Ending months of anticipation, India has announced two finalists in one of the world’s single largest military contracts: the Indian Air Force’s $10 billion acquisition of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft. They are the Rafale made by France’s Dassault and the Eurofighter Typhoon made by a British, Italian, German, and Spanish consortium. The losers: Lockheed Martin’s F-16, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, and competitors from Russia and Sweden.
While not entirely unanticipated—the French and European fighters reportedly bested their rivals in technical trials—the announcement nonetheless comes as a jolt for those who expected at least one U.S. plane to make the shortlist. Unlike their European rivals, the U.S. planes have been extensively battle-tested. In addition, the 2008 U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, in which Washington carved out an India-sized exception in the global non-proliferation regime, and President Obama’s successful visit to India in November, were expected to pave the way for the purchase.
While India may couch its decision in purely technical terms, or point to more generous technology sharing and end-use terms offered by the French and the Europeans, the political subtext of the decision is impossible to escape. Simply put, India has rebuffed the U.S. offer of a closer strategic partnership. Or, as Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment put it, India “settled for a plane, not a relationship.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that many Indians are questioning the government’s decision. Nitin Pai, a prominent international relations expert who blogs under the name Acorn, says the decision “demonstrates either a poor appreciation of the geostrategic aspect or worse, indicative of a lingering anti-American mindset.” The newspaper Mint calls it an example of “technique without strategy.” For Boeing and Lockheed, however, these and other voices of support are hardly consolation for losing a contract that would have boosted the bottom line, created thousands of jobs, and added more military heft to the U.S.-India relationship.