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Less than six months ago, President Barack Obama described the growing relationship between his country and India as “one of the defining and indispensable partnerships of the 21st century.” India's decision to pick European-made jets to equip its frontline combat jet fleet instead of United States-manufactured competitors has led more than a few to argue that the relationship has already hit a dead-end.
Sadanand Dhume, writing in the journal of the American Enterprise Institute, has argued India has “rebuffed the US offer of a closer strategic partnership”; and Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has argued that New Delhi “settled for a plane, not a relationship.” Indian commentators seem to agree: Nitin Pai, the editor of the strategic journal Pragati, charged India with being “gratuitously generous” to Europe; and The Times of India's Chidanand Rajghatta said the decision had dealt the India-U.S. alliance “a significant blow.”
These critics are thoughtful commentators who need to be taken seriously. They are also wrong.
Like all other transactional dealings between states, arms purchases do indeed have strategic implications. India ought, for sound common sense reasons, to pursue a robust relationship with the United States. It is unclear, though, why the purchase of this particular weapons system ought to undermine the larger strategic relationship between India and the U.S.
If countries like the United Kingdom and France can actually produce and operate combat jets not made by their key strategic partner, the U.S., there is no particular reason why India's decision to buy them ought be seen as a strategic affront. Earlier this year, India picked U.S.-made engines for its Tejas light combat aircraft over European competitors; its strategic relationship with Europe did not fall apart as a consequence. Nor will India and Russia end their enduring military relationship because the MiG31 lost the combat-jet dogfight.
Secondly, the U.S. itself has pursued multiple strategic relationships that best serve its interests — and India, like every other nation state, ought do the same.
Ever since the tragic events of 9/11, the U.S. has supplied Pakistan with a raft of military assets of no conceivable use other than against India — among them, eight P3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, 32 F16 variants, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and anti-artillery radars. K. Alan Krondstadt's 2009 survey for the U.S. Congressional Research Service shows that much of this equipment was paid for through military assistance grants.
American diplomats were made aware of Indian concerns. Back in 2004, Robert O. Blake, the U.S. Charge d'Affaires in New Delhi, had warned in an Embassy cable, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks (23418: confidential, November 30, 2004), that sales of F-16s to Pakistan could “be a blow to those in the GOI [Government of India] who are trying to deepen our partnership.” Mr. Blake again warned, in a 2005 cable, of “universal opposition in India to the supply of sophisticated arms to Pakistan, with the F-16 aircraft symbolizing a US commitment to upgrading the Pakistani armed forces” [ 28592: confidential, March 11, 2005].
But the administration of President George W. Bush made the argument that such grants would help Pakistan meet its “legitimate defence needs” – and claimed, more disingenuously, that the aircraft would be used for close air support in the war against jihadists.
It would have been churlish for India, though, to make its relationship with the U.S. contingent on how Washington chose to engage Islamabad. It would be similarly churlish for the U.S. to insist that India ought not to exercise its right to buy the best equipment on offer for its money.
The only question ought be: has India picked the right jet?
No such thing as “the best thing”
“Imagine,” says a senior Indian Air Force official, “being asked to pick between a top-end Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar and Ferrari. It would be plain stupid to think of one high-performance car as better than another. For example, one might have better acceleration; another greater range; a third better handling.”
The IAF's Request for Proposals brought into contention the European multinational Eurofighter consortium's Typhoon, the French-made Dassault Rafale, the Swedish Grippen, the Russian MiG35, and the United States' F16IN and FA18.
Each aircraft had distinct advantages: though it has a slow top speed compared with the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F-16IN or the MiG 35, the Grippen had a better sustained turn capability; the Rafale did not manoeuvre well at high speed, but demonstrated outstanding instantaneous turn rates; the Lockheed Martin-produced F16IN and its Boeing rival, the FA18, had the best radar.
The MiG35s, though from a stable that has been plagued by maintenance problems and untested in service in Russia, had genuine multi-role capabilities, would have cost just $45 million apiece, and come with generous transfer-of-technology provisions.
