MH370 and three worrying “ifs”

Implications for India’s diplomacy, national security and civil aviation policy.: my The Asian Balance column at Business Standard.

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH470 was lost over South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of assistance. Given that the Malaysian authorities knew — for Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the Andaman Sea — that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, we wish they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister said that “(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners – including neighbouring countries…(in the investigation)”, which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either. Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand—which implies overflight or landing on Indian territory — Kuala Lumpur’s lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India’s Look East policy in general and the Indian navy’s sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leaves countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur’s delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging & capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing.

From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India’s direction is only 50% (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean). The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India’s borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircrafts in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the Andaman Sea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three “ifs” concerns our military setup in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s only tri-service theatre command, it is “charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman & Nicobar territories, its air space and waters.” If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars. That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told the Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focussed on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and might not be operate round-the-clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can’t spot a lumbering elephant the chances are that you can’t spot quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That’s not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don’t miss the next bird.

The second “if” involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane’s transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn’t have detected it — but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable. However, if (and note that this is a bigger “if”) it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far fetched “if”. What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn’t diminish the risk to national security. Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

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.

Just how callous can governments be?

And why the option of airdropping relief supplies to Burma’s disaster victims should not be dismissed

The numbers the Burmese junta killed while suppressing pro-democracy protests last year fade in comparison to the numbers they’ve killed in the last two weeks.

India’s state-run Meteorological Department said it had alerted Burma two days before the cyclone struck. The department’s spokesman, B P Yadav told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday: “Forty-eight hours in advance we informed the Burma weather department about the likely area of landfall as well as time and intensity of the cyclone.” [The Irrawaddy]

“I’ve never seen an emergency situation such as this before,” said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone.” [WP]

Burma has deported the few aid workers in the country after declaring it is “not ready” for foreign search and rescue teams following a devastating cyclone. [Herald Sun]

Update:Dozens of aid experts are reported to be waiting for visas in neighbouring Thailand – but the Burmese embassy there has now closed for a public holiday until next Tuesday. [‘BBC’]

The larger point is that there are few instruments to hold the junta’s leaders criminally liable for these deaths. Sins of omission are seldom punished.

Frustrated by the junta’s refusal to open its doors to international humanitarian relief, the US state department proposed airdropping relief supplies without their permission. It was shot down by the US defence secretary on the grounds that it would violate Burma’s sovereignty. Similarly, the French foreign minister proposed an international humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. The usual UN logjam stopped that. (China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia argued against the UN Security Council getting involved. “China’s envoy compared the crisis to a deadly heat wave in France in 2003, questioning why the Security Council should step in now when it did not do so in the French case”)

At times like this it is useful to recall Operation Poomalai (Eagle Mission 4).