Sunday, February 12, 2012

Flying into rough weather .... My OpEd on India's MMRCA decision in ToI

Here's a piece of mine on India's MMRCA decision that appeared in Times of India on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

New Delhi needs to be more careful in both understanding strategic moments and being able to exploit them if it wants to sit at the global high table.

India's long and convoluted search for a new fighter plane - a medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) - has entered its final stage. New Delhi has just announced that the Rafale, built by Dassault Aviation of France, has been chosen to meet the Indian Air Force's (IAF) requirement. Only price negotiation now remains.

The Rafale had been shortlisted along with the Eurofighter Typhoon from a field that originally included four more jets: the US-built F-16 and F-18, the Russian MiG-35 and the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen. But though the fight over the selection is over, questions about the wisdom of New Delhi's choice are unlikely to end any time soon.

Commenting on the MMRCA decision, a former IAF officer proudly stated that this was probably the first decision that was made purely on technical grounds. If accurate, this reveals serious strategic shortsightedness. While the government should have received inputs from the IAF, such a decision should not have been taken on purely technical grounds. For India's decision-makers, limiting themselves to technical specifications was a risk-free option, but that reveals more about the state of strategic decision-making in Delhi than the wisdom of the choice they made.

Ideally, the Indian decision should have been guided by a strategy that balances reducing danger and broadening opportunity. Accordingly, the question for New Delhi should have been how to use this lucrative deal to beef up India's strategic options. Thus, it is probably a strategic blunder to narrowly focus on technical specifications and capabilities alone, as many proponents of the IAF's choice have done.

A decision of this magnitude should have been filtered through three key parameters: strategic, operational and tactical. A pragmatic strategy would have been to analyse the risk and opportunity through these three parameters and then make the final decision about which of the fighter plane choices would have best advanced Indian security. In strategic and geopolitical terms, France can provide little help to India in either Asia or in the global theatre. While France has always been a well-wisher, it has never had much capacity to help India. For example, though France wanted to sell India nuclear reactors, it could do little to change the nuclear non-proliferation rules that prevented it from doing so. It took Washington to change these rules to India's benefit.

Additionally, numbers (of aircraft India could acquire) and cost should have been factored in. Buying fewer but more expensive aircraft might make some fighter jocks happy, but having greater numbers might be more relevant to a country like India which faces a two-front threat from China and Pakistan. It was often argued in the MMRCA debate that maintaining air superiority required technological superiority, range and payload but an equally important consideration is that of numbers.

Numerical superiority in India's regional context is of particular significance given that the current strength of India's fighter jets is only around 600, and unless replenished, it will reach critically low numbers soon. Meanwhile, both Beijing and Islamabad have been augmenting their fighter fleets. India could have procured far greater numbers of fighters with the US or Russian option.

Though the probability of a two-front war is low, no pragmatic Indian strategic decision-maker should rule it out. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that the Indian army is raising new forces to deploy on the China border. It is unclear if the technological superiority of the Rafale is so great as to compensate for the smaller numbers that India will have to settle for.

Cost should have also had an important role in the MMRCA decision. India's decision to go for Rafale is going to cost New Delhi around $20 billion, if not more. Opting for a Russian or US jet would have been far cheaper. The Russian option would have been the least expensive whereas the American fighters would have been somewhere in the middle with the European jets being the most expensive. In overall terms, the American F-18s would have been the best given that they (as well as the F-16s) came with the second-generation AESA radars.

Lastly, the most important consideration should have been the strategic benefits that accrue to India through this deal. Indian decision-makers should have been mindful of the fact that this deal was as much about making strategic investments in a relationship as simply buying fighters. India does not enjoy a benign neighbourhood, and these security needs are important. But India also needs to balance these with its requirements as a rising power, which means having capable friends. The MMRCA deal was a great opportunity to consolidate its strategic ties with either Russia or the US, or even with both. Instead, New Delhi has ended up antagonising both of them.

The standard response that India has signed many other defence contracts with both Russia and the US does not wash because this was a very different and high-profile deal which was closely watched around the world. Signing smaller deals, even if they add up to significant amounts, does not have the same weight as the MMRCA deal. New Delhi needs to be more careful in both understanding strategic moments and being able to exploit them if it wants to sit at the global high table.

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