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US offers F35JSF to India as India-US Defence Cooperation grows
But Tehcnology Transfer will be an issue

By Gulshan R Luthra Published:January 2010

New Delhi. The India-US defence cooperation seems to be steadily growing with Washington now offering its latest Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F-35 Lightning-II aircraft to India. But in the long run, there could be limitations over issues of Transfer of Technology (ToT) that India mandates now for major arms deals.


Representatives of Lockheed Martin, which is developing the aircraft, have indicated in the past that the aircraft could be available to India if the Indian Air Force (IAF) opted for the F-16 Super Viper in its quest for some 200 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCAs) but recently, the company made a presentation to the Indian Navy without this condition.

Lockheed Martin’s Vice President for Business Development Orville Prins told India Strategic that a presentation about the aircraft was made to the Indian Navy recently after it expressed interest in the newer generation of aircraft for its future carrier-based aircraft requirements.

The Indian Navy is buying 45 Mig 29Ks for the Gorshkov, or INS Vikramaditya, which it will get from Russia in 2012 and its first indigenous aircraft carrier. But for its second indigenous carrier, and possibly more in the future, the Navy is looking for a newer generation of aircraft as the carrier itself is likely to be bigger.

Although the best of the weapon systems in the US are developed by private companies, the funding for their research and development is provided by the Government which exercises full control on the resultant products and their sale to any foreign country. ToT is a serious issue and in most cases, technology, particularly source codes, is not shared even with Washington’s best allies in the West or East.

Lockheed Martin apparently made the presentation to India after authorization by the US Department of Defense (DOD), but Prins pointed out that the F 35 could be sold only after clearance from the US State Department, for which bilateral negotiations between New Delhi and Washington would need to be held once India expressed interest.

The US is steadily emerging as a new supplier of sophisticated arms to India, which urgently needs to replace and augment its mostly outdated Soviet-vintage systems with high technology weapons of the 21st century.

Beginning 2002, when an agreement for the sale of 12 Raytheon’s artillery and short-range missile tracker system, the AN/TPQ 37 Weapon Locating Radars (WLRs) was signed, the US has supplied systems worth nearly US $ 4 billion.

It’s not much compared to what India still spends on defence trade with Russia but it is a significant beginning.

Over the last few weeks, the Indian Ministry of Defence has sent firm orders, or Letters of Request (LoR) for 10 C 17 Globemaster III strategic lift aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and 145 M 777 ultra light howitzers the Indian Army badly needs for its mountain operations.

The competing gun from Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK) lost out as the company was mired in allegations of corruption in an Indian Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) scam. (STK is among the half a dozen Indian and international companies with whom business has been put on hold pending Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) clearance; they are not blacklisted as some have reported).

BAE Systems, primarily a British firm with commercial and manufacturing interests in the US and elsewhere, had not taken part in the tender for ultra light guns initially, although it wanted to enter the race later. Its absence in the commercial competition process helped it win the requirement.

BAE Systems developed the titanium alloy M777 in Britain but manufactures it in the US, from where it has been supplied extensively in the tough Afghan mountainous terrain against the Taliban terrorists. It is easily ferried by Boeing’s Chinook helicopters, which are also being considered for acquisition by the Indian Air Force (IAF).

BAE Systems also owns the Swedish Bofors, which has changed many hands since the 1980s. It was acquired by the Swedish Government, then sold to the United Defense of USA, and finally landed in the BAE lap.

In fact, as the US Administration had imposed restrictions on the sale of military equipment to India after the 1998 nuclear tests, President Bill Clinton went out of the way in 2000 to allow United Defense-Bofors an exception to sell its guns to India if the Indian Army opted for them. BAE is now in the race to sell upgraded versions of Bofors as well as to modernize the 410 units that the Indian Army had bought.

Allegations of corruption in the acquisition of 15mm FH 77B guns (howitzers) notwithstanding, the Bofors guns proved their worth in the 1999 Kargil War to evict the intruding Pakistani Army from the heights it had infiltrated into and occupied.

