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India would do well to lobby for this highly advanced jet so that it stays ahead of the game in the subcontinent

~By Bikram Vohra

Even as the turbulence in the wake of the purchase of the Rafale fourth generation fighter dies down for the moment with about half-a-dozen figures tossed around for what it costs per aircraft, it becomes incumbent upon the government to give another fighter a shot. Not only will it change the big picture dramatically, it will also give New Delhi an opportunity to truly test its relationship with the US and see if it really counts to be one of the two biggest democracies in the world.

The fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will make every fighter in the market obsolete. It is so advanced and ahead of the game that it is referred to as an integrated air system predicated to avionics, weaponry, propulsion and logistics and not a fighter.

It does not matter whether an air force has a Rafale, an F-16, Sukhois, the Swedish Gripen, the Eurofighter or a Mirage. None of these fighters can even come close to the F-35 whose weapon system can find targets 2,000 km away.

In fact, after US President Donald Trump demanded a trimming of the cost of the F-35 by 10 percent earlier this year and forced Lockheed Martin to redo its sums, the aircraft is coming in at $86 million per unit, which is less than what is being paid for conventional fighters. And it is far less than the Rafale which is way north of the $100-million mark.

It will not be easy to make this deal but it is worth pushing the envelope. Trump has been flexible about talks between the UAE and Saudi Arabia for possible sales to offset Iran’s adventurism, as Washington sees it. The opening dialogue was conducted at the Dubai Air Show in November despite a deal with Israel in which there has to be a five-year gap in hardware sold to that country before another seller in the region can get a look-in.

However, after the Jerusalem decision, Trump would like to make overtures to the Middle East’s stable and much-needed allies and ignore Israel’s protest, having already sold it 24 planes. The Republic of Korea has also been sold 40 aircraft as a deterrent to China. The other nation is Norway, a founder member of NATO, which got 52 planes.

If the US wants to exert pincer pressure on Beijing and also help in tampering down Pakistan, then it might be open to at least beginning negotiations with New Delhi. But if we don’t ask, they won’t sell.

In the end, it is business and Lockheed Martin needs markets. As the F-35s cannot be sold without clearance from the US Congress, this is where the friends of India can get into the act and lobby for support. A squadron of 24 such futuristic fighters would change the dynamics in the skies of the subcontinent.

While the Pentagon is nervous about who gets this aircraft because that on-board integrated central computer system is loaded with classified data after years of flawed tests and a cost of $1.5 trillion to design and build, there is now unanimity that it stands alone and way above anything else on the drawing board. And it has a life till 2070 and will continue to be manufactured till 2037.

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 also changes the way data is displayed for pilots. The full Panoramic Cockpit Display enables data from all sensors to be shown on one screen in an integrated form.

All of this greatly improves the pilot’s capabilities and enhances his combat options.

The F-35 “brain”—the process that combines this stellar amount of information into an integrated picture of the environment—is known as sensor fusion. At any given moment, the fusion processes large amounts of data from sensors around the aircraft—plus additional information from datalinks with other F-35s in the air—creating a virtual umbrella over the enemy, with the pilot getting every feed in real time.

There is no reason why New Delhi should not try to knock on the door and see who opens it.

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