US May Offer F-35 Combat Aircraft to India, But Should We Take It?

A recent report in The Economic Times suggests that the US may offer its fifth-generation F-35 combat jet to India if it cancels the S-400 strategic air defence system deal with Russia.

Earlier (in May 2019), the US had offered its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and the Patriot Advance Capability-3 missile defence systems to India as alternatives to the S-400. India is already negotiating the acquisition of the US’s National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II), which would be deployed along with indigenous, Russian and Israeli systems to establish a multi-layered missile shield over the National Capital Territory.

Also Read: US letter on F-35s not in spirit of alliance: Turkey

The Ambitious F-35 Is At The Stage Of ‘Senility’

Given that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking at buying over 100 combat aircraft to replace its depleting fighter squadrons – ten squadrons of IAF equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 – the F-35, with its ‘cutting edge’ technologies and an aircraft carrier variant, could appeal to certain segments of the Indian Armed Forces.

Historically, whenever a new weapon is introduced, designers develop counter-measures to it. This leads to improvements against the countermeasures, which spur new countermeasures, and new improvements to the system – and so on. This ding-dong design battle continues till the cost of protecting the weapon platform from countermeasures becomes unbearable; the resources necessary to keep the aircraft flying outstrip the value of its mission; and the cost-versus-effectiveness ratio plummets.

This is the stage at which the platform starts moving towards ‘senility’. The ambitious, technologically-packed, very expensive F-35, is at that stage.

Also Read: Belgium's purchase of US F-35 jets 'against European interests': Macron

What Do We Know About The F-35?

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also called the Lightning-II, is a strike fighter aircraft being procured in three versions by the US Air Force (1,763 x F-35A), US Marine Corps (353 x F-35B and 67 x F-35C), and the US Navy (273 x F-35C).

The F-35A is a CTOL (Conventional Take-Off & Landing) aircraft; the F-35B is a STOVL (‘Short Take-Off & Vertical Landing’) / ‘jump’ jet version akin to the ‘Harrier’; and the F-35C is Carrier Variant (for aircraft carriers).

In the early 1990s, the US Air Force (USAF) developed one of the best air-superiority fighters in service, the F-22 ‘Raptor’ stealth aircraft. However, it wasn’t optimised for ground-attack roles, and was deemed too expensive to build/operate in large numbers. So, its production was limited to just 180 aircraft.

But with the US Navy and Marines also needing new fighters, the Pentagon decided to build a multirole “joint”, inter-service, stealth fighter, to replace the F-15, F-16, FA-18 and AV-8 ‘Harriers’ serving in the US military. Thus was born the JSF programme.

In October 2001, Lockheed Martin’s single-engined X-35 was chosen as the winner, and the first production F-35 was rolled out in February 2006. The aircraft however has a troubled history. The Marine Corps wanted a STOVL, while the Navy required one for operating on aircraft carriers. These conflicting demands imposed additional weight and bulkier fuselage on all variants of the F-35.

Mark Counts, senior manager for the F-35, opined … it’s too heavy to fly the way it needs to” – and Lockheed Martin had to make over 600 modifications to optimise size, weight and power. All three versions attained Initial Operational Capability, 3-4 years behind schedule.

F-35 Program Estimated To Be One Of The Most Expensive Weapons Systems Ever

With a projected lifetime cost of USD 1.5 trillion (USD 406 billion for acquisition of 2,456 aircraft; USD 54.7 billion in R&D; rest in lifetime operating costs), the F-35 program is estimated to be the most expensive weapons system in human history – and that does not include cost overruns.

Also Read: Was F-16 Shot Down by MiG 21? IAF Gives Proof, Pak Calls It ‘Lie’

F-35’s Performance Evaluation

In April 2019, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that:

  1. the F-35 program had experienced significant cost, schedule, availability and performance problems;
  2. the F-35s were unable to fly 30 percent of the time because of shortages and mismatched parts;
  3. they were mission-capable (that is, able to safely conduct one mission) only 52 percent of the time (against a target of 75 percent)

A 13 June report in Defense News outlines a number of hitherto unreported serious deficiencies that negatively impact pilots and mission, including spikes in cabin pressure; poor pitch, roll and yaw control after certain manoeuvres; loss of ‘stealth’ at supersonic speeds; low thrust in hot weather in the STOVL version; issues with its computer and software; problems with the redesigned fuel tank ullage inerting system; inadequate lightning protection; and helmet display issues.

