India has taken one more step in acquiring 126 fighter aircraft. The defence ministry has shortlisted just two-the French Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon-for the $10 billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract, one of the largest in recent times.
The decision has, predictably, led to controversy. There is no doubt that “losers” in a contract of this magnitude are bound to be disappointed. Originally, six fighter aircraft-the US F-16 and F-18, Swedish Gripen and Russian MiG-35, besides the French Rafale and the European Eurofighter Typhoon-were in the reckoning.
On Wednesday, news of the shortlisting began circulating in New Delhi; on Thursday, US ambassador Timothy Roemer resigned from his position. While there may be no link between the two events, his departure comes after serious lobbying efforts made by his country. In a statement after the announcement, Roemer said, “We are reviewing the documents received from the Government of India and are respectful of the procurement process. We are, however, deeply disappointed by this news.”
In technical terms, the decision may be sound. The F-16 is an aircraft already operated by the Pakistan Air Force. The questions will come on the strategic level: Will the “disappointment” of their aircraft being knocked out of the competition hurt the US, unarguably a close strategic partner for India?
American dissatisfaction may be understandable. On the one hand, after the serious diplomatic efforts on the US’ part-in the teeth of European objections-to get India out of the nuclear sanctions rut at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, this decision has the potential to hurt enhanced defence cooperation between the two countries. On the other, the steady rise in defence purchases from the US-averaging several billions of dollars in recent years-may mitigate the disappointment.
Deals of this size should be used to secure strategic goals as well as getting good fighting platforms. Buying from the French and other European nations, who have little geopolitical traction in South Asia, is questionable from the strategic point of view. In those terms, the deal does not further our political interests. That opportunity has been lost.
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