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New Delhi Buys a Plane, Not a Defense Relationship

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
May 2, 2011

Cadets march during celebrations to mark the combined graduation parade for the flight cadets of the Indian Air Force at Dundigal. (Courtesy Reuters/Krishnendu Halder).

Defense is widely viewed in U.S. strategic circles as a pivotal sector for future U.S.-India cooperation. And at more than $10 billion, India’s procurement of 126 new multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) is among the world’s richest pending weapons purchases.  So by shortlisting two European competitors and passing on two U.S. bids, New Delhi has chosen a plane but, I fear, tapped the brakes on broadened security ties with Washington.

My good friend, Dan Twining, has an optimistic take on this over at Foreign  And since Dan and I are true believers in the U.S.-India partnership, I hope he’s right.  After all, the strategic rationale for closer U.S.-India ties transcends an airplane and very much remains.

But I fear the decision will dampen enthusiasm for India among powerful U.S. political and industrial lobbies.  And I fear it will raise questions for others about the scope of U.S.-India strategic cooperation.  Indeed, that’s true even in India.  Take Sanjaya Baru, my editor at the Business Standard and former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  Sanjaya has made this argument from the Indian end:  “The decision to make India’s choice of fighter jet a technical one,” he argues in his biweekly column, “was political.” And, he muses, the story says something important about the future trajectory of U.S.-India security ties.

Common interests will, of course, sustain the relationship, but skeptical voices will become more prominent in both capitals and the pace of big-ticket bilateral initiatives could slow.  That would be a shame.

Now, of course, much of the press coverage suggests that Washington was “shocked” by India’s decision last week. But New Delhi’s choice, reported on 28 April, is not, in fact, much of a surprise. Six planes had been shortlisted: two American, three European, and a Russian option. India passed on the U.S. offerings, selecting the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale to continue their bids.

Taken together, five factors probably explain New Delhi’s decision:

(1) Sources suggest that the Typhoon and Rafale bested their US competitors in technical trials, with the exception of tests of the radar.  (I don’t have the technical expertise to evaluate this, but it has been widely reported and is well accepted in India).

(2) Deepened ties with Washington are less controversial in India than in the past.  But strategic security ties remain contentious, and the skeptics include defense minister A.K. Antony, who played a central role in the MRCA decision.

(3) The prime minister, an advocate of closer ties with Washington, has been weakened by corruption scandals, not least the scandal swirling around the sale of India’s 2G spectrum. These scandals have yet to touch the Prime Minister Singh personally. But they have paralyzed elements of India’s government generally, while weakening Singh’s leverage.

(4) Such scandals also, no doubt, made it difficult for Indian decision-makers to argue for buying American in the face of apparent European technical advantages. Doing so would have left advocates vulnerable to charges of favoring a “worse” plane for ulterior reasons. And in recent months, Antony himself has shaped that context by loudly arguing that India’s MRCA decision must not be “political.”

(5) Finally, U.S. government advocacy was uneven. And while senior figures, including President Obama, did push the U.S. bids, the administration did not do so in a sustained way at its most senior levels.

What does India’s decision mean?

First, it raises questions about the scope and depth of future U.S.-India defense ties.  Advocates in both countries argued that a strategic relationship, not merely a plane, was at stake. Put differently, by buying American New Delhi would get more than just a plane: it would choose interoperability, closer ties to the U.S. defense establishment, and broadened joint capabilities.  But New Delhi, quite clearly, did not accept this argument.

At the same time, the decision will likely weaken advocacy on India-related issues by a powerful U.S. domestic lobby. U.S. defense industry had pushed hard, for example, for the U.S.-India civil nuclear initiative. And while U.S. firms have won other big Indian tenders–C-130J transport planes, P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, and so on–the MRCA decision was always seen as the biggest ticket. The decision will likely dampen the sector’s enthusiasm for India, more generally.

But most important, the decision will, I fear, almost certainly strengthen U.S. voices calling for a more “transactional” (or quid-pro-quo-based) approach to U.S.-India ties.  In the U.S., the dominant argument for closer relations over the past decade has been that U.S. actions to facilitate the rise of India are, in themselves, beneficial to U.S. interests — for example by strengthening Indian power as China emerges in Asia. But some, particularly in the U.S. Congress, argue that closer relations and recent major initiatives have yielded too little, especially in the nuclear area, where India’s liability law, adopted in 2010, remains contentious and U.S. firms have yet to begin work. Such arguments will now bleed into the defense arena–and potentially into other areas as well–as skeptical U.S. voices seize on India’s MRCA decision.

