This essay is part of a series of occasional papers on topical issues relevant to South Asia. These guest contributions are presented by the South Asia Program because of their potential to contribute to a wider understanding of regional issues, and do not represent the views of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or its scholars.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

Introduction

“The true aim [of the strategist] is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce a decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this.” —Basil H. Liddell Hart

Recent news articles suggest that the $13 billion deal for India to purchase 126+ French Rafale fighters for its Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program has crashed, and even the stop-gap attempt to purchase 36 Rafales is having difficulty.1 If true, this presents a significant opportunity for both India and the United States to advance their strategic interests.

A U.S. contract in the MMRCA program would have immediately put fighters in India’s hands to stem the bleeding of aged platforms that is undermining its ability to maintain Air Superiority and deterrence. It would have—as past contracts have in Korea and Japan—established a robust indigenous production facility, and would have provided the lowest life-cycle cost with the best customer support. This article develops an argument for why a U.S. selection is and always has been the best strategic bet for India.

It is no secret that many within India regretted the selection of the Rafale, not for technical reasons, but for the lost opportunity a U.S. contract would have provided to advance Indian security and influence in the global system.2

Recent Facts

Before developing the logic of why a U.S. selection made and still makes the best strategic sense for India, it is important to address skeptics who did not believe that the United States would be a reliable supplier of defense articles. New evidence has emerged since April 2011 that shows skepticism in India to have been unfounded.

First, the U.S. commitment to Indian security has proved durable and wide ranging contrary to the expectations of skeptics in India who thought the strategic partnership was fickle, fragile or merely transactional. Despite a series of significant disappointments for the United States—the unfortunate initial still birth and long delay of the Civil Nuclear deal, the loss of the MMRCA, and lack of support on key global governance issues—India can observe that the United States remains committed to India as a strategic partner, and to expanding its role as a net security provider. In particular, Prime Minister Modi’s leadership has breathed new life into the partnership.

Second, allegations that the United States was unwilling to provide India with its “best technology”—the F-35—are baseless. The United States MMRCA proposal of the F-16IN and F-18E/F were, given India’s stated goals and cost constraints, the best option the United States had to offer. The goals of the MMRCA were to immediately put into service a large number of relatively low-cost fighters within a fixed budget and timescale so the Indian Air Force (IAF) could maintain its squadron strength. The F-35 is a comparatively high-end, high-cost fighter. The cost of the F-35 would mean India could procure less than half the number of fighters required in the MMRCA program. Moreover, MMRCA was meant to address an urgent problem. Knowing that the F-35 production schedule is already full, the United States was honest in not putting forward a fighter that it knew could not be available in the numbers and on the timeline required for MMRCA. While, to many Indian analysts, it seemed clear from the outset that India would not choose the F-16IN, because Pakistan flies earlier variants, the United States truly did put forward the two best fighters that could meet the constraints and timeline of MMRCA.

The perception that the United States was unwilling to offer the F-35 to India is false.  U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter confirmed that "there is nothing on our side, no principle which bars that on our side, Indian participation in the Joint Strike Fighter.”3 Carter’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for South Asia has further stated that “the F-35 is something we would be more than willing to talk to the Government of India about, should they request to find out more information about purchasing it.”4

The F-35 would indeed be a good option for one of India’s two high-end programs, the India’s Fifth Generation Fighter Program (FGFP) or Next Generation Fighter Aircraft (NGFA). In fact, given India’s recent experience with purchasing the Admiral Gorshakov/INS Vikramaditya—delivered five years behind schedule, and $1.2 billion over budget— from Russia, India might want to hedge its bets. Given what appear to be significant delays and dissatisfactions with the jointly-developed PAK-FA,  and the inability of the Russian industrial base to sustain the PAK-FA program without India’s participation, it may be exactly the right time for India and the United States to begin talks about the F-35 or F-15 Silent Eagle as a hedge for a possible PAK-FA failure.5

