Friday, November 27, 2020

India has the Money, and the Roadmap is There


In September the 555th F35 Lightning II all-weather stealth multirole combat was rolled out by Lockheed Martin. The aircraft had won the two-man war against Boeing’s X-32 in 2001 to be the US air force’s strike spearhead and flew into service in 2015. it was also spawned by the block placed on the F22 Raptor manufacture. The Raptor  is the only  fifth generation fighter operating in the world at present and lost out because of an inability to absorb high costs and massive delays in Russian and China’s competitive advanced fighter programmes. These time lags made the projection of its performance envelope that much more difficult. Those who love it still see the 187 F22s that were made as the most powerful in the world and practically invisible to radar.  

The F35 was also seen as a more versatile aircraft but that said, it has been hitting turbulence largely from an inflated cost perspective, delay in deliveries to Nato members and multiple modifications made to the aircraft right from the drawing board stage. When such a major decision is made to create a new entity there is a major role played by other nations who are also making similar generation machines and this ongoing comparison calls for constant adjustment to avionics, armament, multi-role capability, range and manoeuvrability. The retro fit is an expensive business. 

All Three F-35 Variants Source: Lockheed Martin

Currently three variants make this family the conventional takeoff and landing and these are the F-35A (CTOL), the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B (STOVL), and the carrier-based F-35C (CV/CATOBAR). The US forces intend to buy another 2500 aircraft over the next 24 years in what is a $1.1 trillion lifetime programme. Consequently, with that commitment anyone looking to get this aircraft into its livery will need to be happy with the delivery schedule. 

After a fashion a reasonable delay can still make it an attractive buy at around $78 million a pop because the aircraft has a longevity and validity till 2070. Even though updates by way of including counter-measure capabilities might add to the bottom line the F35 as an aircraft is not a lemon. 

This single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft is an eye in the sky and besides strike missions can also contribute to the gathering of  intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. It is unlikely that any country will invest a minimum of $700 Billion to make a similar aircraft in the next thirty years. The Chinese have locked down their J20B stealth equivalent and challenger to the F35 with a final upgrade and are ready to have it  classified as a fifth generation fighter. The Russians are in the top of the line game with the S 57 and it is believed the eleventh serial production jet is undergoing trials. The first ten were prototypes. 

For most other air units in the world air combat will be limited to fighters like the Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the MiG  and Sukhoi variants (especially the Sukhoi 35)  the F15 Eagle, the venerable F16 Fighting Falcons and the F18 Hornet.  For India following the Rafale purchase there is a need for at least 100 more fourth generation fighters to take on its adversaries. The choice is wide but must be well made.

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