The fighter deal and US pique

By A. Vinod Kumar, IANS,

It took ages for India to decide on its Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT). Though the British Aerospace (BAe) Hawk was a consistent frontrunner, the final run-up was enriched by its intense competition with the Czech-origin Aero Vodochody, which was acquired by Boeing in its attempt to make inroads into the Indian military aviation domain. Vodochody even issued a full-page ad in a national daily as if selling a consumer good. BAe, though, eventually clinched the deal.Boeing didn’t mind, nor did the US administration, which was then initiating the baby steps of a strategic partnership with India. Like the AJT, the race for the Multi-role Medium-Range Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was also expected to be eventful, but not to the level that opinion-makers in one of the countries, whose companies was in contention, will hold the future of bilateral relations at the mercy of a commercial (or operational) decision. So too are the passionate assessments of some Indian analysts, who seem to postulate that the operational future of the 78-year old Indian Air Force should be string-tied to the American military-industrial complex.

Support TwoCircles

It is hard to fathom, even by realist explanations of inter-state relations, how the Americans could deem it a privileged right to gain a dominant pie of Indian defence acquisitions as a natural outcome of the defence cooperation, and at an emotional level, as a thanksgiving for the nuclear deal. For just a decade back, India was a pariah for the Pentagon when it comes to technology transfer, defence sales and dual-use items.

Things have radically changed since the strategic partnership was initiated and the defence cooperation framework was signed in 2005. From then on, US defence majors have competed to set up shop in India, hard-sell their products and cultivate influential decision-makers in the political and military set-up, while engaging the American political leadership to endow the final push. Some high-end acquisitions through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route also encouraged them to imagine a long-haul presence, and consequent dominance, in the fastest growing defence market.

What they probably missed is the hard-mould mindset and apprehensions influencing a dominant section of India’s bureaucracy and political leadership. While too much has been suggested about Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s purported aversion to American coziness, little consideration has been given to the fact that a deep-rooted skepticism runs within South Block when it comes to defence cooperation with Washington. For, hardly any discussion on US military sales goes without a reference to the Sea King embargo. By blocking the British from giving spare parts for the Indian Navy’s grounded Sea King helicopters, Washington sowed mistrust in the Indian defence establishment, which has been ceremoniously upheld as a template of American untrustworthiness.

An infamous era of sanctions and export controls on the Indian defence establishment hardly helped matters. In fact, things have barely changed on the ground to wipe out these memories. Washington’s hard bargain on end-user verifications, alongside the push for Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), have convinced many in India that defence cooperation with the US will be a laborious grind – and is an avoidable one at that. The WikiLeaks revelation of how the establishment succumbed to Washington’s pressure for end-user verifications for the VIP aircraft to be used by the political leadership has not gone down well with the polity. Such episodes only hardened the perception of imperiousness that is identified with Americans on matters military.

For, even when making a hard sales pitch through governmental channels, the US defence majors may not have instilled in them the need for procedural flexibility, and marketing largesse, when it comes to tapping the world’s fastest growing defence market. Things have neither been encouraging even if we assume strategic considerations weigh on such decisions.

Washington’s refusal to heed India’s concerns on giving F-16s to Pakistan is a potent spoiler which could hardly be compensated by the P3 Orions or the C-17 Globemasters. That the same aircraft, which is in Pakistan’s frontline inventory, was being aggressively marketed to India seems a mockery of the strategic calculus. It then comes as no surprise that India will decide to keep faith on the highly-reliable French or the European consortium, both coming with minimal political baggage.

Two things emerge out of this episode as hard facts on the American system. First, the passionate discontent shown by Washington, especially the premature exit of the US ambassador, only strengthens an indomitable sentiment that defence cooperation could become a thoroughfare to push military sales to India. Despite assertions to the contrary, the resignation only seemed to convey the message that one of the key objectives of his posting was to win this lucrative contract for the American companies, both of which have tremendous clout in the US with the moneybags to influence the upcoming presidential campaign.

Second, none of the discourses on the shared values could masquerade the economic logic and commercial goals that underline and sustain the strategic partnership with India. That the president of the United States himself failed in his marketing push could depress this capitalist economy where every foreign policy interaction intends to generate an economic spin-off or promote the business interests of the US corporate colossus.

For, never would an Indian ‘socialist’ prime minister express dejection if Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) loses a deal in the US to a Chinese company.

(02-05-2011- The author is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at [email protected]).