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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


August 2, 2020

The Complex Past and Present of Indian Fighter Jet Purchases

This is an Indian History Special – a deep dive into a specific topic

After years of delays and renegotiations, 36 Dassault Rafale fighter jets are being delivered to India, to become part of the Indian Air Force’s efforts at modernization. While many in India are celebrating the delivery, many others are questioning the costs involved, delays, reduced size of the final purchase, and the Rafale’s utility against hostile neighbors that may well have already passed it by. This post isn’t an attempt to take a side in the debate, but rather to illuminate some of the unique history behind the Indian Air Force’s fighter jets – and, above all, to show that the current Rafale drama isn’t anything new. India’s aircraft purchases have always been complex and bizarre things, mired in tangled international and domestic politics, to the detriment of India’s defence needs.

Our story starts, of course, in the middle of the Cold War. Despite the distance in time, India in the 1960s might seem familiar – trying to modernize its military, struggling to control its borders, and hemmed in by the hostile presence of Pakistan in the West and China in the East (to say nothing of then-East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). The real difference was the involvement of the Cold War powers, the United States and Soviet Union, for whom South Asia – with its population and strategic position – represented a tempting prize. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence on ‘non-alignment’ with the great powers meant that the United States turned to Pakistan as a regional ally, part of which involved supplying it with the latest in jet fighter technology in the form of the North American F-86 Sabre in the 1950s, and the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in the early 1960s. The Indian Air Force, meanwhile, relied largely on the outdated British jets that the United Kingdom exported to its former colonies: the de Havilland Vampire, the Hawker Hunter, the Folland Gnat. Faced with the prospect of hostilities on two fronts, by the early 1960s India knew it needed a more modern fighter jet, and fast.

Of course, things weren’t that simple. Fighter jets then (as they are now) were a big deal: visible, flashy, and expensive examples of a country’s power, they were political statements as much as military machines. They were also tools of foreign policy – the choice of country from which to buy the jets would be taken by the world at large as a sign of diplomatic closeness, regardless of Prime Minister Nehru’s continual assurances of Indian non-alignment. The search for a new jet was soon bogged down in internal politics, diplomatic games, and inter-service rivalry. A faction of the Indian military strongly favored buying a British jet, the English Electric Lightning, and continuing the strong relationship between the Indian military and Great Britain – indeed, the Indian Navy would continue to rely on British-built warships for years afterward. Meanwhile, the pro-America side of the Indian bureaucracy, exemplified by Ambassador B.K. Nehru in Washington (a nephew of Jawaharlal Nehru) and Morarji Desai in the Finance Ministry, hoped to strike a deal with President John F. Kennedy for American fighters, and use the resulting publicity to push India towards America. And, finally, there was the pro-Soviet side, led by India’s formidable Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, and comprising left-leaning Congress Party MPs, socialists, Communists, and varied allies. Krishna Menon’s faction stridently fought the idea of buying jets from the West, and by 1961, they had an alternative solution ready.

Entering service at the end of the 1950s, the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, a supersonic jet fighter, was among the most modern fighter aircraft in the world, and was being manufactured by the Soviet Union in vast quantities to equip the air forces of the Warsaw Pact countries. The Soviets were even willing to transfer the technology to India, and help set up a MiG-21 manufacturing plant in the country, a tempting offer for a nation that urgently needed self-reliance. Despite the efforts of pro-Western factions, Jawaharlal Nehru slowly let himself be convinced by Krishna Menon’s arguments, and India and the Soviet Union were very close to striking a deal. The question was, could it be done without angering the United States?

Possible, but only if it were done carefully. India couldn’t just sign a deal with the Soviet Union – it had to make the acquisition look like the end result of a long, complicated process. Air Force teams were sent to the Soviet Union to examine the MiG-21, but, at the same time, other teams were very publicly sent to the United Kingdom to look over their fighter offerings, and Jawaharlal Nehru himself met Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Duncan-Sandys, to discuss the possibility. Meanwhile in Washington, Ambassador B.K. Nehru insisted to Kennedy that no MiG deal had been signed, and that America still had time to make its own offer (from my own research, B.K. Nehru genuinely believed this). To add complications, the India Aid Bill was coming up for a vote in the American parliament, and any signs of India moving closer to the Soviet Union – like, say, a large purchase of MiG-21 jets – would jeopardize its passage. The Indian government therefore took refuge in ambiguity, remaining noncommittal about any jet purchases even as the Indian public and parliament clamored for a defence purchase.

