India’s Dogfight Loss Could Be a Win for U.S. Weapons-Makers

Boeing and Lockheed Martin are vying for India’s long-delayed fighter replacement program.

Pakistani soldiers stand next to what Pakistan says is the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir near the Line of Control on Feb. 27. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani soldiers stand next to what Pakistan says is the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir near the Line of Control on Feb. 27. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The dilapidated state of the Indian Air Force was thrown into sharp relief last week when Pakistan shot down an Indian pilot flying a Russian-made MiG-21 Bison, a fighter jet first flown in 1956.

The pilot ejected safely into Pakistani territory and was captured by the Pakistan Army. Islamabad released the airman a couple days later in an effort to de-escalate a crisis that began when a Pakistan-based militant group killed more than 40 Indian security officers in a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in India-controlled Kashmir.

The MiG-21 was not so lucky. Images of the wreckage quickly emerged on social media, as did the remnants of a U.S.-made AIM-120 air-to-air missile that India said was possibly used to shoot it down.

The loss of the jet shines a light on India’s aging military and may lend new urgency to New Delhi’s long-delayed fighter replacement program, analysts said. The renewed focus would be a boon for the U.S. aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which are eyeing the lucrative contract for more than 100 airplanes. In addition to the immediate cash value for whichever company wins the work, India’s fighter replacement also offers Boeing and Lockheed the opportunity to extend the production of legacy systems that are reaching the end of their service lives.

“It is hard to sell a front-line fighter to a country that isn’t threatened,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute. “Boeing and Lockheed Martin both have a better chance of selling now because suddenly India feels threatened.”

Still, analysts noted India’s poor track record of moving quickly on defense acquisition programs. The shootdown may accelerate the recapitalization, said Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners, but “India must have known they have an aged fighter problem for a long time.”

The circumstances around the incident itself remain murky. India claims—and several news outlets have reported—that an aerial battle took place, an exceedingly rare event in modern warfare, during which the MiG-21 first shot down a U.S.-made Pakistani F-16, before itself taking a missile hit. Both nations have technologically diverse air forces, and the skirmish involved U.S.-, European-, Russian-, and Chinese-made jets. The Telegraph reported that India’s 1980s-era French-built Mirage 2000s and much newer Russian-made Su-30 MKIs, first flown in the early 2000s, were present, along with Pakistani F-16s, French-made Mirage IIIs, and Chinese-made JF-17s.

For its part, Pakistan denies that its jet was shot down or that it used F-16s at all. Other reports, citing unnamed sources, said a JF-17 scored the shootdown. Still, the remnants of an AIM-120 missile, which the Indian government displayed publicly, do seem to indicate that F-16s were involved, as that jet is the only one in the vicinity that can shoot that particular missile.

The United States said Sunday that it was looking to confirm India’s claim, since Pakistan’s use of an F-16 to down an Indian fighter could potentially violate U.S. agreements. The U.S. State Department and Pentagon declined to comment on the record.

As tensions continue to simmer between the two nuclear-armed powers, one thing is clear: India needs new fighter jets, in short order.

For the better part of two decades, India has been trying to replace its legacy fighter fleet. But successive programs have failed due to government bureaucracy and local disputes. Most recently, in early 2018 India halted its plan to purchase more than 100 single-engine fighter jets (Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Saab’s Gripen-E were the only two contenders; the F-16 was favored) in order to reassess its military requirements and potentially open up the competition to twin-engine designs. This decision allowed Boeing to get in the game with its F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Experts said the shootdown could be a wakeup call for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, prompting him to finally pick up the pace of the replacement program.

“The dogfight with Pakistan has moved fighter modernization higher on Mr. Modi’s list of priorities,” said Thompson, calling the incident an “embarrassment.” Thompson’s think tank receives funding from a range of firms including Lockheed and Boeing.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, agreed that the dogfight could up the ante in India’s fighter procurement. The vintage MiG-21s “are best kept out of the way” or in “the nearest museum,” he said.

“One would hope that this would lead to an attack of common sense and good government,” Aboulafia said but cautioned that an acceleration of the effort is far from guaranteed. “The track record is nothing short of awful.”

Despite the loss, India may believe its MiG-21s are good enough for now. Aviation experts note that the jets can be extremely lethal despite their age. Although increasingly hard to maintain, the fleet has received significant upgrades over the years. Tyler Rogoway, a defense journalist who serves as the editor of the War Zone webpage, noted that the plane proved its mettle over a decade ago during military exercises in which it bested U.S. Air Force F-15s.

“Bisons are very nasty aircraft when paired with proper tactics and [electronic warfare],” Rogoway said.

In addition to Russian defense companies, other European manufacturers are competing for the profitable Indian fighter replacement contract. Although there is so far no evidence to back up India’s claim that its MiG-21 successfully shot down an F-16, some observers said Russia could use that narrative to criticize U.S. platforms and potentially gain an advantage in the competition.

“They have already picked up the ‘F-16 shot down by an old Soviet design’ story and pushed it through all government-funded mouthpieces,” said Bradley Howard, a U.S. Air Force veteran who writes about aviation and military issues.

India will be pressed to modernize its military overall, as its Chinese neighbor continues to develop advanced capabilities, Thompson said. The New York Times reported that India’s military is in an “alarming” state: The government estimates that if major warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition.

“India has the resources to buy top-of-the-line fighters, it has the military requirements, and now it has the stimulus of a neighbor that is shooting at it,” Thompson said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman