Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The jet that costs a bomb, why F-35 can't be India's dogfight duke

For an aircraft that is facing numerous technical challenges despite years of development and operational capability, the F-35 has become something of a sensation in India. Even vague rumours that the US has offered its latest stealth fighter to India are enough to set off fireworks in the media.

It happened first on July 22, 2007, and again in January 2018, with the Press Trust of India being the culprit on both occasions. In between these two instances of media-driven hype, there was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's famous US 2014 visit during which several Indian journalists were speculating that India was likely to sign an F-35 deal.

Now comes a media report that the US has offered India the F-35 in order to steer New Delhi away from the Russian built S-400 air defence system. Since threats don't work against India anymore, the Donald Trump administration seems to have offered a big sop to get India to walk out of the Rs 40,000 crore deal to buy five S-400 systems.

Also Read: F-21 jets will not be sold to any other country if it wins IAF deal, says Lockheed

It is highly likely the report is based on a random conversation with a State Department flunkie - and therefore not worth the paper it is written on.

On the other hand, if correct, it couldn't be a worse bargain. India needs the S-400 today - not five years from now - to plug the gaps in its long-neglected air defence system. Deliveries are expected from October 2020 onwards. On the other hand, the F-35 - which is slowly overcoming its developmental problems - is being offered to key partners such as Japan and the UK first.

Some like Australia may have to wait a decade or more before their orders are completed. In this backdrop, it could take a miracle for India to jump the queue.

The bottom line is that if India cancels the S-400, not only would it impact its air defence network, it would also not have access to the F-35 at least until 2030. That's assuming Lockheed is able to sort out the mess its stealth programme has turned out to be.
12/06/19 Rakesh Krishnan/Business Today

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