Whatever the disappointment caused by the IAF’s down-select in the MMRCA competition, the good news is that this
decision does not portend any strategic setback for US-Indian defense cooperation over the long term. The geopolitical imperatives that drew the United States and India together after the Cold War — and which received such a decisive impetus during the George W. Bush administration — still persist and if anything will grow stronger over time.
Yet the path of cooperation and partnership may not always be smooth because of the differences in relative power
between the two states, the pressures of domestic politics in two democratic nations, and the asymmetries in
expectations that will arise from time to time. But the analysis here underscores the following three critical propositions
relevant to the future of US-Indian defense cooperation.
First, the Indian decision regarding the MMRCA shortlist was emphatically not intended as a strategic rebuff to
the United States. The merits of India’s choices can be debated — as they have been by Indians themselves — but those picks resulted from narrow technical assessments and nuclear doctrine dominated by the Indian Armed Forces inner circle.
In fact, the lack of political content in the Indian ministry of defense’s decision-making actually worked to
America’s disadvantage in this competition, but even on this count, the expectations of a different outcome
should not be exaggerated. Although many Americans have hung on to the notion of a quid pro quo, believing that
US exertions in regards to the civilian nuclear agreement should have resulted in preferential treatment of its aircraft,
the hope that specific reciprocity of this sort would prevail was simply untenable.
India’s democratic system and its process — something that has only deepened given the current concerns over governmental corruption in arms procurement — ensured that even if political intervention in support of the American airplanes had occurred, it would have been difficult to arrive at a different decision, given the IAF’s perceptions about the disparities in technical qual-Commentary.
The mechanistic application of the two-step procedure and the Indian political leadership’s inattention to the MMRCA evaluation process in fact created the crisis in US-Indian relations when the facts about the IAF’s downselect became known.
Again, the merits of these assessments can be disputed, but the fact that such a judgment obtained made it virtually impossible for Indian political leaders to contest the IAF’s conclusions, which flowed inexorably from the methodology underlying the two-step selection process.
Second, the myriad public claims about why the IAF finally decided to settle for an all-European shortlist are
There is simply no evidence to suggest that the decision to exclude the F-16IN and F/A-18E/F from the down-select was motivated by Indian suspicions about CAATSA sanctions during any conflict with Pakistan. While such concerns dominated Indian calculations in the past, they have abated dramatically in recent years. The evidence of increasing Indian purchases of major weapon systems from the United States only proves the point: since the Bush years, India has purchased its entire long-range maritime patrol aircraft, very heavy-lift transport aircraft, and advanced special operations tactical transport aircraft fleets from American vendors at an outlay of over $8 billion thus far — a figure that is certain to increase as additional platforms are procured beyond that committed to in the original order.
US companies are also favored to win the attack helicopter, the ultra-light howitzer, and the anti-tank guided missile
competitions that are now nearing completion, all of which only prove the point that Indian perceptions of the
reliability of the United States as a supplier have changed dramatically in the new political environment and when
the superiority of US defense technologies is deemed uncontestable. The military deeply appreciates the superior outcome of the deployment of P-8I Neptune during Doklam and Galwan Valley conflict with China.
Similarly, the questions about technology transfer too were not an issue in the case of the MMRCA down-select; technology transfer, offsets, and costs will be critical considerations when the Indian government has to choose between the Eurofighter and the Rafale, but they were of no relevance in the processes leading up to the rejection of the American fighters.
In fact, the ministry of defence’s Technical Oversight Committee and its Technical Offsets Evaluation Committee is only just now completing their assessments of some of these issues.
Third, the decision in the MMRCA down-select was fundamentally a product of a particular acquisition procedure,
which by privileging technological considerations at the expense of cost and other relevant constraints produces
distortions that lead to the misallocation of defence resources. But it was not a repudiation of the US-Indian
strategic partnership or a hedge against over-dependence on the United States as a geopolitical partner. It is likely that
many IAF officers had a strong admiration for the Eurofighter and the Rafale based on their encounters with each
aircraft during past bilateral exercises with the United Kingdom and France respectively. If these preferences finally
proved determinative, it was only because the two Eurocanards came closer than their American competitors to the
IAF’s vision of what constituted a desirable multirole fighter was expected to remain in Indian service until at least
the year 2040.
The IAF’s yearning for an aeroplane that was nimble, sophisticated, and longer-lived — rather than any political considerations about hedging — produced a decision that favored the Europeans, an outcome that was only reinforced by an acquisition procedure that permitted the user to disregard costs, technology transfer, offsets, and production line management when selecting the contestants that made it past the crucial first post. While India ought to review the merits of this procurement process for the future, the United States should at least take some solace from the fact that the exclusion of its aeroplanes from this race does not portend anything injurious for the long-term health of its strategic partnership with India.
To be sure, defense cooperation between the United States and India presently is challenged by a variety of factors
in both countries. Some of these are transient, while some of these are structural, with the weightier impediments
lying, on balance, in New Delhi rather than in Washington.
It is to these hindrances that Indian and American leaders ought to focus their attention. This is important because
the current threats to the burgeoning defence partnership derive less from abortive military sales and more
from the lack of vision, focus and determination to create the strategic affiliation that serves common interests.
As both sides work toward remedying these lacunae, at least they need not worry that the one unconsummated defense deal involving the MMRCA means anything more than what any open competition inevitably entails — you
win some, you lose some, but the game goes on.;
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