Saturday, February 4, 2012
India's MMRCA Decision: Strategic Implications
Here's my take on India's MMRCA decision .... While the fight over the selection is over, questions about the wisdom of New Delhi's choice is unlikely to end any time soon. For India's current administration, beset with corruption scandals, letting technical merits alone determine the MMRCA decision was probably the politically easiest choice. But its strategic merits are somewhat less clear.
For the full article published by ORF, click here.
India's long and convoluted search for new fighter plane - or the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) - 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 remains now.
The fight over the choice of aircraft appears to be now over. The Rafale had already been short-listed along with the Eurofighter Typhoon from a field which 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 is unlikely to end any time soon.
Commenting on the MMRCA decision, Air Marshal Ahluwalia, a former IAF officer, proudly stated that this was probably the first decision that was made purely on technical grounds. While probably accurate, this reveals serious strategic short-sightedness. While the government should have received inputs from the Air Force, such decisions 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 the 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. 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 debate about the MMRCA 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 for India. 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 option in an F-18 would have been the best given that it (as well as 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. 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.
For India's current administration, beset with corruption scandals, letting technical merits alone determine the MMRCA decision was probably the politically easiest choice. But its strategic merits are somewhat less clear.