Lockheed Martin is dangling the carrot of future access to its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme to India, with industry observers saying that the strategy could be a way of enticing New Delhi to choose the company's F-16 for its ongoing F-X competition.


 © Lockheed Martin
Industry observers say the strategy could be a way of enticing New Delhi to choose the F-16

The company has long eyed a potential market for the F-35 in India from 2015, possibly to replace its British Aerospace Harriers and some land-based fighters, says Tom Burbage, F-35 vice-president.

The F-16 and F-35 will not be formally linked in a package deal, but Lockheed officials are emphasising that the former serves as an ideal bridge to acquiring the latter.

No F-35 programme officials are involved in current discussions between the nations, says Burbage, but other Lockheed and US government executives have briefed their Indian counterparts about the stealth fighter.

Burbage has, meanwhile, denied Indian press reports that claimed that F-35 technology could be inserted into the F-16, or that the two aircraft could be sold to New Delhi for the same price.

Any incentive could help Lockheed in India's $15 billion, 126-aircraft F-X competition. Rival Pakistan already possesses the F-16, creating apprehension in the Indian defence establishment about buying the same aircraft.

Although it is being offered more advanced versions than Islamabad's Block 50/52-standard fighters, some sceptics believe that India should opt for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or RSK MiG-35 instead.

The F-35 could also solve worries about the impact of delays in the multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) competition - while a request for proposals is expected by the end of the year, the tender has been in the works since the end of last decade and a decision is not expected for a few years.

Some observers believe that the selected aircraft could be outdated even before all 126 have been delivered.

"Lockheed could sell some F-16s, though not in the latest configuration, in the near term to boost India's falling fighter jet numbers. Then, around 2015, the F-35 could come into the picture," says a New Delhi-based observer.

"That way, India would bolster its air defence and get the cutting-edge technology it wants." India is working with Russia on a fifth-generation fighter with stealth capabilities, but there has been little sign of progress in that programme. Buying the F-35 would solve the problem for India, says the observer.

The decision, however, may not completely lie with Lockheed or the Indian government. "The US government has a say as well. It can independently offer access to the F-35 for political reasons, though it would probably ask India to choose either the F-16 or F/A-18 in the MRCA competition as a pre-requisite," says another source.

Source: Flight International