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.