How to lose friends and alienate people

India’s decision to reject US fighter planes is strategic stupidity

New Delhi, it is reported, has shortlisted two European vendors for its long-drawn procurement of fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Now, military analysts can have endless debates and even objective opinions on which among the American, European and Russian aircraft is technically superior and better suits the stated requirements of the IAF. Financial analysts can have similar debates and objective opinions on which is the cheapest or the best value for money. These opinions may or may not converge. But when you are buying 126 planes worth more than $11 billion dollars, you are essentially making a geostrategic decision, not a narrow technical/financial one.

The UPA government’s decision to reject both American proposals, of the F-16 and F/A-18, demonstrates either a poor appreciation of the geostrategic aspect or worse, indicative of a lingering anti-American mindset. While the US ambassador has resigned, whether or not it will prove to be a setback for India-US relations remains to be seen. Damaging the careers of pro-India American officials is a silly thing to do.

This move will most certainly reduce India’s geopolitical leverage with the US military-industrial complex, at a time when India needs it most. From the unfolding dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, to the changing balance of power in East Asia, to UN Security Council reform, to a number of geoeconomic issues, the United States can take positions that can have long-lasting consequences for India’s interests. Is the United States more likely to be sympathetic to India’s interests after a $11 billion contract—which means much needed jobs for the US economy —is awarded to someone else? Long used to complaining that the United States doesn’t care for India’s interests, will awarding the contract to some European firms help change the situation?

The argument that the European bids were ‘technically’ superior are not entirely credible either, for two reasons. First, at sufficiently high levels of technology, the difference between the planes on offer is marginal. To suggest that the European models are vastly superior defies logic, because some of the world’s most powerful air forces are flying F-16s, leave along F/A-18s. Second, the notion that combat requirements can be perfectly defined at the time of procurement is false. It is the combination of man and machine that wins battles. The focus on machines ignores the reality that much swings on the man flying it. Moreover, given the nuclear deterrence relationships obtaining in the subcontinent and across the Himalayas, those planes might never see an aircraft-to-aircraft dogfight in their lifetimes. For other tasks like air support for ground operations, the specifications are even lower.

What about those alphabet soup agreements and fine-print contracts that the US insists that India sign, that might prevent the planes from being used when needed? Those who make these arguments do not understand what war means. War means all bets are off, and India will do whatever necessary to protect its interests. While the existence of those agreements was a usual bargaining chip for India, to get a discount, to believe that such arguments will hamstring India’s military options is naivete. The government might not need to spell this out in public, but it should know it.

It has been this blog’s argument that in the contemporary geopolitical environment, India’s interests are best served by being a swing power, holding the balance between the United States and China. It must enjoy better relations with each of them than they have with each other. It must also have the credible capacity to give pleasure and inflict pain. In this context, buying fighter planes from the United States would have been an excellent move.

And who has New Delhi shortlisted instead? European companies. The European Union is a bit player in the international system, zealously safeguarding its own legacy position at the United Nations Security Council, the G-20, the World Bank, IMF and other places, against India. Italy is engaged in process of blocking India’s UNSC candidature. An order placed with Eurofighter or Rafael isn’t going to change its plans. EU busybodies can be found everywhere from inviting Kashmiri separatists to speak, to attending court hearings of Binayak Sen. Some small EU states almost wrecked the India-specific waiver that the United States was obtaining at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. When it’s crunch time in Afghanistan, does anyone in New Delhi think that the EU will or can make any move that’ll safeguard India’s interests? Why is India being gratuitously generous to Europe when there is much to gain from giving the contract to the United States?

Yes, France, Britain and Germany are countries that India must engage. There are ways to allow them to benefit from India’s growth process—from power projects to manufacturing to services. The fighter aircraft contract need not be awarded to European firms, because it has higher strategic opportunity costs.

The downshot is that the UPA government has squandered a unique opportunity to gain leverage in Washington at a crucial time when closer ties are in India’s interests. It first took way too long to decide, dragging the procurement process even China built its own new fighter plane. It now decided to pick two vendors who might well sell a technically superior and cheaper product, but do no more than that. To put it mildly, this is strategic stupidity.

Update: [April 29th] This post and related tweets were quoted in the Times of India and New York Times today.
My colleague Dhruva Jaishankar has a different take over at Polaris. Offstumped has it in a nutshell.

67 thoughts on “How to lose friends and alienate people”

  1. I agree with the strategic leverage bit, but I disagree with the point that there is hardly any difference between the F-16s, F-18s, Eurofighters and Rafaels. The Eurofighter is almost 10 years ahead of the technology that the F-18s atleast were built with.
    Also disagree with the point that the pilots are what matter and not the technology. A mediocre pilot with higher technology advantage could easily overpower a brilliant pilot in an outdated fighter, because dogfights and dogfighting skills aren’t what govern air combat nowadays. It is fire-and-forget, beyond line of sight warfare technology that determines who gets air superiority first.
    Finally, because they’re not likely to see fighter-to-fighter combat is not a good enough reason to buy a fighter not fit to take on the fighters of your main adversaries.

    In my opinion we should have split the deal and given atleast part to the Americans (for the strategic leverage). Or we could have pushed them to try and sell us the JSF and speed up development, or better even persuade that we would buy stealth techonology from them.


    1. I normally agree with most of acorn’s positions, but am struggling with this one. Firstly I agree with your that F16s and F18s are outdated (relatively) and that the US was selling us crap, a souped up version of the crap they sold to Pakistan (F16s).