Third, skeptics who question the U.S. role as a reliable supplier have seen in recent years that the United States compares favorably to other suppliers. While suffering late deliveries and poor customer support from other defense suppliers, India has been able to see for itself that in both of the recent U.S. aircraft purchases—C-130J and C-17—that the United States delivers on time, and provides excellent support. It is no secret that the IAF has been more than satisfied with both platforms and the increase in capabilities they provide for Indian security. The same consistent level of support is also apparent with the General Electric F404, the jet engine that powers the new indigenously built Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). It is also notable that despite losing the MMRCA contest, the United States continued to recognize the value of a strengthened U.S.-India partnership, and continues to express its interest in welcoming India into the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) Program, a fairly exclusive club.6

Fourth, India can observe that despite its public selection, few other countries haves selected the Rafale. The failure to ink deals with other countries means that the Rafale will have a smaller customer base than expected, meaning smaller production runs, increasing aircraft and support costs and decreasing the budget available to Dassault research and development to keep the platform current.

Fifth, the IAF’s (and therefore India’s air superiority) situation has become more desperate while the GoI and Dassault have been unable to come to agreement. The delays in finalizing the MMRCA deal have placed the IAF significantly behind its timeline, and the task should be in identifying ways to rectify these deficiencies. As of mid-August, the United States has indicated it is in a position to provide an immediate stop-gap response with the F-16IN Super Viper and associated training, should India be able to make a decision in that regard.7

In light of these developments since the April 2011 decision, Indian analysts have a more basic question to answer: Would a U.S. selection have made sense for India’s security? Absolutely. Indian defense analysts needs to put this decision through a broader strategic perspective instead of a purely tactical lens. The question is not fundamentally about fighter vs. fighter, but about the entire system-of-system vs. system-of-system performance, and which offers superior and continuing advantage in war, deterrence, and peace.8

From A Grand Strategic Perspective

A proper analysis starts not at the tactical level of the aircraft, but at the grand strategy level, keeping in mind India’s larger strategic objectives. Several analyses and commentaries have come out since India’s MMRCA decision. Many in the strategic and policy community were distracted from the real issues by over emphasis on tactical considerations—such as dogfighting performance—that actually are quite irrelevant to the sort of modern air combat the MMRCA would actually be called to perform.9 In the process, these commentaries dismissed strategic considerations as political, assuming such considerations were in some manner illegitimate, a fashion of the times, corruption or coercion.

Good strategic analysis always starts at the top, seeking the best possible option that advances the totality of India’s long-term strategic interests, and providing the best balance between mitigating danger and broadening opportunity. And the MMRCA provides significant opportunity to advance India’s total security, and advance India’s larger policy goals.

The key question a strategist (either an Indian security or airpower strategist) must ask in regard to the MMRCA decision is: “How do I use this one buy to advance India’s total security situation now and into the foreseeable future?” In the process of answering the ‘key’ question, a strategist must also consider the following subordinate questions:

  • Which MMRCA decision best maximizes India’s chance for inclusive growth, uninterrupted by conflict?
  • Which MMRCA decision expands India’s strategic options and freedom of action?
  • Which MMRCA decision, should conflict be unavoidable, will provide the best chance of victory or conflict resolution favorable to Indian interests?

This paper will consider the impact of the MMRCA decision on three different levels of India’s security: the strategic, the operational, and the tactical, analyzing the risk and opportunity at each level, and then making a bet as to what will best advance Indian security.

The Strategic Level: Security Through Posture

“The forms of policy are six. Of these, agreement with pledges is peace; offensive operation is war; indifference is neutrality; making preparations is marching; seeking the protection of another is alliance; and making peace with one and waging war with another, is termed double policy (dvaidhibhaava).” – Kautilya’s Arthashastra

For the moment, India has clearly chosen as its grand strategy inclusive growth and nation building toward its political and social ideals of inclusiveness, tolerance, and democracy. It has chosen a foreign policy it believes will best serve this goal, looking East and West to absorb opportunities and markets, and pursuing an independent, noninterventionist non-militarily aggressive foreign policy to lessen the chances of being drawn into an expensive and costly conflict.

