The informal ‘F-35 Alliance’ offers India a coalition that will strengthen its F-35 force, or become a possible source of interoperable support in war with China.
For both the United States and India, which have barely started to deploy or develop 5th generation air combat systems, the onrush of threats means there is little time to develop the follow on or 6th generation of air combat systems. It is thus a relief that in Washington, the Trump administration appears to be moving toward offering India the platform that will best enable this transition: the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter.
China is also conspicuously developing its 6th generation air combat system, while it is also just beginning to field its first 5th generation fighter, the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) J-20. Slightly larger than the US Lockheed Martin F-22A, the world’s first 5th generation fighter, the J-20 is optimised for long-range air superiority with an estimated radius of 1,500 km. Informal Chinese sources indicate the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will purchase about 100 J-20A versions with less powerful engines, but then obtain 400 of a “J-20B” version with 15- to 18-ton thrust WS-15 turbofans with thrust vector control (TVC) to ensure “super-manoeuvrability.” The J-20’s electronic systems, including a new Distributed Aperture System (DAS) passive optical sensors, may have benefited from cyber espionage against early F-35 systems.
But the future aircraft already under development will reflect China’s vision for 6th generation warfare capabilities: the exploitation of much higher levels of weaponised information combined with artificial intelligence, new energy weapons and dominance of outer space. The chief J-20 designer, Yang Wei, who last year moved on to a higher government position likely overseeing China’s 6th generation fighter program, in recent statements, has indicated that by the 2030s, the 6th generation fighter will exploit artificial intelligence, perhaps with optionally-manned versions and exhibit new levels of manoeuvrability. Recent disclosures indicate China is developing new “metamaterials” that may enable new stealth surfaces with passive and active capabilities. Also, rapid Chinese development of fibre-optic lasers points to their becoming aircraft weapons.
In 2005, a Chengdu official told this analyst that CAC was considering its own “F-35 like” program, which so far has not been revealed. However, China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) is now developing its medium-size FC-31 stealth fighter, which may become a cooperative 5th generation fighter program with Pakistan. For India, the next decade could see it surrounded by Chinese-made or designed 5th generation fighters in China, Pakistan, and perhaps operating from PLA Navy’s conventional and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
India famously works to ensure a diversity of military technology sources, as it constantly seeks partners to advance its indigenous military technology sector. Russia, France, Britain and Israel are its longstanding military technology partners, while the United States has in recent years become a more significant partner. In his 14 February testimony before the US House of Representative Armed Services Committee, US Pacific Command (USPACOM) Commander, Admiral Harry Harris indicated a new level of willingness to offer India advanced systems, saying: “At the moment, India is considering a number of US systems for purchase, all of which USPACOM fully supports: the F-16 for India’s large single-engine, multi-role fighter acquisition program; the F/A-18E for India’s multi-engine, carried-based fighter purchase; a reorder of 12-15 P-8Is; a potential purchase of SeaGuardian UAS; MH-60R multi-role sea-based helicopter; and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.”
Of course, India alone will decide whether American or other combat aircraft meet its requirements for new 4+ generation land-based fighters, new carrier-based fighters and for its new 5th generation fighters. But for the latter, there are compelling military-technical and political-strategic reasons to consider the F-35. Indian observers, no doubt, have followed the F-35’s controversial history, including its protracted development, doubts over it meeting its performance goals and its high cost—which is coming down. All recent Western fighter programs have experienced delays and cost overruns. The difficulties are such that Japan, reportedly, may cancel its indigenous 5th generation fighter program. India’s 2007 program with Russia to develop its indigenous 5th generation fighter, reportedly, remains in protracted negotiations, a decade later.
By contrast, Lockheed projects that 1,000 F-35s will be flying by 2022. Twelve countries are now buying the fighter, with prospects for up to eight more customer countries. Its production run eventually could exceed 4,000 aircraft. If it also buys the F-35, India would help “surround” China with 5th generation fighters, joining the F-35s from the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and possibly Singapore and Taiwan. The informal “F-35 Alliance” offers India a coalition that will strengthen its F-35 force, or become a possible source of interoperable support in the event of a war with China.
Essentially a flying supercomputer, the F-35 is an “information weapon”, displacing legacy airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and electronic warfare platforms. Its ability to give its pilots superior strategic and tactical decision-making cues derives from its large internal database of enemy systems and the ability to connect to larger offboard databases. It will likely be an early platform to exploit advances in artificial intelligence to enable near instantaneous responses needed to employ energy weapons or to react to them, perhaps leading to the first truly autonomous air combat platforms. The F-35’s DAS has an unclassified range of nearly 1,200 km and is described as good enough to help intercept ballistic missiles. Perhaps by the 2030s it could be shooting them down; for years Lockheed has touted the potential of the F-35 to be an early carrier of effective laser weapons, perhaps 300 kilowatts and above. The shaft from the engine to the lift fan of the F-35B short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) version could also power an electric generator for a fibre-optic laser. With more power a second-generation laser system may be able to “dazzle” small Low Earth Orbit surveillance satellites, which China may loft in the thousands.
By the mid-2020s, the F-35 could be incorporating a next-generation turbofan engine that reportedly promises 30% more range, perhaps boosting the F-35’s unrefuelled combat radius to nearly 2,000 km. New generations of stealth surfaces could also become active systems increasing stealth and electronic warfare capabilities.
More refined versions of these advances can be expected to become part of the US Air Force’s 6th Generation fighter program, but before that there could be a range of options for co-developing new versions of the F-35. But as the F-35 is slated to become a “vertebrae” in the backbone of the free world’s defence, it is crucial that India consider new levels of information security cooperation, as many other countries are dependent upon protecting the databases, operations and technical data of this fighter.
The United Arab Emirates is discussing such procedures with Washington. Doing so will not only create confidence in India as an F-35 program partner, it can also accelerate India’s path to the 6th generation capabilities needed to deter China into the 2030s.
Richard D. Fisher Jr, is a Washington Special Correspondent for The Sunday Guardian and a Senior Fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.