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The strategic logic of India’s fighter deal

May 28, 2011

India received plenty of criticism from US commentators and officials recently for eliminating Boeing’s Super Hornet and the Lockheed F-16IN from the shortlist for a 126 fighter contract. The argument goes that India should have chosen to reinforce its relationship with the United States and purchased one of their aircraft. Instead, India has eliminated both the US bids (and India’s standby arms supplier, Russia) in favor of the French Rafale and the EADS Eurofighter. Why did India snub its likely future partner in a counter-Chinese strategic partnership?

Indian strategists simply do not see the problem that way. Several important problems have come to the surface – firstly, that the F-16IN and F/A-18 Super Hornet are older airframes, closer to the end of their technological life-cycle than the newer European aircraft. They may yet be open for newer upgrades that will allow India to keep pace with China’s modernizing indigenous aircraft industry. Making the development of India’s own industry even more difficult were US restrictions on technology transfers and demand for inspections. India does not want to be reliant on its arms suppliers, like most great powers. Finally, the fact that America has sold upgraded F-16 aircraft to Pakistan recently must be figuring in Indian strategic logic. Such a snub would not just be out of spite, it would also be out of a desire to maintain a strong qualitative edge against India’s main military adversary, and America ought to recognize that its relationship with Pakistan has often left Indians feeling insecure about their strategic position. When Obama and other Americans floated the notion of including India in the AfPak brief, possibly to follow Pakistani exhortations to solve the Kashmir dispute in an attempt to exit Afghanistan with a comprehensive regional settlement, the Indian press went berserk. Understandably so, considering the sensitivity of Kashmir to both sides and the awful US track record at mediating the problem. Indeed, much more progress has been made between the two states without America breathing down either Islamabad’s or New Delhi’s neck.

It is actually quite logical for India to maintain flexibility in its arms purchases even from a strategic political, rather than purely technical, standpoint. Far from being short-sighted, India recognizes that it will be making a large number of investments in its military in the years ahead, and given the likely growth to come in the Indian navy, this may well involve US cooperation. The fundamental geostrategic logic of Indo-American cooperation will find other opportunities to express itself, but it hardly puts India in a position where it can only guarantee its interests by expressing the maximum possible deference to the United States.

After all, part of countering Chinese influence can even run against the immediate interests of the US. For example, competition for energy dictates that India maintain some degree of openness and flexibility vis-a-vis Iran, which would harm India should it fall too deeply into a Chinese orbit. It also means competing with the Chinese for influence in Burma – America may not have more concrete interests at stake by alienating the ruling dictatorship, but India does. India will also likely continue trying to keep relations with Russia warm and keeping it wary of China. Essentially, the most comprehensive approach to Indian security mitigates against India showing America the same kind of deference that Europe or Japan did during the Cold War. Unlike Europe, India is a major power in its own right, rather than a oft-incoherent bloc of states in relative decline. So too will India have greater horizons for pursuing an independent foreign policy than Japan.

Multipolarity, at least within the realm of Eurasian geopolitics, will have  important effects on US relationships with India. China is not the overwhelming threat to Eurasian system that the Soviet Union was. India has far more capabilities relative to China than Japan or the European states did against the USSR. While Indo-American relations will certainly be less tense than Sino-American relations during the Cold War, Indian balancing against China will leave India far less dependent on the US than its treaty allies were during the past several decades.

Additionally, a multipolar world and the new level of European security mean that a stronger Indo-European defense trade might ultimately benefit the US. For all the complaining about the lackluster state of European defense, Europe will not be able to maintain its defense industries through an age of austerity without foreign buyers. Just as major purchases from China helped keep Russia’s armaments industry alive during the 1990s, Indian purchases may help sustain the defense industrial base of Europe. This will help Europe maintain the basic economic strength to re-enter the Eurasian security arena in the future – and it also reduces pressure for Europeans to push against the EU arms embargo on China, which would obviously harm US interests.

While it would be too much to say Asia’s 21st century will be Europe’s 19th or 18th, it would do well for Americans and American analysts to look to that era’s diplomatic relations. When alliance systems are fluid and the strongest state cannot maintain outright geopolitical hegemony, states have more to choose from and more complicated grand strategic agendas. Getting used to such snubs and learning to compensate so deteriorating relations do not imperil enduring national interests will help American leaders and policymakers both better understand Eurasian geopolitics and craft sounder grand strategy.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rajiv Sethi permalink
    May 30, 2011 2:40 am

    One of the few articles emanating from western media which makes sense. The reasons why India chose to reject American aircraft are many and they carry weight.

    The foremost reason why India rejected US aircraft is that US has chosen to cut off the spare parts during an ongoing war to arm twist India in acceding to US demands.