Having a first class military backed by a policy of restraint enhances India’s foreign policy. India’s modern professional forces project an image of economic and technological vibrancy as well as a capability and resolve to contribute to global public goods and maintenance of the commons. This combination makes India a desired economic and security partner. It also diffuses the possibility that a strategic competitor might try to bully potential third parties to lock India out of key markets or trade deals.

However, India cannot only consider the opportunities for inclusive growth afforded by a strong deterrent posture; it must also consider the possibility of war. India’s neighborhood is not benign, and while most of its immediate neighbors are relatively poor states with significant resource and governance problems, the two nuclear powers with significant conventional forces on its border present a strategic and existential threat. Both China and Pakistan have territorial disputes, resource disputes, and ideological differences with India.

India has articulated a need to have a credible minimum deterrent both in nuclear and conventional forces to protect its security.10 The MMRCA is a key component of both India’s defense and deterrence strategies, enhancing India’s ability to deter either by denying an adversary success of their objectives, or to deter by punishment, raising the costs to an adversary of initiating a conflict.

Therefore, India’s strategic problem is to maximize inclusive growth while minimizing defense expenditures, and to structure defense acquisition programs in a way that maximizes the opportunities for enabling inclusive growth—both through growth of domestic industry and competitiveness, and ensured access to market opportunities abroad.

At the strategic level, security and opportunity are not only about the security that the MMRCA platform itself provides, but the security and opportunity that a $13 billion long-term, state-to-state deal could provide. MMRCA is thus an opportunity both to advance national competitiveness through technology transfer in a strategic industry, and to enhance deterrence of potential adversaries by cementing relationships with centers of influence and power that affect India’s security, influence, and freedom of action.

The key questions for a strategist to ask at this level are:

  • Security through Partnerships: Which partnership enhances my ability to avoid or deter war, and, if I cannot avoid it, which partner offers the best chance of a sympathetic center of power and influence that could better my chances of winning, or at least exert pressure to limit my damage?11
  • Freedom of Action: Which partnership expands my freedom of action and influence on the global centers of gravity and governance, allowing me to shape my environment for inclusive growth?
  • National Competitiveness: Which partnership offers me the best chance of improving my overall economic competitiveness and future freedom of action by maximizing my long-term potential for technology transfer and linking my technical and industrial base with the largest and most significant market for the totality of my products and services?
  • Regional Influence: Which MMRCA platform provides India the greatest opportunity to shape its security environment or future security architecture through security cooperation and training, military diplomacy, and logistical support for Indian presence across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)?12

The Operational Level: Prevail In the Air War

“A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind”—Chinese Proverb

At the strategic level, the resort to force is a question of policy; at the operational level, war is assumed.

No modern war has been won without air superiority, and air superiority is the necessary precursor to and chief enabler of any joint action to forestall, eject, punish or counter-threaten an adversary. Quality (range, payload, probability of kill) of aircraft is not the only consideration; total numbers (driven by platform cost) matter, as does sortie generation (driven by maintenance reliability).

India faces an immediate and worsening operational problem where the IAF has less than the minimum number of fighter aircraft needed to confidently win an air campaign against Pakistan. From the IAF perspective, there has been a shortage of fighter squadrons since the 1960s when the IAF defined an ideal strength of 64 squadrons for its national security missions, 45 of which were squadrons of combat aircraft. However, given a variety of factors including the economic deficiencies, India could establish only 45 total squadrons and only 40 combat aircraft squadrons. Analysts suggest that this resulted in a 3:1 lead over the Pakistani air force. However, the situation has changed drastically since then. India’s fighter aircraft inventory is declining rapidly. The necessary retirement of its older fighters coupled with a lack of timely and adequate replacements has placed the IAF in an extremely worrisome position, with just 29 squadrons of combat aircraft.  Meanwhile, Pakistan and China are both steadily replenishing their fleet.13 While a 2:1 numbers advantage against Pakistan might be sufficient for stability on the subcontinent, it hardly seems adequate for India’s total security needs. Nor does it seem adequate to cope with the advantages that India’s eastern neighbor China enjoys.

