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 disagree.
    They were offering outdated technology. We want exactly what Israel has. Also we do not want them to sell the same stuff to the military-jihadi-complex.

  2. Right…… Just because the the rest of the world buys F-16s, we should do away with the procurement process. Hey, why have it at all, it will surely save us taxpayers some hard earned money.

    Why not just hire a consultant and do away with the entire process eh?

    One thing that is not appreciated is when commentators slip in ‘stubs’ into their articles. Slipping in a senence that the American ambassador is pro-India is a sweeping statement that has been made without any explanation. Saying he is doesn’t make him so.

    And considering your own blog entries which have been quite open in their criticism of Obama’s policy towards India, don’t you think his envoy represents his actions and in fact executes a few of them?

    Getting sidelined in London on the conference in Afghanistan was a brilliant piece of confidence building measure, wasn’t it?

    What if the planes tur ut to be defective compared to the Eurofighter? Want to explain that to the widows of the Indian Air Force pilots as a political deicision? So let’s see, armed forces with low morale resulting from decision by a government which treats their welfare subservient to political decisions are charged with protecting the country’s security. Do you think that augurs well for the country’s security.

  3. I absolutely disagree, the decisions were based on a technological comparison, F/A18 and or F-16 first flew more than 20 yrs back, the Eurofighter and Dassault both offered their latest aircraft. The fact that Lockheed/Boeing did not offer the F-22 or F-35 just speaks about the strategic importance given to India. If it was I making the technology decision I would never settle for an antiquated technology just to keep a buddy relationship, I don’t want to get caught short by my competition, especially so when the competition is Pakistan and China.

    American administrations have never demonstrated to be a reliable partner to anyone except for Israel so I don’t see any issue with someone taking that into the decision making process as well. This is especially so with India, when they halted exports to ISRO, or jet engines for Tejas. I would be dumb to fall into that trap again.

  4. The basic issue is one of trust. The US obviously does not trust India enough as a military ally to provide the IAF with the latest in technology (F22 or even F35). I think even the most strident Indian patriot would agree that the US is correct in this assessment – India pursues its own interests and is not bound by a treaty such as SEATO or NATO to the US. So why should the US give away some of its most prized military technology to a sometime ally? There are nations that have followed the US into recent wars, no matter how misguided, that have earned that trust in blood.

    A shipment of F22s could also tip the balance of power in the region enough as to potentially drive Chinese defense spending upwards, which everyone wants to avoid, and drive Pakistan insane at a delicate time in US-Pakistan relations. The US is hamstrung in trying to prevent a three way arms race. In this light, India may want to decide how decisive an advantage they would like to have in the skies, as overwhelming superiority might trouble their wealthier Chinese friends.

    Also keep in mind the F22 costs over twice as much as the other aircraft under consideration. The IAF budget was not there for 120-odd stealth fighters.

    And back to trust, India does not trust that the US will necessarily continue to be a friend and active ally, and so did not see a need to buy less cutting-edge fighters to forge a stronger friendship. And outfitting Pakistan with F-16s, as much as the Falcons are maligned on this page, gave Pakistan an advantage over the Korean War era Mig-21s the IAF uses now. While the FA-18s are newer and superior to the F-16s, they are still an aircraft first developed in the 1980s. As an American, I can see why India would want a diverse set of suppliers and the latest technology that fits in their budget, and thus why the EU suppliers were chosen. I don’t think the Obama administration is so petty and shortsighted as to punish India over this; it remains a reminder that the two nations simply have a long ways to go to become true allies, versus countries that currently happen to have some key shared interests.

  5. Good to see the beating that a so-called “strategic affairs” expert has managed to get on his own blog. Lol

    I nominate him for the “B. Raman Award for Best Strategic Analysis” which he himself instated recently.

  6. i think india was smart. why play counterweight and be the pawn in a failing game? it just puts india in a dangerous position in the long term. strong relations between india and china are critical to world peace; if buying american weapons holds less potential for future military friction, the better, in my humble opinion lol.

  7. in fact, i would say that taking the long term view that china and india are #1 and #2, probably flipping to #2 and #1 in 20-40 years after that… it becomes quite silly to try to start fuel anything that would lead to the folly of arms races that dominated the world when the west was in power. hopefully future leaders will be more enlightened and choose to make greater investments in arts and sciences instead. in fact, god, i hope so! 😉

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