Listen to this article:
Two separate events, both involving the US that took place earlier this month, seemingly come together in the eventual objective of Washington exponentially furthering its military commerce with India.
The first occurrence was the sanctions waiver granted to India by the US House of Representatives over procuring five Russian Almaz-Antel S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems in 2018 for $5.5 billion. And though the amendment with regard to Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA of 2017 still awaits Senate clearance, followed by President Joe Biden’s endorsement, Indian and US security officials, diplomats and analysts consider this to be little more than a formality.
The second happening was the successful conclusion of exhaustive trials by two US Navy Boeing F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ Block III fighters in response to the Indian Navy’s (INs) initial requirement for 26 multi-role carrier-based fighters (MRCBF), including eight twin-seat variants. These numbers, however, were expected to eventually increase to 57 platforms to supplement, and ultimately replace the Indian Navy’s fleet of 44 in-service Russian MiG-29K/KuB combat aircraft, inducted between 2004 and 2010, that had proven to be operationally deficient and in need of constant and costly maintenance.
Moreover, the F/A-18 alongside six other overseas combat platforms was also in contention for the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) 2019 requirement for 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) to augment its combat fleet that had declined from a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons to around 30 presently. The F/A-18’s ‘commonality’ with the Indian Navy’s MRCBF requirement only enhanced its chances of being shortlisted for eventual procurement by the Indian Air Force over at least five rival fighters from Europe, France, Russia, Sweden and the US.
What then is the putative correlation between these two happenings?
US’ transactional approach
According to senior serving and retired Indian military officers, industry executives and defence experts, this connection is centred on an eventual ‘payback’ to the US for lifting the spectre of CAATSA, looming over New Delhi since 2018, by procuring some 140-odd F/A-18s for both the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force for around $30-35 billion.
They also maintain that such an eventuality could be mutually beneficial to both sides, and though nothing tangible has emerged as yet in this regard, the outlines of such a prospective outcome are beginning to incrementally materialise in Delhi’s political and security circles.
And once ultimately concluded, prospective F/A-18 sales would significantly boost the US economy, buffeted by unemployment and inflation running at 8.6%, its highest since 1981. The IAF, for its part, would, without hinderance, be free to deploy its S-400 regiments, the second of which is scheduled for imminent arrival from Russia by sea and by air.
Furthermore, in keeping with Washington’s long-term strategic objectives, India’s possible F/A-18 buy would also fulfill the US’s desired objective of definitely weaning Delhi away from its enduring dependence on diverse Russian military equipment, especially fighter aircraft.
“Facilitating the CAATSA waiver for India is typical of the USA’s transactional approach towards many of its allies and strategic partners, all of which is aimed ultimately at Washington securing materiel sales and furthering the fortunes of its military-industrial complex,” says a former three-star IAF fighter pilot.
Washington’s attitude, he jocularly states, is underscored largely by the distinctive American aphorism that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ and that recompense is ‘owed’ by India to the US for the CAATSA bypass.
Besides, he adds, declining to be named that CAATSA’s eventual abjuration for India is for a ‘transitional period’, leaving open the possibility of re-invoking it later if Delhi ever steps ‘out of line’ by pursuing an anti-Washington stand, however remote that prospect presently seems.
Tactically too, the situation appears ‘loaded’ in the F/A-18’s favour, as its potential purchase is backed up by past ministry of defence (MoD) precedence of ‘pairing and coupling’ IAF and Indian Navy fighter purchases.
Earlier, between 2004 and 2010 the Indian Navy had acquired 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters for $ 2.29 billion for its carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant that is scheduled for commissioning in early August 2022. This was primarily because of the Russian naval fighters ‘commonality’ with the IAF 60-odd MiG-29s inducted into service from 1985 onwards and currently undergoing an upgrade.
At the time it was successfully argued by the MoD and the Indian Navy that indigenously available technical support and associated logistics for spares and maintenance for the IAF’s MiG-29s would ably support the Indian Navy’s MiG-29K/KUB fleet.
“It makes eminent financial and logistical sense for the Indian Navy to link its MRCBF buy to the IAF’s procurements,” says a retired three-star Indian Navy fighter pilot.
Simply acquiring 26-or eventually 57- naval fighters off the shelf, he cautions, would not only be costly to buy but also expensive to maintain, repair and overhaul; splitting the latter activity with the air force would considerably reduce expenses, he reasons.
Besides, the F/A-18’s General Electric GE-414 turbofan power pack had also been shortlisted to power the under-development Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk2 variant and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), reinforcing a further ‘commonality’ factor for this US fighter type other than just its naval alternate.
