Sunday, May 1, 2011

GoI's Decision on MMRCA: A Strategic Blunder?

Here's a link to an article of mine published yesterday on the GoI decision on MMRCA.

A strategic blunder of sorts, this is how India's selection on medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) will be characterised as. The MMRCA deal worth Rs. 42,000 crores (about $ 11 bn) was not a deal that India could have made such errors on. India had to be naïve if it based its decision purely on the technical parameters. Even on technical parameters, the decision is questionable. However, the underlying factor is that through this deal, India was buying a strategic partnership.2 This was a deal with huge political message to its friends and foes, alike.

This article lists out some of the issues that India clearly ignored in making its decision which are going to hurt India in politico-strategic terms than any significant gains that India may have had by going for the European option. This paper argues that not just numerical superiority and costs but more importantly the strategic benefits should have been the guiding factors in making the decision on MMRCA.

First of all, let's look at the number issue. India's dwindling Air Force strength along with the cost factor should have been an important consideration. Air power strategists argue that in ensuring air superiority, quality, including range, payload and precision are important parameters. But even more important is the numerical superiority which should have guided India towards an American or a Russian option, which are better value for money options. India's current strength of approximately 630 fighter aircraft is fast depleting. Therefore, the need to beef up the fighter force numbers is significant given the security environment in India's neighbourhood.

Acquisition, lifecycle and maintenance costs are another set of considerations. Once again, when the acquisition costs and costs of spare parts are considered, the European options are going to be very expensive to the Indian exchequer. The cost per unit and the spare parts costs are said to be high in the case of the European ones. An American option – the F-18 – that came fourth in the technical evaluation3 would have proved to be far better an option. An F-16 with AESA radar would have been a good platform except that India will be using the F-16s against Pakistan whose Air Force has been using this platform for decades.4 However, both the F-16s and the F-18s do come with second generation AESA radars and they provide far greater gains in terms of reliability.

While the costs are important considerations, more critical is the strategic benefit an American option would have accrued for India. As argued earlier, the MMRCA decision is a strategic decision – a decision that would reflect India's strategic priorities and commitments. In this regard, analysts have argued that American ambiguity on India's geopolitical concerns having had a major role. Whether the US comes to Indian aid or not, one can be certain that the Europeans are not going to burn their fingers. With India having gone with the European option, it can only be hoped that this was not a strategic decision and that it does not reflect a particular (anti-US) sentiment within the Indian establishment. If India had assumed that Europe was going to come to India's aid in the case of an India-Pakistan or India-China conflict, it is far from being realistic. A deal with the Russians may have been somewhat more understandable, but the geopolitical clout of Europe, particularly in Asia, is almost nil.

Additionally, strategic messaging should have been a vital imperative. US fighter aircraft in the Indian inventory would have a huge strategic message. Therefore, the argument that India has done several deals with the US through the FMS (Foreign Military Sales) does not hold much weight. An American option would make India's adversary think twice before venturing into a conflict with India, be it Pakistan or China. The deal would have had a huge deterrence value.

Lastly, India opting for one of the most expensive single engines with no proven operational AESA radar is imprudent, to say the least.5 Dassault Rafalealmost with no customers (except for Brazil that plans for major procurement), India may provide the largest order to the day. Whether this huge deal will have corresponding positive spin-offs for India need to be seen. India might experience a long hard summer with the European Union beginning to put pressure on India, through various channels, to endorse and accept the EU Code of Conduct on space. India should also prepare itself for EU dictat on space vs. growth debates in the coming years.
1 As a strategic decision, it was not good enough that India looked at the technical specifications and the best in the technical evaluation. As some analyses have pointed out, the technical superiority argument is not valid as all of these are of the same class and are marginally up or down depending on certain parameters. But this decision should have been based on technical, operational / tactical and most important strategic considerations. India had to look at beefing up the overall security assurance that it would be gaining instead of merely looking at the technical specifications. Technology alone does not guarantee security for any nation. Four factors should have prevailed upon the decision-maker: security through partnerships; freedom of action; national competitiveness; and regional influence. For an excellent perspective on strategic decision-making, see Peter A Garretson, "MMRCA Selection: A Strategist's Point of View," Unpublished Paper, available with the author.

2 Admiral Raja Menon, commenting on NDTV on April 28, argued that India had taken a bad decision, questioning whether India was investing in a strategic partnership with a European consortium. Additionally, he argued that any of the six companies would have provided the 126 aircrafts that India was looking for but the decision-makers should have looked for what more could we get out of the deal.

3 The gradation following the technical evaluation is not clear yet. Different reports have provided contradictory assessments.

4 F-16 is a platform that has remained in the Indian neighbourhood for a considerable time and the operational superiority of the PAF on F-16 platforms may have been an important enough consideration for India, although the version on offer to India was far superior. The longer standoff range of AESA radars also provide the pilots with more time for persistent target observation, information sharing, tactical analysis and commander assessment before taking critical decisions. In addition, these radars can also be used for non-traditional ISR and electronic attacks. They have been battle-proven and they provide the best bet in any tactical operation that India may be engaged on its eastern or western borders.

5 Neither Rafale nor Eurofighter has proven AESA radar.

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