Bottomline | The Big Deal

Deconstructing the MMRCA and its strategic implications

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

That ‘Understanding MMRCA competition’ is an apt subject to write on for the Aero India 2013 issue should have occurred to me. Instead, I got the idea from a visiting Canadian scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) who sought my time to discuss this matter. I must admit that I had not applied myself completely to this subject, but having followed events closely over the years, instinctively I feel this subject has strategic implications for India, region and the world. Beginning with the March 2005 visit of US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice to India, the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition has elevated itself from a defence procurement deal to affecting the balance of power between India, Pakistan, China and the US, at a time of uncertainty in Asia.

In hindsight, it can be said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should not have signed the India-US joint statement on 18 July 2005 in Washington. He instinctively knew that it was imperfect and he would have difficulty selling it in India. He was reluctant to meet Rice before meeting President George Bush on 18 July 2005 as he would have found it rude to disregard her, who during her maiden visit to India in March 2005 had publicly said that the US would help India become a major power; music to Indian ears. The Prime Minister was persuaded to give a brief audience to Rice by the irrepressible foreign minister, Natwar Singh, and the rest as they say is history. We know all this from Rice’s book, ‘No Higher Honour.’ The close relationship akin to a tight embrace that the US was seeking was incongruous on two counts: the US fundamental motive was non-proliferation, while India’s primacy was a civil nuclear understanding. And as a global power, the US would want more foreign policy alignments than India could make.

Notwithstanding the Bush administration’s determination to push the deal earliest, the US non-proliferation lobby saw the joint statement as an opportunity for India to free itself from the NPT shackles and enhance domestic fissile material stocks. Getting through the US Congress became an uphill task until the financially loaded US defence lobby, sensing a lucrative market for itself in India, came to President Bush’s rescue. As 1 October 2008 became a historic day with the signing of the ‘US-India nuclear cooperation approval and non-proliferation enhancement act’, the US defence lobby demanded its pound of flesh. The big opportunity was India’s floating of the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Indian Air Force’s 126 MMRCA to six contenders (including two US companies) in August 2007. The reality of this mega deal initially worth USD 20 billion starting sinking in with time; given the indigenous LCA’s never-ending setbacks and the new-found Chinese threat for India, the deal would both rise steadily in numbers and with the life cycle support needs, the winning aircraft manufacturer would become part of India’s defence industry for four decades. Upbeat about the market, the US defence industry pushed the Bush administration for faster movement on the Indo-US defence agreement signed in July 2005.

Watching the unfolding events, Pakistan and China got anxious about the emerging power dynamics. Pakistan, despite its Major Non-Nato Ally status, was rebuffed by the US for seeking a deal similar to India, and China, notwithstanding its emerging global standing, felt compelled to go along with the 45-nations Nuclear Suppliers Group to grant India an unprecedented waiver to trade in restrictive technologies in September 2008. It was only natural for China to now set aside its inhibitions and openly declare Pakistan as its closest ally. This is precisely what China did by three bold actions: Pakistan was given two nuclear reactors, Beijing hardened its position on Kashmir giving more manoeuvre space to Pakistan, and it was time for China to fill the void in Afghanistan (with Pakistan’s support) after the US and Nato decided to go home. Needless to add, all these issues have grave national security implications for India.

Meanwhile, the incoming Obama administration, intrinsically opposed to its predecessor’s handling of world events, saw merit in wooing China. On his first visit to China in September 2009, President Barack Obama signed a joint statement underlying a role for China for stability in South Asia. This set alarm bells ringing in Delhi about the implications of the new US policy. Without saying so, it was understood that it would be unhelpful to choose a US combat aircraft for the MMRCA deal, as given the past history, Washington may halt product support (spares supplies) to its aircraft in case of a crisis with Pakistan or China. Unmindful of all this, the IAF, going by its mandate of technical evaluation choose the French Rafale and the European Eurofighter. The US competitors did not make the technical grade. This is not all. The French quoted the minimal price making it the finalist for commercial negotiations.

The Indian government could not have asked for a more politically correct decision, especially when President Obama during his November 2010 India visit had, on pressure from the US defence lobby, sought support for the US competitors in the MMRCA. The civil nuclear deal had failed to produce desired results. While both sides could be held responsible for sabotaging the painstaking agreement, India lost much more by the overt China-Pakistan hug. Thus, piggybacking on the IAF’s decision, it was easy for defence minister A.K. Antony to say that no political consideration had gone into deciding the MMRCA.


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