In turn, that will fuel Indian skepticism of U.S. intentions toward New Delhi. India has fiercely resisted a heavily transactional approach from the U.S.. And some in New Delhi are already arguing that the U.S. aims to “punish” India for its abstention on a Libya vote in the UN Security Council.

The bottom line is this: Skeptical voices are sure to become more prominent in both capitals. Relations will advance — but more quietly, and on the basis of fewer “big ticket” initiatives.  Advocates, including myself, will have to look for new and wide-ranging ways to push it forward, including in the defense arena.  Just take a look, for example, at my piece from earlier this week on the modest, but stalled, idea of a Bilateral Investment Treaty …

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Shashank Agrawal

    As an Indian I completely fail to understand why India is supposed to spend billions on substandard US planes (compared to Eurofighter, rafale and even Mig 35) while the US lavishly spends billions in military aid on such paragons of virtue as Pakistan, egypt and yemen. Last i checked Osama bin laden was not found in a military cantonment near Delhi.

  • Posted by Justin


    If you had two inimical nuclear powers on your borders-one of the them with the world’s second largest military, what aircraft would you want to buy?? A 35 year old design which will go out of service in the USAF in a couple of years, a slow bombtruck which has been critised as such by the US Navy??

    For common sense sake, the two European fighters are newer aircraft designed from the start to take on the Russian SU-27 family, which now dominates the Chinese military. These aircraft will serve in the Indian Air Force for upward of 30 years-the F-16 would be over 70 years in age by then. So do you think India should choose a “relationship” over its combat capabilities.

    The Super Hornet, AESA radar or not, is more of a strike aircraft than anything-can you improve the air to air capabilities of a bomb truck?? History and logic will tell you no. But you can improve a fighter’s attack capabilities-look at the F-15E.

    About technical trials, why is it so hard to believe?? The European jets are far more agile with their lighter weight and delta-canard designs. They would most likely have better “hot and high” performance than the heavier US aircaft. And India has plenty of such conditions.

    About transactional relationships, why is it not being mentioned that US companies have won more contracts there than anyone else in the past five years? If anything the Europeans and Israelis have complained that the US has elbowed them out. Irrespective of the MMRCA deal, it is certain that the US will remain a major supplier, if not the largest within a decade.

  • Posted by Irving

    The author of this article fails to mention the most important point. Technology transfer. Dassault approved full technology transfer. Eurofighter approved 60% tech transfer. Eurofighter was also offering to share critical knowledge in advancing India’s indigenous Kaveri fighter engine. They have described this help as being akin to pointing a person in a dark room in the right direction towards the light switch without actually holding their hands all the way to the switch. French engine company Snecma has already been doing consultation work on India’s indigenous fighter engine program and is well aware of India progress in developing an indigenous engine and the disposition of it scientists in this regard and I bet they would have made a similar offer. Critically, Dassault and Eurofighter GmbH have said they will give all the source codes. This is akin to being able to develop the brain of the robot yourself rather than buying a pre-programmed robot whose limitations and weak spots are known by the programmer. Eurofighter has also offered to make India a full consortium partner along with the U.K, Spain, Italy and Germany and so India would share in all future profits of Eurofighter GmbH. In effect it would become Indo-Eurofighter. The U.S was not offering anything close to this type of cooperation? So how does the U.S expect further defence closeness with out sharing the way the Europeans and the Russians do. India is not looking to become a mere client state like Kuwait or Colombia. I’m sure it does not help that the U.S is selling Lockheed Martin F-16s to Pakistan. On top of this the author fails to mention a very key point. In the event of nuclear tests or any other action the U.S deems unacceptable the U.S would cut off spare parts. They did this in 1998 leading to the grounding of India’s entire Sea King helicopter fleet. India would only test if faced with an extremely dire strategic scenario. At such a critical juncture could India afford a cut off of spares to one of its most lethal offensive weapons systems. India has already agreed to buy $15 billion worth of military equipment from the U.S.. Ten C-17s, eight P-8I and six C-130Js. In addition India has requested to buy even more C-17s which will mean additional billions. Btw did I forget to mention India has agreed to buy a hundred GE F414 engines for its indigenous Tejas light combat fighter. So I hardly think Lockheed, G.E, United Technologies and Boeing’s enthusiasm for India will diminish.