The operational planner begins by looking at simple correlation of forces. They ask: how many aircraft of a particular type do I have? How many of a particular type does the adversary have? How capable are they against my type?

The graphic below provides one such simple overview. It illustrates the crisis in the number of Indian combat aircraft. India currently has about 630 combat aircraft but is rapidly losing end strength because obsolete tails are being retired without a replacement available. In the same time period both, China and Pakistan are able to field greater numbers of higher-end (4th Generation) fighters.

But pure number of aircraft is only part of the equation. The operational planner must also ask: How many sorties can my adversary generate in a given space and time? How many of my type do I need to be able to generate to outmatch him at that space and time and be confident I will win that battle? How many of my forces will actually be available and not otherwise engaged? How many will be tied up in training or maintenance? What sort of numbers and sortie generation rate do I need to field that advantage over and over? What sort of maintenance reliability do I need to support that? What sort of access to war readiness material, munitions and spares do I need to support that? How affordable is it to initially purchase this force posture, and how affordable is it to maintain this posture over time?

The key questions a strategist must ask at this level, with respect to the MMRCA, are:

  • Numbers on Time: Which entrants provide the least risk to rapidly fielding significant numbers of fourth generation fighters to fix my current deficit of combat aircraft?
  • Sortie Generation: Which entrants have proven high maintenance reliability and high sortie generation that maximize the utility of the limited numbers I will have?
  • Largest Numbers: Which entrants have the lowest per-unit acquisition costs that allow my limited budget to go farthest, and field best mix and largest number of platforms and weapons?
  • Lowest Sustainment: Which entrants have the lowest lifecycle maintenance and sustainment costs that allow me to maintain this posture and have fiscal freedom of action to make future acquisitions as my adversary adapts and innovates?
  • Repertoire Expansion: Which entrants allow me to expand my repertoire of courses of action and degrees of freedom by providing new weapons and tactics, techniques and procedures the adversary must counter?

A grand strategist considers the degrees of freedom provided by partnerships and alliances, but the operational planner must assume the worst case of fighting with only one’s own resources, asking:

  • Which choice offers me the best chances of winning the campaign, assuming I may have to depend on my own resources?

Beyond the strategic utility of indigenization, there is operational utility in being able to manufacture spares and aircraft in the midst of conflict. Therefore the operational planner also cares about:

  • Indigenous Sourcing: Which entrants have proven track records of setting up production lines within host nations?
  • Third Party Sourcing: Which entrants provide the greatest freedom of action in a conflict to get additional spares or compatible aircraft from multiple third parties?

The Tactical Level: Prevail in the Engagement

At the tactical level, the MMRCA buy is about which aircraft is the best, and the most individually capable in an engagement. The MMRCA is a multi-role aircraft and it must be capable of performing air-to-ground strikes, but the most important performance is in the air-to-air arena.

The key question for the strategist is:

  • Qualitative A2A Advantage: Which MMRCA selection best advances Indian security by providing the most credible qualitative advantage in an air-to-air engagement?

Many external analysts not familiar with modern air combat were clearly confused by the overwhelming amount of material released during the MMRCA competition, comparing the various entrants on all kinds of minute detail such as weapons, range, payload, sensors, displays, radar signature, defensive systems, number of engines and maneuverability. How is one to know what matters? The differences that matter most are: value for cost, transfer of experience, and proven integrated operational AESA radar. One might also add proven record in combat vs. risks of delay and unanticipated problems in new or experimental platforms.

