India’s Fighter Fetish

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India’s Fighter Fetish

The Indian Air Force insists its fighter jet decision was a purely technical decision. There’s a first time for everything.

Strategic considerations played no part whatsoever in India’s down-selection of the EADS Eurofighter and the Dassault Rafale for its lucrative medium multirole combat fighter aircraft (MMRCA) competition. So argues Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a fascinating analysis that runs counter to many other assessments of the Indian decision, which beggared American belief for its rejection of the two US entrants in spite of the increasingly close ties between Washington and New Delhi.

I argued in an earlier Diplomat post that the Indians had down-selected two aircraft from an initial field of six back in April by feeding both their technical evaluation of the contenders and the country’s political priorities into their decision matrix. That’s wrong, Tellis says: the technical evaluation alone informed India’s decision to green-light the two European aircraft at the expense of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the other hopefuls.

Tellis may well be right, and his account of India’s technical evaluation process is both detailed and convincing. India is a country with a ‘fetish about process,’ he observes, and this obsession – perhaps regrettably – allowed the air force to make a purely technical judgement that wasn’t influenced in any way by budgetary sense, international politics past or present, or even by the overall range of missions that the aircraft could handle. They picked the two speediest, most manoeuvrable planes, and that was all there was to it.

Perhaps India’s decision-makers really have become blinkered to all non-technical considerations when it comes to military procurement. But there would be two surprising implications to this, if it were true.

The first is that the Indian defence establishment – which has a shabby procurement record, strewn with cases of graft and with car-crash programmes where the fetish about process was nowhere to be found – would have to have cleaned up its act to an extraordinary degree in order to have run the MMRCA competition along purely technical lines.

Such a conversion isn’t entirely implausible. A.K. Antony, the Indian defence minister, is well known for his anti-corruption zeal, and the corruption scandals that continue to plague the government may have convinced those concerned that the big-ticket MMRCA deal, with all the scrutiny it would attract, needed to be whiter than white. The thing is, this wasn’t Antony’s call. In late April, the Indian media reported that Antony delivered a speech to senior army and air force officers – the same men who made their technical selection of the Eurofighter and Rafale – in which he appealed to them not to succumb to corrupt practices. Unless Antony was preaching to the converted, he knows what many suspect: that the reform of Indian procurement is far from complete, and that the technical evaluation conducted by some officers tends to improve given the right financial encouragement.

The second is that it would show how little the West understands its new, and most important, Asian ally. US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron all made personal sales calls to New Delhi in the run-up to the MMRCA decision to lobby for their countries’ entrants (and for other contracts besides) – trips that were completely pointless if India is in fact impervious to this kind of pressure. The US Ambassador to India, Timothy J. Roemer, who quit when the rejection of the two US aircraft was announced, must have had dreadful intelligence on the country he was working in, if he thought the value of US-Indian strategic ties would count in what was a strictly technical contest. But this, too, is not totally implausible. Potential buyers often say one thing and mean another, while salesmen might hear only what they want to hear.

Yet if Tellis’s reading of the MMRCA contest is correct, then this programme is a rarity – a museum piece – in its exclusion of non-technical factors. Personal contacts, lobbying and special favours are the lifeblood of big business and international politics, and this is doubly so in the world of defence, whose wheels are habitually greased either by financial or strategic interests. If Antony truly has freed India’s procurement processes from these iniquities, then he has done an even better job of cleaning up his country’s defence sector than people give him credit for.