Friday, April 29, 2011

US Fighters out of MMRCA Race

By Pravin Sawhney

With both United States aircraft, Boeing’s Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s Super Viper IN (F-16) out of the race for the over USD 10billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal, relations between India and the US are headed for a nosedive, requiring a major holistic review by both sides. more

By timing his resignation announcement on 28 April 2011 within hours of the Indian defence ministry rejecting the US aircraft, US ambassador to India, Timothy J. Roemer has on behalf of his government made known the displeasure.

There is little gainsaying that it was the US defence industry that gave the needed push to see the Indo-US nuclear agreement through in the US Congress. This was because the George W. Bush administration had made it clear that the bilateral 10-years Defence Framework signed on 28 June 2005 was the centre-piece of the civil nuclear agreement penned three weeks later on 18 July 2005. The new bilateral cosiness had sprung from the sudden announcement made by US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice in Delhi on 16 March 2005 that the US would help India become a major power. While the US never publicly spelt out what it meant, comfort was drawn from Rice’s article written in Foreign Affairs magazine (January-February 2000) that: ‘There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect India and Pakistan and to think only of Kashmir or the nuclear competition between the two states. But India is an element in China’s calculation, and should be in America’s too.’ Neither side gave much thought to the fundamental issue that a strategic relationship between the US and India would be unequal: the US mantra was non-proliferation, while India harped on civil nuclear energy. Regarding defence, India wanted high technology, while the US desired a tighter embrace. The US wanted deeper bilateral military ties leading to commonality of equipment, implying majority Indian combat equipment be of US origin. Mutual frustration was writ large in the partnership.

Specific to the MMRCA, there are two issues, operational and strategic. From the IAF’s viewpoint, while the US aircraft may have fulfilled all desired mission requirements, both US entries have vintage designs. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect them to have superb aerodynamics flexibility for the entire 40-years life of MMRCA. Both short-listed finalists, Eurofighter and Rafale are new designs. But India knew this all along, then why was this not said earliest, is the question the US will ask. Reacting to the news of down selection, Boeing has said that it will seek a de-brief from the IAF and then decide its options. This matter, thus, will not settle amicably; the Original Equipment Manufacturer’s (OEM) grudge will be that it spent over USD 500,000 for technical evaluations. The other issue that the IAF will not say openly, but would have impressed upon the defence ministry is the reliability factor. Who would stand guaranty for assured product support of US combat aircraft in case of a war with either Pakistan or China? Then, there will be issues of OEM inspection (specific to the US) of its sold aircraft to India, and the fact that India has not signed certain critical US agreements (Logistics Supply Agreement, Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement, and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation) for sale of high technology. What happens when the IAF would want to upgrade US combat aircraft with state-of-art technology are questions for which the government will have few answers.

At the strategic level, New Delhi feels repeatedly let-down by the US. On the one hand, the US is asking much more than India can give on the implementation of the civil nuclear deal. On the other hand, the US has conveniently blinked on the illegal gifting of two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan by China. It is known that Pakistan’s nuclear programme is for building nuclear weapons alone, and US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Mike Mullen has admitted that Pakistan’s fissile material stocks are growing exponentially. Then, there are terrorism and Afghanistan issues, where the US has often snubbed India in favour of an unreliable ally. Is the MMRCA pay-back time for India? Ironically, what the US aircraft OEMs do in the coming months will have a definitive impact on the Indian indigenous industry. After all, it is the US defence industry’s arrival in India that has seen awakening of the indigenous defence industry.

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