U.S. Courts India Ahead of Fighter Jet Order for New Carrier

Tomomi Asano/The Yomiuri Shimbun
An F-35A aircraft dispatched to India’s aviation trade fair at Bengaluru, India, on Feb. 14.

BENGALURU, India — Sensing opportunity as India’s military pursues a strategy of reducing its reliance on Russian supplies, the U.S. defense industry polished its sales pitch for combat aircraft and sent its best fighter jet to the country.

The U.S. delegation at this year’s Aero India, India’s key aviation trade fair, was one of its largest ever. State-of-the-art fighter jets and other aircraft were on display at the three-day, mid-February event, which was held at the Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bengaluru, southern India.

Attention is also focused on the competition to win orders for fighter jets to be deployed on India’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, which was commissioned last September.

At an air show held on Feb. 14 at the station as part of the event, an F-35A made by U.S. aircraft giant Lockheed Martin Corp. made a strong impression as it conducted high-speed, low-altitude aerial maneuvers. The aircraft, the first to be dispatched to India, caught the attention of several thousand people gathered at the event.

India has long relied on Russia for procuring weapons. However, India has failed to adequately maintain them, and the prolonged conflict in Ukraine has raised concerns about Moscow’s ability to supply Russian-made parts.

The Indian Air Force is already moving to break away from dependence on Russia and plans to retire all of its Russian-made MiG-21 fighter jets by 2025. The aging MiG-21s have been involved in frequent accidents in recent years.

The U.S. thus seized the opportunity to strengthen its sales pitch to India.

Among the 800 or so companies from about 100 countries that exhibited at the trade fair, 17 U.S. companies participated, the largest delegation ever, according to an announcement by the United States.

“As India modernizes its defense capabilities, certainly we want to be the partner of choice,” said Elizabeth Jones, U.S. Charge d’Affaires to India. The United States views India as an indispensable partner in making the Indo-Pacific region safe, free and open, she added.

Of particular interest is the INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s second aircraft carrier, but the first to be domestically built. According to local media, India plans to place an order soon for 26 fighter jets for deployment on the Vikrant by the end of this year.

Among the aircraft displayed at the show were the Rafale from France’s Dassault Aviation and the F/A-18 Super Hornet from Boeing Co., both of which are considered strong contenders for orders.

Focus on China

India, for its part, intends to keep China at bay by strengthening its military ties with the United States and other countries.

In June 2020, India and China had an armed clash over a border demarcation. In August 2022, a Chinese military research vessel entered a port in neighboring Sri Lanka, in which China has de facto concessions. These events have heightened India’s sense of urgency toward China.

The United States, with its emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region, is also increasingly engaging in military confrontation with China and aims to counter China by strengthening military cooperation with India.

India is also working to bolster its domestic defense industry. One of its mainstays is the domestically produced Tejas fighter jet, the performance of which was demonstrated at the trade fair through an aerial demonstration and model display.

According to an Indian Defense Ministry official, several countries have expressed interest in purchasing the aircraft. India has set a goal of increasing exports in the defense sector to $5 billion in fiscal 2024, more than triple the fiscal 2021 level.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at the venue on Feb. 13, expressed his enthusiasm for the country’s rapid growth as a defense industry nation and appealed to private companies and investors to play a major role in this process.