Saturday, October 9, 2010

India's fighter-jet program soars past Japan's

India and Japan are both in the process of procuring a new frontline fighter aircraft that will see them through to the middle of this century. They may even end up buying the same airplane. That, however, is where the similarity ends.

The circumstances in which the two countries are conducting their fighter procurements could hardly be more different. A buoyant India has breezed into the marketplace, while Japan still hovers unsurely by the gate, dithering over what it's actually come here to buy. The nub of the difference is that the Indian selection is not constrained by politics - they have a free hand with which to buy the best plane under the best possible terms. The Japanese decision, by contrast, is severely circumscribed by political considerations, both domestic and international.

The plane-builders of the world have converged on India like love-struck suitors; the object of their desire is a US$10 billion contract for 126 planes, with possibly more to follow, as well as favored access to more of the $80 billion that India will spend on defense kit in the next five years.

So often dysfunctional in its approach to defense procurement, India has got this one right. The Indian Air Force set out a clear vision of its requirement: a medium multirole fighter aircraft (MMRCA) that can match anything flying today bar the US's stealthy F-22 Raptor. This plane will provide a capable deterrent against Chinese and Pakistani threats until the more advanced "fifth-generation" fighter being jointly developed with Russia is ready from 2020 onwards.

Suppliers respond to this kind of customer clarity, and six of them entered the race, each desperate to secure what is the biggest defense contract currently on offer anywhere. This has given the Indians exceptional bargaining power, not least because they have made it abundantly clear that all six contenders have a genuine chance of winning - if they are willing to meet New Delhi's demanding conditions.

On the face of it, India has strong political reasons to favor one of the two US suppliers - Boeing and Lockheed Martin - as ties between Washington and New Delhi continue to warm. President Barack Obama will stress these political incentives when he doorsteps India, model planes in his briefcase, in November. Yet sources close to the competition suggest that the American aircraft did not shine in the Indian Air Force's technical evaluation, that they compare poorly on cost, and that their promised level of technology transfer is underwhelming. ''We need to get full technology transfer: India will not budge on that issue,'' says Arun Sahgal, of India's United Services Institute. ''Some of the bidders need to bring their prices down and offer a lot more than license manufacturing''.

America's rivals are fighting hard. Sahgal describes Swedish company Saab's offering of full technology transfer as ''phenomenal''; the Eurofighter Typhoon is understood to be highly rated by Indian decision-makers; and Russia, a long-time Indian defense partner, is also seen as a safe backup option with its MiG-35. The point is that the US - just like other hopefuls - must offer India a genuinely excellent deal if it wants to secure this contract, not merely hold out vague prospects of American friendship.

As the Indian competition glides towards a verdict (expected by June 2011), Japan's fighter procurement remains stalled on the tarmac. After repeated delays, Japanese business leaders had been talking up the prospect of Tokyo finally issuing the long-delayed request for proposals for its future fighter program, dubbed F-X, this October.

Issuing the request for proposal (RfP) now could have led to a decision being made in a year's time and the first aircraft touching down in around 2016.

But it's not going to happen. The government – itself in a state of constant flux – is currently rethinking the country's National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG); the update is due for publication in December. This ought not to have interfered with the F-X RfP. Japan has a fleet of 40-year-old F-4s that it desperately needs to replace: these will soon be fit for scrap whatever Japan's new defense policy says. However, the F-X programme has fallen victim to Japan's wider political malaise. The Ministry of Defense declined to say when the RfP would finally emerge, but it now looks like being 2011 at the earliest.

More serious is the fact that, as the NDPG review implies, Japan is in a strategic tangle. Pacifist inclinations jar with geostrategic reality: Tokyo understands the arguments in favor of adopting a more assertive defense posture, but is paralyzed by the weight of its historical baggage and by its ultra-conservative political culture.
Now, it is poised to make all the wrong choices when it procures its new fighter. Despite emphasizing, like India, the importance of technology transfer and the need for local industry involvement, it may end up securing neither. Its requirement of only 40 or 50 F-X fighters does not create the economies of scale needed to set up a local production line, and Tokyo is in no position, like India, to demand extensive technology transfer and bargain prices.

Remarkably, only three contenders have shown a clear interest in the Japanese competition: two US firms and Eurofighter. The Eurofighter Typhoon is in many ways the strongest proposition: twin-engine (and so a good bet for maritime patrol duties) and better at the air-superiority duties that Japan needs its F-X fighter to fulfill, it would also offer local industry participation.

But any technical and industrial strengths will most likely be overridden by political prerogatives. ''Japan will go for a US airframe, it's that simple,'' says Christopher Hughes, professor of international studies and Japanese politics at Warwick University. ''There won't be a hard-headed analysis: it will buy US for alliance reasons.''

The American options are Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet – a single-engine multirole fighter that perhaps struggles to meet Tokyo's need for a twin-engine, air-superiority jet – and Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II, an expensive choice that is still under development and which could only be supplied to Tokyo off the shelf.

Certainly, neither US alternative is strong enough to render the European proposition uncompetitive - were it not for Japan's hard-wired aversion to turning its back on the US alliance, even at great cost to itself. The near-certainty of an American selection explains why only one non-US firm has thrown its hat into the ring.

The lack of competition can only be bad for the Japanese taxpayer and also for the Japanese military, if it does not end up with the aeroplane that it really needs. Nonetheless, political prejudice, not defense requirements, will steer Tokyo's decision.

In the final analysis, Tokyo expects to pay up to $10 billion for 40 or 50 F-X aircraft: the same budget that New Delhi has set aside for 126 jets of similar capability. You don't have to be a top gun to figure out who's getting a good deal.

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