Modern air combat begins in a “beyond visual range” environment, and is heavily biased toward first look, first shoot, first kill. Maneuverability becomes important either once you close within visual range or if you are the unfortunate one to be fired upon first. Maneuverability is important, but secondary. By analogy, it is nice to know that your soldier possess hand-to-hand combat skills in case he misses with all his bullets, but you are going to make your primary investment not in training such skill but rather in a long-range rifle with the best possible sniper scope so he never has to employ them. AESA radars provide an asymmetric advantage because they are able to detect and track the enemy at longer distances with significantly less possibility of being detected or jammed. AESA radars also have significant air-to-ground and electronic warfare capabilities. They are very hard to produce and integrate. As shown in an excellent analysis of air-to-air combat by John Stillion, since 1970, the majority of air-to-air kills were by missiles, not guns, and since 1990, more than half of all air-to-air kills were the result of “beyond visual range” air-to-air missiles.14 Discussions on the maneuverability and dogfighting aspects are a distraction. What matters is the radar.

Evaluating Based on the Above Criteria

If those are the important questions for a proper strategic analysis regarding the opportunity of the MMRCA selection, how might we answer them?

Clearly, as proponents of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership, we see great utility in an Indian MMRCA selection of a U.S. designed aircraft and for U.S. interests.  While it is for the government and the armed forces to decide what maximizes their interests, below is our analysis and argument for why a U.S.-sourced MMRCA provides the best strategic choice for India.

The Strategic Argument: Enabling India’s Security by Posture

Four are the modes of alliance, 'namely—of mutual help—of friendship—of blood—and of sacrifice….'There is no Peace like the Golden "Sangata," which is made between good men, based on friendly feeling, and preceded by the Oath of Truth,' -- Hitopadesa

Security Through Partnerships: Of all the MMRCA competitors (France, Russia, Sweden, Germany, and the United States), only the United States has either the capability or will to enhance deterrence and provide leverage with respect to Pakistan or a rising China. It seems unlikely that France or any of the other entrants have the capability or will to come to India’s aid in the event of a conflict, or to provide coercive pressure to bring it to a close. Therefore, from the standpoint of deterrence, a U.S. option would offer the best chance of avoiding war or concluding it on favorable terms.15

Freedom of Action: With regard to freedom of action, cementing the partnership with United States offers the best chance among the potential MMRCA options to expand India’s influence and freedom of action globally.16 While India has secured U.S. presidential support for India’s UN Security Council seat and the solidity of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership is assured (despite occasional interruptions that have temporarily derailed the relationship), it is nowhere near its full potential. An enhanced partnership expands the scope and speed at which India can expand its influence and freedom of action.

A portion of the U.S. policy community remains skeptical regarding how far the United States should extend itself to India’s benefit.  MMRCA, being a large, visible purchase continues to offer an opportunity to signal to skeptics that U.S. efforts are appreciated and India deserves still greater investment in its security and prosperity.  Purchasing a U.S. combat airplane would strengthen the hand of Indian proponents within the United States, emboldening them to push for more significant steps. Such steps might include access to still more sensitive technologies and expansion of India’s voice in the key centers of global governance (including NSG, MTCR, Wassenaar, Australia Group, among others), all of which would significantly expand India’s influence and freedom of action.

National Competitiveness: With regard to national competitiveness, there is no doubt that of the entrants, the United States offers the largest market, and enjoys the most competitive aviation sector. None of the other entrants have done well in sales abroad, and it is quite possible that some those nations may not even be able to sustain their aviation industries over the life of the MMRCA—a significant risk for India to incur.17 Setting up licensed production lines for combat aircraft abroad is not easy, with Russia and the United States being the most successful. And, as proven in both Japan and Korea, U.S. contractors have succeeded in sparking an indigenous aircraft industry in a foreign country where none of the others have succeeded.  A U.S. selection is the best bet for Indianization and indigenization.

Stability of the Deal:  Additionally, due to the maturity of the U.S. weapons sales system and the degree of oversight, a deal with the United States stands the highest chance of being entirely above board, with the least chance of embarrassment due to corruption that could slow down the fielding of a capability India truly needs for its strategic security.