      Secondly, I want to give the US a message that while we will buy from you and we have(like the C-137 transport aircraft), we will not buy from you if you play with us and supply Pak also.

      let them offer to see the F22s, and then we’ll talk. They can take a hike with the F16a and F18s, and yes, supply them to Pakistan instead, of course Pak will buy it with money given by US only. 🙂

  2. Dear Nitin,
    A basic flaw, in the otherwise superbly crafted argument is that you presume that India’s interests with US in Afghanistan or elseswhere converge.

    I argue that our interests may have some similarity with US interests but there are such strong disparities as well that in sum toto, we often are staring down different roads. Now EU is not exactly in tune with our interests either, but it is not in a position to adversely affect India’s startegic calculations anywhere in this part of the world. Unlike the US which can and has in the past.

    Remember the immediate aftermath of attack on Indian parliament. It was US interests that prevented India from taking any action against Pakistan. The EU might not have wanted it too. But ultimately, India backed down because of US. I wager that a similar thing happened post 26/11 as well.

    This conflict between India’ and US interets in Afghanistan/ Pakistan / Iran will continue at least this decade if not beyond. Does it make then sense for India to be tied down to US whims at any substantial level?

    If push comes shove, India can ignore EU and march ahead. But will it be able to ignore US? Then why hinge anything on US when it is liekly that if push comes to shove, India will be on opposite side of US.

    Buying 126 aircrafts is not going to substantially alter what US thinks is it’s long term plan in this region.


    1. Akhilesh,

      Not getting into the commentary about which way India should have went with this deal, but specifically to your comment about the US pressuring India to not to start a war with Pakistan after the Indian Parliament was attacked is absurd. We all know that there is a mutually-assured-destruction (MAD) doctrine in effect which is topped by Pakistan government’s no-assurance policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons is what actually keeps the peace between these two countries — and NOT the US.

      As a Pakistani, I must say that I am surprised at this blunder made by India. But then Pakistan has been blundering all its life by staying in bed with the US and, is now paying the price. Also keep in mind the incident when Pakistan paid almost $1B in early 90’s for a fresh batch of F-16’s — Pakistan never received the planes or the money. So whimsical are those Amreekans !!


      1. we should jointly kick them out of the subcontinent….they always did & will only serve their own interests…

  3. Deal or no deal, the United States will always act in its own national interest. Does India and US’s interests converge in Afghanistan (we are on our own there), or in Pakistan (US needs both, India cannot hope to have a upper hand there), UNSC Seat (Wikileaks cables revealing Hillary statement on India getting a UNSC seat)?

    You are right when you say India has to make strategic decisions but solely depending on the US is not going to help matters and one aircraft deal to the US is not going to make it India’s best friend.

  4. Naah. I disagree with the gist of the article. It’s one viewpoint, yeah. But no more.

  5. I would disagree with you on this one

    In a war situation, the most important thing required for high tech equipment like fighter planes is spare parts. The suppliers thus have an enormous leverage on the user in a war situation. Suppliers cannot provide the lifetime spare parts required by the a/c to us upfront as that would mean slowing down rate of production of the crafts themselves. It is quite easy for any supplier country to just ban the export of spares to us during war and then our planes are just sitting ducks. We’ll need to cannibalize from other planes, thus reducing the # of planes available to us – the 126 could soon look like 53 or even lower in a war situation. Some may argue that most of the manufacturing shall occur in India. That is completely wrong. What HAL will do is assemble from CKDs and probably manufacture some simple assemblies. The most critical manufacturing technological expertise (say single crystal blades for the engines) is simply not available in India and these critical parts shall have to be imported from the US.

    Technology differences are indeed high between the american and european aircraft, especially on the F16. Further, the most inticing aspect of the american aircrafts, the AESA radars have been denied for export to India on the LCA and hence, there is no guarantee that maintainence for these would be available in a war scenario.

    The Europeans have agreed to partner with India on the AESA radar tech for the LCA and Kaveri engines. if in a war scenario, if the Europeans impose sanctions, we still will have ability to maintain and procure spare parts for the radars. Without functioning radars, the planes are effectively 2nd generation rather than 4th generation.

    Further, the Americans already have a fair share of the defence purchases with the C-130J and C-17 transporters for the IAF, the P-8 recon aircraft for the navy and the 99 engines for the LCA. Yes, they will be upset on losing the contract and will try to bite us back strategically, but if we end up as an end-customer, they will have all the more leverage on our defence forces – see how they changed the CISMOA conditions unilaterally after we agreed to purchase VIP transport aircraft from them.

    Remember the Kargil war modifications that we carried on the Mirage-2000s without bothering to consult France? yes, all bets are off in a war and we did that. When we brought up the issue after the war, the French were supportive and honoured the Mirage upgrades despite us tampering with the planes. Will the US do that if we use India-made spares / modify the F16 as a nuke delivery platform? And the way the defence forces in India work, “jugaad” is a huge part of our tactics.

    Let the US prove to be a reliable supplier to India first. it is in India’s long term interest to give an important defence contract to a reliable supplier.

