Sunday, February 12, 2012

India has made powerful enemies by selecting Dassault ... my take on the MMRCA decision in yesterday's Pioneer ....


Here's my OpEd on the recent MMRCA decision in yesterday's Pioneer. India is not likely to bow to Anglo-American pressure to revisit the MMRCA decision in favour of Dassault-Rafale. By deciding on the basis of technical parameters alone, India satisfied its own needs, but quite ignored the diplomatic fall out.



Price negotiation is what remains of the crucial MMRCA deal. It’s a complicated process. Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that the decision to buy the Rafale itself will be revisited. Given how drawn-out and difficult the choice was, the government is unlikely to add further controversy by admitting it made a mistake, which will be the consequence if the MMRCA competition is reopened. The selection apparently involved testing the platforms on around 600 odd technical parameters. This is the key argument made by proponents of the deal: that the deal was so carefully and technically handled that it should not be questioned.

But the premise that technical factors are all that matters is not defensible especially for such a large and politically important deal. While the technical qualifications are an important set of elements that should go into while making a decision, this has also brought to the fore how strategic factors were underplayed in this critical deal.

A decision made purely on technical parameters seems like the decision makers in India were opting for an easy, risk free option. This is understandable in the domestic political context. The single most important political concern today is about corruption in administrative decisions. Given the importance of this issue in public perception, and particularly given the many corruption scandals that have come out over the last year, it is not surprising that the government wants to play it safe. And the easiest way to play it safe is to leave political discretion out by letting the IAF make a purely technical decision.

Indian military services are known for their thoroughness in assessing weapons systems. Clearly the IAF did a good job of picking what was the best fighter from its perspective. But while the Rafale might have been the best from a

technical standpoint, it is not clear that it was diplomatically and strategically a good choice.

A strategic perspective should have looked at which of the countries fighting for the contract was most useful to India. This is not just about who wants good relations with India or who is a well-wisher because all of the competitors were good friends of India and were India’s well-wishers.

Where they were different was in terms of which could do more for India. This should have been a purely cold, hard assessment. Such an assessment would have put the US and Russia as the top choices. While the European consortium and Sweden would probably have brought up in the back of this list, France would have been somewhere in the middle. It definitely has greater global weight than Sweden and probably a better bet than a consortium of several countries, but it would have been no match for the US or Russia.

Of course, this should not have been the only consideration. Strategic and diplomatic reasons alone should not decide which fighter jet was picked. India’s decision-makers should have also looked at the different technical capabilities of the various competing planes. In fact, the final choice should have been a combination of the technical merits and the political and strategic requirements. And this is the key criticism if the manner in which India has chosen to make the deal — using only technical parameters to make a choice and ignoring diplomatic and strategic factors.

Considering how big this contract was, India could have received significant political benefits, which it stands to lose by making a technical decision. Even France could very well make the argument that there is no political quid pro quo for India choosing the Rafale because India itself claims that this was not a political choice. There is little reason why France has to give any political support for a decision that was purely technical in nature.

This leaves India in the politically the worst position possible — both the US and Russia, politically far more significant than France on global issues, are unhappy with India, but India is unlikely to get much benefit from France despite picking the French plane. And unlike Britain, which is also unhappy about the Indian decision, the US and Russia matter quite a lot in the global arena. So, India has effectively annoyed more important friends for nothing.

There are other factors in addition to the strategic factor that also needs closer examination. The cost factor itself is a serious issue. The unit cost of the plane is only one factor. The cost — acquisition, lifecycle and maintenance cost — should have been an important determinant in this decision. As against hundred odd Rafale, India could have procured many more Russian or US fighter jets for the same value. The Rafale option has cost India dearly both on the acquisition as well as the cost of spare parts.

Thus, though there may have been good reasons for picking the Rafale from a technical point of view, or even from a domestic political perspective, this is not enough. The choice should have at least considered the strategic implications in such a big contract.

That might still have led to the Rafale being picked, but it would have been a more defensible decision.

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