DEFENCE and strategic analysts around the world have been taken by surprise by the news, in the air for quite some time but formally revealed during the recent visit to India by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, that India may acquire US-made F-16 fighter aircraft. The chief representative in India of Lockheed Martin Corporation, the manufacturer of the F-16s, also revealed that his company had received export licenses, that is US government approval, for sale to India of Hercules C-130 transport aircraft and P3C Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
India has not acquired any military hardware from the US for several decades and, for its part, the US has actively denied India any US-made military equipment, even imposing sanctions on dual-use equipment after India’s nuclear weapon test in Pokhran-II. This development is therefore widely being interpreted as a major breakthrough in strategic and defence relations between India and the US. Some of this is just wishful thinking by a section of commentators who have long desired a close US-India defence relationship as part of a wider partnership.
Examination of various aspects, however, would show that none of the above expectations would be met. In fact, as would be argued below, even the offer of such a deal to India, far from being a recognition of India’s regional power status or a significant upgrading of India in the US strategic calculus, is self-serving on the part of the US, seeking only to advance its own interests and lure India into a US trap. In strategic terms, India has little to gain, and a lot to lose, from such a deal. Apart from geo-political considerations, this article argues that, even from a purely military or defence technology stand-point, acquiring of F-16s by India makes little sense in the current context.
US CONTINUES INDO-PAK ZERO-SUM GAME
The story of Pakistan and US F-16s is well known but a brief recap will help to set the backdrop for these recent developments. The US supplied 40 F-16s to Pakistan in the mid-1980s when it was a “front-line” state against Soviet communism. The F-16 was then the leading military aircraft in the world and the Pakistani acquisition seriously upset the balance of power in the region to the considerable disadvantage of India which then embarked on a frantic buying spree that included Anglo-French Jaguars and Soviet MiG-23s and ill-fated Sukhoi-7s.
After the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan and US strategic objectives there had been met, and with worsening US-Pak relations exacerbated by Pakistani involvement in nuclear weapons and missile-systems proliferation, the US imposed sanctions against Pakistan, specifically prohibiting the sale of F-16s to the latter. 70 F-16s which Pakistan had paid for were not delivered and even the money not returned for over 10 years! After Pakistan re-emerged as a “front-line state”, this time in the US “war on terror” after the famous about-turn by General Musharraf, president Bush and then the US Congress waived the ban on F-16 sale to Pakistan but delivery is yet to be resumed.
In the meantime, however, the US supplied 2 P3C Orion armed maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Pakistan, again altering the balance of forces in the region even though it is difficult to visualise the anti-submarine Orions being used against al-Qa’ida which operates in the Pak-Afghan mountains!
Those commentators who are today overjoyed at the US offer of these aircraft to India as if they are some major prize are completely overlooking the fact that the US is only offering to India what it has already made available to Pakistan earlier. While P3C Orions are already with Pakistan, F-16s were in fact supplied to Pakistan by the US over 20 years ago! Clearly therefore, the US is far from viewing India in any new or special light.
US STRATEGIC POLICY IN THE REGION
The US strategic perspective in making the offer is revealed through closer examination.
Condoleezza Rice, in interviews to the Indian media during her visit, repeatedly insisted that the US was keen to show that it did not take a “hyphenated” Indo-Pak view of the region. However, the approach US to supply of military hardware in the region shows precisely such a bracketing, especially when it comes to looking at Indo-US relations which evidently continue to be seen through this hyphenated prism.
When the US first indicated its desire to open up a “new strategic relationship” with India, India had indicated that it would like to acquire the E2C Hawkeye, far more advanced than the P3 Orion and a true AWACS (with real-time integration with strike aircraft) which India needed, especially given its enormous coast line and the need for patrolling a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) along its coasts not to mention the island territories of the Andaman & Nicobar to the east and the Lakshadweep and Minicoy to the west. The US denied the same to India arguing that the AWACS would “upset the balance of power in the region”. The same argument continues to be used in blocking Indian acquisition of the Israeli Phalcon system which is to be mounted on a Russian IL-76 platform with additional Indian avionics. Yet the US never hesitated to tilt the balance of power in Pakistan’s favour whenever the latter was playing the role of a key US junior partner. All the US is now doing is offering to bring India on par with Pakistan and maintain a “balance of power.”
This has two implications, one short term and the other medium to long term.
The US under president Bush is keen sell F-16s and other weapons systems to Pakistan which is in the process of being built up as a potential US base bordering Iran, West Asia and Central Asia. But the US finds itself hampered by Indian objections. If India accepts the US offer and buys F-16s herself, it can no longer object to US sale of F-16s to Pakistan. The US can make both nations happy, keep the hyphenated zero-sum game in place and Lockheed Martin can make a killing, retaining jobs in the F-16 assembly line which is due to be shut down since the aircraft is being phased out.
In the medium term, the simple fact is that the US does not want India to become significantly stronger in military terms. Maintaining a “balance of power” between India and Pakistan and keeping the two countries on par serves this purpose while simultaneously sending a message as to the strategic weight the US attaches to India. All talk of the US viewing India as a potential counterweight to China represents an old way of thinking which current US strategic thinking has long overgrown. The new strategic doctrine adopted by the US explicitly states that the US will do all it can to prevent any power, regional or global, from being able to come anywhere near being able to challenge US strategic domination. As such, the US would be loathe to see India, which is emerging as a serious economic player certainly in the region, also become strategically strong. Contending with the growing economic and strategic clout of China is proving enough of a headache for the US without it helping yet another regional power!
