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.

Reforming the home ministry’s troops

In my DNA column – why India’s paramilitary forces need structural reform

This is an excerpt from the article that appears in today’s DNA.

Why do we need BSF for the border with Pakistan, but separate forces called ITBP for the border with China and the Sashastra Seema Bal for the borders with Nepal and Bhutan? Why should the Assam Rifles be distinct from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)? My colleague Bibhu Prasad Routray argues that it is a good idea to merge the various central paramilitary forces into a single force. Indeed, given that most of them are doing each others’ jobs anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to bring them under one chain of command? If this is way too radical, then why not rationalise them into three forces with distinct roles—internal security, border security and infrastructure security? This is as good for accountability as it is for the forces to develop greater competence within their domains.

In fact, massive expansion of central paramilitary forces without structural reforms could end up being counterproductive. The most important links in the internal security chain are the beat constable, the local police station and the deputy superintendent of police. Policing is a state subject. The massive expansion of central para-military forces after 26/11 belies the total refusal of all state governments to implement the Supreme Court-ordered police reforms. Indian states persist with a colonial police structure designed to keep a subject population under the rulers’ thumb. Persuading them to change is hard enough. If a state government comes to believe that it has easy access to large numbers of central forces, it will have fewer incentives to improve its own police force.

The goal of internal security should not be about sending the CRPF (and certainly not the BSF) to Hyderabad. It should be about ensuring that the Andhra Pradesh police can handle the task without outside help. [DNA]

Scrap offsets and foreign investment caps

Galvanising military modernisation requires radical changes to the procurement mindset

Sushant K Singh, head of Takshashila’s national security programme and an editor of Pragati has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition, commenting on the Indian government’s new, more-of-the-same, defence procurement policy. Excerpt:

The defense ministry in New Delhi won’t admit it, but the turn-around is not just a tacit acknowledgment of India’s limited capacity to absorb offsets, but also an indictment of the offsets policy itself. If the policy is to succeed, the foreign vendor should want to operate in a country where it actually derives commercial benefits from partnering with locals. But in India, the poor quality of the state-run defense units and ordnance factories rules them out as partners. The country simply does not also have a large enough private defense manufacturing sector that a Boeing or Lockheed could buy parts from or invest in.

The final nail in the offset coffin is India’s FDI policy. Which among the decrepit public-sector companies or near-absent private ones would Boeing choose from to invest in? Or, rather, which local manufacturer does it trust enough to share its proprietary technology with? A joint venture could be trustworthy, but because of the FDI cap, a local firm will have to put up 74% equity—no small potatoes in an industry where contracts easily total $100 million and upward. This is why over 10 years the 26% FDI regime brought in only $150,000 of investment.

If the Indian government wants to use offsets as an interim measure to bring in foreign manufacturers, it should do away with the FDI cap. Higher stakes in companies could help add value to the offsets policy: Boeing’s purchase of 34% of Aero Vodochody, a Czech firm, as an offset deal in 1998 is a good example.

The FDI regime has wrecked such opportunities. A proposal last year by India’s Ministry of Commerce to increase the FDI cap in defense manufacturing was rejected outright by the defense ministry. By both sheltering local firms from real competition and yet requiring foreigners to invest in them with offsets, the government wants the best of the old socialist way of nurturing its infant industries and the new capitalist way of acquiring foreign know-how. So far it has failed to secure either. [WSJ]

The Asian Balance: The East Asian kabuki

A curtain-raiser to this year’s geopolitical drama in five acts

Excerpts from Business Standard column today:

The first act began a few days ago when some online military buffs posted images of a new stealth aircraft, tested on the very day Robert Gates, US defence secretary, was in Beijing to discuss, well, military cooperation. The test surprised a lot of people — including, apparently, Mr Hu himself. The underlying message, however, should not. Powerful political constituencies within the People’s Republic not only see the US-China relationship as adversarial, but have developed the capacity to challenge US military power in East Asia and beyond. In recent years we have seen the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deploy a submarine fleet that can counter the US Navy’s surface combatants, develop missiles that can destroy aircraft carriers and satellites, and now test next-generation fighter aircraft.

No, it is extremely unlikely that the United States and China will get into a war — hot or cold — in the near future, but China is attempting to shape a military balance that will give it greater leverage over Japan, South Korea and their primary protector, the United States. At the same time, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia and India will either feel awed, more insecure or both. North Korea, Pakistan, Myanmar and Iran will be emboldened. Like the slow, initial act of traditional Japanese theatre, this sets the stage for the remaining acts of the unfolding drama. There are four more acts in this East Asian kabuki. [Business Standard]

What are they smoking in the Pentagon?

The things Mullen & Petraeus will believe

Bob Woodward’s book casts the top uniformed leadership of the US armed forces in very poor light. Going by this report in the New York Times today, you’ll have to agree that Mr Woodward was not far off the mark.

Consider these two consecutive sentences:

For now, there are no signs that Cold Start is more than a theory, and analysts say there is no significant shift of new troops or equipment to the border.

But American military officials and diplomats worry that even the existence of the strategy in any form could encourage Pakistan to make rapid improvements in its nuclear arsenal. [NYT]

Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus (and their civilian colleague, Richard Holbrooke) want to warn the Indian government against committing thoughtcrime. They offer the incredible argument that the very notion that India will respond to Pakistani terrorism with a military attack scares the Pakistani army and hence must not even be thought of.

These gentlemen can’t be serious.

Little wonder then that President Obama is unlikely to bring this up during his India trip. That it was previously discussed—with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying unambiguously such a doctrine is not government policy—is in itself a sign of the credulity and, yes, incompetence currently reigning at the top levels of the US armed forces.

