For an aircraft that is facing numerous technical challenges despite years of development and operational capability, the F-35 has become something of a sensation in India. Even vague rumours that the US has offered its latest stealth fighter to India are enough to set off fireworks in the media.
It happened first on July 22, 2007, and again in January 2018, with the Press Trust of India being the culprit on both occasions. In between these two instances of media-driven hype, there was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's famous US 2014 visit during which several Indian journalists were speculating that India was likely to sign an F-35 deal.
Now comes a media report that the US has offered India the F-35 in order to steer New Delhi away from the Russian built S-400 air defence system. Since threats don't work against India anymore, the Donald Trump administration seems to have offered a big sop to get India to walk out of the Rs 40,000 crore deal to buy five S-400 systems.
It is highly likely the report is based on a random conversation with a State Department flunkie - and therefore not worth the paper it is written on.
On the other hand, if correct, it couldn't be a worse bargain. India needs the S-400 today - not five years from now - to plug the gaps in its long-neglected air defence system. Deliveries are expected from October 2020 onwards. On the other hand, the F-35 - which is slowly overcoming its developmental problems - is being offered to key partners such as Japan and the UK first.
Some like Australia may have to wait a decade or more before their orders are completed. In this backdrop, it could take a miracle for India to jump the queue.
The bottom line is that if India cancels the S-400, not only would it impact its air defence network, it would also not have access to the F-35 at least until 2030. That's assuming Lockheed is able to sort out the mess its stealth programme has turned out to be.
Appeal of the F-35
The F-35 has become the fighter that is more expensive than Australia. This is because the programme will eventually cost more than $1,500 billion - a sum greater than Australia's GDP. At the same time, it is an aircraft that has been panned by the world's leading aviation experts as overpriced, overweight and under-armed. One report has claimed the only thing stealthy about the F-35 is its price.
"It's a turkey," declares aerospace engineer Pierre Sprey in an interview to Dutch television. Few people are as qualified to speak about fighter aircraft as Sprey. He was part of the US "fighter mafia" which spurred the development of the F-16 Falcon jet and the A-10 Warthog tank buster, two of the most successful aircraft in the US Air Force (USAF).
Winslow T. Wheeler, Director of the US' Straus Military Reform Project, Centre for Defense information, agrees. "The F-35 is too heavy and sluggish to be successful as a fighter," he says. "If we ever face an enemy with a serious air force we will be in deep trouble."
Considering that the leading aviation experts have advised air forces to act with caution before they induct the F-35, any - alleged - feelers from the US regarding the aircraft should raise red flags in India. Rushing into the unknown world of stealth would be a huge mistake especially when the amounts involved could potentially bust the IAF's budget.
Stealth: Unknown commodity
The prime reason for the aircraft's appeal is its stealth. According to Lockheed, the F-35 will give US pilots "First Look, First Shot, First Kill" capability. Lockheed designers are betting on stealth and long-range radar to compensate for its lack of manoeuvrability. However, stealth is not really all that it is cracked up to be; it is not the cloak of invisibility.
This is because there is no such thing as a single radar in a war zone. "There are lots of radars," Sprey explains. "And you can't be nose-on or dead-level to every radar in the theatre. There are always going to be radars that are going to be shining up (from below) or looking from above - they can all see you."
More importantly, air combat is more like a knife fight in which even stealth aircraft will have to come very close to the target to achieve a sure kill. The history of air combat shows 'within visual range' engagements cannot be avoided altogether. In such a scenario, the F-35 will be at a distinct disadvantage because its stealth cover will be blown.
Plus, Russia has been developing radars that are able to detect stealth jets. Says the US-based Defense Industry Daily (DID): "Key radar advances are already deployed in the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile systems, and existing IRST (infra-red scan and track) systems deployed on advanced Russian and European fighters are extending enemy detection ranges against radar-stealthy aircraft. Fighter radar pick-up capability of up to (46km) by 2020 is proposed against even ultra-stealthy aircraft like the F-22, coupled with IRST ability to identify Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile firings and less infrared-stealthy aircraft at (92km) or more."
Fleet availability is the key to launching a successful air war. Basically, it deals with the total number of aircraft that are fit for missions at any given time. The IAF's frontline combat aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI has a fleet availability of just 60 per cent (compared to the Western average of 70-75 per cent for equivalent fighters). This means only around 125 of India's 249 Sukhois (built so far) can immediately take to the sky while the rest may be in various states of repair or servicing.
For a brand new aircraft, the F-35's availability rate is abysmal. "Overall fleet-wide monthly availability rates remain around 50 per cent, a condition that has existed with no significant improvement since October 2014, despite the increasing number of new aircraft," says the annual report from the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
Lockheed was supposed to finish the aircraft's 16-year development phase in 2018, but instead there is no sight of systems maturity. "The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below service expectations and is dependent on workarounds that would not be acceptable in combat situations," the report, released in January 2018, said.