  6. I agree with this article. In todays world, strategic relationships are the most powerful deterrent. Gone are the days when nations fight man to man. However, this issue will not be a diplomatic thorn, atleast as much as the Iran UN vote was. Senators harp about India abstaining from the Iran vote, but I doubt if they will take to heart the decision on these aircraft. Except, maybe the reps from constituencies that make these planes. One thing that could explain this decision, is that the last thing UPA needs now is a lashing from the left for choosing US aircraft. The least that could have been done is to have had a shortlist of three aircraft, with an American aircraft in the fray. That said, one never could know the strategic calculations that lead to this decision. It may be more sophisticated than the reasoning presented in the article.

  7. Sure let’s buy F-16 even if it’s like centuries old. But wait, isn’t it the main fighter of Pakistani Air Force? And how much did they pay for it? 0$? So we should shell out a cool $10+ billion, to get a fighter jet which our enemy gets for free?

  8. This is by far one of the best blogs on things Indian. But you got this issue wrong. The Eurofighter has been selected just for some last minute negotiation for the Rafale from France. There is nearly 0 probability of it making through and if it does then the price will be so drastically reduced that it would definitely be worth the money.

    The aircraft that delivered when it mattered the most in Kargil was the French Mirage. You can put a nuke on Mirage/Rafale and send it over the border when the time comes for the only endgame that is possible for the Indo Pak problem. You cant do that on an American plane. You cant trust an American plane as much as a French.
    It is in France’s interest to continue to be on India’s side for their long term interest. With America we can never be sure.

    Also we are buying the P 8s and the C17s and C130s which are lower risk but for dollar value are in the same ball park. The 10 billion dollar can be given in other ways. But an airfighter is an absolutely critical link when the real deal – A nuclear type war comes within the next 25 years. Once America stops giving free arms to Pak they can be maybe at least considered for such a crucial link.

    And geopolitically even if the long term strategy is to be a swing power between US and China it is best done as subtly as possible. Buying a US airfighter is being completely on the US. I think the time for that has not come.

  9. Dear Nitin,
    Disappointing to read your article.
    whatever arguments you make does not take away the sound decision of the IAF/MOD brass. They found euro a/c to be superior to the american a/c in their technical evalautions. About the political/geostrategic decisions it is for the GOI to decide. India does not belong to any camp. It was the GOI decision earlier to take soviet weaponry to offset the issues of perfidy by US to side with Pak-china combo. It has been the same with US paying lipservice to India all along. India has withstood when it was weaker, so why should it kowtow to US now. It was the same US which turned a blind eye to whatever pakistan did to India even now. yes we should engage all important countries including US but not put all eggs in one country.Late Dr K Subrahmanyam, strategic guru has advocated that we should engage US only keeping in Indian interests and not blindly.Indian interests should be paramount and not US.
    US has already received lot of dollars worth of weapons(not MRCA) which should be ok. Hope you have not forgotten that US is the one that put sanctions in developing LCA.This delayed it by 4-5 years or more. Infact we did better with our own products though delayed.(Read Dr Kalam in his website) Now US removed it as it was in their interest but not INDIA’s.
    Indian economy is growing so is our technological prowess (over the years), still a long way to go before being on par with western nations. But commendable efforts are made.
    Even if MRCA is of american a/c, India US relations will always be a bumpy ride because India does have some independent streak compared to other countries. This independent streak is not to the liking of US despite whatever US and its associated media belches out in the open.

  10. Nitin,

    It is pleasing to know that India has finally chosen to go after merit rather than playing political games. Firstly, the typhoon is undoubtedly superior to whatever the US can offer. This has been stated by independent defense experts. The only thing US was backing on was its geo-political influence with India.
    US defense deals always come with irritating strings attached. Note the controversy unearthed by wikileaks on the US supplying VVIP planes for the PM and top politicians with conditions that involve maintenance and inspection by US personnel, much to the dislike of the Indians.

    Also, A. K. Anthony is perceived to be a “clean” politician and is well respected for his independence. He would not risk playing fickle geo-political games and risk his reputation.

    No matter what India does or buys, US will pursue its own geopolitical interests vis-a-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan. India is in US best interest to be cultivated so they will not be shunning India just because of this deal.

    Finally, it signals a rare show of spine by the Indians in staying independent and going for what is good for the armed forces.


  11. HI Nitin,

    You have some strong points here, but lets not forget that US is also pumping billions of dollars to fund Pakistan defence procurements, which everyone knows will be used against us. So, its a fair game, I would say.

    On technical front :
    F-16s are far less superior to Su-30 Mk2s..let alone the competition with Thunderbirds.

    There is a plan to invest 50 billion dollars in 4 years, so US must watch the space.


  12. What is unclear here is whether this is an actual military decision or a political one. A lot of military personal have stated earlier that the American F/A 18 Hornet on offer easily beats everything right out of the park. Some defense officials must come out with a statement regarding this decision.

  13. What about technology transfer and history of US in this aspect. F 16s are already with pak, where will be the edge for IAF?. I do not think this is the last carrot in the basket for Americans. We have nuclear reactors and future defense purchases to make. so this is not the end of the road for diplomatic/strategic decisions.

  14. “It now decided to pick two vendors who might well sell a technically superior and cheaper product, but do no more than that.”


    No other consideration is needed.

    The basic problem with people like you is a sub-conscious sense of “insecurity” . A certain lack of faith in India’s abilities. A belief that India must continuously need to be in the good books a of Uncle Sam otherwise we are doomed.

    Get out of this mentality and be like the Chinese….

  15. Don’t what is more “strategically stupid” – rejecting American aircraft, or assuming that an 11 billion dollar fighter purchase is the only thing the Indo-US relationship hinges on.