Sushant & I have previously argued that India should do an Operation Markarap to scotch one excuse the Pakistani army has offered to the United States to obfuscate the real reasons for its foot-dragging. But if some US officials believe that India must be persuaded to stop thinking about its defence strategies, then there are few polite ways to tell them what to do.

Related Links: Polaris explains the Cold Start thing and Walter Ladwig has a good academic paper on the topic.

My op-ed in Outlook: The buck yes, but where’s the bang

Union Budget 2009 and what it means for foreign affairs and defence

In the July 20th issue of Outlook magazine I point out that the Budget has the good, the bad and the ugly for strategic affairs. An edited version of the following appeared in print.

First the good: the UPA government used the Union Budget to strengthen India’s leverage in Sri Lanka by setting aside Rs 500 crore for the rehabilitation of the Tamils displaced by war. It has increased the foreign aid outlay for Nepal to Rs 238 crore, set aside Rs 125 crores for Mongolia and increased outlays for African and Eurasian countries by various amounts. This is in addition to sustaining the massive assistance to Bhutan (Rs 961 crore) and Afghanistan (Rs 442 crore). The foreign ministry’s overall budget has been increase by 24%, which should help Indian missions raise the game in foreign capitals.

Similarly, the increased outlays in several areas under broad rubric of national security—including defence, police, paramilitary forces, space and atomic energy—should be useful in securing the nation in an increasingly volatile geopolitical environment. The allocation of between 2% to 3% of GDP (depending on how defence expenditure is defined) even while massively expanding social sector expenditure programmes assigns substantial resources for defence while sending a signal of the size and strength of the Indian economy.

India, in its own conservative way, appears to be strengthening its diplomatic and military capacity in line with its status as an emerging power.

But only partly, because there is the bad. Continue reading “My op-ed in Outlook: The buck yes, but where’s the bang”

Overseas military deployments & defence decisionmaking

India needs to rethink its defence decisionmaking system

It is usual to conduct navel gazing after failures and fiascos. But it is good to do so after little successes. Even as the Indian Navy demonstrated the utility of its deployment in anti-piracy operations far from Indian shores, it is opportune to examine a debate that has been taking place in the background. As Manu Pubby reports the “Navy feels that it needs greater authority to tackle piracy off the Somalia coast. While the Navy has proposed that the Chief of Navy Staff be given the direct authority to sanction action against pirates in the high seas, the ministry has said that all permissions should be routed through the South Block.”

The navy’s case is based on allowing its commanders the operational flexibility to employ the appropriate assets to achieve its mission. This need not be inconsistent with the political leadership and top defence ministry officials having oversight over the broader strategic and policy issues. There is, obviously, a tension between the two, arising from where operational control ends and strategic policy starts. But the fact that there is contention between the naval headquarters and the defence ministry suggests that such issues have not been satisfactorily ironed out (perhaps because of a paucity of unilateral overseas military deployments).

Sushant Singh and I have previously argued that India must rethink its policy on overseas military deployments, and have advocated sending forces only to theatres—such as Somalia and Afghanistan—where its interests are involved. Such a policy requires development of guidelines that achieve the twin objectives: strategic alignment with geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders.

The decision of where and when to deploy is primarily a political imperative and should rest with the legitimate constitutional authority: the prime minister, the appropriate cabinet committee and the defence minister. The national security advisor, the defence secretary and the chief of defence staff must inform and advise the political authority. Of course, this means that the political leadership can task the armed forces with a particular mission. But it should not exclude the armed forces from submitting proposals to the political leadership, through defence ministry channels, seeking mandates to conduct particular operations. It is up to the civilian component—political and bureaucratic—to define the mission, sanction the capacity and approve the rules of engagement.

So empowered, the armed forces will have the mandate to conduct a particular military campaign with full operational autonomy for almost all levels of conventional warfare. Within the sanctioned capacity and rules of engagement, the military commanders will have the latitude to decide the best course of action to achieve the mission’s objectives.

It also needs changes to the structure of the armed forces. As Sushant Singh & Rohit Pradhan argue in this month’s issue of Pragati it is important to distinguish the roles military advisors and military commanders. So while the chief of defence staff (CDS) should rightly be the government’s chief military advisor, in this capacity he should not have operational control of the troops. Operational control, as K Subrahmanyam has pointed out, should be vested in theatre commands that combine army, navy and air force resources, along the lines of the US model.

Both the political leadership and the military brass might find it seductive to merely seek “control”: but what India needs is both a policy framework that defines roles and responsibilities of the top echelons of India’s defence setup, as well as a restructuring of the armed forces themselves. Until this happens, India’s approach to emerging military threats will be reactive, ad hoc and sub-optimal.

Tragedy aboard the Nerpa

Twenty die in an accident on a nuclear-powered submarine that might have been leased to India

There were four times as many people on board as there should have been. And an accidental burst of fire-suppressant gas suffocated twenty of them to death. The Nerpa, an Akula-II class nuclear submarine that was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan has returned to its base on Russia’s Pacific coast.

According to some media reports, the Nerpa was to have entered service in the Indian Navy as INS Chakra, under a ten-year lease from Russia. This would allow the navy to train its personnel ahead of the launch of the Advanced Technology Vessel, India’s indigenous nuclear submarine. But both governments have been cagey over the existence of such a deal, although 40 navy personnel were supposed to have left for Vladivostok earlier this month. However, the Indian Navy has officially denied that the Nerpa had Indian crew members on board.

Update: 1. From Information Dissemination & 2. The list of casualties released by Russian authorities does not have any Indians (via BRF)