It adds that, at extremely high altitudes, the F-35 can fly at supersonic speeds for very brief durations, as it risks structural damage.

Lockheed Martin responded that “these issues are important to address, and each is well understood, already resolved or on a near term path to resolution”.

The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, compared to Mach 2 to 2.5 for the F-16 and F-15, respectively, and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, compared to 60,000 feet for other aircraft.

During the 2015 tests, the F-35 was out-turned and less energy efficient than the more agile F-16D in a short-range dog fight.

The USAF however maintains that the F-35 isn’t meant to engage in ‘within-visual-range’ dogfights, but would rely on its ‘stealth’ to remain undiscovered at long distances from enemy aircraft, and engage them from 100-150 kms using the Active Electronically Scanned Array radar and beyond-visual-range missiles.

Also Read: Was F-16 Shot Down by MiG 21? IAF Gives Proof, Pak Calls It ‘Lie’

What The Critics Have To Say About F-35:

  1. ‘Stealth’ fighters can now be seen on X-band targeting radars once the distance is short enough. They are also prone to detection by Infra-Red Search & Track (IRST) systems and low-bandwidth radars. Notably, China recently claimed development of a ‘meter wave’ radar that can detect stealth aircraft. Research scientists opine that advanced Russian strategic air defence systems like the S-300, S-400 and developing S-500, are designed to detect and track low observable aircraft – and that it’s just a matter of time and physics before radars become capable of delivering a high-quality track that an anti-aircraft missile can utilise. At that stage, stealth will not endow any significant advantage, but will just be an expensive add-on.
  2. To exploit ‘stealth’ in combat, the F-35 must carry weapons internally – which limits it to just four or six missiles in an internal-weapons bay, plus a 25mm cannon. Ditto for fuel tanks – which implies reduced range – or reliance on aerial refuellers.
  3. Each F-35 is envisioned as a sensor node for the broader war machine – its new digital system is designed to gather immense amounts of data from the surrounding environment, and send it back via encrypted data-links for a networked war. But this very technology, with about 9.1 million lines of code, makes the F-35 vulnerable to hacking and attacks by electronic warfare systems. It is known that Chinese hackers had broken into Lockheed’s computers twice, and stolen the F-35 blueprints – which is likely why China’s J-31 stealth fighter resembles the F-35.

Transmission of ‘Sovereign Data’ From F-35 To Lockheed Martin Miffs Foreign Buyers

In the Vietnam War, the USAF, despite superior aircraft and missiles, had disappointing kill ratios against less-capable North Vietnamese fighter aircraft.

Besides, foreign buyers are miffed with the F-35’s ‘Advanced Logistics Information System’ as it transmits ‘sovereign data’ – mission information, repairs, spare parts, logistic issues – to Lockheed Martin.

A recent RAND Corporation simulation study confirms that the PLA Air Force could use large swarms of inferior fighter aircraft to simply overwhelm a lesser number of F-35s. This brings back into focus Lanchester’s equations, as well as the intense debate on “quality versus quantity”.

During World War-II, the US produced about 6,000 fighters costing about USD 300,000 each. The F-35 costs USD 90 to USD 120 million. If Lanchester’s square law is applied, then the quality and performance of the F-35 should be at least a couple of hundred times better than the older aircraft – which it is not.

And no matter what it is equipped with, some would yet be shot down by new anti-aircraft systems. Having few numbers and losing some also impinges on availability during a war.

Why India Should Be Prudent In Its Purchase

It is perhaps with such things in mind that the government had reduced the Rafale buy from 126 to 36 aircraft (2016 India-France inter-governmental agreement – 7.87-billion pounds (USD 8.88 billion/Rs 58,000 crores).

This number would suffice for strategic tasks. In other words, it may be prudent for India, a country with finite budgets, to acquire a large number of weapons of optimised quality in order to get more bang for the buck from many weapons, rather than selective ‘bangs’ from a few ‘hi-tech’ ones.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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