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India's defence diplomacy: Many forces at work

February 15, 2010 08:37 IST

As India contemplates the dawn of a new decade, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must watch with satisfaction the glints in the eyes of foreign nations as they salivate over the $100 billion defence market that India will offer over the next seven to 10 years.

The biggest jewel in this star-studded constellation of high-tech avionics, gargantuan platforms and generation next weaponry is the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal, where 126 jet fighters worth $12 billion are up for grabs, for which five nations -- and six companies -- are both ready and willing to give their eyeteeth.

On offer are Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's F/A-Super 18 Hornet, both from the US; the Russian Mig-35; Sweden's Saab Gripen; European consortium EADS's Eurofighter Typhoon; and France's Dassault Rafale. Trials are expected to be completed by the year-end.

The winner of the jet fighter deal will be a clear indicator of the direction in which India will pursue its strategic vision in the decades to come.

The aircraft on offer are more or less equal on most indices, including price; the question is, on which country will India bestow its affections?

Will the US, who did most of the heavy lifting over the Indo-US nuclear deal, win the cake and eat it too?

Or will it be Russia, invoking its decades-old friendship with India, which it supplemented with the offer of the aircraft carrier 'Admiral Gorshkov' and sweetened with the lease of the Nerpa nuclear submarine to the Indian Navy this summer? No one else is giving Delhi a nuclear sub, nor did any other country offer to help design and build the INS Arihant, India's own nuclear submarine, that came on stream last year.

Will it be France, the only country which weighed its words carefully when India went nuclear in 1998 -- when the US imposed sanctions against all high-tech imports by India?

Sweden has been lobbying for the Gripen over the last couple of years, indicating that it was willing to drop its objections to India's nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Lastly, there's the European Eurofighter. But if the MMRCA deal is a strategic one, which means that India is going to exercise the leverage it receives from awarding the contract to a particular country, the big question is, what does India want from Europe?

The relationship between India and the UK is strong on trade and low on strategy, said a defence ministry source. India bought 66 Hawk jet trainers in 2005 from Britain, although it needed at least a hundred more, which is why another request for information was recently made.

Strategic and defence analyst Jasjit Singh, who is the director of the Centre for Air Power Studies in Delhi, points out that the decision over the MMRCA as well as other big-ticket defence items should be based on a projection of India's place in the world over the next 20 years and the reliability of its friendships with key countries.

"Question is, will the US or Russia be more reliable in the near future? The answer is uncertain," Singh said, adding, "since 80 per cent of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is of Russian-origin, giving the 126-fighter deal to the Americans would reduce the IAF's dependence on the Russians only by about 20 per cent."

Highly placed sources in the government, nurtured on a diet of Soviet/Russian-Indian bhai-bhai, said on condition of anonymity that while the reliability factor with the Russians remained high, there was a lot of dissatisfaction over the manner in which the Russians had behaved over the 'Admiral Gorshkov' deal.

When the agreement was signed in 2004, Russia agreed to give India the aircraft carrier for free, but asked for about $894 million for refitting the ship. Several problems over the years inflated the final price, negotiated only a few weeks ago, to $2.3 billion. This agreement will be signed during the visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Delhi in March.

The Russians claimed that India kept adding various systems and weaponry to the Gorshkov kitty, thereby pushing up the price. "We also had an agreement that price negotiations would be kept out of the media," said a Russian source, "but when the Indian side began leaking information about the Gorshkov that was unfavourable to us, we finally told the Indian side, that we were not weak and that we could retaliate too."

The Russian threat didn't endear them to the Indians, thereby further pushing them into the arms of their all-too willing rivals, the Americans. In fact, in the decade after the nuclear tests, as India slowly emerged from the US-sponsored sanctions regime, US defence companies began to earnestly lobby to sell high-technology as well as large platforms to India. The US administration, meanwhile, opened up a new chapter in training and defence exercises, in the air ('Yudh Abhyas'), on the ground ('Red Flag') and at sea ('Malabar'). India responded enthusiastically.

"The Americans were very pushy," said an official, adding, "the Indian military began to respond eagerly to the Americans, being just as keen on moving away from the Russians."

So, just as the Indo-US nuclear deal began to mature, the Indian defence establishment put out some contracts for the Americans: The INS Jalashwa and six C-130 transport planes, among others.

WHAT INDIA BUYS FROM WHERE
RUSSIA
* Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier
* Talwar class Frigates (Krivak III) — 6 (3 already delivered)
* MiG-29K & MiG-29 KUB planes for the Indian Navy — 16 + 29
* Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jets — 280
* IAF MiG-29 Baaz modernisation planes — 63
* IL-76 (Platform for Phalcon AWACS) — 6 (one delivered)
* T-90 tanks — about 1,500
* Nerpa nuclear submarine (to be leased to the Indian Navy this summer)
* PAK FA T-50 (Fifth Generation fighter aircraft, jointly developed with India)
* BrahMos cruise missile (joint developed with India)
* INS Arihant (the Russians helped India develop its own nuclear submarine).
USA
* C-130 (FMS) transport aircraft — 6
* P8I-8
* C-17 (FMS)-10 (Notification issued to US Congress)
* INS Jalashwa
* BAe M777 Light Weight Howitzer (FMS) guns —145 (Notification issued to US Congress
ISRAEL
* Phalcon AWACS — 6 (1 delivered)
* Barak missile system
* Spyder missile system
* Heron UAV
* Ground sensors
* Thermal Imaging Devices
* Air Defense Missile System (Joint Development).
UK
* 66 Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer 
* UK would like to sell India one of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers they're building.
EUROPE
* 6 Scorpene submarines from France
* 2 Fleet Tankers (Finmeccanicca) from Italy.
The INDIAN NAVY has conducted naval exercises with Singapore, France, Italy, China, the US and Russia.

