Friday, November 4, 2011

US wooing India with F-35 5th-Generation fighter offer

The US may be bagging lucrative Indian defence deals, notching up sales worth over $11 billion in the military aviation sector alone, but it cannot get over the fact that New Delhi does not want its fighter jets.

Just a couple of days ahead of a crucial Indian defence ministry's meeting, which will set the stage for eventual selection of either Eurofighter Typhoon or French Rafale for IAF's over $10-billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project, the US has again dangled the bait of an advanced 5th-generation fighter before India.

Dubbing as a "setback" the ejection of its F/A-18 `Super Hornets' and F-16 `Falcons' out of the MMRCA race after the technical evaluation, Pentagon on Wednesday told the US Congress that it was prepared to offer its Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - the F-35 `Lightning-II' - to India. While the F-35 is a generation ahead of the MMRCA contenders, the IAF is looking to order 126 of 4th-Gen-plus fighters like Typhoons or Rafales, with another 63 probably at a later stage that will take the overall project cost to well beyond $20 billion.

India has embarked on the path to co-develop its own 5th-Gen fighter, based on the Russian Sukhoi T-50 prototype, with New Delhi and Moscow inking a $295-million preliminary design contract (PDC) last December.

But with India intending to spend a staggering over $35 billion to induct at least 166 single-seat and 48 twin-seat 5th-Gen fighters from 2020 onwards, the US is reluctant to give up easily.

In a report on US-India security cooperation, which otherwise dwelt on the expansive bilateral military ties, Pentagon said, "Despite the (MMRCA) setback, we believe US aircraft, such as JSF, to be the best in the world."

It added, "Should India indicate interest in the JSF, US would be prepared to provide information on the fighter and its requirements (infrastructure, security etc) to support India's future planning."

This is not the first time the F-35 bait has been dangled, but India has refused to bite so far. Senior defence officials say India neither wants nor can afford two types of 5th-Gen fighters. "It would be a financial, maintenance and logistical nightmare. The F-35 programme itself has been hit by huge cost overruns," said a top official.

Another official added, "The crucial full design phase with Russia of our stealth 5th-Gen fighter, the perspective multi-role fighter with supercruise, ultra-manoeuvrability and internal carriage of weapons, will be launched by next June-July."

He said, "Tons of documents are being exchanged. Apart from 40 of our scientists, designers and others being positioned in Russia, secure data links will be established for real-time communication between the two sides. Once the detailed designs are frozen, prototype development and manufacture will begin."

While this 5th-Gen fighter will be the mainstay in the future, the IAF is looking at 270 Sukhoi-30MKIs contracted from Russia for about $12 billion, the 126 MMRCA and 120 indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, apart from 110 upgraded MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s, to defend the skies in the medium term.

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