Fighter Diplomacy: A "Passage to India"?

By Thyagaraj, Manohar | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Fighter Diplomacy: A "Passage to India"?

Thyagaraj, Manohar, Air & Space Power Journal

Editorial Abstract:

Many nations are competing to sell advanced fighters to India. Despite historically difficult US-Indian relations, highly bureaucratic acquisition policies of the Indian government, and lingering US trade restrictions against emerging nuclear powers, a large sale of US fighter planes and technology to India remains a distinct possibility. The author contends that now is the time to transcend past concerns and missteps, find common ground, and foster a burgeoning politico-military relationship.

IN THE SUMMER of 2005, the United States and India signed a landmark agreement intended to energize strategic relations between the two countries. The 10year defense-cooperation pact envisages a broad range of joint activities, including multinational operations in their common interest, collaboration to promote security and defeat terrorism, and enhancement of capabilities to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.1 It also calls on the United States and India to explore opportunities in joint research and development as well as technology transfer and coproduction, with special emphasis on technologies relating to missile defense.

Called the New Framework for the US-India Defense Relationship, the agreement seeks to wash away legacies of past missteps in building a collaborative security relationship between the two countries. Despite being a large democracy, India remained peripheral to US security policy for the better part of 50 years, and its nuclear program outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty made the country a focus of nonproliferation and arms-control initiatives. Active engagement by the administration of Pres. George W. Bush led to multiple efforts by the US government after 2001 to change this course, in recognition of India's importance to long-term US interests in Asia. National security Advisor (now secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice and secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld led this new focus on a strategic relationship.

Despite the new tone of the bilateral discussions, India has never made a major purchase of defense technology from the United States. Rather than viewing arms sales as mere commercial "deals," the United States tends to consider them as means to cement interdependence with other countries as tools of state policy.2 Based on interaction between the Pentagon and the Indian military services during the previous few years, the United States has focused on possible sales to India of aircraft such as the E-2C Hawkeye, C-130 Hercules, and P-3 Orion.3 India also has a pending requirement for 126 multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) to replace aging MiG-21s and serve as cover for the delayed induction of the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA).

However, the Mirage 2000-V was expected to become the front-runner because India already operated older versions of that platform. In March 2005, the Bush administration changed the pace of dialogue by announcing that it would offer India coproduction rights for both the F-16 and F-18E/F to compete for that requirement, while offering Pakistan the option to purchase F-16s. In April of that year, the US Defense security Cooperation Agency sent representatives to Delhi to brief the Bharatiya Vayu Sena (Indian air force [IAF] ) on both aircraft, offering to "fast-track" the sale.4 To the United States, the fighter program in India, different from Pakistan's because of coproduction, could serve as a key component in developing the content of the 10-year defense pact.


One must understand any major transfer of American defense technology to India within the broader context of evolving bilateral strategic relations. Upon gaining independence in 1947, India adopted a nonaligned stance in the Cold War that prompted Washington to view the country with suspicion as a Soviet proxy. One man-Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister-dictated and drove the foreign policy of the fledgling nation, treating the Foreign Office as little more than a research bureau. …

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