The pro-US argument that began to gain ground in Delhi was that it is not safe to put all our eggs in one basket (meaning the Russians).

Vivek Lall, vice-president and country head of Boeing Integrated Systems in India, argued in an interview with Stratpost.com, a website focused on defence and strategic affairs in South Asia, that the Indo-US nuclear deal has also had a huge impact on Indo-US defence business ties. Lall said, "A few years ago it was unthinkable that such an advanced fighter like the F-18…would be offered to India. (We respect) India's had a long-term trusting relationship with Russia, (but) as India modernises its forces, I think the pie is getting bigger and it's not one versus the other, but one more strategic equipment for the war fighter."

But Russia's ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin told Business Standard that Russia was "not concerned" if India established defence relationships with other countries, such as the US, "because the strategic partnership between India and Russia is the oldest and strongest and one that has survived the test of time."

Pointing to the Fifth Generation or "stealth aircraft" that was being jointly developed in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia, Kadakin pointed out that the aircraft was "much more sophisticated and had more teeth than the American one." He added, "We understand that India is a superpower-in-the-making, therefore it is natural that you will have several new relationships. But there are some things that Russia sells to India which no one else can give. Can the Americans supply tanks to you? No. Will they give you missiles? No. As for the prices of civil nuclear plants that France has offered, well, the Russian ones are much cheaper…I was in the Kremlin when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Russia last December, and I can tell you that there is no change in India's relations with Russia."

But just as the Americans began to capture the hearts and minds of the Indian military some years ago, a rethink on India's strategic vision seems to have recently overtaken the Indian defence establishment. Now the question is: Can India afford to buy top-of-the-line fighter jets from a country that not so long ago imposed sanctions on India and wouldn't allow India to source spare parts not only from the US, but also its allies, like the UK?

Jasjit Singh rubbishes the concerns. "Sanctions against India were lifted by the US within several months of being imposed by them…The question is not of sanctions, but of strategy. Why should India want to buy American or Russian or French equipment? What leverage is such a decision going to give us?" he asked.

The obvious answer to that one, said a third-country diplomat, is India's need to shore up its defences against China. The question whether India should buy Indian or Russian equipment also has to deal with how far it is willing to go along with Washington's vision of a league of democracies.

Considering that Beijing is increasingly accepted as Delhi's chief strategic opponent, one that is far more dangerous than Pakistan, the Indian establishment, burnt by China's opposition on several counts, including on the nuclear deal, seems infinitely more interested in allying with the US.

Defence ministry officials point out that India has several defence cooperation agreements --- with Russia, the US, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Qatar, Oman, and now even with China.

A range of issues is discussed in this dialogue, not only about buying and selling equipment, or the percentage of offsets, but increasingly on strategic partnerships that India can and should forge, for example, with countries like Afghanistan.

Here, then, is the bottomline: India's defence diplomacy depends on the kind of country India believes it wants to be. Just as Jawaharlal Nehru plumped for the Soviets in the 1950s because they offered to help modernise India with few strings attached, today's political leadership must make a similar call over its own future.

"India is today on the cusp of its second, historical decision. Should we diversify in favour of the West or should we make the imprudent and foolish choice to keep ourselves 80 per cent dependent on Russia, which is not the Soviet Union?" asked Jasjit Singh.

The Indo-Israeli relationship is singularly strong, considering it is less than 20 years old, with Delhi establshing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem only in 1992. It was only after Kargil in 1999, when the Israelis — like the Russians — decided to give high-tech equipment to India, including radars, missiles and night-vision devices, that a significant element of trust was established between the two sides.

After Mumbai's November 2008 attacks, Israel, along with the US, is said to be playing a significant role in upgrading homeland security as well. Meanwhile, the avionics on Russia's Sukhoi fighter platforms are Israeli.

India says it gets the kind of sophisticated equipment from Israel it wouldn't get from anywhere else. For Israel, shunned by large parts of the world, being good friends with India is a God-given opportunity to rejoin the human race.

Meanwhile, both analysts and diplomats point to the need to enhance India's leverage in its neighbourhood, including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. With China making huge inroads in the latter countries and with Pakistan practically wielding a veto on the former, analysts said India's exercise of power in the neighbourhood would be inextricably linked to the manner in which it embarks upon defence relationships with these countries.

Afghanistan, especially, is keen on Indian engagement in its civil and military spheres. But with Pakistan making it clear to the western alliance that that is not acceptable to Islamabad, what can India do to reassure both the Americans, the NATO forces and Pakistan, defence analysts ask?

Clearly, as India enters a new decade, the horizon is littered with both opportunities and challenges. It is now up to Delhi to decide how far and to what extent it wants to reach for the sky.

Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi
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