The competition for the 126 medium multirole combat aircraft deal has sprung a surprise. The two American aircraft, the F-16 and the F-18, have been eliminated after technical evaluation by the Indian air force, belying the expectations of the government of the United States of America, American companies and most Indian analysts.
American officials and specialists on India had built up anticipation that a US aircraft would eventually win the contract. In their view, this would be tangibly rewarding the US for the nuclear deal and the nuclear suppliers group exception permitting international cooperation in India’s civilian nuclear sector. Indeed, it was seen as a legitimate ‘deliverable’ for steps the US took to end our nuclear isolation, more so as our nuclear liability legislation has put on hold prospects for Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation.
American analysts saw it also as a concrete demonstration of India’s readiness to give substance to its strategic partnership with the US. Quite obviously, defence cooperation has to be an integral part of any serious strategic partnership between countries. Even before the consummation of the nuclear deal, military exercises between the two countries featured prominently in bilateral ties. Over 50 such exercises, increasingly elaborate and covering all three services, have been held in the last seven years, providing exposure to each others’ operational practices. Third country participation has extended their regional scope. The most recent exercise off Okinawa involved the Indian, American and Japanese navies. The strategic import of such exercises is apparent.
Our readiness to buy US arms on a significant scale post the nuclear deal indicates developing confidence in longer term US strategic intentions towards India. The first tentative step in this direction was actually taken prior to the nuclear deal, in the context of the National Democratic Alliance regime’s declared willingness to expand ties between “natural allies”. A number of weapons locating radars were ordered from the US. The US has possibly obtained in the last few years larger actual orders for equipment compared to other sources. These have included, apart from the Trenton, six C-130J transport aircraft, eight P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and a number of VVIP planes equipped with advanced electronic warfare suites. The government has approved most recently the acquisition of ten C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft for a hefty $4.1 billion. The US is, by all accounts, well placed to bag the sizable order for a supply of attack helicopters and potentially of light howitzers as well.
It is in this background of growing acquisitions from the US and the United Progressive Alliance government’s reputed pro-US leanings that it was expected India would go American for the massive $10 billion MMRCA deal. Indeed, the eventual value of the deal will be far greater if supply of services and spare parts and inevitable upgrades are taken into account over the 40-year service life of the aircraft. Given the developing India-US strategic ties, the acknowledgment that the US possesses the world’s most advanced military technologies, the field efforts put in by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to secure the deal by way of lavish promises of technology transfers and tying up with big private-sector Indian companies for offsets and so on, and the much lower cost of the US planes compared to the other contenders, the question was whether a contract of such proportions could conceivably be denied to the Americans? The worst case scenario supposed a division of the contract between the Americans and the Europeans, following the civilian aircraft pattern with orders divided between Boeing and Airbus, although professional circles considered such an option most unsound. No one imagined, as has happened, that the Americans would lose the race , effectively, after the first heat.
That the US chose to immediately express its disappointment officially at this setback underlined how political the MMRCA deal had become, and also the excessive nature of US assumptions. The Indian defence acquisition process has been long plagued by political wheeling-dealing, charges of corruption, lack of transparency, delays and so on. The government has tried to steer the high-visibility MMRCA contract away from such shoals. If politics were to dictate awarding the contract to a US company, then where was the need for international tendering? The acquisition could have been directly negotiated with the US government through the foreign military sales route. The political argument is double-edged — political considerations could equally have weighed in Europe’s favour, given outstanding concerns about the reliability of the US as a supplier in a conflict situation. No contending party can ask that politics should not vitiate decision-making and yet put forward its own superior political claims for a favourable decision.
If, in the case of the US, the positive trends in the overall relationship are driving defence ties in the right direction, the negatives in the relationship have not yet been wrinkled out. It is not merely the remaining Cold Warriors on both sides at policy level, as the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, believes, that are impediments. On defence procurement, the US insists on legal arrangements that infringe upon the recipient country’s sovereignty, which is why some key framework agreements that the US seeks to enable supply of advanced technologies remain pending. If the US continues to arm a military-dominated Pakistan, if its tolerance levels of Pakistan’s official complicity with terrorist groups that target its own interests as well as India’s are inexplicably high, if its policy in Afghanistan disregards vital Indian interests as a country central to this region, if it chooses not to focus politically on Pakistan’s expanding nuclear programme with Chinese assistance, it has little to do with Cold War attitudes.
The judgment that the US makes of what is best for its interests in the current situation weighs against substantive Indian interests. On global political, economic and environmental issues that have emerged in the post-Cold War period, Indian and US positions remain apart in many respects, as the objective requirements and goals of the two countries are not alike. The US preference is to integrate India into the present global system set up and dominated by the US, or make India its collaborator in bringing about inevitable changes. India would want to be on the right side of the US as much as possible, but will be compelled to be on its wrong side at times because of lack of congruence in their respective short-term and strategic interests
Consequently, those who cavil that in choosing a European aircraft over an American one, India has bought a plane but not a relationship are engaging in sophistry. Firstly, this is gratuitously slighting the Europeans. Furthermore, if the large signed or about to be signed contracts with the Americans are insufficient to buy a relationship, what is the guarantee the MMRCA deal would have satisfied the US appetite? Wisely, after the initial flush of disappointment, the Americans have corrected their stance by rightly stating that the India-US relationship does not depend on the outcome of a single deal, and that US companies will continue to look for opportunities in India’s defence sector. The US should look for a bigger share of India’s defence pie, which it will get, but not feel entitled to have most of it.The author is former foreign secretary of India firstname.lastname@example.org