A Flying Lemon

The anger and angst in Washington policy circles when the US fighter planes — the Lockheed Martin F-16IN and the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet — did not make it to the Indian Air Force’s Medium-range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) shortlist was something to behold. It was as if a done deal had been ditched by an ungrateful Indian government reneging on rewards promised the United States for the latter’s efforts in easing India’s entry on to the verandah of the five-country nuclear weapons club – the self-appointed guardians of the global order, and putting it outside the pale of the technology sanctions regime overseen by the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The American incomprehension with the Indian decision is itself incomprehensible. Lockheed and Boeing actually believed they could win the MMRCA race with products of late Sixties vintage jazzed up with a downgraded Raytheon APG-79 (or even a de-rated “81”) version of the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. The Indian Air Force is not the most advanced, its leadership has its limitations, but damned if it doesn’t know when it is being palmed off with goods long past their sell-by date. It didn’t help that, as enticement, Lockheed offered a “one for one” replacement for the F-16, a decade or two from now, with the Joint Strike Fighter – F-35 Lightning II – the Company is in the process of rolling out to its customers, and which aircraft is precisely the kind the IAF would have loved to fly in early to mid-21st century. As it turned out, the French Rafale and the EADS Typhoon Eurofighter more nearly fit the bill.

To my consternated acquaintances in Washington, who sought an explanation, I offered an analogy. Some two decades back, the Daimler-Benz car Company entered the Indian market with older Mercedes models, perhaps, convinced that the cash-rich yokels would splash good money for anything with the three cornered star on the bonnet. The cars, by and large, remained unsold and the investment in production jigs and tools in their factory in Pune went waste. The German Company quickly made course correction, revamped its operations until now when the newest model cars available in Dusseldorf can be found in Delhi showrooms.

Had the US the wit to dangle the F-35, the IAF would have snapped it up with the US-friendly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hurrahing the decision along. The American Companies opted instead to squeeze some last few dollars out of the long running F-16s and F-18s at the end of their useful life, and paid the price for it. But why are the Americans squawking? The Indian government has tried to pacify the US defence industry by buying the heavy lift transport plane, the  C-17, the military rationale for which purchase is weak, and for C-130s the smaller, more versatile, transport aircraft, which IAF should have bought more of. Indeed, 20-25 C-130s could have been bought for the $4.5 billion price tag of ten C-17s. The point is the total monies expended for these two aircraft will equal, even exceed, the initial $11 billion cost of the MMRCA.  With the MiG-35 rejected, the Russians too have been mollified by the multi-billion dollar contract for joint development of the 5th generation fighter.

That aspect apart, the addition of three new lines for servicing and support of the chosen MMRCA, C-17 and C-130 to the existing separate infrastructures in place to maintain 27 other types of aircraft already in the air force inventory, will mean the immeasurable worsening of an already unmanageable logistics setup. This apparently does not concern the IAF brass and even less the generalist bureaucrats manning the Defence Ministry, who are habitually clueless about anything remotely military-technical, but whose “advice” the Raksha Mantri relies on to make decisions!

A slight digression this, but the C-17s are expected to be tasked, per IAF’s rationale, to carry tanks to forward battlefields – one tank to a plane — with China. But experts who know about aircraft and have visited Daulat Beg Oldi, Thoise and other forward bases reasonably claim that landing the C-17 in any of these places would strip the surface of the existing air fields. Then again, does the Army really plan on deploying heavy tanks by air to fight the Chinese on the Himalayan uplands, when there’s the relatively easier land route via the ‘Demchok Triangle’ for such armoured vehicles to debouch on to the Tibetan plateau? And, in any case, shouldn’t the Defence Research & Development Organization and the Avadi tank factory be forward-looking enough to design a light, more lethally armed, tank for offensive warfare by the Light Mountain Divisions in the high-altitude desert conditions of Tibet? A slight digression this, but the C-17s are expected to be tasked, per IAF’s rationale, to carry tanks to forward battlefields – one tank to a plane — with China. But experts who know about aircraft and have visited Daulat Beg Oldi, Thoise and other forward bases reasonably claim that landing the C-17 in any of these places would strip the surface of the existing air fields. Then again, does the Army really plan on deploying heavy tanks by air to fight the Chinese on the Himalayan uplands, when there’s the relatively easier land route via the ‘Demchok Triangle’ for such armoured vehicles to debouch on to the Tibetan plateau? And, in any case, shouldn’t the Defence Research & Development Organization and the Avadi tank factory be forward-looking enough to design a light, more lethally armed, tank for offensive warfare by the Light Mountain Divisions in the high-altitude desert conditions of Tibet?

But to return to the deals for the American transport aircraft that are connected to the MMRCA decision, isn’t a biggish fleet of multi-purpose C-130s better suited generally for logistics purposes than a few very large military cargo carriers? Unless the idea is to placate both the Boeing Company by buying the C-17s and the Lockheed Company by  going in for the C-130s. Then again, the Indian government seems to be in the business of sustaining foreign defence industries. To the list of Russian, French and  Israeli defence industries prospering from Indian largesse, one can now include the US defence industry.

But to return to the deals for the American transport aircraft that are connected to the MMRCA decision, isn’t a biggish fleet of multi-purpose C-130s better suited generally for logistics purposes than a few very large military cargo carriers? Unless the idea is to placate both the Boeing Company by buying the C-17s and the Lockheed Company by  going in for the C-130s. Then again, the Indian government seems to be in the business of sustaining foreign defence industries. To the list of Russian, French and  Israeli defence industries prospering from Indian largesse, one can now include the US defence industry. That aspect apart, the addition of three new lines for servicing and support of the chosen MMRCA, C-17 and C-130 to the existing separate infrastructures in place to maintain 27 other types of aircraft already in the air force inventory, is now mandated. That this will immeasurably worsen an already unmanageable logistics setup, seems not to concern anybody, not the Air Force brass dominated by combat fliers, not the generalist bureaucrats manning the Defence Ministry, who are clueless  about anything remotely military-technical, but whose “advice” the Raksha Mantri relies on to make decisions.

This brings the discussion to the two favoured aircraft – the French Rafale and the EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space) Company’s Typhoon. Whatever the merits/de-merits of these two planes, the fact is the sale to India will save either the Dassault Company and the French aviation sector from going under or throw a lifeline to the four country European consortium producing the Typhoon that an expert acquaintance dismissed as an aircraft “Germany doesn’t want, Britain can’t afford, and Spain and Italy neither want nor can afford!” Given the record of visionless and spineless Indian negotiators, who are either bought off or are satisfied with near nothings, such as technology licensing arrangements, there is every likelihood that, despite being in an advantageous position, India will end up getting a raw deal.

[Published in ‘The Asian Age’& ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, May 26, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/bharat-karnad-067]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Relations with Russia, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

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