Certainly not a strategic mistake.
A lot of writers are of the opinion that rejecting American fighters for the Indian Air Force was a strategic mistake. There are other aspects to it that suggest otherwise. The reasons are varied.
1. The “chill” in India-US relationship due to this deal (if it happens) cannot be due to purely economic reasons: This is because the dollar amount for the MMRCA deal, though high, pales in comparison to the past and potential military (C17, C130 transport planes, P8I maritime patrol aircraft, Javelin Missiles, Light Artillery, CBU 97 bombs) and non military (Boeing Jets, Nuclear Reactors) deals. Basing India-US relationship on the economic aspect of a single deal whose value pales in comparison to past and future sales seems illogical.
2. US is driven by short term American strategic interests: The argument that purchasing fighter jets from the US would cement India-US strategic ties is illogical. Weapons purchases by itself has not cemented anybody’s strategic ties with the US. The examples which can be cited are many, the most recent (sourced from Wikileaks) is the US sharing details of nuclear weapons deployment aboard British nuclear submarines (without British permission or knowledge) with Russia to clinch an nuclear arms reduction treaty. If a conflict between India and Pakistan (or China) were to arise, the country with the biggest stake in the conflict (outside of the antagonists) would be the US, and it is impossible to forecast what outcome would be regarded by the US as favorable to its strategic interests. Predicating the effectiveness of a crucial piece of India’s warfighting ability on the good graces of US and assumed convergence of interests seems to be a dangerous proposition. The purchase should be the culmination of and a confidence in the strategic ties rather than the initiator of strategic ties.
3. US and India’s strategic interests have not converged: One of the reasons why India’s requirement of MMRCA is urgent is due to the quantum increase in the capability of PAF. They are now armed with hundreds of AAMRAMs. This along with sophisticated radar and sensor upgrades of their F16s, and indeed more F16s, have given their fighters beyond-visual-range capability. Lack of this capability was the primary reason why IAF could conduct operation Safed Sagar (during the Kargil conflict) without much hindrance from PAF (please refer to the article of Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail of Pakistan Air Force here) None of these abilities are useful against fighting the Taliban and is solely directed against India. It can be argued that the monetary windfall accrued by assisting in the war on terror meant that PAF could buy AWACS and aerial refuelers, significantly increasing their lethality and range. A more varied set of warfighting equipment (which have nothing to do with fighting insurgencies) have been obtained by other branches of Pakistan armed forces with US assistance. All of these are inimical to Indian interests and is well known to the Americans. Moving away from arms, India has been blocked from reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and possible peace negotiations with the Taliban for determining Afghan future, solely to placate the Pakistanis. Till recently, the Pakistanis also had the Americans convinced that terror groups solely directed against India should be tolerated. It is clear that American indulgence of ISI’s terror related activities were borne neither out of ignorance (refer to Wikileaks revealing that Gitmo authorities had listed ISI as a terror organization. Also consider the fact that Headley is an American prisoner) nor out of bad diplomatic and economic relationship with India. American pursuit of its short term strategic interests means that the bigger troublemaker is always rewarded in the subcontinent, irrespective of ties based on economics, culture or shared values. It would be worth noting that the two biggest threats to India’s security — Terrorism originating from a radicalized Pakistan and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — are both children of American foreign policy. Purchase of fighter jets would further expose India to consequences of, rather than to forestall or insulate India from such american behavior.
4. India-US relationship has been cemented by treaties, agreements and institutions rather than warm fuzzy feelings: The areas where India-US relationship have progressed are those areas where concrete agreements (like the nuclear deal), concrete institutions and working groups (like NSSP) and treaties have been established. If India really desires strategic alignment with the US, more of such should be established with clearly laid out mandate and agenda. Assuming that american friendship will be forthcoming on unknown future Indian needs, would likely end in a rude awakening like the Pakistanis had in 1971.
5. India gains nothing strategic from buying fighter jets from Europe either and we should accept this: India does not gain anything “strategic” from buying fighter jets from France or from the Eurofighter consortium either. In short, the MRCA deal has nothing strategic about it, because there is nobody to have anything strategic with. The best India could hope for in this deal is a high-tech fighter jet unencumbered with unpredictable realignment of strategic interests and technology sharing to build up the domestic aeronautics industry. I hope India makes up for the two mistakes — The technical advantage that could have been accrued by moving the entire Dassault Mirage production lines to India (as France had suggested in the late 90′s) or by acquiring a significant fraction of Saab’s aeronautics division — by good commercial and technology sharing agreements, to help with the development of our own domestic fighter jets like the LCA-Tejas and AMCA so we never have to buy fighter jets from a foreign country ever again.
Barath C. is a researcher interested in Science, Technology and International Relations. You can follow him on twitter at @barathcn