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.

The absurdity of giving Predator drones to Pakistan

It’s the inclination, stupid!

It is one thing for President Asif Ali Zardari to say it. It is entirely another thing to take him seriously. We are talking about Mr Zardari’s Archimedes-like statement: “Give us the drones and we will take out the militants ourselves.” Some visiting US officials and journalists have found this demand promising.

It is also extremely absurd.

The United States is using unmanned aerial vehicles to attack specific al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders because it cannot use inexpensive, conventional methods like getting a bunch of troops to go there and arrest or kill the targeted individuals. The United States cannot do it because they are in Pakistani territory, and sending troops without an agreement with the Pakistani government amounts to an invasion. An invasion is not only illegal under international law, but also causes the Pakistani government and the people to get very worked up. The use of Predator & Reaper drones, is somehow considered to be less of a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. (A aero-geopolitical version of the vexed legal question: when is rape a rape?)

The Pakistani government, by definition, does not violate Pakistani sovereignty when it storms a building in its own territory. It also does not, generally, violate international law. It might get some Pakistani people worked up, but no more than if it were to use drones for the purpose. So if Mr Zardari really wants to take out the militants, then there’s nothing—save the Pakistani military establishment—really stopping him. But if the military establishment is stopping him from getting troops to storm Taliban leaders, it is also going to stop him from using drones for the purpose. The problem then, is not the non-availability of drones, but the unwillingness of the Pakistani military establishment. Mr Zardari & his civilian friends can’t fly those drones, can they?

Now unless the idea is to paint the American drones in Pakistani colours while flying them out of Pakistani air bases, but controlling them remotely from bases in the US, Mr Zardari’s idea doesn’t make much sense.

Prabhakaran’s getaway plane?

Those planes can take passengers too

Sandeep Unnithan reports that the Sri Lankan troops who captured airfields and landing strips used by the LTTE didn’t find the two Zlin Z-143 planes that made up its air wing. Some analysts think that the light aircraft could have been dismantled and stowed away in the jungle. (via R Hariharan’s MI blog)

There is also another possibility. The four-seater planes with a normal range of over 1000km (according to the manufacturer’s specifications) could be used as getaway vehicles for LTTE’s top leadership. Given that these aircraft have successfully evaded radars and air-defence in the past, there is a good chance that the escape has gone (or will go) undetected. Indeed, an organisation as astute as the LTTE might well have set-up a contingency plan, with a camouflaged landing strip on a remote beach far away but within range of the planes; next to a jetty with a high-speed boat with an even longer range.

So Velupillai Prabhakaran & Co could be very much anywhere by now.

Shoot the invaders

Pakistani troops fire at US helicopters

Bruce Loudon might have gotten it right. Because wire services are reporting that Pakistani troops fired at a heliborne US raiding party near Angoor Adda, South Waziristan (or, if you prefer the ISPR spin, the Pakistani soldiers sounded their bugles to alert the tribesmen who then fired at the Americans). (linkthanks Swami Iyer)

What should you make of this? Well, since no one actually got hurt, it is hard to completely dismiss the possibility that this is the action sequence in a drama, the kind the local audience love. But then again, other audiences might not love it all that much.

But if it is for real—and the bugle and tribesman story suggests that it might be—then we are living in interesting times.

Update: The Pentagon denies that there was even such a raid, less that it was fired upon.

Command vs Cell

India’s new Integrated Space Cell

The good news is that the Indian government finally moved its feet on setting up a defence organisation for affairs in space. But there’s a distinct pusillanimity, lack of ambition, embarrassment or perhaps, bureaucratic consideration in what it decided to call the outfit. Instead of calling it an aerospace command that strategists have been advocating, the government has decided to call it an Integrated Space Cell (ISC). Setting up a Command would have given it a weighty profile—commands are headed by officers of the rank of Lieutenant-General or equivalent. A cell, on the other hand, can be commanded by anyone.

It is baffling that the report announcing the setting up of the ISC should mention that it has been so constituted to counter China’s plans for the militarisation of space. While China is an important consideration, it is by no means the only consideration. It may well be that the UPA government is attempting to counter criticism that it has been soft on China, but it was wholly unnecessary to exclusively cite it by name. Somebody messed up the messaging.

The unwarranted bravado in the messaging is met with an unwarranted downscaling of the new organisation. Setting up an outfit called a ‘cell’ suggests a tentative approach to a strategic issue. Unless the ISC is provided the resources, capabilities and bureaucratic heft, it is unlikely to be really effective. It remains to be seen whether the ISC is a command that is called a cell out of political correctness, or is, after all, a mere cell.

Related Link: Adityanjee’s article in Pragati on strategy and space.