Is India finally veering away from Russian-made aircraft?
India has maintained a steadfast defense trading relationship with Russia since the latter launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine a year ago despite the incessant pressure from the West. Nonetheless, its ties with the United States remain intact and will likely solidify as New Delhi highly considers acquiring the fifth-generation American stealth fighter aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II.
Eyes on us at Aero India! 🇮🇳
Day ☝🏽 of Aero India is officially in the books and the team can’t wait to perform several more times this week!
— F-35A Demonstration Team (@F35demoteam) February 14, 2023
A US official recently announced that American defense giant Lockheed Martin has moved to the “early stages” of negotiation for the said deal shortly after Washington tried to discourage New Delhi from buying more defense-related equipment from Moscow.
Talks about a possible deal began surfacing after two US Air Force-owned F-35s touched down at Bengaluru amid India’s biennial air show and aviation exhibition in Yelahanka. The most lethal fighter jet in the world showcased its outstanding features during the week-long event, demonstrating American air superiority and, as some spectators assume, an attempt to woo the Indian Air Force into switching gears (“military supplier,” aka away from Russia).
Keyword: “early,” and not to mention, knowing how selective the US regards who to sell the sophisticated F-35s, it is uncertain whether the deal would even move forward. Although New Delhi shares the same stinky eye with Washington against Beijing, it maintains to keep its decade-long defense trading relationship with Moscow—a factor that could affect any progress at the negotiation table.
In an interview, Manmohan Bahadur, a retired air vice marshal of the Indian Air Force, told CBS News that although India recognizes the undeniable power of the fighter jet, he does not “think India would consider [acquiring] it as of now … certainly not in the near future because it has to fit our scheme of things, our current systems.”
Moreover, Rear Admiral Michael L. Baker, defense attache at the US embassy in India, said India was in the “very early stages” of considering whether it wanted to acquire a plane with an estimated lifetime cost of $1.7 trillion, so having to talk about a potential done-deal is still “far too premature,” he added.
Aside from the extremely high cost, India would also have to consider the technological requirements of the American fighter jet, as well as a number of issues the aircraft is currently struggling to resolve. In recent years, India has been trying to increase its domestic defense manufacturing capability, aspiring to eventually break free from importation from superpowers. This became more evident after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine a year ago and saw how too much reliance on international suppliers and the lack of indigenous production could impact the course of any future war.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristin "BEO" Wolfe, @F35demoteam commander and pilot, assigned to @HAFB, Utah, demonstrates the capabilities of the F-35 during #AeroIndia2023 at Air Force Station Yelahanka, Bengaluru, India 🇮🇳. pic.twitter.com/xCQ7ongDoA
— F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office (@theF35JPO) February 23, 2023
In the last five years alone, Russia has supplied India with a whopping $13 billion of arms, Reuters reported, plus $10 billion worth of weapons and other military equipment pending delivery. The country remains Russia’s largest arms buyer, accounting for roughly 20 percent of Moscow’s current order book. No wonder India kept its mouth shut when pressured to condemn and participate in giving sanctions to Russia.
Nevertheless, if the two parties can move beyond the pre-negotiation stage, the American aerospace manufacturing behemoth will compete for India’s $20 billion fighter aircraft contract. A pretty hefty amount for the former surely wouldn’t want to miss. It would then be like hitting three birds with one stone: 1) a lucrative contract, 2) luring a major customer away from Russia, and 3) strengthening the US-India defense partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
India has been actively modernizing its military equipment since the mid-2010s, intending to renew its aging Soviet-era fleet through more indigenization and less international collaboration. However, since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the country has been concerned about whether its billion-dollar orders will be delivered on time or face delays as Western countries distance themselves from Moscow.
Closing the F-35 deal could alleviate this concern. But again, there are more aspects to consider, so this might take a while—or never at all.
— Indian Aerospace Defence News (IADN) (@NewsIADN) January 29, 2023
During the week-long Aero India 2023, other US fighter jets—including F-16, Super Hornets, and B-1B bombers—also soared over the skies in Bengaluru alongside the two F-35s.