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Alliances of the Air

NEW DELHI – India’s recent decision not to purchase American warplanes for its $10 billion-plus fighter aircraft program – the largest single military tender in the country’s history – has stirred debate in defense circles worldwide. India’s defense ministry deemed the two American contenders, Boeing’s F/A-18 Superhornet and Lockheed’s F-16 Superviper, not to fulfill the requirements that it sought in a medium-size multi-role combat aircraft. With the Russian MiG-30 and the Swedish Gripen also eliminated, two European planes, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the French Rafale, are the only aircraft still in contention for an expected order of 126 planes.

India had never previously purchased an American fighter plane, and the United States hoped that India would cement the emerging bilateral strategic partnership with a hefty check. Indeed, US officials, including President Barack Obama, had lobbied for the deal, which would have pumped money and jobs into the ailing American economy. The “deeply disappointed” US ambassador to India, Tim Roemer, promptly announced his resignation. But, in a typical comment, Indian-American strategist Ashley Tellis observed trenchantly that India had chosen “to invest in a plane, not a relationship.”

The notion that a major arms purchase should be based on broader strategic considerations – the importance of the US in India’s emerging Weltpolitik – rather than on the merits of the aircraft itself, strikes Indian officials as unfair. Some deny that the decision reflects any political bias on the part of India’s taciturn, left-leaning defense minister, A. K. Antony. The choice, they aver, is a purely professional one, made by the Indian Air Force, and only ratified by the ministry.

The two European fighters are generally seen as aerodynamically superior, having outperformed both US-made aircraft in tests under the adverse climatic conditions in which they might have to be used, particularly in the high altitudes and low temperatures of northern Kashmir. Experts suggest that the American planes are technologically ten years behind the European ones, and it doesn’t help that Pakistan, India’s likely adversary if the aircraft were ever pressed into combat, has long been a regular US client for warplanes.

Moreover, Indian decision-makers could not help but be aware that the US has not, over the years, proved to be a reliable supplier of military hardware to India or other countries. It has frequently cut off contracted supplies, imposed sanctions on friends and foes alike (including India), and reneged on delivering military goods and spare parts, in addition to being notoriously unwilling to transfer its best military technologies.

The current Indian fleet of mainly Russian and French planes has suffered from no such problems, and the existing ground-support and maintenance infrastructure would have needed major changes to handle US aircraft. (It is likely that the eventual winner of the bid will be required to enter into a joint-production arrangement with India, which US companies would not have done.)

As if all this were not enough to decide against America, the clincher might well have been the Indian government’s desire to avoid any further procurement controversy at a time when allegations of corruption beset it from all sides. A decision made on technical grounds, many felt, would be easier to defend than one based on political considerations.

Against this are the unambiguous advantages of pleasing a major new ally and developing a pattern of bilateral military cooperation in supply, training, and operations that has yet to evolve. At a time when US nuclear-reactor purchases – made possible by the historic deal negotiated by the Bush administration – have been held up by US insistence on exemptions from supplier liability in the event of an accident, some regard India’s spurning of US aircraft as a gratuitous rejection of an opportunity to demonstrate that friendship with India helps America, too.

Is India being its old prickly non-aligned self again? Is appeasement of India’s notoriously anti-American politicians more important to a beleaguered Indian government than winning over the US? Will India’s traditional obsession with preserving its strategic autonomy always limit its usefulness as a partner to the US?

Such questions are unfair. Surely, India-US relations transcend any single arms purchase. Why should the financial value of one deal be the barometer of a strategic partnership? It is simply narrow-minded to reduce US foreign policy towards India to the bottom lines of American defense salesmen.

Nor is there any military estrangement between the two countries. Even if this deal didn’t work out for the US, it remains a leading arms supplier to India, having won bids to provide ships, reconnaissance aircraft, and advanced transport planes. The Indian army, navy, and air force still conduct more exercises with US defense forces than with those of any other power.

And the strategic relationship is not one-way. The US, too, has a strong interest in Indian strategic autonomy, which would be buttressed by a wider range of external partnerships, including with the European states that will benefit from the aircraft tender. Though India is rightly allergic to being seen as a US-supported counterweight to a rising China, in practice it is avidly courted by Southeast Asian countries anxious to balance the Chinese, a development that suits American interests. Obama’s visit to India last November reinforced a perception that the two countries share an increasingly convergent worldview, common democratic values, and thriving trade. None of this will cease to be relevant if India buys a European fighter plane.

In fact, the potential for Indian-US collaboration in a variety of military and non-military areas could be enhanced by this decision. Turning the US down this time actually frees India’s hands to pursue other aspects of the partnership, immune from the charge that it is too responsive to American pressures. India has not foreclosed its options; it has enlarged them.