Tuesday, 17 May 2011

MMRCA Debate By Ashok K Mehta

Writer Ashok K Mehta

The F16 is a 40-year-old single-engine aircraft which has been the mainstay of the Pakistani Air Force while the F18 did not fulfil the IAF's parameters.

The President of the USA, Mr Barack Obama, described ‘Operation Geronimo’ as “one of the greatest intelligence military operations in our nation’s history. We got Osama”. But a month earlier, Mr Obama lost out — at least so far — on the other prize he had eyed: India’s multi-million-dollar order for Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft.

In a letter dated February 4, 2011 to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mr Obama wrote: “Let me reassure you that the US is a willing, capable and reliable defence partner to India. High-tech defence sales are increasingly a cornerstone of our strategic partnership. I want to underscore the strategic importance the United States attaches to the selection of a US proposal in India’s MMRCA competition. The US is offering India two of the most advanced multi-mission combat aircraft in the world — the Boeing FA/18IN and the Lockheed Martin F16IN. These aircraft have a demonstrated qualitative military advantage over any current fourth generation plus aircraft… I view the MMRCA acquisition as a key step along this path. I respectfully ask that your Government will give its full consideration to the commercial, technical and strategic merit to the US proposal.”

Two months later, the upfront rejection by India of both the Boeing F18 and Lockheed Martin F16 is a strategic error. Many defence experts expected the F18 to be sneaked into the shortlist along with the European Typhoon and the French Rafale to make the competition trans-Atlantic and politically more vibrant.

Many reasons are being given for keeping the American aircraft out, the most obvious being that they are not up to scratch. The F16 is a 40-year-old single-engine aircraft with a psychological hangover for the Indian Air Force — it has been the mainstay of the Pakistani Air Force for four decades. The F18 did not fulfil all of the IAF’s technical parameters but the twin-engine aircraft could have been included in deference to the India-US strategic partnership and to keep the price negotiations on an even keel.

The Eurofighter is priced at around $125 million while the Rafale is $85 million. Less than $50 million, the F18 could have forced some markdown of the European contenders, inducing additionally cuts in lifecycle costs. The two aircraft selected have been asked to review their price bids. The final selection will be a political and strategic decision not necessarily based on the lowest bid and will be taken by the Cabinet Committee on Security.

The IAF favours the Rafale not the least because the French are promising the moon. There is also a high level back channel Italian connection, they say. The Rafale will bestow several advantages — facilitate the Mirage 2000 upgrade programme; slip fit into the existing operational and logistics infrastructure of Mirage 2000. Snecma, which has built the Rafale engine, is also the company which provides engines for Mirage 2000, so that is a bonus. The Rafale though is not in service of any other air force except that of France.

Similarly of the four countries that have developed the Typhoon, three — Britain, Italy and Spain — have decided to go in for the fifth generation F35 being developed by the US. The British RAF is pounding Col Gaddafi with the Typhoon.

The $10 million MMRCA contract was expected to generate 27,000 jobs and boost the flagging defence industry in the US. But the history of India-US defence relationship has not been a happy one. Except for the purchase of the Packet aircraft by the IAF in 1962, no other aircraft has been acquired. The IAF has relied on British, French and mainly Soviet/Russian origin fleets.

The US has not stood by India and imposed sanctions on it in 1974, after the Pokhran I peaceful nuclear explosion, and again in 1998, after the Pokhran II nuclear tests. Ironically, the nuclear tests revived defence ties but India was still wary that the US would turn off the tap as it had in the case of spares of Westland Sea-King helicopters, Navy ALH engines, etc. In 2004, when India signed the Hawk jet trainer contract with the UK, the clause that there will be no US parts was inserted on India’s insistence which led to time and cost overruns.

As WikiLeaks has revealed, India had the word ‘strategic’ removed from the text of the Defence Framework Agreement of 2005 with the US, so high was the level of distrust. India has evaded signing many of the several obligatory agreements going by difficult acronyms like CISMOA, BECA, SOFA, EUMA and so on which accompany high-tech equipment and convert a partnership into a de facto alliance relationship. They entail interoperability, end-user inspections and verifications and periodic certification on legitimate use of equipment and supplies.

Till 2005, India had acquired military supplies from the US worth less than $500 million which included 12 weapon-locating radars — this one single deal taking 15 years to fructify after a tortuous scrutiny of India’s bona fides. Since then, the US has sold (or will sell) equipment worth $15 billion through the FMS route which ensures probity and transparency. The huge jump in US defence sales has turned the corner as far as reliability of American defence supplies is concerned.

Why have technical considerations alone trumped political and strategic imperatives of the MMRCA contract? The US Ambassador to India, Mr Timothy Roemer, who announced his resignation the day after the decision to reject the American bid, said, “I am deeply disappointed but respect the selection process.” Analysts believe awarding the contract to a European fighter is political balancing: The US has won $15 billion worth of contracts and Russia already hogs defence purchases and has been awarded the fifth generation fighter deal. So Europe is the obvious choice for spreading the largesse, given it has a first rate fourth generation aircraft.

The door seems to have been closed for American aircraft by not including the F18 in the short list which would have been politically correct and would also have recognised the White House missive. Maybe it was the presidential letter and the WikiLeaks cable indicating how craven Indian officials are with American diplomats. The Left has consistently accused the Manmohan Singh Government of having sold out to the US.

Ruling out US aircraft reflects strategic autonomy certainly, but the game could have been played more optimally by making it a three-horse race.