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    South Asia
     Mar 31, 2005
India turns its back on US arms
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - The reaction has been quicker than expected. Peeved at the US decision to supply F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, India has made it more than apparent that it is not at all happy and will play hard to get in all defense negotiations with the US. Making India's irritation clear, Delhi has announced new defense orders to Russia, Germany, Italy, Israel and even Qatar, worth a total of US$746 million.

Making no bones about New Delhi's annoyance, even as US Ambassador to India David Mulford has tried to placate matters, Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced on Tuesday that the government had cleared the purchase of 12 used Mirage 2000 V fighter aircraft from Qatar and 11 Dornier 228 aircraft from Germany for maritime surveillance, virtually as a gesture set against the US offer to sell PC-3 Orions to India.

India will induct nine offshore patrol vessels for the Indian navy, purchase a C-303 submarine-fired torpedo decoy system from Italy and manufacture eight more in India. It will upgrade its British Sea Harriers, fitting these with the latest air-to-air missiles from Israeli firm Raphael, combat maneuvering flight recorders and digital cockpit voice recorders.

Islamabad rejected criticism from New Delhi on Tuesday. "I am surprised by the Indian reaction," Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said. "This is not at all in discord with the emerging thaw in relations with India."

Last week, the US announced that it would go ahead with the sale to Pakistan of two dozen sophisticated F-16 fighter jets that India had been opposing for a long time. The US go-ahead comes almost 15 years after sanctions were imposed on Pakistan due to fears of the nation turning nuclear, which turned out to be true in 1998.

The turnaround is being seen as a reward to Pakistan for being an ally in the "war against terror", including President General Pervez Musharraf's role in reigning in the Taliban, the conduct of elections in Afghanistan, as well as support to the US against Iran. Pakistan has expressed extreme happiness over the decision, while India is suitably miffed, although there is a concomitant US offer to India to develop total synergies in defense, including joint production, the offer for more advanced versions of the F-16, as well as civilian nuclear cooperation with India. This also fits in with the Bush administration's intentions to buttress India's progress as a power to counter China.

US move boomerangs
Prior to the Indian reaction to order arms from other countries, the US decision was also seen as a win-win situation for Washington. For planners in the administration of US President George W Bush, it was a clear instance of geostrategic diplomacy being cloaked to promote the highly competitive business of arms sales, the potential of an arms race in South Asia set aside, as long as it benefited the US arms industry.

There are reports to suggest that the sale to Pakistan may have saved 5,000 jobs at Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of F-16s, located in Texas, Bush's home state. "If India's requirements are beyond any existing fighters, we are prepared to make upgraded F-16s to India's specifications with complete transfer of technology," Mike Kelly, senior executive of Lockheed Martin, was quoted as saying after the Bush administration cleared US companies (including Boeing) for bidding for contracts with India.

The offer for sales to Pakistan is seen as aimed to bring about the requisite reaction from India, which is looking for a massive upgradation of its aging air force fleet with a very poor safety record.

Counter to the expectations of the defense forces, India raised its annual defense spending for 2005-06 by a modest 7.8 %, which analysts say may not be enough to buy new combat planes and submarines for the world's fourth-largest military. Nevertheless, there is enough ground to believe that India will go in for a massive acquisition of arms in the near future. India is faced with the urgent requirement to progressively phase out its accident-prone and aging Russian MiG jets. This, combined with the fact that the indigenous light combat aircraft LCA-Tejas will be ready for induction only by 2010, makes the Indian air force keen to acquire 125 multi-role fighters, with transfer of technology, in a deal which could be worth $3 billion to $4 billion.

India is negotiating the purchase of French Mirage 2000-5s, Swedish JAS-39 Gripens or advanced Russian MiG-29s, in addition to an ongoing project to induct the high-end Russian Sukhois.

Enter the US, with the offer to sell to Pakistan and a concomitant offer to India. This placed in front of India a huge arsenal from which to choose for the first time in the history of its relations with the US - India has traditionally relied on Russia, and been hampered by sanctions because of its nuclear weapons testing.

The real intention of the US was for India to fall into its arms.

On Sunday, India said it wanted keep its options open. India would consider buying military equipment from the US, Defense Minister Mukherjee said. "This is the first time we have received an offer from the US. Naturally, when the offer is there, it will have to be actively considered by the government of India, keeping in view the requirements of our armed forces." But in the face of criticism from opposition parties for letting Pakistan get away with its purchase, the mood seems to have changed.

There is more bad news for the United States. While the US has placed all its cards in the open, there are murmurs of protest in the Indian defense and foreign ministries against any long-term arms arrangement with the US. The US is seen as an unreliable arms partner, unlike the history of such ties with the Russians, the French or even Israel. The main fear is of sanctions, which is built into the entire US system of arms sales, and an arena that is within the comfort zone of US diplomatic arm-twisting. The French, for example, stuck with India even post-1998, when India turned nuclear, despite sanctions by the rest of the Western world.

A senior Indian Air Force officer has been quoted as saying, "If they [US] could deny F-16 fighter jets midway through the contract to Pakistan, we cannot expect anything better. It is an impossible task for the Pentagon to ensure legally that the Indian Air Force is assured of the supply of fighters, spares and support for the almost 50 years that the new fighter would be in service."'

As things stand, the likelihood of a full war between India and Pakistan is remote, given the progress of the peace process and the nuclear deterrence that is already in place. India's conventional military superiority over Pakistan means that the acquisition of the F-16s will make an incremental difference to the balance of power, which in any case becomes redundant in the face of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. It will require an enormous effort even on the part of Musharraf, despite the regular verbal tirades against India, to reverse the dialogue process that has developed its own momentum. The F-16s will provide a sense of feel-good to Pakistan and Musharraf, who can tom-tom his great achievement in front of extremist elements gunning for him for kowtowing to the US.

Some observers say India should look at the fine print of the US offering. While the US, for strategic reasons, might want to keep Pakistan happy, it is for business, including in such delicate areas as nuclear energy and arms production, that the US wants to engage India, thus moving away from the traditional hyphenation of US-India-Pakistan relations. This is always a much better proposition and the basis of a long-term relationship. But, for now, India is upset.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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