India has also deployed this gun at the highest battlefield in the world at Siachin. Ferrying them to those daunting heights in parts and then assembling them has been a tremendous job by itself for the Army.

LORs for both the C 17 and M 777 have been issued only in January 2010.

India has less than 20 IL 76 Soviet-supplied Il-76 heavy lift or strategic lift aircraft, which will mark 25 years of their induction in April 2010.

Although a fuel-guzzler, the IL 76 has served the IAF well and still has a residual life of 10 to 15 years with some periodic modifications as the IAF has utilized it carefully. Manufactured in Uzbekistan, which was a part of the Soviet Union, the IL 76 is now out of production and most of its existing serviceable units have been acquired by China.

There is no matching aircraft to replace the IL 76, the closest being the C 17, although bigger aircraft are available from both the US and Russia.

The C 17 has nearly double the capacity of an IL 76, but according to Air Marshal Ashok Goel, a veteran of IAF’s transport fleet, full load on an aircraft is never really carried as it hinders its range and fuel capacity.

Unlike the IL 76 though, the C 17 can be refueled midair for much longer flights, and needs only two pilots and one loadmaster for operations, that is half the crew of what the IL 76 requires (seven).

Despite its massive size, the C 17 can take off and land on unpaved grassy fields like a football ground at very steep angles, an important capability in battle conditions. India Strategic’s News Editor Nitin Luthra, who had the opportunity to fly in the C 17 at the Paris Air Show, had described its short takeoff capability as “simply amazing.”

Although India has placed a firm order for only 10 C 17s, with no options for now, Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal P V Naik had told India Strategic that IAF was looking at 20 aircraft.

Notably, IAF had also placed an order for six C 130J Special Operations aircraft with an option for six more in 2008 with the US Lockheed Martin. A smaller aircraft than the C 17, it is also highly capable and can operate from small grassy fields to quickly get away after loading or unloading. Lockheed Martin has offered to transfer the manufacturing facility to India if 40 or 50 aircraft are ordered for military and civil use, particularly in the mountainous north-east regions.

The Border Security Force (BSF) is also considering to buy one or two C 130Js, albeit without some specialized systems that the IAF needs.

The F 35 JSF is a Fifth Generation aircraft, to be used by the US Air Force, Navy and Marines. It will perhaps be the last manned aircraft by that country before unmanned, high-powered long-range drones and helicopters fully take over the skies by the middle of this century.

The USAF is already conducting joint manned and unmanned combat operations in Afghanistan with Global Hawk and Reaper drones, clearly indicating the gradual transition underway, and refining the technology from actual, real-time warfare experience.

The unmanned systems, controlled from airbases in the US itself on the other side of the globe, are both reconnaissance and armed, and their use has increased in the recent years to neutralize terrorists in the troubled mountainous region on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

India has opted to buy drones from Israel, and there is also effort underway to develop an indigenous armed version, given the interest by IAF in this regard. It will be interesting to see if the US, which is the only country using drones in day to day war, will share some technology with India.

The F 35 is a single-engine, single-seat stealth aircraft, being developed with several foreign partners to help reduce development and production costs, and is still being tested for its varied capabilities. It will be available in conventional takeoff and landing mode as well as in short-take-off-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) for carrier landings.

Thanks to the numbers, it could cost as low as $ 50 million only per unit, or the price of a modern Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) despite its highly advanced features.

The JSF 35B conducted its first STOVL propulsion test in flight for the first time on Jan 7 at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, and it will be some time before it goes into production. Its programme partner countries include Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark , Singapore and Israel, all of whom would possibly supply some components, and investments.

Whether India joins the production programme or not is an open question, depending upon the numbers required. The Indian Navy cannot have a large requirement and the Indian Air Force is already committed to buying the similar but perhaps more expensive Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) to be jointly produced by Russia’s Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association (KNAPPO) – which produces SU 30 jets – and India’s HAL.

The Russians have done substantial work in this regard, and hope to fly its single seat version by 2015-16 while the IAF hopes to induct its two-seat version by 2017. IAF wants the second seat “missionised” for weapon operations for the co-pilot, a practice that the Israelis have also opted for in their F-16 aircraft.