    The second reason pertains to the treatment meted out to Indian software experts who were validating software for control laws at a Lockheed Martin facility in US. Post Indian nuclear tests, these experts were summarily made to leave their offices, herded into a small group and then kept under house arrest until their deportation to India. All collaboration was then suspended forthwith to punish India for daring to do the prohibited!

    The third reason why Indians hate US stuff is because it comes with software locks which can be imposed whenever US does not want its weapons to be used. It is for this reason that India bought only transport aircraft which are just logistic support but are not weapons of war.

    One further irritant is the EULA or end user licensing agreement under which US has the rights to inspect the aircraft which it has SOLD to India and see if any modifications have been done to it. It makes mandatory for US military experts to visit Indian bases of their choice and if they don’t like what they see to use the software kill switches.

    The fourth reason for rejection is that the Pakistanis have been using the F-16 for almost thirty years now and have a thorough knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses. Why buy an obsolete aircraft at the end of its life cycle when a next generation aircraft is available, Eurofighter and Rafale are both better fighters and also an enigma for Pakistan – at least in the opening phase of a hot war.

    The problem with US is that the reality of its real plight is yet to sink in. Sure it has all capabilities for force projection anywhere in the world but it does not have the finances to do it. Another war with India or China will end its hegemony for good. If that raises some eyebrows, it needs to be reiterated that in 1971 during the Indo -Pak war, the US seventh fleet dis come in to striking distance and would have intervened on the side of Pakistan if the Russians had not stepped in with their sixth fleet.

    Us is an uncertain ally and to depend upon it is to shoot oneself in the foot. India is one of the most ancient countries in the world and has emerged intact with its culture and its ethos intact. This can not be said of any other culture.

    We have long memories and while we may have to grin and bear a bully, we remember the treatment and will get even eventually.

  2. May 30, 2011 8:34 pm

    I agree with the post’s point that India should not adopt the attitude toward the US that Japan and W.Europe did during the Cold War.

    However, on the question of including India in a comprehensive Afghanistan approach: this might have upset the Indian press but it was not a crazy idea, although it hasn’t gone much of anywhere. Lawrence Wright in his recent New Yorker piece on US policy toward Pakistan suggests that US should cut military aid to Pakistan and concomitantly press India to go back to the table on Kashmir. Also not a crazy idea, though the chances that the US can pressure India to do that are probably slim. But the fact remains that the level of India-Pakistan tension, which goes up and down but in general stays fairly high, does not benefit India or Pakistan, and certainly does not help US goals in Afghanistan. Without the handy presence of India as a supposed threat, Pakistan would have had fewer excuses available for its failure to prosecute vigorous campaigns vs. the Afghan Taliban in its borders. And without the handy presence of Kashmir as an ongoing issue/problem, the Pakistani military and ISI would have far fewer excuses or reason for aiding groups like Lashkar-i-Taiba. So there is every reason for the US to want to see a resolution of the Kashmir issue; the question is how to get there.

    • May 30, 2011 9:55 pm

      I agree that Kashmir is certainly part of the problem, however, I think the resolution there will be so much more complex than a resolution to Afghanistan that the risks of getting involved in that dispute far outweigh the potential benefits.

      The Pakistani use of Kashmir is essentially an excuse – the forces deployed there, which are trained and equipped to fight a conventional or nuclear war against the Indian army, are not going to be of much use in defending Pakistan from the TTP, LeJ, or the other sundry militant groups operating in the country today. Pakistan is going to try to play the Kashmir card for all its worth, the goal has always been to take advantage of the GWOT to leverage US pressure on India.

      I read Wright’s plan and I simply don’t think the pressuring India part of it is very feasible. For the same reason that I’m skeptical about pegging major US regional policies to the Israeli Palestinian peace process, I’m similarly skeptical about making a Kashmir settlement a necessary or sufficient condition for any kind of major US move on Afghanistan or the region generally. It’s just far, far, too much work on an issue the US has a terrible track record of dealing with for a very low payoff, and in the case of India, a severe chance of ruining a major relationship. Unlike the Arab regimes we’ve propped up in the Middle East, we can’t force either Pakistan or India to be satisfied with the other side’s truculence in the peace process. I agree that ideally, a resolution of Indo-Pakistani disputes would help a lot, I just don’t see it as a feasible option given the geopolitical context and domestic climates at the time.

      • May 31, 2011 7:59 am

        I agree that the part of Wright’s plan calling for pressuring India is less feasible than he thinks.

        Side point on Kashmir: My understanding is that in addition to deploying regular soldiers in Kashmir, the Pakistani army helps various militant groups (which may be based in Pakistan proper) to operate in Kashmir. With Kashmir out of the picture, there would be less reason for the Pakistani military to maintain ties with those particular groups. Though admittedly the army might find other reasons to do so and the groups might find other ’causes’ and areas of interest.

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