Friday, November 4, 2011

US pushing to sell radar-evading F-35 fighter jets to India

New York: The Pentagon submitted a Congressionally-mandated review of defence ties with New Delhi on Tuesday and expressed eagerness to sell Lockheed Martin’s super advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to India.

With an eye on China, the US has been keen to press for closer military co-operation with India. New Delhi, though, prefers to hedge its bets. In late April, despite personal lobbying by President Barack Obama, New Delhi eliminated the top two US contenders — Lockheed’s F-16 jet fighter and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet— from its shortlist of suppliers for the air force’s $11 billion fourth generation of advanced fighter jets.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin

Aircraft on the shortlist were Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale and the Eurofighter made by BAE Systems, Finmeccanica SpA and European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co.

Shocked by the Indian rejection, the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees the US Department of Defence, ordered the Pentagon to submit a report by November 1 on the state of India-US defence ties. It also asked for a detailed assessment on the “desirability and feasibility” of the future sale of F-35s to India, and a potential US partnership with New Delhi to co-develop military weapon systems.

“Should India indicate interest in the JSF, the United States would be prepared to provide information on the JSF and its requirements,” the Defence Department said in a nine-page report.

The eye-popping price tag for individual F-35 joint strike fighters — range from $75 million to $150 million, depending upon the estimate. On the upside, the pricey but highly automated F-35 will likely lead to fewer human-error or “pilot-distraction” crashes.

The F-35 is fitted with radar-evading stealth technology and is a multi-role fighter jet that can carry out tactical bombing and air defence missions.

“The F-35 is a fifth generation fighter that will provide the Indian Air Force with a quantum leap in capability and mission execution across the full spectrum of conflict,” a US defence official told Firstpost, asking not to be named.

The Ministry of Defence is ambivalent about the F-35, because of New Delhi’s preliminary design contract for co-development of a fifth-generation fighter recently signed with Moscow. Russia’s Sukhoi and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics are developing a fighter based on Sukhoi’s T-50 design at a cost of $6 billion. Russia is planning to use the jointly-developed fighter as an export version of T-50, while India is expecting the aircraft to enter its fleet by 2020.

America doesn’t want Russia to steal the march and is keeping the window for US-India collaboration open. India is happy playing the field. New Delhi has urged the US to give it more access to technology so that the two countries can develop weapons together, especially in the aerospace sphere.

“The US wants to develop deeper defence industrial cooperation with India, including a range of cooperative research and development,” said the Pentagon report. “The US is committed to providing India with top-of-the-line technology.”

India has begun to modernize its old, Soviet-era military equipment and diversify its weapons supply base. It recently made top-dollar purchases of US military transport and reconnaissance aircraft.

The Pentagon report also says that US efforts for the next five years will place particular emphasis on “maritime security, counter-terrorism activities and expanding defence trade and armaments cooperation.” Washington sees New Delhi as a key security partner in the Indian Ocean region, increasingly joining with the US military in use of force planning to address regional contingencies.

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