    Between the C-17, C-130J, P-8I, and M-777, US firms are more than happy with their successes in India. And these are just things for which contracts have been finalised. There are other things in the pipeline as well.

    Also, what is the strategic cost of a fighter that has failed to meet the air force’s technical requirements and one that India probably cannot use in its time of need? Versus that for a fighter that does not come with so many strings attached, complete source-code access, and am *officially stated* nuclear delivery option?

    Can President Obama explain to the Indian & Pakistani Public rationale behind most modern & sophisticated Free Arms to Pakistan & state of the art American Military & Satellite Technology to China via his Israeli Masters. Even a high school student can make out the sole purpose behind this rationale is to destabilize India and prepetuate poverty in Pakistan.

    I refuse to accept Israeli’s are not behind Free Arms to Pakistan thru their colony United States of Israel (America).

    It is an open secret Israeli’s are stealing advanced Military technology from America for last 4 decades and selling it to India’s hostile neighbor China for last 4 decades.

    Free Arms to Pakistan & Advanced Military and Satellite Technology to China puts India in the arms race to catch up. Foolishly they are buying majority of their arms (no technology) from Israel. Because Israeli’s are the only one in the world who can give 40-45% kickback to Congress, BJP and Anil Ambani’s Party Samajvadi Party headed by Mulayam Singh.

    It is the truth which Indians don’t want to accept that America is an Israeli colony. Israeli’s have made world super power America a poor country morally, ethically, financially and physically. Israeli’s only care about money to sell their arms to India they can manipulate Free Arms to Pakistan and Arms technology to China to destabilize both India and Pakistan.

    Israel has sold armaments worth more than $8 billion in less than 10 years to India and according to Israeli’s in next 5-8 years this figure is going to cross $30 billion as long as India has traitors representing as Congress-BJP political leaders, top defense brass, bureaucrats and business houses close to them.

    Indians must wake up it was Sonia Gandhi who brought Israeli’s to India in 1991.

    US Majority Leader Hoyer “We don’t want Peace in India” link

  17. Its about time we broke through this colonial mentality of appeasing the West. The author’s premise regarding India loosing friends is incorrect. Actually, it is the contrary.
    India has around $50 Billion to spend on upgrades. US needs to do more than have Obama come here and dance and declare support for India’s bid at UNSC. We need concrete evidence of US’s intentions, which all point to contrary to their lofty speeches, case in point being, their unwavering support for ISI in Pakistan. This is againt Indian’s national interest. US needs to do more then just lull India into feel good by sweet rethoric.

  18. I think you are leaving out the important considerations related to Kill-switches and End Use Monitoring agreements.

      1. So it succumbed to European pressure, then. What’s so good about European pressure?

        1. I wonder why you assume that India succumbed to pressure at all?

          Just because it supposedly resisted US pressure, it crumbled to the Europeans?

  19. HI,

    I think the decision of GOI was indeed applaudable it would have taken nerve of steel for MOD to reject both american planes since President Obama himself courted for this planes. It also shows that indeed India is trying to make its own decision instead of just following US. If you look at it F-16 was a no-brainer from the start since it was being sold to Pakistan also, and F-18 was technically no match for Eurofighter.

    We also need to observe from the past that US will never put India’s interest over Pakistan’s(and therego US’s Interest) during a conflict as evident from past incidents in the aftermath of attack on Parliament and 26/11 where it made sure India wont take any action which would have given Pakistan reason to withdraw its army from Afghan border and redeploy them on indo-pak border. US is too much dependent on it for its war effort in Afghanistan and reigning in Al-Qaeda/Taliban in NWFP.

    And regarding your take on anti-american thinking in UPA i must say it could not be farther from the truth this govt is the most pro-american govt we have ever had, we have had Nuclear Deal under this Govt, and already bought Billions of dollors worth of Militiary hardware (P-8s, Boeing C-17, C130,USS Trentone, Boeing BBJ etc etc) under FMS scheme of US govt.

    “Damaging the careers of pro-India American officials is a silly thing to do.” are you kidding me. Ambassador’s term of 2 year was over and wanted return to US.

    US is an important natural partner of India but that doesn’t mean we have to always follow it & take blindfold advice or orders from it. We have to decide whats best for India because certainly no one else will.

  20. Hmm, why does the argument sound so similar to decision of buying Mig 21, 23 & T-90 to build “strategic relationship” with USSR?

    I for once very happy that Euro are chosen. Not because they are providing us with major strategic backbone or some Maritian tech, but because Euros are so desperate for a deal, that India gets to squeeze every bit of juice from them. Compare this with the “strategic partnership lemon ” like F-18. At the most India will be provided with screw driver tech.

    For the US they already have 10 billion dollar of deal. Bit greedy to expect everything. By giving C-17,C-130J, P-8 deals, US should have already got the indication that MRCA will not be theirs.

    So let us look at the deal. You buy french, you are blocking a major source of tech for the Chinese. French were lobbying hard for removing embargo on China. Swedes should have thought before giving AWACS to Pak. US will sell F-16 Block 60 to Pak, no doubt. However with ISI been declared terror org, I wonder how long the buddy-ship will continue.

    So all in all. Good step. Time to build our aerospace industry.

