It is being said what good is spending US$ 10 billion on a deal that doesnt gain us strategic leverage, but what good is spending US$ 10 billion on an aircraft you cant count on when you need it?

In a high stakes competition involving six “almost equal” contenders in which only one can win, there is bound to be immense disappointment among those who lose out. But some of the reaction to the rejection of the US bids to the MMRCA deal has been over the top and unfair. The main criticism being made is that India missed the opportunity to gain strategic leverage over the US with the US$ 10 billion deal, that the decision has been made with the mindset of making a mere purchase, not a deal. Also that while US has made a major concession to India with the Indo-US nuclear deal, India has failed to reciprocate with the MMRCA deal by not awarding it to the US which has invested in it a lot politically. Other complaints include giving primacy to technical parameters over strategic and political considerations, and that combat requirements cannot be predicted in advance and it does not matter which aircraft is chosen among the “almost equal” six. The broad theme is that India missed out on an important opportunity to gain strategic leverage over the US, amounting to what the venerable Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Foundation called “strategic stupidity.”

Firstly, as CRI colleague Amar Govindarajan points out, it is too late. Then, even though there is merit in the argument that a deal of that magnitude must be used to gain strategic leverage, it is not pointed out exactly what leverage India stands to gain with this specific deal. The Indo-US relationship, while always showing the promise, has not really progressed to the level of a strategic relationship. While a lot of momentum has certainly been gained during the Bush era, India is still not in the same league as, say Japan, Australia or even Pakistan. Rohan Joshi at INI writes “We have always been eager to deliver our litany of demands to the U.S. β€” from Afghanistan, to pressuring Pakistan on terror. But how much are we willing to give in return? We need to ask ourselves if India is doing its share of the heavy-lifting in this bilateral relationship.” But has the US come good on any of these “demands”? On the contrary, the Obama administration has not made a secret of its desire that India “settle” the Kashmir issue, a euphemism for finalizing a deal that is favourable to Pakistan, so that Pakistan can devote more troops to the Af-Pak effort. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment reportedly said “there is no reason why the administration should bend backwards to accommodate India.” But it is unclear when the US showed the intent to bend backwards to accomodate India.

As for the heavy lifting, India has been pumping so much iron for the US that the US has emerged as the third largest supplier of military hardware to India in recent years. Some of the big ticket items India is buying from the US include: 10 C-17 Globemaster strategic airlifters (totalling US$ 6 billion+), 8 Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft with follow on orders for 4 more (totalling US$ 3 billion+), 6 C-130J Hercules transport aircraft with possible follow on orders for 6 more (totalling US$ 1 billion+). Apart from these behemoths, there are numerous smaller deals including the amphibious warfare ship INS Jalashwa (formerly USS Trenton), 197 light helicopters from Bell, GE engines for HAL Tejas and so on. The total bill up for all these deals goes much beyond the US$ 10 billion that the MMRCA deal is worth and India will not stop buying as India’s military market is still rather young. The criticism that India is not “reciprocating” to US overtures is belied by the fact that India has spent more than US$ 10 billion in buying US hardware and creating thousands of jobs for Americans.

It is also necessary here to put the Indo-US nuclear deal in context as it is being suggested that the deal is a huge favour that the US did to India at a cost to itself and a favour that India must be eternally gratefully for by buying US military hardware to the exclusion of other suppliers even if those suppliers offer a technnically superior deal. While the nuclear deal is certainly a major climbdown from the US and other countries of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it does not change the fact that the deal at the end of the day only lifted an unfair and discriminatory nuclear trade embargo that was imposed on India following Pokhran 1974 and because of India’s consistent refusal to sign the discriminatory Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The US was one of the seven founding members of the NSG. To consider the Indo-US nuclear deal, which merely ended the nuclear trade embargo against India, as a favour is a widely prevalent but inaccurate perception. The US did go the extra mile for the nuclear deal but that is only because the US sees advantages to itself in the long term. The US needs the nuclear deal more than India does. Let the US do more of the heavy lifting. While India must keep its side of the deal, India need not make concessions so drastic as undermining its own military requirements to favour US suppliers.

Another criticism is that the decision has been guided solely by technical parameters ignoring strategic considerations. Arms purchases must be guided foremost by technical parameters with due importance to strategic considerations and international relations. However, while a fighter aircraft is expected to serve for atleast twenty years or so, international relations can change in a matter of years or even months. A lot can happen in twenty years. Considering that a fighter aircraft requires constant maintenance with spares and upgrades, the purchase of a fighter aircraft is the beginning of a relationship that spans decades. Reliability therefore assumes importance. Considering the history of USA’s fickle attitude towards India in the military, space and nuclear spheres, it was very sensible not to have given overriding importance to US relations in the MMRCA decision. We shall not even go into the matter of the numerous alphabet soup agreements that US insists India must sign, even while stating that these are “mere formalities”. Therefore, India did take strategic considerations also into account, in a way that benefits India more than the United States.

A variant of the above criticism is that combat requirements can be predicted in advance (“only fools” believe they can, according to Nitin Pai.) This is an incredibly inane argument. All military forces maintain a certain level of capability based on assessment of future requirement for peace time and combat duties. The IAF came up with over 600 such parameters and each of the contenders were evaluated on all these parameters. F-16 and F-18 simply failed to perform better than the Typhoon and Rafale. They also reportedly failed in high altitude tests. This is inexcusable to the Indian Air Force (IAF) that operates several forward bases at high altitude. It is being said what good is spending US$ 10 billion on a deal that doesnt gain us strategic leverage, but what good is spending US$ 10 billion on an aircraft you cant count on when you need it?

Combat requirements of specific missions certainly cannot be predicted in that no force employs oracles to predict exactly what machinery is required for a specific scenario in the future. But prevailing capability is an important factor in enemy perceptions and our own perceptions of our preparedness to deal with a certain situation. Immediately following 26/11, there were deliberations whether India must make precision strikes against terrorist camps in PoK and in Pakistan. While such a drastic step was politically not feasible at that time, it was also common knowledge that India’s capability to undertake such an exercise was limited. This factor may also have played a role in Pakistani considerations, while planning 26/11, about possible Indian responses after the attack. Capability is also very important to actually respond to situations. During Kargil 1999, the IAF lacked the capability to make precision strikes at such high altitudes. It took days for the IAF to buy Paveway laser guided bomb (LGB) kits off the shelf from abroad and arm its Mirage-2000 jets (which were the only aircraft in IAF capable at such high altitude at that time) with them. The attack on Tiger Hill with these Mirage-2000 jets was an important turning point during the war. Hence, capability plays a critical role in war and it pays to have state-of-the-art capabilities in hand before a situation demands it, lest we are caught unprepared when the situation actually arrives.

While it is not my case that the untested Eurofighter Typhoon or the Dassault Rafale are going come out with flying colours in Indian service, some of the criticism made against the decision to reject the US bids is unfair.

More reading:

1. “How to lose friends and alienate people – India’s decision to reject US fighter planes is strategic stupidity” – Nitin Pai

2. “On Indo-US ties – India needs to do its share of heavy-lifting too” – Rohan Joshi

3. “And Then There Were Two – Thoughts on the MMRCA shortlist” – Dhruva Jaishankar

4. “MMRCA deal – short post” – Offstumped

5. “Dogfight! India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision” [PDF] – Ashley Tellis, Carnegie Endowment

6. “Top India analyst criticises MMRCA decision” (Ashley Tellis) – The Hindu

7. “The Mirage-2000 at Kargil” – Bharat Rakshak>