TEJAS and have good anti aircraft missiles .Even if the original content of the aircraft is 60% made by us it's enough.

  4. @AjaiSir: Does this mean that IAF will get F-35A/Lightning II only if India exits from FGFA and buys F-16?

  5. The F-35’s affordability is also attractive for New Delhi. In contrast to the bare-bones price of $115 million for each Rafale fighter (with India-specific enhancements, spares, logistics and weapons all extra), the F-35A cost customers $94.6 million last February. Lockheed Martin says it will reduce the cost to $80 million by 2020.
    Hasn't the IAF moved from sticker price to Total Cost of Ownership with respect to platform procurements? Shuklaji, any reason why you would insist on using the sticker prices for cost comparisions?

    Also, I believe, you had cited an IAF officer in an earlier report expressing skepticism of Lockheed being able to accommodate IAF's order for F-35 anytime soon given a very crowded backlog. So what is prodding you to file this "hard-to-believe" report? My speculation: Lockheed and the IAF know the F-16 offer is not going anywhere. Going by the recent test flights by US and French Air Force chiefs, Tejas will be IAF's single engine mainstay fighter. Either Lockheed is trying to remain in the hunt for a sale to the IAF or the IAF is trying to keep Lockheed interested. I place my bets on the former; the IAF top brass is too lethargic to be proactive about anything!

  6. Indians keep asking why Pakistan is so keen on Kashmir:

    Its the geography, people, language, culture and familial ties. For example PML-N leadership is full of Kashmiris. Infact 1/4 of Lahore is. At least 1/5 of the northern Punjab population is from there or can trace their lineage to the valley and surrounding area's. Similar story for the north eastern districts of KPK.

    Even today Kashmiri's prefer their children to get married to people in these regions ratherthan anyone in India proper. Throughout history Kashmir has always been part of 'Indus' centric empires. A quick scan of the sub-continent over the last 2000 years will prove this. Finally Kashmiris do not want to be part of India and no honorable Pakistani can give up on it ever. Its genetic.

    If Indians get this they will understand why Pakistan will never give up on Kashmir even if it takes another 300years irrespective of the weapons you buy or the sellout leaders we get.

    1. If this is the only reason (family ties) then why like fools did pakistan attack kashmir in 1947-48 an later in 65.

      Had they never done so, today India and pakistan could have been like scandinavian countries, where borders are just a line and people travel freely across.

      Like fools they have attacked not once but twice and further tried to islamize kashmir by conducting attrocities on non islamic population in kashmir.

      And what you sow is what you reap. And so...india will fight to amalgamate all of pakistan into india as it has been for thousands of years since ashoka the great and earlier, including kashmir.

      This war will be fought till victory (by peace or war) or till nuclear annihalation of the entire asian sub continent or Asia itself. Be that in 3 days, 3 years or 300 years or 3000 years.

      We are also sorry, but its just genetic.people living in pakistan have the same gene pool asIndians. We too are from the Indus Valley civilization.

      This is the Indian view.

  7. Ignorant commentators never understand the importance of theater commands and the need for bringing commonality within all arms of military. Even U.S is trying very hard to have a common platform in form of F35, and Rafale was purely developed as France desperately wanted a naval version too unlike other European powers.

    Having more and more aircraft types like that of F18, F35, air or naval version or even F16 or Gripen would be a maintenance and logistical disaster and would push Indian military preparedness into a black-hole. Even western countries with multi fold per capita incomes could not afford such a blunder. Gripen otherwise a good and somewhat cost effective aircraft has a potential to destroy future tejas export prospects beyond repair.

  8. Sokhoi MKI along with brahmos is a deadly proposition

    Why not but 200 sukhoi and close the logistical nightmare

  9. Mr shukla , I don't know exactly why you allow publishing my immature comments. Are they realy worthy of some serious consideration or you just do it out of courtesy. I am much younger in age and experience. So would like to know if I sincerely make any sense at all. Looking for your reply. Regards. Nikhil

  10. If AF wants f35 so be it but then they should live with evolving Tejas. BTW, high tech research should be privatized so there is some competition.
    I've been on this blog for about 10 years and all I have heard is analysis paralysis. The govt wants the cheapest plane with tot while the users want all bells and whistles included. No side will win

  11. I agree with all the commentators above.

    Buying F-35s would be yet another experiment of Idiocy. Instead, why can't the IAF and Defence Ministry rally the Indian industry and DRDO together, for the next-gen AMCA ?