  21. I am an Indian-American. I love both the countries. One has give me birth and other opertuanties to make use its blessings the good lord has give to this land. I wish India had bought aeroplanes from U.S. but thinking from Indian point of view American some time are arrogant and some time because of their political setup historically one can not depend on U.S. If some reason American get upset with India they can throw the wrench on assembly line and stop the whole deal. More over these are the only item India need they have other many more requirements for their forces. So one should not mind if this deal didn’t go through U.S. has other toys that India can buy much more in terms of money more than $11billion.

  22. Whose geostrategic concerns are you trying to address here?? The US has repeatedly proven that it doesn’t have a handle on the region, thus making it a very undesirable sort of partner. It’s going to be our aircrafts, which will serve our strategic interests alone. Signing up for horror shows like CISMOA will firmly put us in the US camp.

    We are not an allied nation. We will have to keep paying a heavy monetary price for strategic independence. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  23. Also I think the message needs to be delivered to US that it is not possible to make money by selling arms to India and give them free to our ‘friendly’ western neighbor at the same time.

  24. At the time of war would you prefer to have the technically superior typhoon jets or inferior F16’s ? While any trade agreement of this size has strategic importance we cannot hold on to out-teched equipment for the next 20 years, just to save jobs in Kansas!
    If we want to be a strategic partner to a powerful nation and a strong regional player , we need to make decisions based on OUR own interests. Strength begets respect. Nothing else matters.
    Kudos to the MoD for making this decision, and kudos to the PMO for not giving in to US /Russian pressure. Let us remember , eventhough US has been boxed out of this bid, they are still our partners in other defense procurements.

  25. Excellent argument by Nitin however looking at the feedback here and also in my humble opinion the decision to reject US suppliers is correct. If US wants to really deepen its relations with India then this deal or no deal should not be a problem in the long run. And from your whole post I was getting the feeling that the priority of this deal is not enhancing IAF capability but a chance to expand India’s geostrategic interests. Then why are we forgetting deals India has promised for locomotive engines from GE and then also Nuclear reactor deals with US companies? Reading this post, I am preparing myself for onslaught of Pro US jurnos about how India will loose its leverage with US.

  26. The editorial quality and line of logic are extremely bad. When you claim something you should reason it out, and please don’t do that by making another superfluous claim that is so heavily self supposed. Whoever has written this, life is not meant to be led as a muddlehead. Think clearly. Reason it out.

  27. What sort of “strategic ally” you are talking about? I guess its very simple – either choose ‘Them or ‘Us’. F-16s, UAVs are being supplied to them under the name of fighting with insurgents. We all know where those planes will be used. US should choose partners properly, not just in nice speeches, but in reality. Excellent decision by India. Its our money, our country, our problems. We will do whatever is in our best interest. If this means ‘loosing’ friends(???), so it be, we don’t give a damn.

  28. In our defense, we aren’t giving Pakistan weapons for free, it’s payment for their supposed help in combating the Taliban. That said, we’re giving them all this equipment and they aren’t doing a damned thing on their side (oh, every now and then they launch a “huge offensive” and moan and groan about how hard it is to keep us satisfied, and then it ends with them withdrawing to their original positions and apologizing to the Taliban). I’d say we’re pretty much done with treating Pakistan like a reliable partner (or even like a real country) at this point, though.

  29. Have you considered that
    1) The trust factor for Washington is low in Delhi ?
    2) You cant sell weapons to my enemies and then try to sell the same stuff to me ?
    3) Most importantly, it should be about rewarding loyalty. After Pokhran 2, France was openly in support of India.

  30. Hi Nitin,

    I think you are giving too much importance to the geostrategic aspects of this deal. While the MMRCA is the most talked about defence deal out there, it is hardly the only big-ticket item that India is buying. There are several items on the military’s wish-list, and no one can argue that the Americans aren’t bagging their share of contracts. The deal for ten C-17s alone could be worth a cool $5.8 billion, and much more if the option for an additional ten aircraft is exercised. Then there is the P8-I and M-777 howitzer as well. And all this is apart from the massive order for civilian aircraft for Air India that Boeing bagged with its Dreamliners. All these more than make up for any loss of leverage in Washington that India may suffer.

    I also disagree with many of the points you have made here: your assertion that that European aircraft are not “vastly superior” to their American counterparts, because “some of the world’s most powerful air forces are flying F-16s” is, to me, is a non-argument. These “other powerful air forces” (and I can’t think of many) may have procured F-16 for any number of reasons – technical requirements, American political pressure, inter-operability criteria, or even receiving these aircraft for free. This hardly means that IAF did not have had its own unique requirements that led it to conclude that the American birds were ill-suited to its needs. To suggest that the IAF’s standards shouldn’t be any different from those of other countries is a bit of a stretch, in my opinion. In fact, you may recall that some of the most powerful air forces in the world were also flying F-86 Sabres in the fifties and sixties. Yet, the IAF chose the Folland Gnat as its mainstay, eventually becoming the largest operator of the type. The aircraft’s spectacular record speaks for itself!

    You also go on say that “the focus on machines ignores the reality that much swings on the man flying it.” But who, I ask, is focusing on machines alone? Certainly not the IAF! Surely, the decision to buy European birds will surely not affect pilot training standards in the IAF? But an aircraft has to be chosen based on technical considerations (considerations, that are, in part, driven by the manpower situation as well), but I have yet to see the air force of the ministry of defence make the argument that manpower is unimportant.