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    S/m..notwithstanding the supposedly inferiority of US aircraft I think India is simply spreading good-will Westward which includes Europe and the US.


  • Posted by Kumar

    The decision will likely dampen the sector’s enthusiasm for India, more generally

    I have to vehemently disagree. With orders of P-8I and C-17 (both on order, and extensions), Boeing will have more than $10B worth of orders.

    Lockheed with orders of C-130J has another additional ~$2B worth orders.

    Add to this the ongoing discussions about Chinook and Apache with Boeing.

    The long-neglected acquisition requirements of the different forces in India are just beginning to be considered seriously because of available economic resources. There will be many such RFPs.

    The U.S. Government and the defense companies will have to understand and learn on how to strategically engage India. This cannot be copy-paste strategies adopted with other allies such as Japan, Korea, etc. Nor can these be along the line of NATO. These would have to learned and understood systematically with time.

    Critical engagement of India will require mutual respect and not quid-pro-quo type thinking. That is only likely to backfire very quickly. Another aspect that needs to be maintained in perspective all of the time is that with $100 billion + worth of defense acquisitions that are likely to come up in the next decade or two, such vociferous misplaced “hurt” and implicit threats by doom-sayers will only cause Indian government to be reticent in inviting American bids and thereby result in more harm than good for American companies.

    Have to accept that the best of the equipment from American perspective may not be the best according to Indian criteria. That does not make them second best, just that they do not fit the requirements. Respecting that is critical for a true strategic relationship.

    Let us not forget that only about 12 years ago, a lot of the Indian force equipment was grounded because of crippling sanctions imposed following the nuclear tests. Their R&D for Fly-by-Wire was confiscated by Lockheed. Only during Obama’s visit 6 months ago were their defense and space research organizations removed from sanctions list. The very organizations that will be engaged in Transfer-of-Tech. It takes time to build trust such as that needed for selling 126-200 fighter jets.

    Treat India as a partner and not merely a buyer. Do not lecture about Strategic Partnership like a nagging fiance “If you love me you would do this for me and that for me…” That is not sustaining.

    Not to mention the order for M-777 Howitzers, which is starting at 140+ but likely to quickly escalate in numbers given the long term problems with artillery acquisitions with Indian Army.

    This is all not counting for almost 100 GE F414 engines for LCA MK2.

  • Posted by J K Narayan

    Competition is the name of the game, right?
    “Powerful U.S. political and industrial lobbies” are of not much use if the product is “bested” by some other products. Might as well admit it (though I suspect some face-saving would be necessary).

  • Posted by John Hildebrand

    If the US defense industry can’t compete, then it needs to make better equipment. Just because my friend wants to sell me his car doesn’t me I’m going to buy it over my neighbor who I only barely talk to.

  • Posted by Pradeep Jain

    US is an unreliable “ally” for India. India was refuses steel mills by US industry and it had to seek that help from Russia.

    It spends $3.4b/yr in “AID” to Pakistan, yet it took 10+ years to get Osama in the friendly arms of the Pakistan military barely 100 miles from its capital. What does it get from its strategic ally? Lets be benign to American military-industrial complex and simply say US is a patsy of Pakistan.

    In this connection, lets say there was some GPS device embedded in US planes that let the CIA track location of all jet planes sold to India. Then lets postulate that CIA planned the 26/11 operation with a retired agent. Then CIA/US ability to track jets becomes sinister.

    India’s decision not to trust US power politics is understandable.

    I just wonder if India is getting any technology from this deal or even has the ability to repair jets DURING a war by itself or will operations grind to halt without help from suppliers.

    Kind of funny if #1 world’s democracy India doesn’t trust the so-called #2 democracy of the US which dotes on the military dictatorship of Pakistan that hosts a guest that did over a trillion dollars of damage on 9/11, and has cost the US another trillion dollars in Iraq/Afghanistan. ONE MAN and we could not get him for 10 years.
    With friends like this who needs enemies.

    Just what will US do when Al Qaeda dirty suitcase bomb possibly of Pakistani nuclear waste explodes in another 9/11 incident? Give the Pakistani government a raise in foreign aid?

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