WASHINGTON, January 26—Eight countries and six companies eagerly await the Indian air force’s selection of a new medium multi-role combat aircraft—126 aircraft will cost approximately $10 billion. In a new report, Ashley Tellis says that the winner of the competition will gain a toehold in a lucrative market and the aircraft will play an essential role in India’s transformation from a regional power to a global giant.
Tellis analyzes the technical and political factors India must consider in awarding the contract and argues that India needs to decide quickly, avoid splitting the purchase between competitors, and buy the “best” aircraft to help India prepare for future security competition in Southern Asia.
- Challenges to India’s national security are increasingly complex. India’s air force levels have reached an all-time low due to delays in its defense procurement process, accidents, and retirements of older aircraft. Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are aggressively modernizing their forces.
- European aircraft are technically superb, but U.S. entrants are formidable “best buys.” Unfortunately, the advantages in the U.S. fighters are not sufficiently recognized, so if Washington wants an American aircraft to win the game, it must offer generous terms on the transfer of technology, assure India access to fifth-generation U.S. combat aircraft, and support India’s strategic ambitions.
- India needs to consider its future force structure in making its decision. With combat aviation technology rapidly evolving, the Indian government should select the least expensive, most mature, combat-proven fourth-generation fighter as a bridge to procuring more advanced stealth aircraft in the future.
“In making its decision, India’s government must keep the India air force’s interests consistently front and center to ensure that its ultimate choice of aircraft is the best one for the service,” Tellis writes. “This will not only help India to strengthen its combat capabilities in the coming years, but position it as a rising global power worthy of respect far into the future.”
Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate in the Carnegie South Asia Program. He specializes in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues and was intimately involved in the negotiations associated with the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement. Previously, he was a senior adviser to the U.S. ambassador to India and was a special assistant to the president and senior director for strategic planning and Southwest Asia in the National Security Council.
The Carnegie South Asia Program informs policy debates relating to the region's security, economy, and political development. From the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan's internal dynamics to U.S. engagement with India, the Program's renowned team of experts offer in-depth analysis derived from their unique access to the people and places defining South Asia's most critical challenges.