    Then comes the question of whether the aircraft will see any combat. While that is a very difficult question to answer, it is rather obvious that the time to ask it was in 2001, when the IAF expressed requirements for 126 multi-role aircraft, and not now, when the decision to buy them has already been made. If one was dead sure that nuclear deterrence alone mattered to the point that war would not break out, then this competition should never have been allowed to take place, and the money would have been better spent on other things. But now that the MoD agrees with the IAF’s requirements, it is patently irresponsible to ask it to buy these planes on the assumption that war will never break out.

    Lastly, I wish to address your tweet, in which you suggest that the government wasted taxpayers’ money on account of its “inability to use buying power into geopolitical leverage”. Again, I don’t see why that is the case, and more important, why you are raising this issue now. It is my opinion that buying power can only be leveraged before a deal is struck. If there was a time to dangle 11+ billion dollars in front of the US (and others) and use it to extract a geostrategic advantage, it was in the time frame between 2004 and now, when the American contenders were slugging it out with the rest. And there simply isn’t enough evidence to assert that the GoI did not take advantage of this situation.

    In conclusion, I think the decision was a very good one. It showed the IAF could be very professional in laying out its functional requirements, thoroughly testing each of the contending aircraft, and assessing the results, while the MoD kept its distance and did not unnecessarily interfere in the process. Then there is the question of the aircraft themselves. Apart from the F/A-18E/F, the other rejected planes never brought anything significant to the table that the Eurocanards weren’t better at. Pending an exceptionally stupid move on part of the French, I believe Dassault has all but bagged this order. India’s experience with the French was *excellent* during the last war we fought, and I am sure that weighed heavily on the IAF’s mind when it decided to make its choice. The Rafale has already proven its air-to-ground capabilities in the attacks on Libya — an area that the Typhoon has always been weak in. Moreover, the fact that it wanted to directly buy Mirage-2000-Vs in 2001 makes the Rafale a natural successor to this wonderful aircraft. Also important is the fact that it is the only contender to come with an explicitly stated nuclear delivery capability, something that is sure to play a role in the MoD’s calculations, knowing that it was 40 nuclear-delivery platforms for the SFC’s use.

  31. Well thats for sure that American planes are the best.And in MMRCA also,F-18 was the most capable but thats not what IAF wanted only.The technology transfer clause has actually worked out for Europeans.But i don’t think India has done any stupidity.If 11 billion is a lot of money,then 4-5 billion isn’t less too.India is buying C-17(10),C-130(12),P-8(10 at least),artillery,Harpoons,Javelin and many more from US.What do you think its gonna cost? If you will look at the amount US grabbed between 2005-15,it won’t be less than $15-20 bn from defence.

  32. I initially started out by siding with Nitin’s argument, but after reading all the comments, I have to say, it looks like India made a decision that can be defended from a self-interest perspective. For all of Nitin’s focus on “geo-strategic” concerns, it appears that India had concerns more with their immediate neighborhood. The fact of the matter is that all slogans aside, India will not be a global power for some time – it may not even be worth pursuing a military with global reach. The U.S. has such a military, and finds itself buried in three different wars. Even a wealthy nation such as America cannot afford that, how would India?

    India’s military and civilian leadership seem to be focusing on becoming a predominant power in its region. America’s continuous bending over backwards to satisfy the Pakistanis, rewarding its half-hearted efforts with bundles of arms that will be aimed at India were not going to win America any brownie points.

    I take no pleasure in this. I was born in the U.S. to Indian immigrants, and have always thought the two nations should become closer. But just as I do not expect the U.S. to simply ditch Pakistan, nor can I expect India to go its own interests in military matters.

  33. In purely political terms this is a good decision. US influence and presence is advancing beyond what is good for India. India’s freedom of action in geopolitical matters in the region has been constrained in deference to America’s interests – in afghanistan and with Iran. Without US pressure India would have been able to forge a strong alliance with Iran to stymie Pakistan’s game in Afghanistan.

    Americans have been in alliance and arming Pakistan for decades with the unspoken aim of constraining India. The nuclear deal is akin to stepping off a guys throat and expecting gratitude. American policy for long has been to hobble India’s technical devlopment through trade and technology restrictions. So the nuclear deal was less a favour and more of dismantling a hurdle they had themselves imposed.

    Americans need to be shown that for India its own interests come first.

  34. I hope you do realise that the US is still too powerful to be swayed by anyone one nation or group of nations irrespective of how many fighters you buy. Look at how they responded to demands for greater access to JSF source codes from the likes of Australia, UK and Israel. Saudi Arabia plans to buy more than 60billion in weaponry from the US, but how much leverage do they have in Washington-against Iran? On the Arab-Israeli issue?

    To assume that buying 126 or even 300 fighters would suddenly elevate Indo-US ties to a new level is well….juvenile. strategic ties will continue for a host of reasons, primary one being necessity. The US had a very close strategic partnership with China for about 15 years until Tiannammen Square happened. How many fighters did they buy. All this talk of ‘buying a relationship, not a fighter’ sounds like the tired curriculum of an over-rated Business School.

  35. I think it is a very good decision. No matter how much US claims about Indian being a natural partner etc etc. neither the US nor India can forget history. US needs Pakistan and Afghanistan from a geopolitical point of view and India does not want a powerful Pakistan. Is US so stupid to dump Pak when it is prepared to do its bidding in a region where 4 great civilizations meet — Indian, Chinese, Persian and Central Asia? US will never leave its ally Pakistan.

