An IAF officer I spoke to six months ago to get a sense of how the Indian Air Force perceives partnerships with the United States as a potential outcome of the MMRCA competition, used a simple but strange metaphor to illustrate his opinion. Imagine India on the one side of a deep and wide ravine. Across this wide ravine is a gleaming suspension bridge. It looks great and appears superbly stable -- but in rough weather, there's every chance it will shake. In the past, when India has tried to cross this bridge, it has been forced to quickly retrace its steps midway when the bridge was buffeted by unkind winds that threatened to cast India into the ravine. So now, here's the question. Does the weather ever really change that much?
Two overwhelming notions, especially within the Indian media, over the last four years concerning the MMRCA competition, are, one, the government will choose an aircraft type based on political considerations. And two, since it does so, the Americans will win, since they offer more, on the face it, politically than any other nation. But these fall, indubitably, in the realm of government, and not the Indian Air Force. But while the IAF says it works only with determinables and not the intangibles, it obviously has concerns, many of which dwell in the realm of the political. Some of these concerns come up frequently and are well known. Others are less known and more specific. The idea of this post is to simply provide a consolidated view of perceptions of operating American aircraft.
Let's first get one thing out of the way. There are probably very few in the IAF who believe that the Americans can be beaten on potential technology. Notwithstanding arguments that the two American platforms on offer to India are essentially modernised legacy fighters with little or no modernisation latitude, there is a keen sense that the Americans control what is undeniably among the best aerospace technology in the world. The quality and temperament of sharing is a different matter, and I'll touch upon that later.
The chief cause of nervousness in the IAF regarding any potential hardware from the US is, quite clearly, the potential attendant erosion of autonomy. Nothing in the last six years has changed that perception. The IAF believes the Indian government is rightly skeptical about the CISMOA and BECA agreements, but the end-user verification pact (EUVA) that the two countries finally entered into (even with India's counterdraft accepted) is not something that went down well with the IAF. Crucially, there is a general sense that autonomy will potentially be affected not just as far as operations are concerned, but in other areas as well -- logistics, planning, profiling etc. Here's something even more interesting: One officer suggests that the use of the MMRCA aircraft as strategic deterrent platforms (i.e. nuclear delivery aircraft) is a grey area that could prove almost certainly problematic when dealing with the Americans, or at least more problematic with the Americans than the others. It so happens that the only country that has never questioned India's strategic positioning of its aircraft, are the French (though they have different, equally serious problems). "India may not be Turkey, Egypt of Pakistan, but if you look at any country that operates American aircraft, there has been a period -- sometimes prolonged -- of trouble," says the officer quoted above, adding, "This is something a country like Pakistan can afford, since it has already pledged its strategic future to one nation. But can we?" The fear that the autonomy overhang could affect operational planning is a very real one. A section of the IAF believes South Block is way too hardnosed to buckle to a bad deal -- there's another that believes reluctance to sign the EUVA was merely diplomatic grandstanding that conveniently harnessed the IAF's apprehensions -- and, therefore, that there is every chance the IAF will be saddled with jets it cannot fully use.
A related aspect is operational flexibility. During Kargil, the IAF reportedly did things to some of its Mirage-2000s that would have amounted to serious violations of the Indian government's contract with Dassault. It is understood, but not confirmed, that the French government was quietly engaged after the war and the two sides were able to agree that it was not a problem, and that no penalties would be slapped on the Indian government for what were, in reality, war exegencies, even though it was clear that there had been serious breaches of the technology agreement. The use of US aircraft would be far more potentially restricted and regulated by complex rules, legalese and guidelines. It's not that the IAF isn't used to this sort of thing. It's just that there's likely to be exponentially more to pore over before scrambling an American jet from an Indian base. Here's another point: Buying and operating US aircraft, some in the IAF believe, would "completely subvert" one of the most deeply entrenched "ways" of doing things in India -- using a generous dose of improvisation. "Will the American be fanatically remote controlling with India as well? It is hard to say," says the officer quoted above.
Next, of course, trust. Reliability and trust are major issues, and this has little do with any sort of hangover of the 1998 post-Shakti sanctions. An influential quarter in the IAF feels the US has not qualitatively demonstrated that it is a sincere partner, especially when it comes to India's indigenous programmes. In 1998, US sanctions dealt a death blow, or nearly so, to several Indian weapon and weapon platform programmes, including the country's missile programme, light combat aircraft, NCW technologies and other critical programmes. But little has actually changed. While the US is happy to sell India billions of dollars worth of hardware, it is suspiciously and conspicuously unreliable even now when it comes to indigenous programmes. For instance, the IAF is still wondering why the US government didn't allow Boeing to provide a technological and flight test consultancy to the Tejas programme. Recently, it was revealed that Lockheed-Martin was unable to obtain approvals from the US government to consult for the Naval Tejas programme (both contracts went by default to EADS). The point is, the consultancies were "small-fry contracts that held nothing of advantage to either of the American companies or the government," says a Group Captain. He adds, "Such denials are taken very seriously. What could the possible reason be for the US government to deny two small consultancies? It has not been reported much, so it is forgotten. For the service, it was a jolt. The implications are plain for anyone to deduce." He's right. For all the big-sounding partnership rhetoric that India has gotten used to being bombarded with from Washington, it's the little things that offer a different, decidedly worrying picture for the IAF. Simply put, the perception appears to be this in some quarters -- the Pentagon wants to sell you a lot of souped up Cold War era fighter planes, but doesn't want to tell you how to fine-tune carrier-safe landing gear assemblies. It doesn't want to tell you how to speed up flight trials. It refuses to tell you how to expand the operational envelope of your own in-development fighter platform. The two Tejas consultancy programmes are, incidentally, only two among at least a dozen similar contracts that the US has "won", but failed to act upon as a result of seeming Pentagon/State Department sensitivities. Result: perceptions that the US wants to sell India weapons, and has little interest in any real partnerships that could potentially edge out the need to buy those or similar weapons at a later stage as well.
A dramatic and interesting perception in a certain section of the IAF is that the F-16 Block 60 and F/A-18E/F are excellent fighter platforms, but that it is unlikely that the US will be either a willing or reliable partner as far as ensuring that these aircraft are on the cutting edge throughout their life of 40 years or more. The US government has, on behalf of the plane makers, assured the Indian government -- and will drive it home many more times -- that the future of these two platforms is completely safe. Still, the sense that you won't get the best they have is nowhere more overpowering than it is with the Americans.
Some of these concerns have a greater emphasis than others in ongoing dialogue between the IAF and the MoD, but all figure at various levels without exception. It must be said that there is, at the same time, a powerful section within the IAF -- with compelling arguments of its own on all the concerns listed above -- that the only way the IAF can make its next aerospace leap, is with technology from the United States, and that any other, would be a compromise on such a valuable opportunity to shift away from rusty strategic predilections of the past.