Stealth comes with a price. On the F-35, most of the maintenance is on the 'stealth' coating, which has to be painstakingly re-applied after each flight. The Maryland-based Naval Air Systems Command says that F-35 fighters are expected to require between 41.75 and 50.1 maintenance man-hours per flight hour, or about three times as many as most fighter aircraft currently operated by Western air forces.
Having to stay grounded for that long seriously compromises the number of sorties that an air force is able to launch. "It is a ludicrous impediment to combat. You are sitting on the ground for 50 hours fiddling on the aircraft trying to make it stealthy when it's not stealthy anyhow," says Sprey.
Left unsaid is the fact that 50 hours of maintenance is during ideal flying conditions. In actual combat when the F-35 will be put through the rigours of evasive manoeuvres and sustained high-speed flight, the wear and tear on the stealth coatings - plus the airframe - will surely be of a much greater scale.
The flyaway cost of the F-35 has come down from $191 million per plane in 2014 to a more reasonable $90 million today. Lockheed claims it'll come down further as economies of scale kick in. However, the real money is in the maintenance.
If you think the Russians are milking the IAF by charging exorbitant prices for spares and maintenance of Sukhois, then the F-35 maintenance system could prove to be a nightmare. Perhaps this is the reason why several countries have pegged down the number of F-35 aircraft they will eventually buy. In fact, Canada has cancelled its contract altogether.
Because the F-35 is basically a flying computer with massive lines of software bundled with advanced (albeit unproven) technologies, it would require extended weeks of maintenance by dedicated Lockheed aircrews.
Because some of the new technologies in the aircraft are heavily classified, certain areas of the aircraft will be no-go areas for non-American maintenance crews. This could mean either waiting for Lockheed crews to arrive onsite from the US, or shipping the aircraft back to the nearest maintenance hub such as Israel or South Korea. Imagine that happening in the middle of a war with Pakistan or China.
Impact on India's war strategy
First, let's see how the US deals with the aerial component of warfare. The US has traditionally relied on massed waves of aircraft to bludgeon down the enemy. For instance, during both the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars, the Americans launched massed bombing raids (comprising over a thousand coalition aircraft) into Iraq that simply overwhelmed the country's air defences.
The Iraqi Air Force was unable to even get a good look at the enemy. Around 90 Iraqi pilots flew their advanced MiGs and Sukhois to Iran in order to save these jets from assured destruction.
Another aspect of US air combat is to completely suppress enemy air defences before sending in attack aircraft. EA-18 Growler electronic warfare jets - armed with high-speed anti-radiation missiles - take out most of the radars, military communications systems and anti-aircraft missile batteries in the opening hours of the war.
Enemy air space is virtually sanitised by the time American and allied fighters and bombers arrive. Plus, airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and satellites provide US commanders with a god's eye of the battlefield.
Therefore, in a scenario where massive superiority in numbers prevails plus aerial intelligence is also available on a 24/7 networked basis, the limitations of a glitch-prone fighter like the F-35 can be glossed over.
Secondly, because the US will never get into a direct shooting war with a large country such as Russia or China, it can afford to put all its eggs in the F-35 basket.
Thirdly, the USAF, US Navy and Marine Corps will together buy 2,433 of these stealth fighters, which means at least 1,200 aircraft will be available for missions at all times at full programme maturity.
Because the F-35 is such an expensive aircraft, air forces will buy fewer units. For instance, Japan currently has 100 F-15s but it will replace them with just 70 F-35s. Again, because the F-35 will also be expensive to fly and maintain, air forces will limit pilot flying hours.
Already, spending cuts have forced the USAF to eliminate more than 44,000 flying hours and ground 17 combat air squadrons. In this backdrop, India also cannot afford to buy large numbers of stealth jets.
The IAF is one of the few air forces in the world that conduct intense, year-round training. Benjamin Lambeth of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the IAF trains for a "high intensity, high stakes" conflict. Keeping in mind the possibility of a two-front war, the IAF puts its pilots and aircraft through the wringer.
Mock air combat can involve hundreds of aircraft flying thousands of kilometres. In April 2018 the IAF conducted Operation Gaganshakti during which it carried out long-range strikes using Su-30 fighters over the Indian Ocean Region. Sukhois carried out air-to-air refuelling and engaged multiple targets at ranges in excess of 2,000 km.
But with the F-35, Indian pilots may well end up sitting around doing mock combat on simulators rather than actual flying.
Wheeler, who has dealt with US national security issues for over three decades, lays out the implications for air forces planning to induct the F-35: "The pilots will get worse as they'll get much less training, which is most important than any technical issue. There'll be far fewer pilots as the whole force will have to shrink, and you will basically have a showpiece aircraft that can't do anything. It's useless, it's truly monumentally useless, it will ruin any air force that uses it."
Instead of splurging tens of thousands of crores of rupees on an unproven foreign fighter, India would be better off investing that amount in its indigenous stealth fighter programme - the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.
The project remains frozen currently, with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited's Aeronautical Development Agency seeking to secure funding to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore.
(Rakesh Krishnan is a New Zealand-based defence and foreign affairs analyst)