Ashley J Tellis On Livefist: The MMRCA, Once More

Yesterday, Livefist hosted a contributed column which sought to refute arguments made in a widely read article by Dr. Ashley J Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a well-known commentator on international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues. Dr Tellis sent me his response yesterday, one in which he seeks to "set the record straight". Here is what he sent me, in full, exclusive to Livefist:

The MMRCA, Once More
by Ashley J. Tellis

I appreciate the trouble Mihir Shah has taken to respond to my recent piece, “Decoding India’s MMRCA Decision.” His response, unfortunately, perpetuates some extant misimpressions, while creating new ones. I would like to set the record straight.

First, although the claim that the IAF has “settled for a plane, not a relationship” has been widely attributed to me, that is decidedly not my personal view. What I did say consistently from the moment that the IAF’s choices became public—in an April 28, 2011 interview with the Hindu from which the quote is drawn—is that many in the United States, including in the U.S. Government, hold that by choosing the Eurofighter and the Rafale as the MMRCA finalists, India settled for an airplane rather than a relationship. The failure to see this critical distinction has led more than a few to wonder how I could urge the IAF to choose the best aircraft in my earlier report Dogfight! and question its choices subsequently.

Second, I have studied the six aircraft in the MMRCA fray quite carefully and I know their characteristics and performance in greater detail than I could ever write about without leaving the reader disoriented. Consequently, I will not reopen here the discussion about the merits of the six airplanes, except to say that Mr. Shah appears to have overlooked my extensive discussion in Dogfight! of the IAF’s threat environment, the operational demands made on the MMRCA in any future war, and the importance of the surface attack mission for success even in defensive counterair campaigns.

In this context, I will resist the temptation of refuting his claims about the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet’s multirole and high-altitude capabilities in order to focus solely on the most important argument suffusing the discussion in “Decoding India’s MMRCA Decision”: based on the standards of aerodynamic excellence, growth potential, longevity of puissance, and combat effectiveness, the IAF chose well in down-selecting the Eurofighter and the Rafale because they were, on balance, the leaders of the pack.

Mr. Shah seems to have overlooked this central point. “Decoding India’s MMRCA Decision” was not intended to be a comparative assessment of the various contestants, but rather a simple explication of the claim that the IAF did in fact make its choices solely on the basis on the four criteria above—“entirely on technical grounds,” I emphasized—rather than on the alternative variables posited by others (which have dismayed many U.S. policymakers and friends of India within the U.S. Government), such as the reliability of the United States as a supplier, supposed U.S. technology transfer constraints, or political considerations in New Delhi about hedging.

Yes, I did question how the IAF scored the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in the flight trials on one or two issues, but these were in the scheme of things largely quibbles. The basic point that I intended to make—and hopefully made—was that far from being guided by other considerations, the IAF made its down-select entirely on the basis of technical factors, as any fighting force worth its salt ought to have done. Given the complexities of the comparisons at issue, I think the IAF acquitted itself in the MMRCA competition with remarkable professionalism, diligence and, my minor criticisms notwithstanding, impartiality and grace.

Nothing I said in this article repudiates my admiration for the IAF and the manner in which it conducted the MMRCA contest. Airpower specialists will argue endlessly about the merits of its choices—I did and several thoughtful Indians have as well—but that does not undermine my basic judgment that the IAF conducted a comprehensive evaluation that was fundamentally fair, a view I clearly expressed earlier in Dogfight!

(Incidentally, Mr. Shah misconstrues my use of the adjective “perverse” when he says I used it to “characterize the IAF and MoD’s adherence to the two-step acquisition process.” Actually, I noted the “perverse adherence to process” when I described the defense ministry’s failure to inform the external affairs ministry about its down-select, which was communicated to the international vendors without prior coordination with India’s diplomats who are tasked with managing its foreign relations.)

Third, the larger point which I did raise, and which Mr. Shah seized on but only partially, was the limitation of the “two-step” procedure. He argues that “a strict and almost pig-headed adherence to laid-down rules and procedures” is necessary to avoid “leaving even the smallest procedural gaps open to exploitation by vested interests,” with all the resulting dangers to India’s war-fighting capabilities.

I think this argument is highly misleading—and actually dangerous. There is no question that India should follow its own laid-down rules and procedures meticulously. I was making, however, a different and more consequential point, namely, that if the “laid down rules and procedures” do not permit costs (and any other pertinent variables) to be assessed at the very first step of the procurement process, there is no way for the acquisition system to judge the true value of the commodities it is purchasing relative to the alternatives. The failure to assess the cost-effectiveness of any given weapon system—which the current two-step procedure produces by definition—results in a potential misallocation of defense resources that could be just as, if not more, dangerous for Indian defense than all the problems posed by personal corruption.

The solution to this problem is to create a structured opportunity for policymakers to price everything that matters in a defense acquisition from the get go—technical characteristics, warfighting performance, technology transfer, offsets benefits, and yes, even strategic partnership—so that Indian security managers get a good sense of what the real direct and opportunity costs of their acquisitions actually are. This exercise has to be conducted by Indian officials themselves—and to insinuate that they are incapable of undertaking such analyses or are likely to fall prey to the lures of corruption during such a process is to sell them and India itself woefully short. That claim is actually more damning than anything I said in my piece.

The limitations of the present two-step procedure constituted the main criticism articulated in “Decoding India’s MMRCA Decision.” In effect, I argued that while the Eurofighter and the Rafale represented the best technical choices in the MMRCA competition—and as such were sensible, nay inevitable, selections by the IAF—the Ministry of Defense, and the Indian state more generally, has no way currently of assessing whether these two selectees represent the best value for the air force and the country at large. Undertaking this kind of an appraisal requires incorporating what matters to the warfighter, but also transcending it—by evaluating how any given acquisition fits into larger national objectives, existing resource constraints, and the strategic question of how India should maximize its advantages in a world of increasing danger.

In the United States, such evaluations are conducted systematically using interdisciplinary tools by the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In India too, such judgments have been made in the past by senior policymakers but on the basis of intuitions and prudential judgment rather than rigorous analysis. Given the resources India will allocate to foreign weapons acquisitions in the future, applying formal analysis to this process will only help, not hurt, and doing so does not require India to sacrifice its “adherence to laid-down rules and procedures,” but it does necessitate a better assessment system that allows Indian leaders to price their multiple, sometimes competing, goals more effectively. It is a pity that Mr. Shah’s critique of my piece missed this fundamental point after all.

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