It would be a big coup de tat for us to ever see F-35 in India and sporting Indian air force colors. Given the warming of Indo-US relations and the souring of US-China and Indo-China relations, it is the perfect buy for India. Obviously, it is upto the Indian air force and Indian politicians to actually agree and same for those in the US to agree for such a sale. I will try to flesh out why it makes sense and why it is still a difficult purchase.
Why F-35 for India makes a lot of sense?
There a lot of factors at play here, starting with 100s of J-20s in service. While India has a decent size fleet of Su-30MKIs, MiG-29UPGs and Mirage 2000s plus a handful Rafale, their performance against the massive J-20 fleet China has is questionable at best. J-20s fly with Luneberg lenses which means that their true RCS is still a mystery for anyone outside China. The J-20 can turn the tide in air supremacy by staying well inside Chinese airspace and using PL-15s to take pot shots at BVR ranges on Indian fighters. Its stealth also adds the strike element to be aware of.
On the Pakistani side, the reality that JF-17s are not enough to handle India’s superior quality and quantity even with handful cutting edge F-16s. Pakistan’s fleet except F-16 and JF-17s is made up of ancient F-7s and Mirage family jets. Hence the recent procurement of J-10 made sense for Pakistan to balance India’s superior long range air strike potential. While Pakistan air force is much smaller, it has a few great fighters to be aware of.
F-35 is in a league of its own, but costly as well. It brings in advanced sensor fusion and a much lower RCS than anything that flies in Asia. Su-57 comes close but limited numbers, older engines and questionable maintenance make it a questionable purchase, something India already rejected. J-20 is the closest non-American fighter to offer both the stealth and range with decent numbers to back up. It lags in close in performance due to its size, but with stealth it is not as relevant as engagements will primarily be at BVR separations.
It will give India a great platform and ability to pitch for local maintenance and local systems if procured in decent numbers. Given Japan and South Korea already have it, closer ops co-operation is also on the cards, especially with recent trends in relationship. You might ask, but what about AMCA? The jet is not expected to break cover or fly in this decade. We can expect it to be ready for service in the 2030s and 7 years is still a long time. India can kick start its foray into 5th gen with F-35 and then concolidate fleet size on AMCA.
Primary Blockers for F-35 in India
- Will the US allow a country that operates S400s to buy F-35s, when Turkey wasn’t allowed to?
- Will presence of advanced Russian radars and other avionics on Indian fighters affect sale of jets to India?
- Does India trust US enough to rely on the centralized spares management that can be used to effectively ground the fleet?
- Given much smaller defense budget, can India buy a meaningful fleet size?
- More Rafale makes the most sense given 36 in service and potential purchase of Rafale-M
Conclusion: On a jet vs jet scale, it makes sense to buy the F-35 but given the recent Turkish snub from the program, India’s budget and preference to be as immune from sanctions as possible in the past. But one must also consider that India is a signatory of Power By the Hour type contracts for the C-17 and C-130 so central maintenance and spares system is not that big a leap for F-35.
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