Few are surprised that the Eurofighter appears to be leading the race: the aircraft has won the admiration of Indian pilots who have encountered it in exercises with their British counterparts. In November 2010, The Telegraph reported from London that Eurofighter was closing in on the multi-billion deal.
Dr. Tellis noted, in a thorough scholarly appraisal, that the Typhoon “conformed most closely to the [IAF's] Request for Proposals, and in a purely technical sense, it arguably remains the most sophisticated airplane in the mix – at least in its fully mature configuration, which is still gestating.” Eurofighter advocates point, among other things, that it was the only one of the contenders to demonstrate some supercruise capabilities – which means it can achieve supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners, improving endurance and reducing its radar signature.
Pilots told The Hindu they were also impressed with the aircraft's man-machine interface, which presents data streams from dozens of on-board and off-board sensors on a single screen
But the aircraft, like its European counterparts and the MiG35, also had a significant weakness – the absence of active electronically scanned array radar, or Aesa. Aesa broadcasts signals across a band of frequencies, enabling the radar to at once be powerful and stealthy. Eurofighter variants due to come into service around 2015 will carry an Aesa radar system called Caesar – but the aircraft's competitors pointed out that the radar, unlike those on the F16 and FA18, is untested.
Each U.S. contender was also a remarkable aircraft: although the F16 has been in service in 1979, the variant India was offered was state-of-the-art and proven in combat. Ramesh Phadke, a former Air Force pilot who serves as an analyst at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, noted the F16 “is destined to be remembered as the best multi-role fighter ever.” The FA18, too, is combat tested, and won over its competitors in some spheres.
In the end, the IAF short-listed the two frontrunners after putting the contenders through a raft of complex technical tests – tests that no one has yet claimed were skewed or rigged. Each firm has been provided a technical appraisal of why its offer was rejected, an appraisal it is free to dispute.
New Delhi will now have to determine which of the two contenders it will choose – and finance could play a key role. The Eurofighter is likely to charge some $125 million apiece, which means the initial purchase of 126 jets will cost India $15.75 billion, and a likely final order of around 200 aircraft, $20 billion. The Rafale is likely to be pegged around $85 million apiece.
Though the Grippen would have cost around the same as the Rafale, the F-16IN and FA-18 would have come at around $60 million each, and the MiG35 a relatively modest $45 million – though, given problems with its engine, the overall life-cycle costs of the Russian jet may not have been much lower than its U.S. competitors.
It is imperative, though, that the decision is made fast. Back in 1969, the IAF determined that it needed 64 squadrons, 45 of them made up of combat aircraft, to defend the country. India's economic situation, however, meant it could build only 45 squadrons, 40 of them made up of combat jets. Even that meant it retained an almost 3:1 advantage over Pakistan through much of the 1980s.
In the years since, though, the en bloc obsolescence of aircraft like the MiG21, MiG23 and MiG25 has meant the IAF's edge has blunted: Pakistan today has 22 squadrons of combat jets, or some 380, to India's 29 squadrons, or 630 fighters.
Pakistan, moreover, has received new jets from the U.S., as well as the JF-17 from China, and a slew of advanced radar and missiles. Its air defence capabilities are due to be enhanced with four Swedish SAAB-2000 jets equipped with Erieye phased-array radar, and Y8 anti-electronic warfare platforms from China.
Even as India's advantage over Pakistan diminishes, it has China to consider – not because a war is probable, or even plausible, but because militaries must plan and be prepared for worst-case scenarios.
For much of its history, China's People's Liberation Army Air Force had a huge air inventory, numbering over 5,000 aircraft, but over three-fifths of this consisted of obsolete MiG19 second-generation fighters. But in recent years, China has moved towards becoming a genuine aerospace power: by 2020, the PLAAF will have more fourth-generation fighters than the entire IAF fleet.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government will almost certainly come under intense pressure to review its decision. It would do well to accept the expert assessment of those who understand its combat aviation needs the best – the women and men who may or may not, one day, have to fly them into danger.
(Praveen Swami is Diplomatic Editor of The Daily Telegraph , London.)
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