Behind India’s US Fighter Snub
Image Credit: Ruben Alexander

Behind India’s US Fighter Snub


India’s Defence Ministry did the previously unthinkable earlier this month. As reported previously in The Diplomat, India eliminated two major US aviation firms—Boeing and Lockheed Martin—from the race to secure a lucrative $11 billion contract to supply 126 combat jets to the Indian Air Force.

After a gruelling, two-year process including field trials of the six aircraft in extreme weather conditions, the Defence Ministry shortlisted two European firms—EADS and Dassault Aviation. Swedish Firm Saab and Russian RSK MiG were the other two bidders left disappointed.

The decision sent shockwaves through Washington’s defence establishment as it had expended significant political, diplomatic and commercial capital in trying to secure the contract. Indeed, US President Barack Obama lobbied on behalf of the US firms during his November 2010 visit to New Delhi, following up with a letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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But was the decision worth the potential political fallout?

As Ashley Tellis, noted India analyst and a former security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, says, ‘India has chosen a plane over a strategic partnership.’

The clear implication is that India shunned an opportunity to cement emerging strategic ties with the United States by rejecting its planes. But Air Force and Ministry officials have stuck to their guns, arguing that they made the decision based purely on the merits of the respective bids.

According to sources in both organizations, there were several factors working against the Americans, including the fact that the Indian Air Force had found that the two US planes on offer had reached their ‘technological’ limits (the Rafael and Eurofighter Typhoon were believed to have scope to add further ‘teeth’ at some point), India’s rival Pakistan uses the F-16 Super Viper being offered by Lockheed, and perhaps above all, the United States was insisting that India sign what officials believed were intrusive agreements giving the Americans the right to carry out on-site inspection of US-supplied platforms.

Lost in all the fuss over the rejection of the US firms’ offers has been that the Russians were also extremely upset that India has, in their eyes, turned its back on an almost four decades-long defence partnership with Moscow. Indeed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is said to have personally called his Indian counterpart to express disappointment over the Indian decision.

Russia was the first of the disappointed bidders to write to the Defence Ministry, although all four have now filed, requesting more information on why their particular fighter was given the chop.

The response is no surprise to Indian officials. ‘We’ll deal with the backlash,’ one top Ministry official, who asked not to be named, told me following the filing of the letters. ‘One contract isn’t the end of a relationship. In any case, both the Americans and the Russians still have a lot of opportunities to win big contracts with India’s growing need to acquire new weapons and platforms.’

This makes sense. The Americans have already secured a significant presence in the Indian defence market, and will undoubtedly see sales boosted further in the coming years.

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