A new report by Ashley Tellis on India's decision-making on the medium fighter praises the IAF's impartial evaluation but points out that it will now be a political decision
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Jan 11
With two US fighters--- Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet --- apparently trailing in the six-way, US $10 billion race to sell India 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), a new report by a top US-based analyst suggests that India buys the MMRCA as an economical, stop-gap measure, before buying a cutting-edge, fifth generation, US-built stealth fighter for the Indian Air Force.
Recommending that the IAF buys “the least expensive, mature, combat-proven fourth-generation fighter… as a bridge toward procuring more advanced stealth aircraft in the future”, the report urges Washington to “assure India access to fifth-generation US combat aircraft, and provide strong support for India’s strategic ambitions”.
The US currently has just one 5th generation fighter, the F-22, which Washington has not shared with any country. Also nearing completion is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Lockheed Martin is building in partnership with several other countries.
The report, “Dogfight! India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision”, is authored by Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment, a globally respected analyst who has worked closely with the US government and the US Air Force. Admitting that the European fighters in the fray --- which include the Eurofighter Typhoon; the French Rafale; and the Swedish Gripen NG --- are “technically superb”, Tellis calls the two US fighters “ best buys”, suggesting that they are ideal choices as stop-gap fighters.
Tellis’ report comes just before Aero India 2011, India’s premier air show at Bangalore from 9th to 13th February, where the MMRCA contest will grab international headlines. Indian commentary, including in the Business Standard, has discussed the merits of buying the in-development, 5th generation F-35, rather than the 4th generation MMRCA contenders. Tellis’ report, however, goes a step further, suggesting the procurement of the MMRCA for now, as well as a 5th generation fighter in the future.
That idea was reinforced by Ashton Carter, US Undersecretary of State for Defence, while speaking at a function to release Tellis' report. "There is nothing on our side, no principle which bars that on our side, Indian participation in the Joint Strike Fighter. Right now, they're focused on these aircraft which are top-of-the-line fourth-gen fighters," Carter said.
Defense News reports that Pentagon spokesperson Cheryl Irwin reinforced this message, stating in an email message that, "If, at some point down the road, India were interested in purchasing JSF from us, then we would engage the Indians in an open, transparent manner at that time. But this would obviously be something that the Indian government would have to decide it wanted or needed."
Highlighting the need to quickly boost the IAF’s fighter numbers, Tellis points out that since 1971, “India’s defense (sic) strategy has relied on maintaining superior airpower relative to both China and Pakistan. In the event of a regional conflict, Indian air power would serve as the country’s critical war-fighting instrument of first resort.”
However, due to procurement delays, accidents and obsolescence, the IAF’s authorised force level of 39.5 fighter squadrons has diminished to an unprecedented 29 squadrons. Even without delays in the ongoing procurements, it is unlikely to be made up before 2017.
Indian planners have noted the first test flight of the Chinese 5th generation J-20 fighter last fortnight. IAF experts, however, say that the J-20 is unlikely to enter service before another 7-8 years of development. The US-built F-35, in contrast, is nearing completion: it is likely to be in operational service by 2014.
Interestingly, Tellis heaps kudos on the IAF for its “scrupulously transparent and extraordinarily neutral” handling of the complex MMRCA flight trials. The report depicts the trials as a rarity: a multi-billion dollar contest, involving six aircraft and eight countries, in which every vendor is satisfied that the IAF has fairly evaluated his fighter.
But with the IAF having submitted its report --- which Tellis praises as “impartial to the point of appearing disinterested” --- to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), political factors will now shape the decision.
Tellis points out that, “In choosing the winning platform, Indian policymakers will seek to: minimize the country’s vulnerability to supply cutoffs in wartime, improve its larger military capacity through a substantial technology infusion, and forge new transformative geopolitical partnerships that promise to accelerate the growth of Indian power globally.”
The report cautions that, with pressure mounting from the governments that have a horse in this race, Indian security interests could be undermined by a political compromise like splitting the deal between two countries. This would “needlessly saddle the IAF with multiple airframes in return for meagre political gains.”