India must talk to the United States the way two business houses on the verge of a deal interact with each other. The two-decade-old process of improvement in the bilateral relations notwithstanding, the Americans are yet to appreciate fully the value of India. The virtual offer from a top defence officer of the United States that says Americans would consider handing to India 5th generation fighter planes in its stable, provided India purchased F-16 or F-18 or both, smacks of a sales pitch that does not behove representatives of a government. India has not shown a keen interest in the F-16s and F-18s despite the American push for more than a decade. A plausible reason is the fact that Pakistan owns F-16s, too, albeit an outdated version. That India is being offered a de facto 4.5 generation fighter, even better than the ones Israel flies, is only one aspect of the deal on offer. The other aspect is that the US has not been able to come to terms with its failure to get the contract in the international bids for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, which the French Dassault’s Rafael bagged. The US is not alone; sellers of the Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo consortium’s Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia’s MiG35 and Sweden’s Gripen believe as much that they still have a chance. F-18, however, is a different story. It could mark a new chapter of India-US cooperation in naval aviation, as Joe Felter has rightly pointed out. Another factor worth pondering over is that India still does not have enough squadrons to face a two-front war.
But if the US is using Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ as a bait, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia sounded, the Americans must be told that employment generation or sustenance is not a concern of India alone. Time and again, both the aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have threatened their employees with retrenchment, and the jobs of the poor workers were saved only by timely contracts the firms got from other countries. The volume of aircraft they produce cannot be absorbed entirely by the US military, neither can producing the hardware exclusively for the US Army, Navy and Air Force sustain these capital-intensive companies. India will not, therefore, accept this patronising attitude of the American salesmen. They are doing us no favour by the transfer of the technology for Indian production of their planes. For one, if the deal so permits, the Indian make can be exported after meeting the Indian military needs, thus offering to the world cheaper versions that still conform to the American standard. It will help spread the American product in the international market.
India and the US have both disappointed each other when it comes to taking the relations to the next level. From the American point of view, India is not an ‘international policeman’ that must meddle in the affairs of not only Myanmar and Afghanistan but also Iraq and Syria where the US has tied itself up in knots. From the Indian viewpoint, if America wants us to be a force that counterbalances the hegemony of China, why does President Donald Trump speak of China and India in the same breath while dealing with the issue of American trade deficits? Insofar as military cooperation is concerned, the US has yet to spell out how it can help India ward off the Chinese expansionist threat. And Uncle Sam still believes Pakistan is a country one can coerce to see some reason against terrorism! Given these gaps in the American foreign policy — in other words, the absence of a clear roadmap for India-US friendship — circumspection is the only way India can view the latest aircraft selling attempt by the US. The manner in which a potential but discreet customer weighs the words of a wily shopkeeper!