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US companies trying to woo IAF, but here’s why it’s never inducted an American fighter

In early years, India chose UK, given the colonial military structures it inherited. Later, Soviets stepped in with incentives when IAF had to compete with Pakistan's US fighters.

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New Delhi: Since Independence, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has inducted fighter jets mostly from western superpowers into its fleet, barring one striking omissionthe United States of America.

Despite this exception, the IAF fleet does operate many American air systems. The first helicopters used by the IAF, the Sikorsky S-55, were American. Currently, the IAF operates US-made helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache and the CH-47 Chinook manufactured by defence conglomerate Boeing.

The IAF also uses transport military aircraft from the US, these include the C-130 Hercules manufactured by Lockheed Martin and C-17 made by Boeing. However, the American fighter jet remains elusive for the IAF fleet.

Experts ThePrint spoke to believe that a combination of geopolitics, security alliances, mistimed fighter sales from the US to Pakistan, and a resultant trust deficit explains why the IAF has never inducted an American fighter jet

Recently, American defence conglomerates have used a range of means to draw India’s attention to their fighters. Campaigns have involved both traditional and non-traditional methods. Business tycoon Ratan Tata even flew Lockheed’s F-16 in Bengaluru in 2007. In 2023, Lockheed also developed a specific fighter for the IAF — the F-21 — which will be present at the ongoing Aeroshow in Bengaluru. 

Despite these overtures, the IAF is far from flying a US-made fighter.

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Early IAF fighter acquisitions post-1947

In the early years after Independence, India prioritised a “low military profile,” noted Raju Thomas in the Asian Survey journal.

Data from the Stockholm International Institute for Peace Research (SIPRI) highlights that India exercised “strict control” on defence spending between 1947 and 1962. In this 15-year period, India spent an average of no more than 2 per cent of its GDP on defence.  

However, within this limited defence spending, in 1948 the IAF procured 100 British-made Tempest and Spitfire aircraft. In the same year, it also took delivery of an unspecified number of de Havilland Vampire fighters from the United Kingdom. In 1953, 71 Dassault-manufactured MD-450 Ouragan fighter bombers were also procured from France.

By 1957, another British-manufactured bomber, the Canberra, was acquired by the IAF. Essentially, in the first decade post-Independence, the IAF acquired fighters from Britain and France, but not from the US.

“After 1947, India was still dependent on British weaponry and aircraft as they inherited military structures from the colonial era,” aviation expert Angad Singh told ThePrint.

Significantly, given the breakout of war with Pakistan, India had to arm itself at a rapid pace post-1947. Familiarity was prioritised and India decided to purchase these fighters over others in this early post-Independence period, Singh added.

“Essentially, the lineages of the empire and a lack of trust prevented American fighter acquisitions in this era,” Indian aviation historian Anchit Gupta said to ThePrint.

The 1960s proved to be a pivotal decade which undermined the chances of US fighters being operated by the IAF and exacerbated trust deficits.

Trust deficit

“Right before the 1962 Sino-India war, India reached out to the US for fighters. It got transport aircraft and radars from the US, but no fighters,” Air Vice-Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd.) told ThePrint.

Around the same time, the US gave Pakistan 12 supersonic F-104 Starfighters. This was significant as it marked the debut of supersonic fighters in the subcontinent, explained scholar S. Nihal Singh in his article in a journal.

For India, this was significant, as the Starfighter and “the non supersonic F-86 Sabres that Pakistan had were better than anything India possessed,” he added.  

“Not only did this create a massive security conundrum for India, but it also formed ‘a large trust deficit with US’ intentions,” said historian Gupta.

Added to this scenario, there was also a political “urgency for New Delhi to ‘match’ and counter the acquisition of these aircraft. The Indian desire to acquire supersonic fighter planes capable of Mach 1.5 or 2 speeds to counterbalance Pakistan’s F-104s grew within the government and the nation,” said security writer Pushan Das.

Pakistan’s superior fighters and the US’s apparent disinterest pushed India to look elsewhere for a supersonic fighter. It started to hold discussions with the then Soviet Union for the supersonic MiG-21.

In early 1961, reports surfaced of India sealing a deal to purchase the fighter. After a few delays to the expected delivery in 1962, India received its first batch of supersonic Soviet MiG-21 fighters in 1964.

“This started India’s tryst with Soviet fighters, and they then dominated the IAF fleet,” Bahadur said. “Essentially, the purchase of MiG-21s marked an inflexion point. India and Soviet Union became aligned for fighters on one hand, and US and Pakistan on the other.”

MiG-21 deal, incentives of procuring Soviet fighters  

The geopolitics of the era also unfolded in such a manner that Pakistan got better access to America. Islamabad joined two American-led security alliances — the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization. As a consequence, they were more likely to get access to fighters and technology from America, Bahadur said.

However, India’s continued business for Soviet fighters was linked to the incentives inherent to the deals. This included the transfer of technology to allow licensed production of fighter parts in India, easier payment mechanisms, currency swaps, and maintenance and repair agreements.

“Due to India’s fledgling economy in the 1960s and lack of industrialisation, a fiscally prudent deal for fighters was essential. Essentially, the Soviets offered India the best deal in economic terms for the MiG-21s,” aviation expert Angad Singh said.

Added to the deal was the licensed production agreement that enabled India to produce the MiG-21FL in Nasik. This was essential for our economy at the time, he added.

As a result of the deal with the Soviets in the 60s, India inducted 874 MiG 21s in total, out of which 657 were manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

Back to the future

In the consequent decades, India continued to purchase more fighters from the Soviet Union, including various variants of the MiG-29s, MiG 27s, the MiG-23 and the Sukhoi Su 30s. These came with agreements to manufacture some of these fighters in India.

Further, the country also expanded its portfolio to include fighters from western countries it had bought from in the past. These included the Mirage 2000 and the more recent Rafale from France and the Jaguar, which was jointly produced by Britain and France. Later, India bought fighters from Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

While the India-US relationship has moved to a strategic partnership hallmarked by close economic and security ties — the prospect of an American fighter jet being procured by the IAF seems unlikely.

“India has been an end user of US-made helicopters and transports for a long time, but operating fighters is an altogether different ball game,” a defence expert told ThePrint.

The inherent hindrance has been the political aspect of any deal. The implications for the aircraft or technology to stop being sent to India due to differences on contemporary issues has also drawn on the mind of decision-makers, the expert added.

Moreover, with the push for indigenisation in the armed forces, there is a thrust to procure domestically. With the Indian establishment focused on producing the 5th generation advanced medium combat aircraft, there seems little space to buy an American fighter.

The main opportunity presents itself through the IAF’s multi-role fighter aircraft deal, however, that has been in a limbo since it was first announced almost two decades ago.

“I only see India buying a fighter from the US if a state-of-the-art modern fighter such as the F-35 is offered. That would entail a paradigm shift in India’s air power and require New Delhi to look at the offer seriously,” said Singh.

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

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