The United States has taken a significant first step toward offering F-35 fighter jet aircraft to India in a sign of its desire to deepen defense cooperation.

Robert Scher, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said Wednesday the U.S. thinks India's military could use a jet like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the U.S. is developing with a consortium of allies.

"What's clear is that the F-35 is something that we would be more than willing to talk to the government of India about," should they express an interest, he said.

Scher was speaking at a Pentagon news conference after the release of a Defense Department annual report to Congress on U.S.-India security cooperation.

The report, which outlined expanding military exchanges between the world's two largest democracies, said the U.S. is committed to a broad trade defense relationship "that enables transfers of some of our most advanced technologies."

The offer to discuss the F-35 comes after Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin missed out to European competitors in April bidding for an $11 billion deal to supply India with 126 fighter jets. The U.S. defense firms were offering F-16s and F-18s.

President Barack Obama had lobbied in person for that deal when he visited India last November, and his administration described the knock-back as a missed opportunity to deepen defense ties.

Analysts said completing any potential sale of F-35s is still a long way off, but the offer in principle to supply the more sophisticated jets reflects Washington's commitment to India's growth as a global power and emergence as a strategic partner for the United States.

Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and Republican Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday's report was "an encouraging sign that the administration is committed to strengthening our relationship with India."

The F-35 is the Pentagon's biggest weapons procurement program and has been undertaken with support from allies including Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel and several European nations. It has been plagued with delays and cost overruns.

Ashley Tellis, a defense expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said it was unlikely India would consider the F-35, which is not expected to be in the U.S. Air Force before 2016, as a fresh candidate for the deal that U.S. firms missed out on in April.

But he said India will be looking to acquire a stealth fighter — known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft — after the middle of the decade. Although India wants to co-develop that plane, F-35s supplied by the U.S. would be an attractive option, he said.


AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.