The US brought its most advanced fighter jet, the F-35, to India for the first time this week, along with F-16s, Super Hornets, and B-1B bombers, in an effort to entice New Delhi away from its traditional military supplier, Russia.
India, desperate to modernize its mostly Soviet-era fighter jet fleet in order to boost its air power, is concerned about Russian supply delays caused by the Ukraine war and faces Western pressure to distance itself from Moscow.
The American delegation to the week-long Aero India show in Bengaluru, which ends on Friday, is the biggest in the 27-year history of the show and underlines the growing strategic relationship between the United States and India.
In contrast, Russia, India’s largest weapons supplier since the Soviet Union days, had a nominal presence. Its state-owned weapons exporter Rosoboronexport had a joint stall with United Aircraft and Almaz-Antey, displaying miniature models of aircraft, trucks, radars and tanks.
At previous editions of the show, Rosoboronexport had a more central position for its stall, although Russia has not brought a fighter jet to Bengaluru for a decade after India began considering more European and U.S. fighter jets.
Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets have already entered the race to supply fighter jets for the Indian Navy’s second aircraft carrier and Lockheed Martin’s F-21, an upgraded F-16 designed for India unveiled at Aero India in 2019, are also being offered to the air force.
A $20 billion air force proposal to buy 114 multi-role fighter aircraft has been pending for five years, brought into sharp focus by tensions with China and Pakistan.
The F-35 is not being considered by India “as of now”, according to an Indian Air Force (IAF) source, but the display of two F-35s at Aero India for the first time was a sign of New Delhi’s growing strategic importance to Washington.
It was “not a sales pitch” but rather a signal to the importance of the bilateral defence relationship in the Indo-Pacific region, said Angad Singh, an independent defence analyst.
“Even if weapons sales aren’t the cornerstone of the relationship, there is a cooperation and collaboration at the military level between India and the U.S.,” he added.
The United States is selective about which countries it allows to buy the F-35. When asked if it would be offered to India, Rear Admiral Michael L. Baker, defence attache at the U.S. embassy in India, said New Delhi was in the “very early stages” of considering whether it wanted the plane.
An IAF spokeperson did not respond to a request for comment on its interest in F-35s.
Ahead of the show, Russian state news agencies reported that Moscow had supplied New Delhi with around $13 billion of arms in the past five years and had placed orders for $10 billion.
The United States has approved arms sales worth more than $6 billion to India in the last six years, including transport aircraft, Apache, Chinook and MH-60 helicopters, missiles, air defence systems, naval guns and P-8I Poseidon surveillance aircraft.
India also wants to manufacture more defence equipment at home in collaboration with global giants, first to meet its own needs and eventually to export sophisticated weapons platforms.