The Indian Air Force (IAF) has denied that it has shown explicit interest in procuring the American F-35 Lightning II aircraft for its depleting fighter fleet. The reports about IAF approaching Lockheed Martin for a classified briefing on the F-35 came amid news that the government has decided to scrap the proposal to make a single-engine foreign fighter in India.
“We have not officially asked for a briefing on the F-35 nor has any request been made to the Americans,” IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa told The Indian Express.
Sources said that buying the next set of fighter jets is a decision to be taken on many considerations, including strategic ones. Financial considerations, when budgetary provisions are limited for any big-ticket procurement by the defence ministry, will also play an important part in any decision-making.
Sources also said that as the IAF is already down to 31 squadrons of fighter aircraft against an authorisation of 42, it is imperative to make the shortfall on an emergent basis. It would thus be best to go for a government-to-government deal to get the next set of fighters.
According to sources, the proposal to buy and make a single-engine fighter was taken two years ago on multiple considerations. These included the cost of a single-engine fighter which is significantly lower than that of a double-engine fighter like Rafale.
Moreover, the cost of operating a single-engine fighter is lesser than that of a double-engine fighter. An early decision on selection would have allowed the IAF to build up its fighter strength, along with the induction of HAL-built indigenous Tejas fighter aircraft.
The government was also looking to kickstart a defence manufacturing ecosystem in the country by building the single-engine fighter fully in India.
The decision to scrap the proposal for a single-engine fighter was taken because the government felt it would result in a single-vendor situation. Although Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter aircraft was in contention along with the Swedish Gripen fighter, the American aeroplane was a non-starter as it does not have a “probe-and-drogue” air-to-air refueling system. Moreover, the F-16 is also in service with IAF’s adversary in a war, the Pakistan Air Force.
A single-vendor situation, under the Strategic Partnership model with a private Indian company, is unacceptable in the current political environment, sources added. Meanwhile, official sources said that the whole Strategic Partnership model of defence manufacturing is under the government’s serious reconsideration.