Meanwhile, during the July 21 trials at the Indian Navy’s shore based test facility (SBTF) in Goa that duplicates an aircraft carriers deck, the F/A-18’s had also demonstrated their ‘manned-unmanned teaming’ ability to simultaneously control three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Boeing’s claim that this potentially expanded the Indian Navy’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control network through UAV intelligence missions led by the F/A-18’s, had also resonated well with the Indian Navy.
However, in a curiously analogous state of affairs, the rival platform to the F/A-18 was the French Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter, of which the IAF had acquired 36 in 2016 for $8.92bn, and which too was in contention for its MRFA buy. Dassault had also fielded its corresponding Rafale-Maritime (M) which was also flight-tested at the STBF earlier this year but, unlike F/A-18’s its twin-seat version was unable to operate off a carriers deck, and needed to be shore-based.
Consequently, Indian Navy sources said such an operational shortcoming ‘significantly’ diluted the Rafale-Ms buy-ability for the Indian Navy, even though it met the ‘commonality’ criteria with regard to the IAF’s two recently commissioned Rafale squadrons at Ambala in Haryana and Hasimara in West Bengal. Additionally, Dassault had also set up a Rafale maintenance and flight training facility at Ambala which could conceivably support the Rafale-M if acquired, considerably reducing overall collective procurement costs for the French air force and naval fighters.
American equipment and Indian ‘jugaad’
Be that as it may, there is yet another crucial factor in this evolving complex plot that could well tip the scales in the US’s favour, security officials say.
They assert that France’s financial, strategic, military, political and diplomatic heft and ability to influence global affairs in comparison to the US’s is at a ‘discount’. Hence, in such high-value sweepstakes, it’s more than obvious which side India would back for its own strategic and regional furtherance via weapon buys, says a retired two-star Indian Navy officer. The US’s F/A-18 wins hands down in such a faceoff on all political and operational counts, he adds, requesting anonymity.
But despite such blatancy, there was a joker in the US pack.
For, despite the $20-odd billion worth of platforms like P-8I’s maritime reconnaissance aircraft, C-17 Globemaster III’s and C-130J-30 Super Hercules transports, AH-64E Apache and CH-47F Chinook attack and heavy-lift helicopters, which India had acquired 2002 onwards, there remained an inherent inhibition in these procurements: it foreclosed the possibility of India’s military pursuing its long established and hugely accomplished, and at times essential, resort to jugaad or innovation with regard to most of its platforms and equipment.
Entirely feasible on Soviet/Russian kit and with no restrictions whatsoever, jugaad had not only provided India’s armed forces flexibility in operating its diverse weapon systems but also ably rendered foreign equipment wholly serviceable in climatic extremes and assorted terrain and for varied deployment.
But US protocols like the End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA), agreed upon in 2009 after much wrangling and extended negotiation, proscribed India from retrofitting and adapting military equipment to its needs without the Original Equipment Manufacturers’ (OEMs) consent and participation for the entire duration of its service. In the US’s case, this has almost never been permitted.
With the 80-odd countries with which Washington has concluded the EUMA, it has reportedly made an exception only a handful of times: once by allowing the Israel Air Force to incorporate locally developed sensors and weapons onto Lockheed Martin F-16’s supplied to Tel Aviv and subsequently with regard to some systems aboard F-35 Lightening II 5th generation fighters supplied recently to the Israel Air Force.
Besides, all US military purchases by India via the Foreign Military Sales or FMS route had been concluded under the stricter ‘Golden Sentry’ EUMA, which governs physical verification of the equipment and its eventual disposal. This protocol is far stricter than the less stringent ‘Blue Lantern’ EUMA which directs the direct commercial sale of US materiel worldwide.
And though the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government had then obliquely claimed success in concluding the EUMA on Indian terms, by securing the concession that the time and location of the US equipment’s verification process would be determined by Delhi, it had deftly avoided all mention of life-long and costly reliance on OEMs to keep US equipment in service.
Military officers say such foreclosure on US defence gear supplied to India prohibited “amazing and efficient implementation of jugaad” that had domestically been elevated to sophisticated levels. Generations of military officers concede that jugaad not only ensured that imported weapon systems performed well above their declared operational potential but also rendered a range of platforms and ordnance not only highly serviceable and effective, but in some instances even deadly.
Perhaps, the prevailing desperate security situation in Ukraine and the rapidly evolving world order could trigger a situation in which such obviously navigable handicaps were suitably eclipsed.