Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

And Then There Were Two

Thoughts on the MMRCA shortlist.

There has been a lot of surprise, and considerable anguish in Washington, Stockholm and, presumably, Moscow—as well as New Delhi—over the decision by the Ministry of Defence to shortlist the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon in India’s $10+ billion medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition. The rejection of both American bids—by Boeing of its F-18, and by Lockheed Martin of its F-16—have surprised many who had expected the tender to go American, and thus further consolidate military-technological ties between the United States and India. The belief was that a defence acquisition on this scale would be a political decision, and that there was limited utility in India’s courting the favour—at this juncture—of Western Europe or Russia. Further, many saw a decision to buy American as a quid pro quo of sorts for Washington’s providing India an exception on international civilian nuclear commerce as part of the landmark nuclear agreement between the two countries (“a 123-for-126 trade-off” in the words of one foreign diplomat in Delhi). Certainly, the allure of the MMRCA deal helped many promoters of the U.S.-India relationship in Washington push harder for close ties.

So what happened? First, just as important as political considerations is the question of which aircraft is best suited for the purposes of the Indian air force. Rigourous technical trials were conducted in various climates: Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh. At the Leh trials in early 2010, four aircraft performed poorly, including – reportedly – the two American candidates, which were said to have had trouble operating at high altitudes at such low temperatures. In fact, the final short-list should not have been a surprise: Praveen Swami reported the Eurofighter’s front-runner status after trials late last year, and over three months ago, Indian newspapers confirmed that the Eurofighter had finished first and the Rafale second with the Gripen and F-18 rounding off the top four.

Second, the spectre of corruption—which looms large over the Indian defence acquisition process—proved a double-edged sword for U.S. suppliers. American manufacturers and the U.S. government were fully confident that the comparative transparency of their defense sales process would give them an edge over their Russian and European competitors, still reeling from the legacies of HDW, Gorshkov and Bofors.  However, the scandals raging in India related to the Commonwealth Games and the 2G spectrum auction also made it near impossible for the results of technical trials to be overruled by India’s political leaders on non-technical grounds.

Third, although the reliability of the United States as a supplier post-sales may have been an over-exaggerated concern, the United States was not seen as pliable enough on access to technology. European governments positioned themselves as far more accommodating of India’s desires to access high-technologies, and were more willing to tailor their bids to assuage Indian concerns.  With both the Eurofighter and the Rafale, the likelihood of India becoming a de facto partner in joint production and development may be far greater. Washington was also seen as overly stringent on end-use monitoring, and the Indian government had been previously criticised—perhaps unfairly—for compromising Indian interests on that front.

Finally, American ambiguity on India’s geopolitical concerns played a role. This had at least two dimensions to it. The first was the notion perpetuated by Washington, especially by the current administration, of continued American relative decline. Despite buoyancy in many quarters in New Delhi regarding the United States’ future as a strong partner, the prevailing impression—probably incorrect—is that the United States is a losing investment over the long-term, even among those favourably disposed towards the United States. Second, the general drift in relations since 2008 has only increased both countries’ resolve to drive harder bargains. This period of drift was initiated by the Obama administration’s early missteps on China and Afghanistan and has persisted despite the president’s visit to India last November as a consequence of political developments in both capitals.

Moving forward: a few further considerations. First, this decision will undoubtedly have a blow back effect in Washington, providing ammunition to the many sceptics of U.S.-India relations. Second, while the MMRCA may be a landmark deal, it is not the only one, and American suppliers have steadily encroached upon the fast-growing Indian defence market. In fact, it may lead to some soul-searching on the part of the U.S. government and U.S. industry as to what they could have done better. Finally, it is not over yet. Many forget that the Dassault Rafale was considered completely out of the competition only two years ago. Previous such tenders—including, most notably, a massive deal for 197 helicopters for the Indian army—have been unceremoniously scrapped; in that case, the favored Eurocopter bid was tarnished and the U.S. manufacturer Bell returned to the fray. The defence minister’s unusually public warning on the subject of corruption just days ago suggests concern as much as caution.

On a more optimistic note, we must remember that neither the Eurofighter nor the Rafale are bad planes. Both are advanced 4.5 generation aircraft that provide India access to top-of-the-line technology. Among the contenders, the Eurofighter in particular is high speed (capable, perhaps, of supercruise), designed for air-superiority, has excellent infra-red tracking capabilities, and adheres very closely to the original Indian request for proposals. Its high cost is certainly a concern, as are spare parts, but one welcome takeaway from the MMRCA process is that cost alone has not determined India’s choice in acquiring a major weapon platform, when all too often it had been the default determining factor.

Further reading:

  • For an excellent, and technically detailed, comparison of the six bids, see Ashley Tellis’ monograph Dogfight! especially page 77.
  • My colleague over at The Acorn makes a cogent case for why the decision should have favoured a U.S. supplier. As does Offstumped.
  • A piece - now a little old – by Adm. Arun Prakash on the subject.

Comments are closed