The announcement of a military contract by India for acquisition of a European fighter side lining two American entries by global defence majors Boeing and Lockheed Martin set the cat amongst the pigeons so to say impacting Indo US relations. Many Americans and their Indian supporters heralded this as a black day and chastised New Delhi for ignoring the so called, “strategic,” relationship despite the favour by Washington of the Indo US Nuclear Deal. Sadly these detractors seemed to be measuring engagement of the world’s most vibrant democracies at the cost of the fighter deal, $ 10.4 billion forgetting many other strong vectors that would sustain the same over the years.
But first the back drop, India short listed Eurofighter Typhoon (EADS), backed by the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy), and French Rafale (Dassault) for commercial negotiations in the 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract to be inked sometimes later this year. The fall out was seen on Indo American relations almost immediately. Americans were highly disappointed and placed the deal in the matrix of the overall Indo US relationship with resignation by Mr Timothy Roemer, US Ambassador in New Delhi who while not linking the same with the MMRCA tender loss stated, "We are...deeply disappointed by this news. We look forward to continuing to grow and develop our defense partnership with India."
The Americans had put maximum pressure on the Indian government however apart from the technical shortfalls issues such as supply of F-16s to Pakistan, insistence on the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) were also seen as hindrances, though these may not have impacted the technical stage of evaluation. The US military sales to India now include mainly transport and reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft such as three Business Boeing Jets, six C-130J 'Super Hercules', 12 P-8I Poseidon and 10 C-17 Globemaster-III
The two companies EADS and Dassault were asked to extend validity of their commercial bids to 31 December. The other four contenders, American F/A-18 'Super Hornet' (Boeing) and F-16 'Super Viper' ( Lockheed Martin), Swedish Gripen (Saab), and Russian MiG-35 (United Aircraft Corporation) were given letters of rejection. In what is seen as a very close call, of the 643 technical attributes specified during the long-drawn field trials held by IAF test pilots both in India and abroad under different weather conditions, the Eurofighter seems to have come first while Rafale follows. "The other four fell below the base line of minimum air staff qualitative requirements to be met," said an official reported by the media.
In one of the most talked about defence deal, 18 jets are to be bought off-the-shelf by 2014, while 108 will be manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd after transfer of technology. The commercial parameters are likely to be based on "life-cycle costs" of operating the fighters over a 40-year period, with 6,000 hours of flying -- rather than just pitching for the lowest bidder. The contract specifies 50% offsets and some relaxation is likely in terms of extension of period of execution of offsets with greater laxity in firms from which sub contracting can be carried out.
While the preference for the Europeans was largely known it was expected that there was likely to be a political hand in the entire deal and thus Americans and Russians were the favourites due to their huge political clout. However it is apparent that the government has gone with the IAF as it would not like to face more pressure from the public given that there has been large amount of debate on corruption which has been also inspired by leaks from within the establishment.
Thus the Ministry of Defence is receiving kudos for ensuring that the best machine won the race for the MMRCA even as Americans and Russians regarded as political heavy weights had to eat humble pie. Thus India would be having a multiple choice of fighters with the Russians Su 30 being supplemented by either the Eurofighter or the Rafale. Is this a moment for a change over and renaissance in the Ministry of Defence remains to be seen for there are many more contracts in the pipeline and these will have to be fast tracked to ensure that the modernization process takes off. The transparency of the process of trials and the manner in which the government has accepted the Air Force choice should send the right signals to vendors hereafter of equity in the process and all those fielding top of the line equipment have a good chance of success.
Surprisingly Americans who value transparency and probity feel that Indians should steer the rules in their favour. But the sad part is ignoring the larger Indo US relations supported by 2.7 million strong Indian American community in the United States which has made a major contribution to their foster home. There are many more mile stones for the Indo US strategic partnership and measuring it in terms of billions of dollars worth of fighters would undermine the shared values of the people of the two democracies.