USA keen to discuss F-35 with India, report says

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The USA is still interested in pitching the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to India, as New Delhi prepares to open the commercial bids in its 126-aircraft medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition.

In a nine-page report on the Washington/Delhi defence relationship, the US Department of Defense highlighted increasingly close military ties between the two countries, with an emphasis on procurement, joint exercises and personnel exchanges.

"What was once a nascent relationship between unfamiliar nations has now evolved into a strategic relationship between two of the pre-eminent security powers in Asia," said the report. "Today, US-India defence ties are strong and growing."

The report acknowledged that the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed F-16 Block 60 were eliminated from the MMRCA competition in April.

It also noted that India is working with Russia on the Sukhoi/Hindustan Aeronautics fifth-generation fighter aircraft, a two-seat variant of the former's developmental PAK-FA.

"Despite [the MMRCA] setback, we believe US aircraft, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, to be the best in the world," said the report. "Should India indicate interest in the JSF, the US would be prepared to provide information on the JSF and its requirements (infrastructure, security) to support India's future planning."

The timing of the report is interesting. Indian media reports have suggested that in early November New Delhi will open the commercial bids for the shortlisted MMRCA aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. Since the elimination of the two US-backed aircraft from the contest there has been periodic media speculation that Washington will offer the F-35 as a late-coming contender. However, India's defence ministry has never acknowledged the F-35 as an MMRCA candidate.

The US noted that India has signed more than 20 Foreign Military Sales contracts worth a combined $6 billion in the past 10 years. These have included deals for six Lockheed C-130J tactical transports, Boeing's Harpoon anti-ship missile and Textron Defense Systems' CBU-97 Sensor Fused Weapon, plus self-protection equipment for VVIP aircraft. India is also in the process of acquiring 10 Boeing C-17 strategic transports.

"Once the C-17 contract is fulfilled, India will operate the second-largest fleet of C-17s in the world," said the report.

However, the document fails to mention India's conceptual medium combat aircraft (MCA), a type conceived with similar characteristics to the F-35.

Speaking at the Aero India show in Bengaluru in March, P S Subramanyam, programme director at India's Aeronautical Development Agency, told Flightglobal a feasibility study on the aircraft would be submitted to the Indian government at the end of 2011.

"The MCA will be in flight trials by the end of the decade, and it will be inducted by the middle of the next decade," said Subramanyam.