Regional Influence: A U.S. fighter also offers India the maximum leverage to shape its environment through security cooperation and military diplomacy.18  Many of India’s neighbors—from the Gulf to Southeast, East Asia and Australia—operate and maintain U.S. designed aircraft. Large numbers of these aircraft exist both in India’s area of interest, as well as further abroad and in the United States. Many of these will be in service into the 2030s and India would likely have the only open production line that could provide spares to a global community of users, as other lines have shut or will shut down. India building its own production line, and its own major training range, that creates an opportunity for India to sell parts, provide training, train abroad with compatible aircraft and procedures and reduced cost. The ability to provide deeper and lower-cost engagement of regional air forces (through emulation in training, cooperative exercises, and mutual logistical support) expands India’s ability to project soft power.  Should India need to operate abroad, a U.S. designed aircraft means it has access to a wide network of spares and maintenance support, and compatibility with other regional air forces. 

The Operational Argument: Addressing India’s Security Deficit

Numbers on Time: Of all the entrants, it is the proven, U.S. designed aircraft that offer least risk of failing to rapidly field significant numbers to fix India’s current deficit of combat aircraft. The U.S. contractors have proven experience setting up these production lines abroad, and a recent track record of delivering on time and under budget to India. Open production lines continue to exist for the F-16, F-18, and F-15 Silent Eagle (purchased by South Korea). Moreover, should further delays put India in a desperate position where requires and immediate influx of fighters to maintain its minimum numbers, the United States has an adequate supply of legacy fighters in its fleet it could transfer.

Sortie Generation: As proven combat aircraft, the U.S. aircraft have the proven high maintenance reliability and high sortie generation requirements that multiply the utility of each individual aircraft.

Largest Numbers: At an estimated cost significantly less than the Rafale or Eurofighter, the U.S. entrants offer tremendous value. For close to the same cost, India could acquire 200 U.S.-sourced MMRCA fighters compared to just 120 of the European designs. And every rupee not spent on the fighters can be spent on the necessary weapons to arm them.

Lowest Sustainment: While it is conceivable that at least one of the other entrants might have had a competitive per-unit cost, U.S. aircraft are almost surely the winners with respect to lowest lifecycle costs, or total costs. That becomes important in the out years when India will need additional fiscal freedom of maneuver either to keep pace in the defense field or budget from military to social programs without incurring additional strategic risk.

Repertoire Expansion: Of all the entrants, a U.S. selection most expands the Indian repertoire of potential courses of action.  It provides access to top-of-class weapons previously not available to the IAF. It alone expands India’s access to evaluate and Indianize tactics, techniques, procedures, and organizational factors that have made the U.S. Air Force successful. Of all the competitors, the U.S. Air Force is most like the IAF in its size and breadth of missions. Being able to leverage the learning of the largest, best resourced, and most broadly combat experienced air force is precisely what India’s potential adversaries worry is India’s asymmetric advantage.19

Indigenous Sourcing: As remarked already, the U.S. has a proven track record of setting up production lines within host nations. Therefore the United States is the lowest risk option to provide India with a capability to produce aircraft and aircraft parts in the midst of a conflict. Because the lack of a concerted industrial policy and the wide latitude U.S. defense contractors enjoy, U.S. industry is the most likely to locate significant aspects of the industry beyond just the production line to India, and the most likely to transfer creative know how to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances. The fact that the U.S. aviation industry does its business in English is also likely to increase the chances of transfer of important know how and speed future innovation.

Third Party Sourcing: The very large number of countries in the region and globally that operate U.S. designed aircraft and employ U.S. weapons provides India with the greatest freedom of action to access spares or surge in aircraft or weapons in actual conflict.20 That is definitely not the case with the Rafale, which to date has a very small customer base.

