Joint Strike Fighter Sale to India

  • photo courtesy of United States Marine Corps Official Page www.flickr.com/photos/40927340@N03/5349155741
    Jul 8, 2011

    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 United States 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 JSF 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, coproduction may not be an option for India since all final assembly of JSF aircraft is currently scheduled to take place in the United States, with no plans to coproduce 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-Pakistan 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 release of the JSF will argue that it will provide a great boost to bilateral defense ties and strengthen an already strong U.S. commitment to providing India with the very best technology. Supporters will argue that selling the JSF to India could add new jobs to the U.S. 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 the growing Chinese fighter threat, which 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 the JSF to India. Some senators and representatives will certainly support its sale, such as Senator John Cornyn of Texas, where the JSF will be built. Other members of Congress, 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 competition will ultimately have to deal with stringent Indian requirements for technology transfer and coproduction. Any shortfall in meeting India’s requirements could make the sale a difficult process for the winner. The United States is currently in the beginning stages of building a defense trade partnership with India, and its victories to date have not broached too many contentious issues over technology 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 technology transfer and coproduction on a very high-profile defense acquisition. Bilateral squabbles, leaked to the Indian press, could have damaged future prospects for defense sales as the United States 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 fighter 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 the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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