Should the U.S. Provide the Joint Strike Fighter to India?

By Amer Latif

The HAL HF-24 Marut, India's first indigenous jet, flew with the Indian Air Force from 1961-1985.

The HAL HF-24 Marut, India's first indigenous jet, flew with the Indian Air Force from 1961-1985.

Recent Indian press reports have indicated that Lockheed Martin is seeking to provide the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to India as a possible late entry to the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition after the U.S. was excluded as a finalist in late April. The Senate Armed Services Committee increased the buzz when it passed an amendment to its markup of the Defense Authorization Bill that requires the Secretary of Defense to provide “a detailed assessment on the desirability and feasibility of the future sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to India…”. Any decision to release the Joint Strike Fighter to India will be a complicated one that will most assuredly be marked by spirited debate within the U.S. government and on Capitol Hill.

One side of the discussion could highlight India’s close relations with Russia and its plan to jointly develop a fifth generation fighter (PAK-FA) with stealth capabilities. Some U.S. officials will likely have serious concerns about JSF technology and know-how ending up with Russia and its PAK-FA program. Concerns about technology transfer, always a challenge, will be complicated further by the Indians’ continued reluctance to sign the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Data (BECA).

Furthermore, co-production may not be an option for India since all final assembly of JSF aircraft is currently scheduled to take place in the U.S. with no plans to co-produce the aircraft with foreign partners. Regional factors will also need to be taken into account, as the introduction of stealth technology onto the South Asia subcontinent will almost certainly unnerve the Pakistanis and could be a game changer for Indo-Pak stability. The prospect of India possessing a stealth fighter with the ability to deliver nuclear weapons will certainly raise alarm bells in Islamabad, and could adversely affect already-fragile U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Those that support its release will argue that the JSF will provide a great boost to bilateral defense ties and strengthen an already-strong U.S. commitment to providing India the very best technology. Supporters will argue that selling the JSF to India could add new jobs to the American economy as the United States tries to climb out of recession.  Additionally, as India thinks about how to deal with China’s military power, the JSF could provide India a stealth capability to counter growing Chinese fighter threat that reportedly now includes a stealth fighter known as the J-20. Such a sale will also increase greater connectivity between the respective air forces through logistics supplies, personnel exchanges, and exercises that will optimize India’s ability to employ the aircraft.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will undoubtedly have strong views on any decision to sell JSF to India. Some senators and representatives will certainly support its sale, such as Senator Cornyn of Texas, where Joint Strike Fighter will be made. Other congressmen, however, may have a tough time supporting the sale due to disappointment about India’s nuclear liability legislation and concerns about sensitive stealth technology going to India. Others will have concerns about the effect of the sale on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and will question whether such a sale would upset regional stability on the subcontinent.

As Washington begins its deliberations about the JSF, it should be mindful of the potential impact of a JSF sale on overall defense ties. The MMRCA competition has been India’s most complicated acquisition to date. Whoever ultimately wins the MMRCA competition will ultimately have to deal with stringent Indian requirements for technology transfer and co-production. Any shortfall in meeting India’s requirements could make the sale a difficult process for the winner. The U.S. is currently in the beginning stages of building a defense trade partnership, and its victories to date have not broached too many contentious issues over tech transfer.

Exclusion from the MMRCA competition may have turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise for Washington, as it avoided the inevitable conflicts over tech transfer and co-production on a very high profile defense acquisition. Bilateral squabbles, leaked to the Indian press, could have damaged future prospects for defense sales as the U.S. struggles to overcome its trust deficit with India, which still has doubts about Washington’s reliability as a defense supplier. A decision to sell the JSF to India may resurrect many of those challenges.

All of this discussion is notional at this point since there is no public record of an official Indian request for the JSF, and the first operational JSF may be a few years off. By the time India is ready to purchase the JSF, defense relations may have matured to a point where technology transfer of sensitive items is a routine occurrence. However, the U.S. Senate is forcing the issue now to get the Defense Department’s view on the wisdom of selling the aircraft. Whatever the final decision on JSF for India, one can be assured it will be a dogfight all the way to the end.

Amer Latif is currently a visiting fellow with the Wadhwani Chair for U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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