While refusing to publicly confirm and commit to the MiG purchase gave India some leeway in diplomacy, it also extended the timeframe of the purchase while India went through the motions of negotiating with multiple countries for their jets and carrying out endless technical inspections. This proved problematic on two occasions over the following years. When war broke out between India and China over border issues in 1962, the Soviet Union, busy with the Cuban Missile Crisis elsewhere, delayed the deal even further despite Indian pleas; fortunately, the war didn’t end up involving the air forces of either India or China. In 1964, the MiG-21s were finally delivered, but training the Indian Air Force’s pilots on the new machines took another year. This meant that when India and Pakistan went to war in 1965 – a war that heavily involved aircraft from both nations – the MiG-21s were not ready for frontline combat. Over the course of the conflict, the Indian Air Force found itself often outmatched by Pakistan’s superior aircraft; disaster was only averted by India’s use of the Folland Gnat, a small British jet that unexpectedly proved effective against heavier, slower Pakistan’s F-86 Sabres. Despite these twin disappointments, by the latter half of the 1960s, the MiG-21 had firmly entrenched itself as the backbone of the Indian Air Force’s fighter inventory.

Of course, there were problems. Massive problems. Indian manufacturing techniques for the MiG-21’s complex engines and maneuvering mechanisms weren’t quite up to the Soviet standard. Indian MiG-21s were riddled with flaws, a fact that was kept broadly secret till 2012. That year, in a bid to convince Parliament of the necessity of modernization, Defence Minister A.K. Antony finally told the Indian upper house, the Rajya Sabha, the crash rate for MiG-21s. Over the 40 years before 2012, India built 842 MiG-21s, of which 482 – over half – had been lost to crashes. That number provoked massive outcry when it was made public, and rightly so; it implied that one of every two MiG-21s built by India crashed over its service lifetime, and quite possibly made flying a MiG-21 one of the most dangerous professions in the world given that some 170 pilots had been killed in MiG-21 crashes over the period. The figures were almost unbelievable. For context, every single Boeing 737-MAX passenger jet in the world was grounded because, out of 650,000 flights, 2 aircraft crashed, giving it a failure rate of 3 per million flights. A 50% crash rate for MiG-21s was unheard of for any modern fighter aircraft. It was unheard of even for the ramshackle wood-and-cloth aircraft used in the First World War. That year, the government of India sketched out an agreement with French defence contractor Dassault Aviation to purchase 126 Dassault Rafales. The Rafale, a modern French fighter that is a mainstay of France’s air force, was meant to counter developments in China’s fighter jet fleet.

Is there a point to all this ancient history? In a word, yes. The same dynamics present during the MiG-21 kerfuffle during the Cold War are visible in the Rafale deal. Before the deal was concluded, factions in the Indian government and military argued for an expansion of the Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI fleet. The Su-30MKI, a Russian fighter built in India with Indian modifications, was a sign of India’s continuing defence relationship with Russia; indeed, even as India celebrates its Rafale purchase, new negotiations with Russia over jet purchases are taking place – the diplomatic dance continues much as it did during the Cold War. The MiG-21 debacle also taught India a valuable lesson about trying to manufacture cutting-edge technology domestically; there is a reason, after all, that the indigenous HAL Tejas has been criticised for its deep shortcomings. The Su-30MKI, built under license by HAL, is a Russian design modified with French and Israeli technology; the rest of India’s ageing fighter fleet, such as the SEPECAT Jaguar and Dassault Mirage 2000, are foreign-manufactured machines that are modified and upgraded with even more foreign technology to extend their service lives. All this, of course, means that India is unable to consistently replicate and replace the technology in its fleet, and replacements must be acquired from the manufacturers; the Indian Air Force has been stretched very, very thin by heavy maintenance, replacement, and repair costs. India’s joint program with Russia to design its own next-generation fighter from scratch, the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA program, has stalled; India withdrew in 2018 for reasons that remain somewhat unclear.

This isn’t a criticism of the Rafale deal, but it is an attempt to examine the problems inherent in Indian Air Force procurement. Stephen A. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta persuasively argued a few years ago that India’s military modernization has become a piecemeal, incoherent affair that lacks a unity of vision. I think our jet purchases over the last few years prove them right. Some, like the Rafale deal, are long, drawn-out processes that became mired in internal and international politics, to the detriment of our defence capabilities. Others are impulsive, emergency purchases that do nothing to enhance our future capabilities or give the air force a semblance of strategic vision; the large purchase of jets from Russia currently being negotiated seems to have been a hasty decision following the recent border clashes between India and China. At the same time, the HAL Tejas is being upgraded, even as development work on the Tejas Mk. 2 continues – meanwhile, development work on the HAL AMCA, India’s supposed answer to China’s Chengdu J-20, is being accelerated.

By the way, the MiG-21 is still in service with the Indian Air Force.

The Rafale deal only heightens the fact that the Indian Air Force is being pulled in a number of different directions, and every single fighter it buys, builds, or develops has different maintenance needs, performance profiles, testing requirements, and training regimes. Tactical flexibility and variety can be a good thing, but the current procurement and development patterns of the Indian Air Force could be best described as erratic. Unfortunately, the interference of politics is a historic pattern in Indian Air Force acquisitions, and one that appears destined to continue. I’m not sure exactly what the solution is, but I suspect we could learn something from the collaborative design processes behind European aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon, and from the private-sector defence acquisitions of the United States. What is clear, from the past and present of the air force, is this: we need a new way forward, and we need it soon.

Sahaj Sankaran

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