To be clear, there is no doubt that the F-35 will meet accuracy and modernity standards required from any new-generation military equipment. But does it provide true bang-for-buck that the Indian Air Force needs? The way we see it, not really.
The Lightning II can barely be called a “medium weight” aircraft – the only aircraft heavier than it in the MMRCA competition was the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Now couple this with the fact that its payload just about matches that of the Tejas, and you start to wonder whether it’s such a good fit for the IAF. Next, even if it is advertised as a “multirole” aircraft, its capability on the aerial warfare front is still seriously suspect. At present the best it can do is carry four air-to-air missiles internally, less than half the capability of either the Typhoon or Rafale. It cannot operate without air cover as it does not possess a swing-role capability. Also, its stealth is not all-aspect like the F-22’s, and so it cannot be relied upon to make its way in and out of enemy territory unassisted.
Additionally, the F-35 features a significantly smaller combat radius than either MMRCA finalist when on internal fuel and weapons (which also means a smaller payload due to restrictions on space available). There is no official mention yet about external fuel tanks on the F-35, and the moment you hang weapons on external pylons, you can kiss both range and stealth goodbye. There are doubts, too, about its aerodynamic capabilities. The aircraft features thrust-to-weight ratio and wing loading figures poorer than those of any contemporary fighter. One wonders how well it would perform in the key strike role in the thin air over the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau – the likely setting of any future India-China conflict.
There is also an issue that seems minor at first sight, but could throw a spanner in procurement. The IAF has, over the last two decades, gravitated towards two-man crews for any aircraft that will be involved in strike roles beyond close air support. This was highlighted in the Kargil War when IAF Mirages had to perform precision bombing tasks at high altitude while avoiding air defences, staying within the border and keeping an eye on possible interception. It is the reason why a third of the MMRCA batch is touted to comprise tandem-seaters just as all the new Jaguars have been. The lack of a two-seat F-35 means that not only will the IAF not get what it wants for deep penetration strike roles, but it means that any pilot training will have to be done on expensive simulators only.
Another problem is the complexity of the design itself and the fact that many of its technologies are radically new and untried. The USAF is learning the hard way that the F-22’s radar absorbing skin (which the F-35 also uses) is highly vulnerable to rain and dust, and very expensive and difficult to maintain. Advertised as having the computing power of two Cray supercomputers, it is so complex that it can only fly for an average of 1.7 hours before suffering a critical failure. Even six years after it entered service, new and potentially fatal problems continue to surface with alarming regularity. It isn’t too hard to guess how the F-35, whose design borrows heavily from that of the F-22 and even outclasses it in certain aspects, will fare in this regard.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse once we start talking about timelines and costs. As of today, the F-35 (without development costs included) is priced at the same level as the Eurofighter and the Rafale. But while the latter two are combat proven and available today (in a fashion), the Lightning II won’t be for a decade. Going by past experience, further schedule slippages and cost overruns look like a distinct possibility. Now, factor in the additional uncertainty created by the possible need to develop a tandem-seat version for the IAF alone, and one quickly begins to see why any optimism regarding timelines and costs could be highly misplaced. In the midst of all these arguments and calculations, the main reason why new medium fighters are being bought is often forgotten: the IAF needs new aircraft as fast as possible to shore up numbers and make up for the rapid obsolescence of a large portion of its fleet, and each delay only serves to make an already precarious situation worse. It is already taking a significant risk with the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) as it is. What is the point of bringing more uncertainty into the equation now, that too to procure a fighter that offers little in addition to low-observability?
And speaking of low-observability, how much will it cost to maintain the stealth features, especially in the hazy, dusty conditions of India? For that matter, will the IAF even get an aircraft that is as stealthy as the ones the US and UK operate? Will it get all the avionics, even watered down versions? The US is reluctant today to provide the UK, the only level-1 partner in the project, with full access to the aircraft’s source code. What are the chances of India getting a better deal?
Finally, there is one additional issue that bears examination in this debate, and that is how procuring the F-35 will affect the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project. Because of the similar roles the two aircraft shall be expected to fulfil, there is a distinct possibility that purchasing the F-35 will kill the AMCA for good, with disastrous long-term consequences. Detractors may argue that the AMCA is nowhere close to completion, and may be delayed by years just like the Tejas has been. That may well be the case, but if the AMCA does suffer inordinate delays, India can always place a future order for an F-35 with many of its niggles hopefully sorted out. There is little reason to make that call now, when the AMCA is still a design on paper.
Having said all that, one can imagine a few scenarios in which the F-35, even with all its problems, would serve a useful purpose in the IAF. For years, the IAF maintained a handful of high-maintenance MiG-25R Foxbats for a niche profile: reconnaissance of enemy territory, out of reach of interceptors or SAMs. Likewise, the IAF could consider one or two squadrons of the Lightning II, for the simple purpose of “kicking the door down” in the first few days of the war, taking out vital air defence nodes, logistics nodes, or AEW&C and tanker aircraft before handing over the heavy lifting to other aircraft that can announce their presence.
And yet, the reason this may turn out to be a bad idea is that in the same way the MiG-25 was replaced not by another aircraft but an indirect replacement – spy satellites – the F-35’s role can be performed not by another aircraft, but by missiles. We already operate the ground-launched BrahMos. The air-launched version should be available within the next few years, giving us a 300-km reach anywhere beyond its launch point. Throw the Shaurya into the mix and suddenly we can hit targets deep inside enemy territory without having to risk aircraft or pilots. Granted, missiles cannot do everything an aircraft can but even if cruise missiles provide partial coverage, the costs in maintaining a squadron’s worth of special aircraft and pilots cannot be justified.
This is not to suggest that the F-35 Lightning II is a turkey, or that the US military is making a humongous blunder in buying it. But in the Indian context, we see little rationale behind spending large sums of money today on something that will only arrive a decade from now at the very best, be a difficult fit in our existing doctrine as well as punch a hole in our finances. If Lightning should strike our enemies, we would rather it not have our tricoloured roundels on it.
ADITYA MANDREKAR is an electrical and avionic systems engineer who currently writes embedded software for an electronics company in the UK.
This column reflects the personal & independent views of the contributing columnists | Photo / Lockheed-Martin