China, which has been accused of stealing technology by Russia, is also trying to develop a 5th generation fighter.

In any case, it’s a question of time when the environment in the strategic Indian Ocean region, and around India, is filled by the likes of stealth and futuristic aircraft. Lockheed Martin hopes to be around for that time, and, says Orville Prins, “we are making the offer well ahead in that perspective.”

However, the Americans had proved to be unreliable in the 1960s when they made several promises for equipment after the 1962 Chinese aggression on India and did not fulfill them. Driven by its Cold War strategies and regional military alliances like SEATO and CENTO, the US always supplied the best of its weapons to Pakistan, forcing India to follow. For instance, Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to get hi-tech weapons in the 1980s when the US gave it F 16 warjets, Harpoon anti-shipping missiles, P-3C Orion Maritime Surveillance and Attack aircraft as well as Command, Control and Communications and Intelligence (C3I) computers.

India had to follow with Mirage 2000 aircraft from France and Mig 29s from the Soviet Union.

The geopolitical realities have perhaps changed and the US is willing to offer some of its best technologies.

Indeed, the US has been steadily opening its stable of sophisticated weapons to India. After the sale of Raytheon’s WLRs, which was actually the first combat system under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) received from the US after India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, the US has also sold eight highly advanced Boeing P8-I Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) to the Indian Navy to patrol the Indian Ocean. The aircraft is still under development, and significantly, will be available to the Indian Navy nearly at the same time as to the US Navy, which has paid for its development.

This was preceded by the transfer of an old amphibious ship, USS Trenton, renamed INS Jalashwa, and its six onboard Sikorsky utility helicopters at nominal costs for the Indian Navy.

The P8-I is the most hi-tech system yet to be acquired by India, and according to Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems India Head, Dr Vivek Lall, “its sale is unprecedented” in terms of US transfer of technology.

In August last year, another US arms major, Northrop Grumman, also offered its futuristic Hawkeye 2-D combat management aircraft to the Indian Navy. This aircraft is also under development and it India opts to buy it, then this system will also be available to the Indian Navy nearly at the same time as the US Navy.

The P8-I deal is the biggest yet at $ 2.1 billion, while the other major deal for C 130Js has been placed at nearly $ one billion. The 145 M777 guns are around S 650 million while the 10 C 17s could be between $ 2.5 to 3 billion. IAF has also bought three Boeing Business Jets for VIP travel worth around $ 220 million.

The deal for the 10 C 17s, which was formally announced by Boeing from Long Beach. California on Jan 8, would be bigger than that of the P8-Is, depending upon the configuration and requirements of the Indian Air Force. No details are available.

Notably, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have also fielded their respective F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-16 Super Viper combat jets to India in the six-cornered MRCA competition, but the US has also added other sophisticated systems like the Lockheed Martin’s Aegis shipboard anti-missile system, which had been used two years ago to shoot down a satellite in space with precision as part of an apparent technology demonstration.

Orville Prins said that presentation on the Aegis system had also been made to the Indian Navy and the Ministry of Defence.

On offer are also some of the best precision missiles and engagement systems from Raytheon, which does not make any platforms but builds onboard capabilities.

Sources say that it is also offering its latest Airborne Standoff Radar (ASTOR), which is perhaps the latest in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology, to India. The system has been fielded in Afghanistan by the British forces only last year.

Raytheon has been mentioning its Patriot anti-missile system but as yet, it has no formal clearance from the US government to offer it to India. Informal presentations have been made though.

Notably, most of the combat systems with the Indian Armed Forces are either old or outdated. For instance, except for the Su 30MKI combat aircraft, all the fighter and transport aircraft with the Indian Air Force are at least 20 years old.

The emphasis now is more on onboard precision engagement technology as the key to modern warfare and defence.

The US has that.

But how far India goes in buying the US systems will largely depend not only on the technology and price offered, but also on the Transfer of Technology (ToT) that most major deals now warrant as a policy.

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