Lockheed Martin, the US aerospace giant, rebutted a report that was widely published in the Indian media, that it had offered the state-of-the-art F-35 Lightning II fighter to the country. The F-35, a fifth-generation fighter, that is only now entering service in significant numbers, is superior to the F-16 Block 70 fighter that Lockheed Martin is offering India in its proposed purchase of an estimated 100 single-engine fighters.
But on Monday, Lockheed Martin spokesperson, Michael Friedman, stated: “The article referencing F-35 production in India was misreported and incorrect. The conversation was in regards to F-16 production.”
Further, DefenseNews magazine, quoted an Indian defence ministry official as stating: “There is no such plan, and no official proposal has come from US government and Lockheed Martin” to produce F-35s in India in the future.
The earlier report, originating from PTI and carried by several Indian newspapers, stated: “Lockheed Martin has proposed to manufacture custom-built F-35 fighter jets in India, which its officials say will give Indian industry a unique opportunity to become part of the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem.” The confusion stemmed from a long-running marketing effort by Lockheed Martin to burnish the older F-16 Block 70 by suggesting that it containes many advanced technologies developed for the firm’s two most advanced fighter aircraft — the F-22 Raptor and the F-35.
Vivek Lall of Lockheed Martin told PTI: “Many of the systems used on the India-specific platform (i.e. the F-16 Block 70) are derived from key lessons learned and technologies from Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and the F-35, the world’s only operational fifth generation fighters.”
Lall, like several Lockheed Martin officials who have visited India in the preceding two years, said in New Delhi on Saturday that the F-16 Block 70 had fifth-generation capabilities. He said its key sensor — an APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar — shared a high degree of commonality with the F-22 and F-35 radars.
Those who oppose buying the F-16 for the Indian Air Force (IAF) say it is not in the same technology class as the F-22 and F-35, which India has never been offered; that the F-16 Block 70 is hardly an exclusive offer to India since it is building an equally capable version for Bahrain; that the F-16 is based on a 1970s airframe; and that Pakistan has operated it for decades, learning its weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Meanwhile, American officials and analysts who favour enhancing US-India relations suggest that Washington offer India the F-35, which it is supplying to at least nine other countries. Rich Verma, former US ambassador to India and now vice-president of strategic advisory, The Asia Group, has proposed Washington formally undertake to provide India a “qualitative military edge” (QME), as the US does with Israel.
“India has already been declared a ‘major defence partner’ of the United States.
Mandating a QME for India would open the door for supplying the F-35”, a top US defence industry head, based in India, said.
Yet, supplying F-35s to India would require a special effort by Washington. The IAF wants to rapidly induct fighters to replace 10 squadrons (about 200 aircraft) of MiG-21 and MiG-27s that are already overdue to retire, but the F-35 production line is already committed to building 3,000 fighters, including 600 for foreign customers, according to Lockheed Martin.
The F-35 line at Fort Worth, Texas — currently building 66 fighters a year and due to reach its full annual rate of 166 fighters only in 2023 — already has orders for two decades worth of production. “Does Washington have the political will to squeeze out 100 F-35s for India from a fully committed line?” asks a recently-retired IAF air marshal. The F-35’s affordability would be important for New Delhi. India is paying $115 million as the bare-bones cost of each Rafale fighter (with India-specific enhancements, spares, logistics and weapons all extra). In comparison, an F-35A (the air force version) cost just $94.6 million in February 2017, said Lockheed Martin.
This is slated to become even cheaper. “As production ramps (up) and additional improvements are implemented, Lockheed Martin’s goal is to reduce the cost of an F-35A to $80 million by 2020,” announced the company in November.
More than 265 operational F-35s have already been delivered to the US Air Force and eight other nations, including Australia, Italy, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Norway and United Kingdom.business-standard