India’s elimination of Boeing’s and Lockheed Martin’s bids in its $11 billion fighter aircraft competition – one of the country’s largest-ever defense deals – is bound to have negative repercussions for the U.S.-India relationship. Analysts had expected at least one of these bids to advance to the final selection round; that neither did is being perceived as a deliberate snub of Washington. John Elliott, a long-time observer in New Delhi, interprets the move as an effort aimed at “keeping the U.S. firmly in its place.”
The Indian decision will add to Washington’s growing list of bilateral frustrations and is yet another sign that ties between the two nations continue to fall far short of the promise that glistened just three short years ago when the landmark nuclear cooperation accord was concluded. That news of India’s action coincided with the (unrelated) announcement of Timothy J. Roemer’s resignation as U.S. ambassador in New Delhi only heightened the sense of disillusionment and fatigue.
The decision makes some sense on the basis of technical merits. The F-16 aircraft proffered by Lockheed Martin is a widely-used workhorse but also a 30 year-old platform; that Pakistan is one of the 26 air forces flying the plane also could not have endeared the Indian defense ministry. Boeing’s F/A-18 is a much newer system but it reportedly did not perform well in flight tests over the Himalayan ridges in Ladakh. Eurofighter’s Typhoon aircraft – which New Delhi has shortlisted for possible selection – has much to recommend it technically. Additionally, the four-nation Eurofighter consortium (composed of British, German, Italian and Spanish defense companies) – along with France’s Dassault Aviation SA (whose Rafale fighter also was advanced to the final round) – also was more generous than the U.S. companies in terms of technology transfer.
American companies (including Boeing and Lockheed Martin) have snapped up a number of recent contracts from the Indian military, and one can expect New Delhi to award additional deals in the coming months as palliatives for U.S. disappointment at losing out of this highly lucrative transaction.
Some Indian commentators are of the view that, with bilateral ties now so multi-dimensional and mature, Washington’s sense of letdown will be fleeting. But this is likely to prove wishful thinking. The Indian decision will certainly not derail bilateral affairs. But given the Obama administration’s aggressive lobbying on behalf of the American bids, it will only deepen the perception in Washington that New Delhi has not lived up to its side of the bargain by reciprocating the huge commitment the United States has made over the past decade to bolster India’s great power prospects.
As Siddharth Vadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, notes, Washington came at the fighter deal with “all guns blazing.” The U.S. campaign included President Obama, who made a personal intervention with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his state visit to India last November and then followed up in February with a letter underscoring “the strategic importance the United States attaches to the selection of a U.S. proposal in India’s Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft competition.” Ambassador Roemer was tireless in pressing the same message. And to sweeten the pot, the United States granted India the opportunity to participate in Lockheed Martin’s program to develop the advanced technology F-35 fighter aircraft – an offer that New Delhi effectively rebuffed last December when it opted for a joint arrangement with Russia to develop a separate fifth-generation fighter aircraft.
As an earlier post argued, Washington is becoming increasingly weary of New Delhi’s capacity for strategic engagement. The political soap opera accompanying the Indian parliament’s debate about the nuclear cooperation agreement in the summer of 2008 was disheartening from the U.S. perspective and could hardly inspire confidence that India was ready to move ahead with full-throttle cooperation. Adding to the list of sorrows is that the nuclear liability law adopted by India last year has the effect of all but blocking the involvement of U.S. companies in India’s nuclear energy sector – one of the things that the nuclear deal was supposed to bring about. (And following Japan’s nuclear disaster, U.S. hopes that New Delhi would revisit the law anytime soon are stillborn.) And despite numerous suggestions for bi-national endeavors at producing clean energy technology, Washington is miffed that Indian restrictions on imports of solar-power technology are thwarting the entry of U.S. firms into one of the world’s fastest-growing solar-energy markets.
Troubling as well are reports that a major factor in India’s elimination of the Boeing and Lockheed Martin bids was the military’s continued wariness of the United States as a full-fledged strategic partner. In contrast to institutional memories of past U.S. technology embargoes that still linger throughout the security establishment, the military supply relationship New Delhi has forged with Paris – Dassault’s Mirage 2000 fighter has long been in service with the Indian air force – seemed to play an important role in the decision to shortlist the Rafale. The Obama administration had worked hard to ease these memories, including advancing the F-35 offer and the further easing of U.S. export controls on India that were announced in February. Mr. Obama’s letter to Prime Minister Singh also made promises on this score.
While India’s decision will certainly not produce a bilateral rupture, its consequences may be more pronounced than the rosy scenario sketched by the optimists. At a moment when the Obama administration has begun to turn its attention back to New Delhi, it will reinforce nagging doubts in Washington about India’s willingness to make the big decisions necessary to dramatically advance the relationship. Such doubts could even break into the open given the bilateral frictions likely to ensue as the United States approached the endgame in the Afghan conflict. There may be solid technical reasons behind the fighter decision. But the soundness of its strategic logic is about to be put to the test.