Two US F-35 fighter jets took part in a demonstration at the Aero India air show in Bengaluru on Monday, marking the first time the latest American fighters have landed on Indian soil. In a symbolic showdown between superpowers, Russia’s latest warplanes also made their Indian debut.
The supersonic F-35A Lightning II and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter demonstrated their aerial capabilities in the skies before landing at Air Force Station Yelahanka. The planes traveled to Bengaluru from Alaska and Utah, with the US Air Force also bringing two F-16s, two F/A-18s, and two B-1B long-range bombers.
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The US Defense Attaché in India, Rear Admiral Michael Baker, told Indian media that the presence of the F-35 was intended to demonstrate Washington’s strategic partnership with New Delhi.
However, India is not a formal ally of the US, and has not been offered a chance to purchase the F-35. While the Indian military stepped up its purchasing of American weapons after the US lifted sanctions in 2001, most of its weapons systems are of Russian or Soviet origin, including its fleet of around 250 Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighters.
One of India’s two aircraft carriers is the Soviet-built INS Vikrama, while its flagship tank is a domestically-produced variant of the Russian T-90. According to data from the Stockholm Peace Institute, Russia provides 46% of India’s imported weapons, with the US supplying 12%.
Moscow plans to demonstrate its own rival to the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-57, at Aero India, Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport announced last week. It is still unclear whether the jet will fly, or be put on static display.
Although the Indian government is expected to sign defense deals worth more than 750 billion rupees ($9 billion) over the five-day airshow, there is no indication that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is considering adding either the F-35 or Su-57 to its arsenal. Modi has made indigenous arms production one of his administration’s core goals, and work has been underway to develop a homemade fifth-generation fighter jet, the HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
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In a speech at Aero India on Monday, Modi said that India “is not just a market for defense companies. It is also a potential defense partner.” According to a government press release, the show will help India market its lightweight HAL Tejas warplanes and several light helicopters to international buyers.