The Tactical Argument: Providing the Best Capability

Qualitative A2A Advantage: Only the F-16IN and F-18E/F offer proven operational second generation AESA radars. All the other competitors offered only experimental first generation AESA radars—that is a significant risk to take on the most important discriminator. Only the F-16IN and F-18E/F are going to bring with them the range of new weapons that expand India’s existing freedom of action. Only the F-16IN and F-18E/F offer India access to the world standard of training and expertise for air and maintenance crews, which are as much a determinant of success in combat as hardware alone. Despite the recent success of the Rafale in Libya, the F-16 and F-18 remain the most combat proven aircraft. Many falsely imagine that because the initial F-16 and F-18 designs began in the 1970s, that they are somehow out-of-date. Both platforms got the maneuver part of the equation right at the start of their lifecycles, and have continued to evolve in design to where modern variants are the equal of any 4th generation fighter, and still comprise the majority of the U.S. air superiority fleet for a reason. The F-16IN and F-18E/F are not “last year’s model” but rather are the latest version of the most successful aircraft reflecting decades of experience of updating what works.

Summary

MMRCA source selection remains a significant opportunity for India to advance its security and expand its freedom of action at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Maximizing Indian security requires an analysis of all levels, and cannot or should not just be confined to comparing a list of performance parameters between the list of competitors. Some parameters matter far more than others to India’s security, and some of the things that matter most—such as how it will shape India’s regional security architecture—are not even in the requirements. A strategic choice that enhanced India’s deterrence but could not actually get off the ground might be more valuable than a tactical winner that undermined India’s strategic influence.

Fortunately the best tactical choice is also the best operational and strategic choice. Principally because of their proven AESA systems, the F-16IN and F-18E/F offer India the best bet to win the tactical air-to-air engagement.  Their low per-unit and lifecycle costs, coupled with a track record of setting up licensed production lines mean they are the lowest risk bet to affordably field the required numbers of aircraft on time to meet the challenge of an operational air campaign. Strategically, any adversary must give pause and consider the fact that India has a powerful friend that has significant investment and equities in its military industrial base it does not want to see disrupted or proven lacking. They must calculate what they can’t see—what other help, transfer of know how or intelligence come with it. That enhances both deterrence and dissuasion and protects Indian hard security interests. A U.S. selection also provides unparalleled opportunity for India to expand its influence globally, as the United States is and is likely to remain India’s chief patron as it seeks increased global influence.  Overall, a U.S. selection best serves the Indian grand strategic goal of inclusive growth by deepening its economic relationship, linking technical and industrial bases, and lessening the chance of distracting conflict.

I wish to thank Dr. Ashley Tellis, Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Dr. Namrata Goswami, Mr. Aidan Milliff for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. All errors found herein are my own.

Notes

1 http://thediplomat.com/2015/08/indias-mmrca-is-officially-dead-now-what/ Other articles describing difficulties,  http://thediplomat.com/2015/06/confirmed-india-to-buy-only-36-rafale-fighter-jets/ , http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/mirage-2000s-withdrawn-as-indias-mrca-fighter-competition-changes-01989/

2 Ashley J. Tellis, Dogfight: India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/dogfight.pdf; Nitin Pai, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” The Acorn, Takshashila Institute, April 28, 2011, http://acorn.nationalinterest.in/2011/04/28/how-to-lose-friends-and-alienate-people-3/comment-page-1/; Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Flying into Rough Weather,” Times of India, February 10, 2012, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Flying-into-rough-weather/articleshow/11825309.cms; Harsh V Pant, “India’s MMRCA Decision Continues to Create Ripples,” Rediff.com, February 03, 2012, http://www.rediff.com/news/column/indias-mmrca-decision-continues-to-create-ripples/20120203.htm; Chidanand Rajghatta, “Strained Ties: MMRCA Rebuff, Envoy Exit, Signal Indo-US Distance,” Times of India, April 29, 2011, http://lite.epaper.timesofindia.com/mobile.aspx?article=yes&pageid=14&sectid=edid=&edlabel=TOIL&mydateHid=29-04-2011&pubname=Times+of+India+-+Lucknow&edname=&articleid=Ar01400&publabel=TOI; Sunil Dasgupta, “On A Wing and A Player,” Times of India, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2012/02/18-india-dasgupta. 