INDIAN DEFENCE NEEDS
All these developments come against the background of some wide-ranging acquisitions, and indigenous development, of conventional military hardware by India. Several of these acquisitions are long-pending, the bunching up being caused by years of faulty planning, bureaucratic delays and penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions. Even todays acquisitions are quite ill-planned and lack a long-term vision of India’s genuine and realistic strategic and defence requirements. Indian defence purchases have vacillated between periods of virtual lulls to sudden shopping sprees often, especially during the BJP-led regime, driven by faulty over-ambitious goals of power projection or nuclear delivery triads (land-sea-air) systems. If India needs to upgrade its defence hardware, it must do so in such a manner as to give it force multiplication with “leaner and meaner” armed forces not simply adding to an already bloated and unwieldy behemoth. But this argument is beyond the scope of the present essay.
Let us examine the US offers in purely technical-commercial terms from the point of view of Indian defence requirements which, as is well known, cannot be seen through an Indo-Pak prism.
The sweeteners in the package along with the F-16s include the Hercules C-130 and the P3C Orions, so let us quickly look at these first. The Hercules are a venerable, time-tested transport work-horses and excellent aircraft, but the Indian transport fleet is relatively sound with Russian AN-32 and IL-76. If needs be, the C-130s can also be thought of on a stand-alone basis. The P3C Orion, as already discussed, is good but not what India wants. If the US is serious about even a normal, forget about any special defence purchase relationship with India, it should drop its objections to the Phalcon deal. So now to the F-16s.
India is currently shopping for front-line fighter aircraft which are urgently required to replace the around 700 now dangerously ageing MiG-21s. India is looking to buy about 126 fighter aircraft and had short-listed the Russian MiG-29, the Swedish Saab Grippen and the French Mirage-2000-5, now adding the US F-16s this list. All these are essentially long-range interceptors or fighter aircraft with multi-role capability while the Russian Sukhoi-30 MkIs, around 200 of which are being acquired including 140 make in India under license, are basically long-range attack aircraft but again with multi-role capability. A brief comparison between these and the F-16s would be in order.
The fourth-generation F-16s were designed in the 1970s specifically for “air superiority”, that is, a clear superiority in performance and armament over any other aircraft in the world and expecting it to maintain this advantage for 10-20 years, which they pretty well did, equipping their NATO and other allies with it till the French, British and Russians (formerly Soviets) came up with more or less equivalent aircraft in the ’80s and ’90s. Last year, in joint Indo-US air force exercises, the Indian fighter formations comprising Mig-21s and Mig-27s, with a few Mirage-2000s and Su-30s in stand-by mode, gave the US F-15s, rated alongside F-16s, a real run for their money, giving rise to calls in the US Congress for urgently providing the USAF with the latest fifth generation F/A-22 and F-35 fighters!
THANKS BUT NO THANKS
The point is that India no longer needs to fear that it is missing out on something extra-ordinary. This is especially true if the US does not provide India with the latest version of F-16s. Interestingly, Lockheed Martin has offered to set up production lines for F-16s in India if the Indian order is equivalent to 4 F-16s for every Mig-21, that is, around 175 aircraft! However, there is widespread scepticism whether the US will actually provide full transfer of this sensitive technology.
The Swedish Grippen is reputed to be an excellent fighter, some say even better than the F-16, but with low export numbers, mostly because of tight US controls over its sale since the aircraft is equipped with US engines and other flight controls and components. This is typical of the totally non-commercial manner in which the US deals with military supplies, denying even its own allies a chance of competing with fully US-made products. Interestingly, the Grippen uses GE-404 engine, which the US has agreed to sell to India for the LCA whose development programme was held back by several years because of US denial of this same engine. Back in the 1970s, the US had prevented Sweden from selling Viggen fighters to India, again using US-made engines as leverage. Will the US allow Sweden to sell Grippens to India this time, especially after it has thrown its F-16 into the ring?
Acquisition by India of additional Mirage-2000s of the latest variants would synergise with the existing fleet. Similarly, additional Mig-29s would complement the aircraft already in service with the IAF and soon to be inducted into the Navy on board the refurbished Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Both these would come with technology transfer and would fit in well with the existing IAF fleet. Whichever of these aircraft India selects, the deals will be totally commercial, without strings and India has several years of dealing with both Dassault of France and Mig-MAPO of Russia.
On the other hand, the US has an extremely poor reputation as a reliable supplier of military equipment and is notorious for turning off the tap whenever it pleases, even to its closest allies, Pakistan and Chile being glaring examples. Former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill as well as the present Ambassador have both made clear that no iron-clad guarantees can be given that supplies will not be stopped by the US mid-stream since US laws entitle its Congress to do precisely that. And everybody know that the US only recognises its own laws and not international laws as could be invoked in the case of any agreements between any other two countries or companies.
India has therefore little incentive to consider the US offer of F-16s and several reasons not to. It has been reported that several former chiefs of the IAF and Army have opposed any such deal with the US. It is to be hoped that the US will heed their advice.