A Hard Sell For Fighting Falcons

Vidya Sagar Reddy

The United States Secretary of Defence James Mattis will be visiting India this week. This will be the first visit for Mattis and coming weeks post President Trump’s announcement of Afghanistan strategy. Regional security and defence trade issues would top the agenda of this visit. Although India has acquired sophisticated military platforms from the United States, sale of F-16 fighter jets has emerged the most contentious issue.

India aspires for a stable regional environment that could spur growth and development. However, terrorism and threat to balance of power in Asia-Pacific are stalling progress. President Trump has released a new strategy for securing and stabilizing Afghanistan. India is set to play a major role in this strategy even as it had developed mutual trust in bilateral relations with Afghanistan. Mattis’ visit will help lay the groundwork for implementing this strategy which will in turn help India fight effectively against terrorism.

Mattis’ visit follows Doklam stand-off between India and China, a pointer to China’s emphasis on coercion and use of force to unilaterally alter the status-quo. Managing the rise of China is one of the foremost priorities for both India and the US. Discussion on North Korea can be expected as India has severed its economic ties recently with this belligerent nation to compel it to negotiate. Mattis can be expected to further strengthen India-US defence relations and move forward on some of the long pending defence agreements and trade.

India was designated as a ‘major defence partner’ by the US granting access to a wide array of dual-use technologies at a level equal to that of closest American allies. India and the US have established Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, a framework for improving bilateral defence relations. It is a confluence of terms and interests of both parties as the US began seeking India’s burgeoning defence market while the latter sought access to high-end defence technologies.
India has acquired few sophisticated platforms from the US. The P-8I is perhaps the most advanced and lethal acquisition helping Indian Navy safeguard the Indian Ocean from rising traditional and non-traditional threats. The Indian Air Force will be receiving Apache and Chinook helicopters. It already operates C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft. India and the US concluded Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement simplifying replenishment at each other’s’ bases.

India has liberalized foreign direct investment in defence, which can be scaled up to 100 percent provided the firms can guarantee full technology transfer. Transfer of technology is a major clause in India’s defence acquisitions but to what extent India will be able to gain access and absorb these sensitive technologies remains to be seen. In addition, cost is a major factor that decides competition. Rafale, for example, maintains that it requires an order of at least 200 fighter jets to be financially comfortable with transferring technology.

But India’s air defence requirements are huge with the US firm Lockheed Martin vying to sell its F-16 fighter jets to the Indian Air Force. Lockheed is offering the best variant of F-16 and has promised to shift the production line from the US to India. However, there are concerns that this aircraft has run out its scope for advances. Considering that Pakistan already possesses these jets makes the Indian Air Force uncomfortable, which has sidelined this fighter in its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Moreover, Lockheed and other US firms are seeking assurances from India to keep their proprietary technology as well as non-liability in case of defects in Made in India planes.

Russia on the other hand has more experience of dealing with India and retains its position as the major defence supplier given the proportion of its equipment. It has made Indian version of Sukhoi-30 that is far more capable than the version sold to China. These jets are being manufactured in India under license. There is also a deal to make Russian Kamov helicopters in India. The Indian Navy operates a Russian aircraft carrier along with the air wing. This does not mean absence of significant problems with Russia such as availability of spares, serviceability, quality of product etc. However, Russia has its advantages built up over decades of experience and it remains a major contender on India’s fighter competitions.

The US is also required to overcome the advantages India sees in Rafale. It is possible that India could follow up the order for 36 Rafale as the original requirement is for 126 MMRCA jets with the Indian Air Force selecting this jet as fit for its requirements. A common platform would reduce basing, training and maintenance costs. Whether the decision of the Indian Navy to buy naval fighters where Rafale is a contender be dependent on this issue remains to be seen.

Overall, Mattis’ visit to India will uphold the special strategic relations between India and the United States in this age of uncertainty and increasing military aggression. While Mattis will be happy about the strategic relations, it will be hard for him to negotiate a deal on fighter jet acquisitions.

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