The IAF’s also investing in the support aircraft that keep combat aircraft in the fight: it has two different Airborne early warning and control (AWE&C) programs ongoing – one indigenous and one with Israeli knowhow – and recently selected Airbus’ A330 MRTT for it mid-air refueling tanker/transport program. On the pure transport side, the U.S. has cleaned up at Russia’s expense, selling 12 C-130J Hercules tactical transports and at least 6 C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifters to the IAF. It’s not all bad news for Moscow, however – the IAF has signed a deal with Russia to co-design and produce a Medium Transport Aircraft and is looking for replacements for its HAL-748 Avro, with Russian, Ukrainian, pan-European and Italian manufacturers ready to take part.
Where the scales start to tip away from Russia and toward the U.S. is on the rotary side: Boeing recently received preferred bidder status on two major helicopter contracts. India’s heavy attack helicopter will be an AH-64E Apache, while its heavy lift helicopter will be the CH-47F Chinook. Both wins were over Russian competition.
But again, that’s not the full story. Vladimir Putin recently signed a follow-on order for the Mil Mi-17 – the workhorse of the Indian Air Force, and while U.S. and Western suppliers are making inroads into the army’s needs – BAE Systems’ M777 light howitzer is on its way to Delhi – the navy remains a Russian-dominated affair (European design support for the indigenous aircraft carrier being built in Cochin notwithstanding).
Of course, all of this horse-trading and point scoring would be moot if India had an indigenous defense industrial base that could provide the military with what it wants. Right now, that’s just not the case. Whether it is the Tejas fighter, the INSAS rifle or the Arjun tank, India’s failure to develop systems that inspire confidence in its soldiers ensures that the subcontinent remains a world of opportunity for foreign defense manufacturers.
Unsurprisingly, the massive sums involved mean that the threat of corruption is never far away. Although local journalists complained at Aero India that it was a little short on news, organizers will feel that they dodged a bullet when – only three days after the show ended – Italian police arrested Finmeccanica CEO and Chairman Giuseppe Orsi and AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini on bribery charges relating to a USD 751 million deal for 12 helicopters. The AW101 helicopters in question were to be used to transport India’s prime minister, president and other VVIPs. Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries deny any wrongdoing.
Military corruption scandals have a long and storied place in Indian politics – the Bofors howitzer case ran for over two decades. Still, it is not clear that corruption has more of a negative effect on India’s military capabilities than its tangle of bureaucratic inefficiency and institutional petrifaction.
James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.