    Coming to this deal, I guess India is moving with US cautiously, it is buying defensive weapons from US ( C130J, C17, P8I, potentially Apache Longbow and Chinooks) and offensive weapons elsewhere. Its a very good strategy.

  36. Shouldn’t we be looking at all this from an Indian view point as regards security and our own interests?

    Just how many times has the US clamped sanctions on military hardware and spares to India? The first time I remember is after the 1965 war followed subsequently after the nuclear blasts. Can the US be trusted with providing spares etc and keep them flowing. Frankly the US is yet to measure up as a true and tested friend – nuclear deal notwithstanding.

    All these presumptions regarding geo – strategy considerations forget to take into account what the IAF want. Have they made an assessment and what is it? I think that should be the prime consideration – even though I admit it often isn’t. Yet it would be worth finding out what the Air Force had to say. Everything else should follow from that. To say that all aircraft are almost at par and therefore just need a good man machine combination is an argument that doesn’t convince. What about reliability, tropical conditions and a whole gamut of other considerations. Lets face it we do have a trust deficit.

    Its not that this deal is going to make the US substantially stronger economically, India already has and continues to support the US economy in a myriad other ways.

    In similar circumstances would the USA have made a choice based on interests or predominantly on geostrategic considerations?

  37. Nitin we are talking of american aircraft designed in the late 70 visavis eurpoean aircraft designed in the late 80’s/ There is a generational difference in the technology, and then take into account for the capriciousness of the American political establishment. They can hold you hostage anytime because of the veto power Congress can bring to the table should India piss them off. Does India want to take a chance on that 10 years from now? I hope not

  38. Hi Nitin,

    Firstly, some really good arguments.

    I am no expert when it comes to military tech or geo-politics. However, I do believe that we did well by shortlisting the Eurofighter and Rafale. For I see this as nothing but a simple message from India to the US that we mean business and that the US have to do more to get us to be on their side. While the US is still a formidable force — they have lost some ground and in today’s world, the US needs us as much as we need them.


  39. Let me see if I understand this article correctly. In order for India to get into a ‘strategic’ relationship with the USA, India must

    1. Pay $11 billion to the US which would then gift a portion of it as free aid to Pakistan which would use it against India.

    2. Sign end user agreements for second best US fighters that will decide how and where these planes could be used.

    3. Prepare for spare parts denial and sanctions in the event of war.

    4. Prepare for the US to install sophisticated equipment giving the the ability to remotely make these fighters non functional whenever they please.

    5. Lose any leverage with Europe (France in particular) which could then sell these top line aircraft to China.

    6. Damage relationship with France which notably did NOT impose sanctions after the Pokharan tests when ‘friend of India’ Clinton did.

    Hmmm. Looks like most Indians don’t care about this ‘strategic relationsip’ with the USA. I wonder why.

    1. Well, there are always views and counter views. I am not entirely in agreement with the arguments proposed. I can not endorse the statement that we are losing friends just because the MMRCA deal was not given to US. If buying an american product was of such strategic importance, there was no need for an evaluation by a professional body. The fact that all the aircraft in contention went through a stringent selection process by the IAF in different conditions and the the user shortlisted two aircraft should not be lost sight of . Also, the RM was categoric in his assertion that there would not be any interference from the Govt on the selection process. What is that the US had to offer, the F 16 and the F-18. No sensible air force would go in for F-16 which the PAF has been using for decades and knows all about it. So there are no tactical surprises for them if and when there is aerial engagement. The selection was for a multi mission role combat aircraft. In the matrix of the professional air force, the shortlisted aircraft fits the bill better. Period.

      Coming to the strategic alliance, this can not be held hostage to a single deal. We have many more deals with the Americans. The Boeing P8i number contracted has gone up to a dozen.There are many more purchases in the pipeline for the three services. There so many high tech areas in which there is bound to be more purchases including in the civil sector. It can not be made out as if the entire business between US and India was totally dependent just on the failure or success of the MMRCA deal how ever big it is. The author seems to argue that it is the responsibility of India to either keep the jobs in the military industry complex in the West or generate new ones? There is a need to look at how we can generate more jobs in India and not worry about how to keep the military industrial complex else where running. This requires long term strategy to build up the military industrial prowess particularly in the critical technology areas. This means that more money is required in the R&D and also we require lot more participation from the Private industry which is now in a position to chip in at similar but redcuced levels of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It will take time no doubt but requires more importantly a sound strategy at the national level with liberal policies for private participation. The offset requirments of various contracts above 300 crores do address very marginally in assisting both the investments and the transfer of technology in some related fields. The Indian armed forces have always been wary of the possible turning off of the taps of supply of critical spares . I know that there is a different strategic equation today and perhaps US does not want to be a untrusted partner , yet, it would be some time before we can trust the entire process . We can not ignore the small print at all. As the Russians say “I trust but I verify”.

      For a nation which has no choice but to import high tech products from the west, while strategic considerations no doubt are important, it can not be at the cost of the efficiency and operational preparedness of the services who have exercised their choice of what they want for MMRCA. In the process, while we may have disappointed US, we have brought smiles to so many European countries who are involved in the project.

      Also, we should not forget the fact that if US is aligning itself with India, it does so not just for improving military sales (it is a by product) but for serving its global roles and national interests. I should compliment the GoI for not influencing the decision of the IAF which knows what it needs for taking on the threat from our adversaries in the east or west.