3 http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-01-28/news/28431963_1_stealth-fighter-russian-aircraft-f-35

4 http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/11/03/idINIndia-60286320111103

5 http://www.janes.com/article/42765/indian-air-force-unhappy-at-progress-of-pak-fa-fifth-gen-fighter

6 https://www.f35.com/global

7 https://www.ibcworldnews.com/2015/08/16/the-most-advanced-f-16-ever-in-super-viper-could-get-another-shot-with-the-indian-air-force/

8 The System-of-System comprises the fighters, their weapons, and maintenance and logistics systems. Pitting 126 fighters from one supplier against 126 from another supplier is not necessarily an equal contest even if the fighters are evenly matched, because differences in maintenance times and reliability may mean that one side might be ready to launch more fighters for an air-to-air engagement than the other side. Over time, and with attrition, this advantage gets magnified.

9 See for example John Stillion’s excellent recent report, “Trends In Air-To-Air Combat: Implications For Future Air Superiority”, CSBA, 2015, available online at: http://csbaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Air-to-Air-Report-.pdf

10 Such deterrents are costly, and most of India’s military expenditures go abroad and do not benefit India’s primary goal of inclusive growth. 

11 A simpler way to put this might just be: “Which MMRCA selection provides the most credible deterrent to my adversaries.”

12 The choice of aircraft is also a communication of values and vibrancy. An allied question a strategist might ask is: “Which MMRCA selection has the best chance of securing market opportunity abroad with the most significant markets by conveying an image and reality of technological vibrancy and professionalism, and commitment to the global commons?”

13 Ashley J. Tellis, Dogfight: India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/dogfight.pdf; Praveen Swami, “Why the Critics of India’s Combat Jet Deal are Wrong,” The Hindu, May 02, 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/why-the-critics-of-indias-combat-jet-deal-are-wrong/article1983674.ece

14 John Stillion, “Trends In Air-To-Air Combat: Implications For Future Air Superiority”, CSBA, 2015, available online at: http://csbaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Air-to-Air-Report-.pdf

15 The counter would be that a U.S. selection sends too strong a message to China, creating an impression of encirclement or anti-Chinese alliance, and prompting it to escalate in posture, become more hostile or create incentives for pre-emption, making its strategic value ambiguous or counter-productive. 

16 The counter of course is that the United States will do this anyway because of convergent interests, and therefore its support can be taken for granted, and therefore there is more to be gained by courting other centers of influence. That is an unwise assumption because the United States on many issues of importance is a transactional actor, looking for reciprocity before executing the next step. Recent history matters greatly in the degree of U.S. support, and an Indian strategist cannot know when it might desire to “call in a favor.”

17 The counters here are: that India might have an interest in keeping alive a second source of Western combat aircraft manufacturing as a hedge against US monopoly; that the United States might be less inclined toward true technology transfer; that the United States is an unreliable arms supplier. The first is irrelevant because the MMRCA will be built in India and Russian industry appears relatively secure as a second source. The second is that the US has a proven track record of creating indigenous aviation industries in Japan and Korea, and setting up production lines of combat aircraft in several countries. The third is increasingly unlikely given the convergent geopolitical trends, deepening economic relationship, deepening influence of Indian-Americans on U.S. politics, and the tremendous political force of defense contractors servicing large contracts such as the MMRCA.

18 A possible counter here would be that this signals too strong an alignment with the United States, and India would be less likely to be perceived as an independent actor and separate center of gravity and influence. 

19 The counter-argument is that India would be in danger of being socialized into U.S. habits, or becoming so naturally close that India might become entangled in U.S. conflicts. For the former, I have strong confidence in the ability of India’s policymakers and military officers to decide what is worth adoption and what is in their best interests. For the later, I don’t believe India will ever be in a position to surrender its sovereignty. If India ever chooses to fight alongside the United States, it will be because it believes its interests and values demand it.

20 The counter argument is that the United States could exert pressure on these nations to deny such support. However, with India being the only existing production line of these aircraft, will such nations want to risk their own access to Indian support?