    When will we be free of foreign imports ? It's already been 70 years since independence. An Imported Air Force cannot project any power beyond it's borders. Never.

  12. If the definition of true fifth-generation fighters includes super-cruise capability then the F-35A isn't because it can only go supersonic using full after-burn and tops out at Mach 1.6. This is due to it having similar weight to an F-15 but with around half the thrust together with a fat draggy fuselage, all because of the requirements to have a common fuselage with the STOVL F-35B. There is no such thing as "Stealth" only low observable and the F-35 is only low observable from the frontal aspect and not from any other direction. Russia already has counter-"Stealth" technology (L/S-band radars, ultraviolet wavelength cameras and infrared search and track) that it has sold to the Chinese onboard the Su-35. The only aircraft that stands a better than 50/50 chance going up against a PLAAF Su-35 is the Su-57. If the F-35 is detected this way, then it is simply too heavy and too slow to run away let alone win in a dogfight.
    Buying F-35 would be a disaster for India. The Chinese already know all its important secrets after hacking the contractors that make it, which helped speed up development of the J-20 and J-31. It is no substitute for the FGFA because it is too small and under-powered to have the range necessary for a heavy class fighter. Being of similar size to the AMCA, the Imported Air Force and Navy would say they no longer need the AMCA if they have the F-35A/B/C. Buying any American origin aircraft means also buying American origin weapons and signing the COMCASA/CISMOA, thereby rendering them unable to operate with any other fighter the IAF or IN currently have. The sticker price might be $80 million by 2020 but that assumes America can get enough "partner" nations to pay for its development costs. Right now, none of the US services can afford to buy their F-35 variant in the quantities they would want which just drives the price up further. By the time Indian specific requirements are added, it could easily end up more expensive than the Rafale.

  13. India must get F-35 as it has crossed the IOC stage and has been deployed by USAF...besides FGFA is a failure for 2 main reasons, the design itself is not final despite 8 years of PDC agreement and the cost for IAF is huge in terms of investments..and there is no timeline for FGFA!!
    AMCA is a paper plane and will continue to be one like the initial decades of LCA, IAF has no interest and engine supplier itself has not been finalised!! how can you expect this project to work. from where are we going to get stealth and AESA technology!! nobody will give that to us without us buying them.
    F35 is better in terms of engine thrust and stealth and radar compared to FGFA and AMCA as on date and what is available is what you have to take a call on. the sad part is IAF itself does not know what it wants, single or twin engine, how many and by when??
    so the best bet is F35 because even it may have flaws but it is a plane that is flying and has supercruise and has a great radar and stealth features and I am sure the dozen countries that have ordered this jet would have done their homework, at least better then IAF..

  14. To the Pakistani guy who posted on 15 Feb at 18:47

    By your logic, India should claim all of Pakistan. Your land has been part of India proper since forever! It has been an integral part of Indian history since all of ancient times. We will get it back.



    Junk called f35
    So think what junk would be obsolete f26.
    With the pasding away of german sceintists the angloamericans are very very short of talent to prodyce anything of value -that is why they force on others to take their junk by diplomatuc , economic abd miliray bulying.

  16. Just as India has more than one alternative in the 4th Gen Fighters India can buy both , the F-35 and also the PAK FA-50 or SU-57.(May be 126 of each). The F-35 will be the single engine jet that the IAF is hankering for instead of the F-16 or Gripen-E. and the Su-57 or Pak FA 50 will be the twin engine variant of the 5th Gen fighters. This will give India valuable insights into Future-Gen Fighters and maintain the edge over Pakistan and China

  17. The only way we can maintain 42 squadrons, is by indegenious planes.
    Tejas and it's improved variants are the options we have.
    1: localise more components of F404/F414 engines through TATA, need not be core atleast rest.
    2: internally segregate ADA into design teams for small fighters, drones and medium weight fighters. We need drones to drones to be able to fight together with our fighters. This AI and data links need to be completely local .
    3: have a tie up between GTRE and HAL to start using Kaveri derivatives for power generation and marine purposes.this will give a lot of user experience .

  18. The F-35 does not offer a 2 seater and never will. So it cant work for India. Russia will allow the FGFA to be built by India with tech transfers. That will never happen with the F-35.

    If india backs out of the fgfa, it is possible that china will be offered a similar deal.This is probably why the fc-31 is on hold. Then india would be up against the J-20 and su 57.

    1. Flimsy argument. The while while of a true fifth generation aircraft is to eliminate the need for a two seater. Why do you think all that sensor and data fusion is for? Not to mention in the future, AI assistants will be WSO.


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