S-400 v/s. F-35:-Should India Give up S-400 for F-35 and it’s Ecosystem?

\The United States is going all out to prevent the purchase of S-400 missile defense system by India after it rejected a more expensive offer of THAAD and MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system (SAM) and as per latest speculation in the media is open to offering India it’s F-35 Stealth fighter jet and place in the supply ecosystem of the F-35 program, which will enable Lockheed Martin to set up local production line in India and help in India’s own development of AMCA 5th Generation fighter jet Program.

According to the ET, senior industry leaders and US officials have arrived in India without their purpose being specified. The newspaper noted that no official offer has so far been made to New Delhi. The report also indicated that the Indian government had never requested acquiring F-35 warplanes.

Earlier, NDTV reported, citing an anonymous senior State Department official, that Delhi could face problems in its ties with the US if it decides to go through with its S-400 deal with Russia. Namely, the source warned that high-tech defence cooperation between the two nations might be suspended, hinting at the case of Turkey, which could end up without F-35 deliveries from the US over its purchase of S-400 systems.

Washington sees India has a viable partner which can step in its F-35 program and replace order lost to Turkey from India, plus make Indian public and private sector companies part of the F-35 supply chain pool which will mean billions of dollars of business opportunity for Indian companies. F-35 might also be offered for local assembly under supervision of Lockheed Martin India with a private partnership with a local company like TATA Defense.

While it might sound all good but India is unlikely to take the offer for many reasons listed out.

While Lockheed Martin India will remain in charge of the program if it is ever offered to India and will come with limited Transfer of Technology which is unlikely to interest India. With prices of F-35A already tumbling below $80 million per unit, countries like Japan have already decided to close local assembly of F-35A due to high costs, since it was cheaper to import then build locally in Japan and it is most likely same factors will make it unattractive for India to assemble them locally.

There is also an issue that seems minor at first sight, but could throw a spanner in procurement. The IAF has, over the last two decades, gravitated towards two-man crews for any aircraft that will be involved in strike roles beyond close air support. This was highlighted in the Kargil War when IAF Mirages had to perform precision bombing tasks at high altitude while avoiding air defences, staying within the border and keeping an eye on possible interception. It is the reason why a third of the MMRCA batch is touted to comprise tandem-seaters just as all the new Jaguars have been. The lack of a two-seat F-35 means that not only will the IAF not get what it wants for deep penetration strike roles, but it means that any pilot training will have to be done on expensive simulators only.

If India decides to buy F-35, then it will force her to sign rest 2 agreements with the USA to get full access to its technology. The signing of BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) & CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement) would help India to have access to US state-of-arts technology and weapon systems to which India is reluctant to sign.

IAF operated French and Russian planes since three & half decades. So, it has experience in handling those planes. Nill experience of operating American fighter would tell IAF to buy French one. But the changing in geopolitics can turn the game in American favour if IAF opts F-35 & the question must be raised to separate bureaucracy from military matters.

The F-35’s stealth is easily defeated by operating radars outside the X-band range. Its stealth design also only covers the front angle — not the bottom, top, side, and especially not the rear. This means that an F-35 is easy to detect from ground radars (below it) or early warning radar planes (like the AWACS) flying above.

Finally, there is one additional issue that bears examination in this debate, and that is how procuring the F-35 will affect the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project. Because of the similar roles the two aircraft shall be expected to fulfil, there is a distinct possibility that purchasing the F-35 will kill the AMCA for good, with disastrous long-term consequences. Detractors may argue that the AMCA is nowhere close to completion, and may be delayed by years just like the Tejas has been. That may well be the case, but if the AMCA does suffer inordinate delays, India can always place a future order for an F-35 with many of its niggles hopefully sorted out. There is little reason to make that call now, when the AMCA is still a design on paper.

The AMCA on the other hand is aimed at replacing much smaller ground attack jets such as the Mirage-2000, Jaguar and Mig-27. The IAF will always have a need for a mix of aircraft, including large, medium and small jets for a variety of combat roles. Therefore, replacing the FGFA with the AMCA makes no sense at all.



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