F 35 at Aero India, Strategic Signaling What Next?

A F 35 and a Su 35 at the same air base would have been unthinkable given the present state of US Russia relations with an ongoing contestation in Ukraine.

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The F-35A Lightning II from Alaska's Eielson Air Force Base will be on static exhibit. [Image Credit: businesstoday]

The landing of United States Air Force fifth-generation multirole fighters the F-35A Lightning II and F-35A creaeed a buzz at the Aero India 2023.

The presence of the front line Joint Strike Fighters from two bases across the United States Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska was symbolic and indicated the growing commitment by the American Department of Defence to push defence relations with India.

US Consulate in Chennai quoted Major General Julian C. Cheater, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force, International Affairs to state, “The F-35 represents the leading-edge of U.S. fighter technology. Aero India is an ideal forum to showcase the most advanced, capable, lethal, and interoperable weapons systems the U.S. has to offer. This system and others are designed to penetrate and defeat advanced adversary air defenses.”

Blind Eye India Russia Relations?

The United States has chosen to turn a blind eye to India’s continued indulgence with Russia with $ 35 Billion oil trade with Moscow in 2022 and flow of defence hardware from that country.

Thus from the resistance that was evident in the beginning of the War in Ukraine in February last year when it is believed that India had to postone the Def Expo in Ahmedabad in March to October there is a degree of acceptance that India Russia relations cannot become a hindrance to expanding defence cooperation between New Delhi and Washington.

That the Russians were possibly planning to land the Su 35 at Aero India 2023 but did not finally turn up and the miniscule presence of the large Russian military industrial complex at the Expo may have paved the way for the US F 35 landing in Bengaluru.

In the first week of February some media reports in India quoting the Tass indicated that “Rosoboronexport will feature about 200 types of the most advanced Russian-made armaments and military hardware, including the Su-57E top-notch fifth-generation multirole fighter and the Checkmate light tactical aircraft.”

However this did not happen. A F 35 and a Su 35 at the same air base would have been unthinkable given the present state of US Russia relations with an ongoing contestation in Ukraine.

Expanding USAF Portfolio at Aero India

US expanded portfolio of fighter bombers at the Aero India was evident with landing of two B-1B Lancers from their temporary duty location at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

The US Consulate in Chennai highlights the characteristic of the Lancer thus. “The B-1B Lancer, a supersonic heavy bomber, is a truly remarkable aircraft, capable of carrying out missions worldwide from its bases in the United States, as well as from forward deployed locations.  It carries the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the U.S. Air Force and is considered the backbone of America’s long-range bomber force”.

Two United States Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon conducted daily aerial demonstrations from February 13-17 and the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet were on static display.

Rear Admiral Michael Baker, Senior Defense Official and Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, said, “We are happy to have the B1 in India for the second time. These bombers made the journey from South Dakota to Guam and then to India just to add another exciting dimension to Aero India ‘23”.

“It’s a long mission to travel from the continental U.S. to the Indian Ocean; but it was worth it to be part of the biggest air show in the region hosted by our Major Defense Partner, India. The U.S. and India continue to deepen Defense cooperation. We have two great militaries that are even better when we work together,” Baker added.

Indeed the presence of the front line fighters of the US Airforce in Bengaluru for Aero India 2023 was strategically symbolic.

While neither the F 35 nor the B1 B Lancer are in the run up for acquisitions by the Indian Air Force – the F 21 -souped up version of the F 16 and the F 18 carrier version are. So is the General Dynamics Predator HALE drone.

Also symbolic is the 470 civilian aircraft deal by Air India which includes Boeing, “200 American-made aircraft through a historic agreement between Air India and Boeing,” announced US President Joe Biden on February 14.

What Next for US Support to IAF?

Apart from the strategic signaling what are the tangibles that can be achieved through this symbolic presence of top line fighters and bomber of the US Air Force at Aero India 2023 in Bengaluru remains to be seen.

The Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy are expected to make professional choices in selecting the combat fighters for the requirement of 114 Multi Role Figher Aircraf [MRFA] and 26 combat fighters for INS Vikrant where Lockheed Martin are fielding the F 21 and F 18 A carrier version.

What India should seek from the United States is substantial support for aircraft manufacturing lines for the Hindustan Aeronautis Ltd Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) MK 1A and development of the LCA Mk 2 and Fifth generation fighter Advance Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

With the government apparently given the Atma Nirbhar Bharat in Defence a short shrift [or so it seems] at the Aero India 2023, it remains to be seen what lies ahead for the IAF combat fighter acquisitions.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia Security-Risks.com, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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