      Warm regards,

  40. Disagree.
    If US really wanted this deal, they could have offered F-22’s instead of aging F-16’s when they very well know that Eurpoeans are offering better and IAF is suffering from Mig-21/pilot losses due to aging crafts.
    No one in their conscience would buy 1970’s aircrafts(of course with upgrades) and in 10 years would face the same problem of crash landing unless their is corruption/kickbacks involved. Unlike before, this time Congress is not taking chances with corruption scandals.

  41. Thanks Nitin. So your advice for the Govt of India for a similar future deal is to ensure that:
    1. The decision does not demonstrate an anti-American mindset
    2. You keep the “geostrategic” considerations in mind. The fact that 126 aircraft will be close to 20% of your fighter aircraft is a mere technicality. Do not pay too much attention to the capabilities of the aircraft.
    3. You do not do silly things like damaging careers of pro-India American officials
    4. You follow logic by following some of the world’s most powerful air forces. Disregard that IAF has to operate the aircraft in diverse geographical locations – something that ‘some of the world’s most powerful air forces’ do not have a need for.
    5. You do not focus on the aircraft, for the focus on machines ignores the reality that much swings on the man flying it. If the US is offering a WWII machine, go for it because it supports US jobs (machine focus not needed)
    6. Keep the nuclear deterrent in mind. That is, these aircraft will most likely not be used. That is, buy them to support jobs in the US, not for your defence. (Do not use the surplus cash within your own country, but pay protection money to the US)
    7. Disregard any alphabet soup agreements and fine-print contracts that the US insists that India sign. They have no legal standing. To believe that such arguments will hamstring India’s military options is naivete.

    Truly lateral thinking! Keep it up!

  42. Guys, this Pai guy is representing the national interest of USA, not that of India. Hence this heartburn and namecalling. Anyways, people in Europe view this step by India in a positive light. It would definitely help advance our ties further.

  43. Is the US-India relationship so flimsy as to be derailed by a single deal?

  44. Completely uninformed,biased and short sighted article.
    I question your abilities as an analyst.
    There are so may flaws in your argument, Nitin, its not a joke.
    I think, from now on you forfeit the right to call anybody “Stupid”.

  45. No offense meant but this is an extremely weak argument in favour of the US. It also shows a lack of faith in our own procedures and processes. In particular:-

    1. “We are essentially making a geostrategic decision, not a narrow technical/financial one”. (We could just have given the US a $11 Bn Letter of Credit and placed a firm order? Why waste everyone’s time with this charade of RFPs, trials, negotiations, contracts etc? The DPM can be thrown out the window. We perhaps would have been getting delivery by now!)

    2. And then there are these wonderful “Red Herrings” and “Sweping Statements” that show a very poor understanding of technology and a contempt for the readers’ intelligence….
    (A) “At sufficiently high levels of technology, the difference between the planes on offer is marginal”. (Whereas the fact is that even a marginal superiority in technology can give a decisive advantage, and here the difference is “not” marginal either).
    (B) “The notion that combat requirements can be perfectly defined at the time of procurement is false”. (Whoa, straight out of Gaddafi’s Green Book! Put simply, it implies that GSQRs etc are a lie…we just sign a cheque wherever geo-strategic preference take us. That seems to be the theme).
    (C) “It is the combination of man and machine that wins battles. The focus on machines ignores the reality that much swings on the man flying it”. (All those dead Mig-21 pilots must be twisting in their graves. Read this interview of Naresh Chandra please… ).
    (D) “What about those alphabet soup agreements and fine-print contracts that the US insists that India sign, that might prevent the planes from being used when needed? (Someone mentioned kill switch above, and someone conveniently forgot spares, overhaul, training, upgrades…).

  46. Apart from everything else said in the comments, i would like to point out another basic fact that a supposed ‘geostrategic analyst’ like Nitin pai should have been aware of.

    Contrary to your implication, Italy is not against India’s entry into UNSC per se. They are against Germany getting a seat, and therefore are against any additional inclusion at all.

    But that has not, and should not, stop them from collaborating …on what? The Eurofighter typhoon!!!

    International politics are best not mixed with military realities.

    You’ll be better off keeping this in mind the next time you comment on such a serious matter as this.

  47. So, dearest Nitin, a half baked non-reply from a famous isharaa-master that brings nothing new to the discussion is the “only sensible and reasoned response” you’ve seen yet, eh? How very gracious to the many commentators who on this very post have left some excellent rejoinders…

    Birds, same feather, etc?

    1. My dear Vladimir,

      The dispensing of sarcasm while referring to private conversations without considering such trifling details as time-stamps is either unworthy of intelligent people or worse, sign of blinkered prejudice. In either case, the irony of using sarcasm to demand grace is not lost on me.

  48. 1. I have gotten more information from the comments to this piece than from anywhere else on the web. Thanks commenters!!1

    2. this article exposes a sort of naive mentality among right-wing indian writers when it comes to how things work in real world. Not everything bad in the world stems from UPA you know? It is possible (gasp!!!) that sometimes, just sometimes UPA’s interest and India’s self-interest do converge. And you go caught here because of being more anti-UPA than reason warrants.

    3. “Strategic” is a word used by corporate execs who are about to be canned or pushed into some role where they can look for their next job. I hope you do not mean the same here.

    4. In a usual case of dog barking for crumbs, the actual sellers are smart and have moved beyond this failure to get a contract. They know there is more money in other future deals and are working towards that. Like good businessmen. No point in alienating a customer over one deal gone bad. That is not how it works.

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