US wants to sell top flight F-35 to India



    There was a news a few days back that the US wanted to sell India the F-35 multi role combat aircraft, pitching it as a sign of US regard for India that it wanted to sell it top flight technology.

    Top flight it certainly is, considering that US itself has not got it yet. But a sign of US regard for India’s rising military power? Give us a break.

    The F-35 was already intended to be sold to multiple US partners when it was first conceived in 2001 in the aftermath of US invasion of Afghanistan. The list of partners included Canada, UK and Turkey among others.

    Now at the fag end of 2011, the aircraft is bedeviled by cost overruns and delays. It has become a white elephant for the US military, and budget constraints are already making lawmakers think of cutting it altogether. Additionally some of the western partners too are facing the same economic upheaval that is causing so much pain to the US, so they too may not be able to pick up the orders.

    But a substantial amount of money has already been spent on making the aircraft, so what is to be done with it? That is where India comes in.

    Even though Lockheed Martin and Boeing lost out on the 126 plane $11 billion contract to supply India’s needs, US has been making not too subtle hints that it want to sell it the F-35.

    By all apparent indication that fighter is still some way off from being battle ready, even though it had flown enough test flight to be without any major glitches.

    Though the plane was supposed to be an affordable fighter, it has faced a costly redesigns and cost overruns. $66 billion has already been spent on the project.

    The plane was initially supposed to have 3 variants. One for the Air Force, one for the Navy, and one for the Marine Corps. The marine corps model was supposed to be the most complex, and was supposed to be done several years after the simpler and lighter air force model.

    Then the Marine Corps lobbied for the aircraft model to be built first, and Pentagon agreed. Lockheed Martin had to go back and redesign the whole plane to provide it with vertical takeoff and short landing capability. Design compromises were made, and the plant had to be shut down for 18 months while engineers went back to the drawing board.

    When work resumed, it was on a much different aircraft. The US was supposed to buy 2400 planes at a total cost of 382.5 billion, but now given the hefty cuts being planned, it might not be able to.

    The second problem is that the program is really late. By about 5 years. “We all knew it’d be a long program and it’d be a challenge to get all the development done,” Lockheed Martin’s Tom Burbage, executive vice president for the F-35 program, said in an interview. “But I think we’re definitely behind.”

    Despite these setbacks the bottomline is that India is being offered one of the best aircrafts in the world so far. And the Obama administration is working overtime to reduce restriction to arms sale.

    While the Obama administration and Congress work to overhaul export restrictions that unnecessarily hamstring the sharing of military technology with allies, the US and India find ways to lower barriers within existing laws, he said.

    “We are looking at what we can do within our systems to reflect the change in our approach, the change in our relationship with India,” Robert Scher, deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia said. While nothing is imminent, the goal is “to make sure that they can get access to some of our top technology and our best systems”, he said.

    “India sees the US as a reliable defence supplier and we have been able to provide some top-of-the-line equipment. Is there some potential for more? Certainly there is. That is for the government of India to decide.”

    So would India bite?