US May Offer F-35 Combat Aircraft to India, But Should We Take It?
A recent report in The Economic Times suggests that the US may offer its fifth-generation F-35 combat jet to India if it cancels the S-400 strategic air defence system deal with Russia.
Earlier (in May 2019), the US had offered its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and the Patriot Advance Capability-3 missile defence systems to India as alternatives to the S-400. India is already negotiating the acquisition of the US’s National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II), which would be deployed along with indigenous, Russian and Israeli systems to establish a multi-layered missile shield over the National Capital Territory.
The Ambitious F-35 Is At The Stage Of ‘Senility’
Given that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking at buying over 100 combat aircraft to replace its depleting fighter squadrons – ten squadrons of IAF equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 – the F-35, with its ‘cutting edge’ technologies and an aircraft carrier variant, could appeal to certain segments of the Indian Armed Forces.
Historically, whenever a new weapon is introduced, designers develop counter-measures to it. This leads to improvements against the countermeasures, which spur new countermeasures, and new improvements to the system – and so on. This ding-dong design battle continues till the cost of protecting the weapon platform from countermeasures becomes unbearable; the resources necessary to keep the aircraft flying outstrip the value of its mission; and the cost-versus-effectiveness ratio plummets.
What Do We Know About The F-35?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also called the Lightning-II, is a strike fighter aircraft being procured in three versions by the US Air Force (1,763 x F-35A), US Marine Corps (353 x F-35B and 67 x F-35C), and the US Navy (273 x F-35C).
In the early 1990s, the US Air Force (USAF) developed one of the best air-superiority fighters in service, the F-22 ‘Raptor’ stealth aircraft. However, it wasn’t optimised for ground-attack roles, and was deemed too expensive to build/operate in large numbers. So, its production was limited to just 180 aircraft.
In October 2001, Lockheed Martin’s single-engined X-35 was chosen as the winner, and the first production F-35 was rolled out in February 2006. The aircraft however has a troubled history. The Marine Corps wanted a STOVL, while the Navy required one for operating on aircraft carriers. These conflicting demands imposed additional weight and bulkier fuselage on all variants of the F-35.
Mark Counts, senior manager for the F-35, opined “… it’s too heavy to fly the way it needs to” – and Lockheed Martin had to make over 600 modifications to optimise size, weight and power. All three versions attained Initial Operational Capability, 3-4 years behind schedule.
F-35 Program Estimated To Be One Of The Most Expensive Weapons Systems Ever
With a projected lifetime cost of USD 1.5 trillion (USD 406 billion for acquisition of 2,456 aircraft; USD 54.7 billion in R&D; rest in lifetime operating costs), the F-35 program is estimated to be the most expensive weapons system in human history – and that does not include cost overruns.
F-35’s Performance Evaluation
In April 2019, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that:
- the F-35 program had experienced significant cost, schedule, availability and performance problems;
- the F-35s were unable to fly 30 percent of the time because of shortages and mismatched parts;
- they were mission-capable (that is, able to safely conduct one mission) only 52 percent of the time (against a target of 75 percent)
A 13 June report in Defense News outlines a number of hitherto unreported serious deficiencies that negatively impact pilots and mission, including spikes in cabin pressure; poor pitch, roll and yaw control after certain manoeuvres; loss of ‘stealth’ at supersonic speeds; low thrust in hot weather in the STOVL version; issues with its computer and software; problems with the redesigned fuel tank ullage inerting system; inadequate lightning protection; and helmet display issues.
Lockheed Martin responded that “these issues are important to address, and each is well understood, already resolved or on a near term path to resolution”.
The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, compared to Mach 2 to 2.5 for the F-16 and F-15, respectively, and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, compared to 60,000 feet for other aircraft.
During the 2015 tests, the F-35 was out-turned and less energy efficient than the more agile F-16D in a short-range dog fight.
The USAF however maintains that the F-35 isn’t meant to engage in ‘within-visual-range’ dogfights, but would rely on its ‘stealth’ to remain undiscovered at long distances from enemy aircraft, and engage them from 100-150 kms using the Active Electronically Scanned Array radar and beyond-visual-range missiles.
What The Critics Have To Say About F-35:
- ‘Stealth’ fighters can now be seen on X-band targeting radars once the distance is short enough. They are also prone to detection by Infra-Red Search & Track (IRST) systems and low-bandwidth radars. Notably, China recently claimed development of a ‘meter wave’ radar that can detect stealth aircraft. Research scientists opine that advanced Russian strategic air defence systems like the S-300, S-400 and developing S-500, are designed to detect and track low observable aircraft – and that it’s just a matter of time and physics before radars become capable of delivering a high-quality track that an anti-aircraft missile can utilise. At that stage, stealth will not endow any significant advantage, but will just be an expensive add-on.
- To exploit ‘stealth’ in combat, the F-35 must carry weapons internally – which limits it to just four or six missiles in an internal-weapons bay, plus a 25mm cannon. Ditto for fuel tanks – which implies reduced range – or reliance on aerial refuellers.
- Each F-35 is envisioned as a sensor node for the broader war machine – its new digital system is designed to gather immense amounts of data from the surrounding environment, and send it back via encrypted data-links for a networked war. But this very technology, with about 9.1 million lines of code, makes the F-35 vulnerable to hacking and attacks by electronic warfare systems. It is known that Chinese hackers had broken into Lockheed’s computers twice, and stolen the F-35 blueprints – which is likely why China’s J-31 stealth fighter resembles the F-35.
Transmission of ‘Sovereign Data’ From F-35 To Lockheed Martin Miffs Foreign Buyers
In the Vietnam War, the USAF, despite superior aircraft and missiles, had disappointing kill ratios against less-capable North Vietnamese fighter aircraft.
A recent RAND Corporation simulation study confirms that the PLA Air Force could use large swarms of inferior fighter aircraft to simply overwhelm a lesser number of F-35s. This brings back into focus Lanchester’s equations, as well as the intense debate on “quality versus quantity”.
During World War-II, the US produced about 6,000 fighters costing about USD 300,000 each. The F-35 costs USD 90 to USD 120 million. If Lanchester’s square law is applied, then the quality and performance of the F-35 should be at least a couple of hundred times better than the older aircraft – which it is not.
And no matter what it is equipped with, some would yet be shot down by new anti-aircraft systems. Having few numbers and losing some also impinges on availability during a war.
Why India Should Be Prudent In Its Purchase
This number would suffice for strategic tasks. In other words, it may be prudent for India, a country with finite budgets, to acquire a large number of weapons of optimised quality in order to get more bang for the buck from many weapons, rather than selective ‘bangs’ from a few ‘hi-tech’ ones.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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