Why isn’t India buying American fighter jets?

Why isn’t India buying American fighter jets?

India has decided not to buy American F-16’s or F/A-18’s for the biggest defense tender in its history — a pending $10 billion-plus contract for 126 multi-role combat aircraft. Following field trials, it has instead shortlisted the Rafale, made by France’s Dassault, and the Typhoon, produced by a European consortium. Skeptics of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership view this as yet another Indian snub to the United States, arguing that the promise of Indo-American entente that was to follow from the historic civilian-nuclear agreement of 2008 has proven hollow.

The charge is that American proponents of closer cooperation with India have oversold India’s willingness or ability to partner with the United States. India is unreliable, they argue — just look at its failure to enact liability legislation that would bring the 2008 civilian-nuclear agreement into force. For the skeptics, Indian foreign policy, rather than tilting in a more pro-American direction, remains guided by non-alignment and an abiding concern for strategic autonomy — if not an outright hostility to the West, as in the bad old days of the Cold War.

While India’s decision is certainly disappointing, this analysis is flawed.

First, the United States has a national interest in Indian strategic autonomy, because one important consequence of India’s geopolitical ascent is the ballast it provides to an Asian order not subject to China’s tutelage. From an American national interest perspective, it is vital that India retain strategic autonomy by growing its internal capabilities and building external partnerships with a range of important powers, including not just America but also Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and European states.

The civilian-nuclear deal, advanced U.S. defense sales to India, technology-sharing, and other American initiatives have been designed to build Indian strength and promote Indian development. The mercantilistic idea that the ultimate goal of American policy towards India is creating a lucrative new market for American defense companies is not credible.

Second, India is not non-aligned, whatever the results of one defense sale. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh submitted his government to a no-confidence vote in 2008 over the nuclear deal with the United States — risking the leadership of his coalition over the future of relations with the United States. India’s military exercises more with America’s armed forces than with any other, and the United States has emerged as a leading arms supplier to India, successfully selling it reconnaissance aircraft, transport aircraft, naval vessels, and other advanced platforms. Beyond the United States, India’s growing set of partnerships are almost entirely with states along the Indo-Pacific littoral that fear the consequences of overweening Chinese power and seek to balance it.

India’s double-digit annual defense budget increases, and India’s emergence as the biggest arms importer in the world, aren’t directed at the United States, or Europe, or Japan. They are undertaken with an eye on China first and Pakistan second. Yes, India’s prime minister recently attended a BRICS summit — though an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman made clear beforehand that India vests more importance in the IBSA grouping (India, Brazil, South Africa) of developing democracies — because they share common values. The BRICS, of course, do not.

Third, it’s worth considering the perspective from New Delhi on the aircraft sale. Despite considerable progress in recent years, the United States historically has not been what Indians would call a reliable supplier of military hardware. To the contrary: It has sanctioned India repeatedly, cutting off sales of military platforms, technologies, and spare parts over several different periods. The United States has also provided advanced weaponry to India’s key rivals (Pakistan since 1954, China during the 1980s).

Politically, an Indian government under frequent attack for moving closer to Washington stands to benefit from insulating itself against yet more charges of favoritism towards America by buying U.S. fighters. Another core political objective in this context is to avoid the kind of corruption scandals that have marred previous Indian defense purchases (most notably the Bofors scandal of the 1980s, which brought down an Indian government).  The possibility for a potential scandal over the role of American political pressure should India buy American is a charge the country’s political masters are keen to avoid, and are now immune from.

A related political factor is the what my Indian colleague Dhruva Jaishankar describes as "the general drift" in U.S.-India relations, which "has only increased both countries’ resolve to drive harder bargains. This period of drift was initiated by the Obama administration’s early missteps on China and Afghanistan and has persisted despite the president’s visit to India last November as a consequence of political developments in both capitals." The underperformance of the bilateral relationship over the past two years is manifested in this week’s decision on the aircraft tender.

Fourth, India’s decision not to shortlist the American combat aircraft was a technical determination. India’s existing fleet of Russian and French aircraft, and the ground-based support infrastructure for air operations, are not closely compatible with American combat aircraft. Some argue that European fighter aircraft are more advanced than older models of U.S. combat aircraft; it is reported that several performed better in flight trials over Indian territory than their U.S. competitors. The American planes are certainly more expensive, which matters in a country with more poor people than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Indian cabinet will make the ultimate political decision on the tender.

This is no defense of India’s decision. The great benefit of a U.S. company securing the contract for 126 multi-role combat aircraft wasn’t the immediate benefit of a lucrative defense sale. It was the establishment of a long-term supply and training relationship between the air forces of the world’s biggest democracies, great powers with the capability to fundamentally shape security order in Asia over the coming century.

India will do fine with its Rafales or Typhoons. But it’s a shame longer-range, strategic considerations didn’t seem to drive this decision. Leaders in Beijing and Islamabad are probably smiling, even as those of us in Washington are not.