Lockheed Martin is dangling the carrot of future access to its F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter programme to India. But industry observers feel that the offer is just a to entice New Delhi to choose the company's F-16 for its ongoing competition for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA).
The F-35 Lightning II is a single-seat, single-engine, stealth-capable military strike fighter, a multi-role aircraft that can perform close air support, tactical bombing, and air-to-air combat.
The F-35 descended from the X-35 of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and other partner governments are funding its development. It is being designed and built by an aerospace industry team led by Lockheed Martin and major partners BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman.
A demonstrator aircraft flew in 2000, and a production model first took flight on 15 December 2006.
The company has long eyed a potential market for the F-35 in India from 2015, possibly to replace its carrier-based British Aerospace Harriers and some land-based fighters.
The F-16 and F-35 will not be formally linked in a package deal, but Lockheed officials are emphasising that the former serves as an ideal bridge to acquiring the latter.
No F-35 programme officials are involved in current discussions between the countries, but other Lockheed and US government executives have briefed their Indian counterparts about the stealth fighter.
The company has, meanwhile, denied Indian press reports claiming that F-35 technology could be inserted into the F-16, or that the two aircraft could be sold to New Delhi for the same price.
Lockheed needs a strong incentive to persuade India to opt for the F-16 for its $15 billion 126-aircraft competition. Pakistan already possesses the F-16, and there are apprehensions in the Indian defence establishment about buying the same aircraft, even though the version being offered to New Delhi is more advanced than Islamabad's.
Some experts think that India should opt for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or the Russian MiG-35 instead.
The F-35 could solve worries in the Indian Air Force about the impact of delays in the multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) competition. A request for proposals is expected very soon, but the tender has been in the works since the end of the last decade and a decision is not expected for a few years more. Some observers believe that by the time it is selected, the aircraft could be outdated even before all 126 have been delivered.
The best scenario for India, say experts, is for Lockheed to offer to sell some F-16s, though not in the latest configuration, in the near term to boost India's falling fighter jet numbers. Then, around 2015, the F-35 could come into the picture. That way, India would be able to fill the gaps in its air defence and, later, get the cutting-edge technology it wants.
India is working with Russia on a fifth-generation fighter with stealth capabilities, but there has been little sign of progress. In the circumstances, the prospects of the F-35 are very bright. But the US government can separately offer the F-35 to India, for political reasons, though it would probably ask the country to choose either the F-16 or the F/A-18 in the 126-plane MRCA competition as a pre-requisite.