Aero India 2023, which will take place in Bengaluru from February 13 to 17, will feature some of the world’s most advanced fighter jets, including US F-35 and Russian Su-57 stealth aircraft.
However, the US-made F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet draws the most attention due to the possibility of its participation in both static and flying displays at the air show’s venue, the Yelahanka airbase of the Indian Air Force.
The F-35 Lightning II is the most sought-after multirole, stealthy, supersonic fighter built to address the needs of the United States and allied defense forces for an affordable next-generation fighter.
The fighter jet will undoubtedly take center stage at Aero India 2023. The manufacturer of the F-35, US defense giant Lockheed Martin, is making multiple attempts to win over the Indian Air Force and has been promoting its F-21 aircraft as the best choice for India’s need for 114 combat fighters.
The combat fleet of the fourth-largest air force in the world, which was officially sanctioned to have 42 squadrons but is now down to just 31, is rapidly dwindling.
New Delhi has not yet received a stealth aircraft offer from the US administration. The F-22 Raptor and F-35 stealth fighters, both produced by Lockheed Martin, are operated by the US military.
Varun Vijay Singh, an aerospace and defense expert, told the EurAsian Times that the US is sending a message to New Delhi by displaying the F-35 at Aero India that it is offering a range of equipment, including the F-21, and that if India decides to buy a US-made fighter jet for the Indian Air Force, this [F-35] could be the aircraft which India may eventually get in the future.
According to Singh, the US might be luring India to select the F-21 for its Air Force and the F/A-18 for its Navy before something like the F-35 could be on the horizon.
The F-35 stealth aircraft presence might also send a strong signal to close neighbors, especially China, said Singh, who previously held the role of Marketing Director at Saab India.
Former F-35 Lightning II Senior Experimental Test Pilot and retired RCAF Squadron Commander Billie Flynn described the F-35’s participation at Aero India 2023 as a “show of force.”
Flynn told the EurAsian Times that “it is a great opportunity for the US Armed Forces to show their might in front of that audience.”
He explained, “The Block 70 configuration of the F-16 has flown its first flight. F-21, the Indian designation, is not a legacy F-16 like those flown by Pakistan or other foreign nations. It is the most capable and lethal 4th Gen fighter being produced. F-21 would be a viable option for the Indian Air Force.”
The former F-35 test pilot noted, “India has never resolved the competition for the MRCA, which I supported at Aero India more than 14 years ago. Until the fighter decision is made and the many antiquated fighters in service are replaced, there can be no conversation about 5th Gen fighters.”
India’s AMCA Program
Meanwhile, India is also working on its fifth-generation fighter aircraft project called AMCA. The project is believed to be nearing the end of the approvals process before moving into the manufacturing phase.
With the AMCA program, India aspires to join an elite group of nations that possess fifth-generation stealth aircraft. The world’s only operational 5th-generation fighter jets are the Chinese J-20, the US-made F-35 Lightning II, F-22 Raptors, and the Russian Su-57 Felon.
The AMCA project director, AK Ghosh, previously declared that the first prototype of India’s futuristic fighter will roll out by the end of 2025. The expected timeline for the first flight is 2026–2027.
Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, however, has earlier expressed serious concerns and skepticism regarding the ability of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to complete key indigenous fighter aircraft programs on schedule.
The IAF chief has already sought international partnerships to develop niche technology for the domestic AMCA Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft program to safeguard against schedule delays.
In a similar line, Singh highlighted that F-35’s presence in India might also be a message from the US that it has technologies that can assist India in advancing the AMCA program while reducing New Delhi’s reliance on Russia.
Meanwhile, the French Rafale-M and the US F/A-18 Super Hornet are currently engaged in a heated competition to arm the Indian Navy with new deck-based fighters for the country’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant.
Flynn said he “would expect both Boeing and Dassault to have a strong presence at Aero India. Both are excellent naval fighters and would be critical to the Indian Navy.”
Nevertheless, he contended, “there is no market for F-35 in India. As mentioned, the long delay in replacing the 4th Gen fighter fleet is a priority. There is no doctrine requiring a 5th Gen F-35 in India.”
“Additionally, there are far too many security and cyber concerns if F-35 was sold to India that cannot be resolved for many years. F-35 is not a capability that that Indian Air Force is prepared to absorb,” he added.
“The IAF is not prepared to take on a true 5th Generation fighter at this point,” Flynn stated.
Overall, the former F-35 test pilot concluded that even though Lockheed Martin will be exhibiting the fighter jet at Aero India 2023, the aircraft won’t be there for sales and marketing.