MMRCA: Of leverage and liability
It is too late to complain about India rejecting bids from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to sell 125 jets.
That by buying more US arms India can enhance its strategic leverage over the US is a very sound argument, especially when one considers the fast shrinking influence and prestige of arms exporters that constitute an alternative to US supplies. So why did the MMRCA short-list not go in favour of the US? There are two possibilities.
Possibility #1. The US aircraft did not meet stipulated performance requirements. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin fielded top class aircrafts for the tender – these were apparently equal in everyway if not superior to the European jets. With the IAF evaluation criteria being based on 600 odd parameters the only way US jets could have lost out was by failing in some crucial parameters that cannot be made up by scoring more in the remaining 590 headings. Like being able to take-off within a stipulated distance, armed with a meaningful combat load from high altitude airbases. There were enough murmurs to this effect in past so we are yet unable to rule out this possibility. Further one of the American jets, the F-16, is a fairly old design with limited scope for upgrades and improvement. It would be unwise to explain away any failures in the above areas as being ‘academic’. With the PAF operating the same type for over two decades this aircraft would not have accorded the IAF a significant edge in combat capability in the region. Some may argue that this aircraft is still being used by modern air forces around the world but it would be worth remembering that the 125 aircraft IAF is buying through the MMRCA tender would begin operational deployment almost 3-5 years from now and will be expected to serve for at least two decades from then on. This effectively makes the F-18 the only real competitor from the US.
It is entirely possible to have the defects or shortcomings of US planes rectified at-least in the case of F-18 aircraft. However giving the US planes a second chance would have been unfair to other contenders. This brings us to the main issue of acquiring the aircraft under a multi-vendor tendering process.
It is slightly discomforting that critics of MoD were not seen opposing the MMRCA tender process up until the point when US jets got rejected. If $10bn worth of purchases were to be a political decision the process was not required in the first place and any criticism of MoD vis a vis losing an opportunity to engage the US must have been made with no less vehemence when the testing/tendering process was in motion. It would have demonstrated a certain strategic foresight that MoD allegedly does not posses. To object now is to cry over spilt milk. Further it is interesting to note that whilst domestic critics of MoD are willing to disregard processes to accommodate the US there has been little reciprocity, which is what the second possibility is all about.
Possibility #2. The IAF was not really enthusiastic about 1/4th of its fighter fleet being rendered un-operational in case of a US sanction. The perception that the US is an unreliable arms supplier runs deep in many security circles. To be fair there are precedents where every major Western arms exporter was able to restrict/render useless high technology equipment they exported with earnest. The French, whose Rafale fighters India has selected for the next stage of the procurement process are said to have helped the US jam Iraqi air defences sourced from French companies. India had its share of bad luck post-Pokharan tests with US equipment. Given this context, and the fact that many of the restrictions were not lifted until the recent Presidential visit by Obama, the US could be reasonably expected to make an effort to reassure the customer of its reliability. However, as if on cue to further irritate the security community the US insisted on a string of agreements and intrusive conditions concerning critical communications equipment.
This is where the entire argument of strategic leverage disregarding IAF and other professional opinion comes under cloud. It stands to reason that if indeed the US were to consider the MMRCA tender with the same importance in terms of job generation and strategic relationship why didn’t they push for relaxation of certain norms that the IAF and MoD have expressed extreme discomfort with? Whilst there was some attempt to customise some agreements to assuage Indian sentiments the framework of a US military export showed itself to be utterly uncompromising on its needlessly intrusive tenets for the sake of material interests such as more jobs and orders for US Mil-Ind complex. Visiting dignitaries attempted to explain away such agreements as mere formalities that will not affect the end-user. It would have been interesting if anybody dared question the dignitaries as to why the US insists on such agreements if they were not so important at all. At the end of the day the US executive had a clear redline which it did not want to cross just so to sell a couple of hundred aircrafts.
It is clear then that being the sole superpower the US government does not accord the same importance to one aircraft procurement tender as domestic critics of Indian Ministry of Defence do. Therefore one cannot help wondering as to how much leverage India really stands to gain by giving away $10bn worth of deals to a government that wasn’t even trying its best. This argument further gains credence as an almost equal amount of purchases has already been committed to US.
It is also important to address the issue of alleged irrelevance of our choice of aircraft since conventional warfare has no space in our context of a heavily nuclearised neighbourhood. Nothing could be far from truth. India’s own Kargil war and the Sino-Soviet war of 1969 were fought under the very nuclear overhang that is being touted as the eliminator of conventional warfare. It would be a folly to rule out the possibility of a limited war where the application of airpower maybe limited but extremely crucial.
Finally, this write-up is not an argument against arms purchases from the US or against an engagement through military affairs. An enhanced engagement with the US is important and welcome.