India wants fighter jets – but without American baggage
As Boeing vies for a contract to build 126 new fighter jets for India, an estimated 35,000 new US jobs are at stake. But America’s foreign policy may tilt India toward European firms instead.
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“The fact of the matter is that this is not true,” says Tellis, who has served on the US National Security Council.Skip to next paragraph
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He and other analysts doubt the defense agreements will be central to Delhi’s decision on the fighters. But the suspicion about the agreements speaks to the lingering distrust of the US.
An Indian defense industry consultant who works with international firms and the Indian military says the Indians will only buy American for systems where there is no good competitor. The trust deficit, he says, comes not just from the 1998 sanctions, but US treatment of other friends.
Do European firms have less baggage?
It’s a point other nations bring up.
Ravit Rudoy, marketing communications manager for Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., argues the US will be careful to ensure a military balance between India and Pakistan, while that concern is not shared by the one Russian and three European firms also vying for the fighter jet deal.
Tellis sees Europeans as more willing to provide equipment with no questions asked because their firms need foreign sales more to stay afloat. “The European market is so small, so they cannot afford to make their commercial products playthings of geopolitics.”
Representatives of Boeing and Lockheed Martin say international politics are not a hurdle for US firms here. Rick McCrary, Boeing’s lead on the jet fighter bid, points to the “ongoing, improving relationship” between Washington and New Delhi that has now spanned three administrations, both Republican and Democratic.
Obama builds goodwill toward US firms
Much has changed since 1998, including the signing of a nuclear deal under Mr. Bush and the lifting of export restrictions on Mr. Obama’s recent visit, he adds.
Ramesh Phadke, a retired Indian Air Force officer, agrees that Indian suspicions about the US have diminished in recent years, signaled by some purchases of equipment.
“America maintaining a special relationship with Pakistan has always been a major factor in all decisions India has made with Americans, but it’s also been accepted up to a point,” says Air Commodore Phadke. “That does not mean that India likes it.”
Privately, one US executive who is not authorized to speak argues the defense agreements are a “barrier” for the American bids.
“The playing field isn’t level” with the Europeans, says the executive. “We’re perceived by the Indians as being heavy handed. If you actually read the language of the agreements they are not as intrusive as the Indians are making them out to be…. [But] they want a relationship on an equal footing.”
Obama has played to that desire by endorsing India’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat. And Tellis says the administration will continue to be accommodating if a US firm is a chosen as a finalist.
“I think the Obama administration will really do its utmost to make sure that whatever concerns India has both on a political and technical level are assuaged, because the US at this point for economic reasons really wants to see this deal.”
(Editor's note: The original article misidentified the nationality of firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., as well as the type of Boeing fighter jet at the Aero India 2011 show.)