By Bharat Karnad
This is passing strange, but why did the Lockheed Martin chief Marillyn Hewson meet Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently this month and why did she come away sounding optimistic? As all important decisions by the BJP government are taken by Modi personally, Jaitley could have been instructed by the PM to not disappoint Hewson and otherwise string Washington along. Or, a more radical conclusion could be that Modi lost confidence in his defence minister Manohar Parrikar enough to now designate Jaitley, the interface with the US defence industry representatives regarding: the purchase of either of the US combat aircraft, should PMO eventually approve it.
So, at a pinch, is Jaitley still Modi’s Raksha Mantri of choice?
The intervention by the Americans at this late stage in the MMRCA procurement game with a couple of aircraft that were first to be discarded by the MMRCA acquisition committee, followed by the Russian MiG-35 and Swedish Gripen in that order, leaving the ultimate choice to be made between the EADS Typhoon Eurofighter and the French Rafale, doesn’t make sense for another reason. HAL chairman Suvarna Raju has stated that if the F-16/F-18 buy is to fill the void in 2021 when all the MiG-21s would have been phased out, as Parrikar has declared, then the answer, Raju said, lies in increasing the production capacity of the very fine and indigenous Tejas LCA in his DPSU. While Raju’s loyalty to the public sector company he runs is laudable, HAL’s work culture is such that even if the jigs and tools are installed, HAL will not be able to produce Tejas in great numbers to meet the timeline. This is the reason why I have advocated that ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) transfer the complete LCA ‘know why’ information, data and technology to L&T and Tata so a production competition is initiated between them, with HAL left—if it is to be given some work at all for old times sake—to potter around and produce 3/4 aircraft a year if that.
But given the absence of quality control, it will mean the instant junking of the HAL-manufactured planes. (This is what comes from the government first appointing a has-been DRDO head, Atre, to recommend ways of firing up Modi’s ‘Make in India’ programme, and then taking his report, which suggests sticking with DPSUs as the the country’s defence industrial cutting edge, and leaving these useless, sarkari-owned outfits to choose their private sector partners, seriously. But then Atre methinks knew that his preferences were right up Modi’s street—after all no recent PM has been so enamoured of bureaucrats running government businesses, usually into the ground. There’s a 65 year track record of this.)
The question is how come the US companies—Lockheed and Boeing are so confident? Because between the US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and “buy American” promoters, especially Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Washington who, it is said, can get an appointment with Modi with just 24 hours notice—no matter how busy Modi is or how full his schedule, the PM is in an influence trap. Carter, of course has the weight of the US govt behind him. But it is Tellis, who has Modi’s ears, and can get the PM to even launch his book in Delhi without too much advance notice, who may turn out to be decisive. He is said to have persuaded the PM that by going in for the manufacture in the country of the advanced F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-16IN Block 60 version, India will be doing itself a great favour.
He reportedly pointed out to Modi that, far from obsolete, a souped up variant of the F-18 that the US Navy has plonked for because it is unhappy with the navalised F-35 Lightning-II, is what will be made available to India. It is another matter—and this bit neither Carter nor Tellis is likely to have communicated to Modi—that for the US Navy this fallback option is a very short-term bridging solution until the carrier-bound F-35 is cleared for Initial Operational Capability; for the IAF, however, it will be stuck with an already nearly 50-year old aircraft for the next four decades by the end of which it will have an almost 100 year old aircraft in its order of battle.
Except, by 2025 no matter how advanced the F-18 platform, it will be a sitting duck for almost any agile fifth generation aircraft and new generation SAMs. If Modi is happy to make anything in India, even a creaky old fighter plane, in support of his policy then one can expect more outmoded technology to find its way to the Indian factory floor, producing stuff you can’t get rid off for love or money. May be IAF chief Raha should be asked how he feels about risking the lives of his pilots in such antique planes in the robotic wars of tomorrow.
So, the prospects of a US aircraft in IAF livery are, by any correct metric, not bright. Or, at least one hopes that’s the case.
In all this, Parrikar is left up a creek. He was wisely for the combo of the Su-30MKI and the Tejas as the bulk force, but has had to leave the door ajar for the French item. The question is whether the PMO should throw all financial prudence to the winds and insist on having a small complement of the Rafale in IAF to conform to Modi’s thoughtless promise made in Paris in April 2015 to buy 36 of this aircraft off the shelf. In that case, India’s treasury goose is truly cooked. With the Lockheed/Boeing also elbowing in to swill at the Indian trough, the cause of India’s national security seems to be the last thing on the BJP government’s mind. Then again, who in South and North Blocks thinks about the national interest?
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and most recently, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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