BENGALURU: The United States brought its most advanced fighter jet, the F-35, to India for the first time this week alongside F-16s, Super Hornets and B-1B bombers as Washington looks to woo New Delhi away from its traditional military supplier, Russia.

India, desperate to modernise its largely Soviet-era fighter jet fleet to boost its air power, is concerned about Russian supply delays due to the Ukraine war and faces pressure from the West 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 US 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 US,” 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 attaché at the US embassy in India, said New Delhi was in the “very early stages” of considering whether it wanted the plane.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2023

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