There has been a spate of reports about a recent U.S. offer to sell advanced fighter jets like the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing’s F/A-18 to India as part of a new U.S. policy to help India become a “world power.” Unfortunately, some crucial facts have been missing in the reportage.
First, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been looking to buy multirole fighters since 2002. Last year, the government announced plans to issue a tender by the summer of 2005 for these jets. So far, India has sent a request for information to France’s Dassault Aviation for the Mirage 2000-5, Russia’s RSK MiG for the MiG-29M, Sweden’s Saab for its JAS 39C Gripen and Lockheed Martin for its F-16.
To understand if F-16s or even F/A-18s make sense for the IAF, one must consider the military, financial, strategic and political considerations.
From a military standpoint, a fighter aircraft today is not just a plane but a weapon platform encompassing the airframe, avionics, radar, electronic warfare gear, air-to-air missiles and surface strike munitions. With the F-16, there were reports that Lockheed might offer India a custom built system, similar to the Block-60 plane that it is building for the United Arab Emirates. Boeing might bid with the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, which it currently produces for the U.S. Navy.
Both jets, if fully loaded, clearly offer better technology in terms of weaponry, radar and electronic warfare gear than the non-American fighters. But there is a catch.
High-technology components and weapons need separate U.S. export licenses that may not be forthcoming. For instance, the Super Hornet’s Raytheon AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar is a new addition to the U.S. military itself, and it and other advanced subsystems are unlikely to be approved for export — even to “strategic allies.” Consequently, India may have to accept a toned down versions of the fighters or pay top dollar for research and development efforts to build customized subsystems.
From a financial standpoint, one needs to look at the purchase price and long-term costs, including training, support and maintenance costs of both the plane and its subsystems. The standard export version of the F-16 compares favorably price-wise with the Mirage and others, but as pointed out above, adding the latest subsystems tends to increase the price of American fighters disproportionately.
There is also the issue of training and maintenance. The IAF can induct the MiG-29M or Mirage 2000-5 easily since it already operates older versions of the planes, while the F-16 or F/A-18 would require massive investment in logistics. The IAF also will need a lot of time to train its pilots on their first-ever American platform.
This may delay the induction of these jets and defeat the whole purpose of the purchase — to maintain squadron strength as older jets are retired.
From a strategic standpoint, India tends to go for purchases that allow it to integrate local and third-party weapons and systems progressively. For instance, the Su-30MKI air superiority fighter that the IAF is currently inducting features French, Israeli and Indian subsystems on a Russian airframe that took years of multiparty collaboration to integrate. While Dassault and MiG may allow India to improve subsystems, it is hard to see Boeing or Lockheed doing the same.
India also typically asks for transfer of technology and local production rights with such purchases. Dassault and RSK-MiG have already offered a full transfer of technology, but it is extremely unlikely that Boeing or Lockheed Martin would make a similar offer — with good reason.
With the former firms, a deal for 126 jets is perhaps the largest they might obtain and therefore they may be amenable to handing over production rights just to get the contract. With American contractors, the Indian purchase pales in comparison to the numbers they sell to the U.S. military, and it makes little financial sense to acquiesce to Indian demands.
The Indian government also likes to use big-ticket deals to serve larger geopolitical ends. With purchases from disparate countries like France, Israel and Russia, India usually spreads the dollars equitably to smooth relationships. A fighter purchase from the United States could hurt India’s ties with Russia or France, for instance, and it would be unwise for the Indian government to take such a step without securing a major U.S. political concession.
Finally, there is the issue of reliability. Perhaps to a larger extent than with other nations, the United States utilizes weapon sales as an instrument of diplomacy and has on occasion imposed sanctions even on allies to support nonmilitary objectives. This issue tends to be the pink elephant in the room when India discusses military sales with the United States and is unlikely to go away.
India’s strategic partnership with the United States is still in its early days. It would be prudent for both sides to build confidence by smaller and more specialized military deals such as special forces gear or network-centric warfare components.
India needs to learn to work with the myriad American bureaucratic agencies in the Pentagon, Commerce and State departments. The American contractors need to gain knowledge of the Indian military and its strict and sometimes quirky requirements.
A U.S.-India fighter jet deal would be inadvisable at the present time.