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US-India Strategic Partnership After MMRCA Deal – Analysis


By Rajesh Rajagopalan


New Delhi’s decision to not consider the American F-16 and F-18 for its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) might have been sound on technical grounds but it nevertheless has important political implications for India’s relations with the U.S. Most of the criticism of the decision has focused on the lost opportunity to build a strategic partnership with the U.S. on the basis of this lucrative deal. Supporters have pointed out that such decisions cannot be based on political considerations. The argument that political and strategic considerations should not influence arms purchases does not hold much water.


Not every decision to buy weapons is made on political grounds, but political factors have played a role in some key Indian arms purchases. That the Indian armed forces are today mostly armed with Soviet/Russian equipment is neither an accident nor the consequence of the superiority of Soviet arms. There were good strategic reasons why New Delhi looked to Moscow for arms. Indeed, much of India’s armed forces opposed the shift to Soviet arms in the 1960s because they had traditionally used British equipment and were Western in orientation. Similarly, the Indian decision to diversify arms procurement since the late 1970s was also a political decision, and an equally sound one. It was unwise to depend so heavily on one source for weapons and the decision to buy the Jaguar (built by a European consortium), the French Mirage-2000 and the German HDW submarines were deliberately designed to limit such dependence.

Therefore, to suggest that political and strategic considerations should not have any role in the MMRCA deal is both foolish and at odds with previous Indian arms purchase decisions. Of course, such considerations would suggest giving greater weight to not only the American jets but also the Russian Mikoyan MiG-35. Indeed, the rejection of the MiG-35 will be a serious blow to the Russian aircraft industry of which Mikoyan is an integral part, a development that does not bode well for India either.

But a more serious issue is its impact on relations with the U.S. The key problem with this decision is that it comes on top of a number of other decisions, all of which suggests that New Delhi is increasingly uncomfortable about developing closer ties with the U.S. Much of the expected India-U.S. cooperation in nuclear energy has been stymied by the Nuclear Liability Bill, which effectively targets U.S. nuclear suppliers more than others. Indeed, those who argued for such provisions in the liability bill were also, not surprisingly, those who had opposed the India-U.S. nuclear deal. That New Delhi gave in to such demands was an ominous indication of a shift in Indian policy.

More recently, New Delhi saw it fit to abstain from the U.N. Security Council vote on Libya. There might have been good reasons for India taking such a position. India has traditionally been wary of international intervention and is only a recent and reluctant convert to the idea of an international ‘responsibility to protect’. Nevertheless, there was little reason for such timidity from the world’s largest democracy which claims to be a rising power and seeks a seat in the UN Security Council. New Delhi has sensible strategic reasons for maintaining ties with the military junta in Myanmar but the strategic rationale for backing Qaddafi is far from clear. This suggests that the primary reason for India’s decision on the Libyan vote was that India did not want to be seen to be siding with the U.S. Indeed, Indian commentators who supported the Indian abstention saw it precisely in those terms, as a vote against strategic ties with Washington.


Each of these decisions has been justified by New Delhi on its (dubious) merits. Cumulatively, they cast increasing doubt about whether India is interested in a strategic partnership with the U.S. at all.

India’s coyness appears to have at least two reasons. First, the increasingly dispirited Mammohan Singh government – and the Prime Minister personally – seem not to have the energy left to push the India-U.S. relationship. Support for a strategic relationship with the U.S. exists both within and outside the government but it still requires political support. Without such support, Indian foreign policy appears to be sliding back to a warmed-up version of its default third-worldism, best exemplified by inanities such as the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) group.

Second, significant sections of domestic opinion appear to think that India has become such a global influential that the U.S. needs India much more than India needs the U.S. They are convinced therefore that Washington will back Indian interests even if India does not reciprocate. Such wishful thinking is the bane of Indian strategic policy. Nehru, for example, thought that China would not attack India because it would start a third world war given India’s presumed importance to the global power balance.

India’s power and influence is definitely growing and U.S. power is in relative decline. Nevertheless, India is still at best a regional player and the U.S. is still the world’s sole superpower, as it demonstrated recently by killing Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory. Common sense suggests that New Delhi as the weaker partner has much more to gain from this relationship, but common sense has always been somewhat scarce in Indian strategic thought.

Obviously, India and the U.S. are not going to agree on everything. In addition to Myanmar, there are a number of issues including Pakistan where Indian and U.S. interests diverge. New Delhi needs to pursue its own interests when it must but it also needs to have the political gumption to stand with Washington because sometimes the strategic partnership is worth it.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

3 thoughts on “US-India Strategic Partnership After MMRCA Deal – Analysis

  • May 8, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Unfortunate an Indian writer absolutely biased in favor of American interests.

    We brought weapons from Russia since no one else would give us latest cutting edge tech in those times without we aligning with them. Us had Pakistan as its ally, armed it against India, and supported it in 1971 war, so why crib about India’s decision?

    India already have purchased some big ticket items from US like c-17, c-130, p8, GE 414 engine worth billions of $ for political consideration and strategic partnership. We cannot make a complete sellout of our motherland and buy inferior (4 decade old, no room for upgrade), downgraded (all critical tech downgraded e.g. AESA), bugged (remote controlled), and restricted (Cismoa, not good enough TOT) and not reliable (sanctions after next nuke test) fighter platforms who are bloated with weight and refused to take off from Leh, could not withstand Indian extreme weather.

    US Gifts f-16 for free to Pak, US pays no heed to India’s concerns vis a vis pak. And what we can expect in return if we selected American fighters? Same tech would be given for free to Pak sooner or later for humanitarian aid? If we go for war tomorrow with Pak without US consent, all 200 planes will become Hangar Queens or simply fall from sky.

    US fights its own personal war in Afghanistan, Iraq & Libya often without the consent of UN/international-community.
    Why should we support unilateral action by US/Nato. Will US support us if we take similar action against Pak?

    India commands respect in international community and is a significant power because it stood up on its own since independence, has independent mindset (call it NAM/BRICS, not signing CTBT, NPT), all this was to protect Indian Interest. Due to those decisions only we have ballistic missiles & Nukes to take on China on our own and that’s why we are taken seriously and even US wants us see as counter to China. Stooges of America get gifted handsomely but never get respect and power they need to be an international player.

    Yes! America is superpower and it is absolutely necessary to engage with them for our own strategic interests, which we are doing in careful and calibrated steps without bending down on their feet.
    India will not compromise with its sovereignty to ally with US; we want equal partnership with US.

    Contrary to what the Author (American convert) thinks, we think that US has not reciprocated to all India has done for US; you see they have taken advantage of our weaker position. Obama, who talks a lot and even got Nobel peace prize for talking, openly badmouths against Indian IT industry and recently medical industry. This we get in return of giving complete access to our markets?

    About nuclear liability bill:

    You think Indian lives are cheap? culprit behind Bhopal tragedy is under US protection. US punished severely British petroleum (company of its closest allies) for oil spill, for polluting and killing marine life near its coast.

    I Know that Nuclear Liability bill may not be practical, may be changed but the necessary safeguards and some form of liability will have to be built into the bill. US being stronger guy will get away with little/No liability and loss of Indian life will be borne by us poor Indians alone.

  • May 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Maybe the US should have sent better planes instead of their third liners. Every other country sent their best to be evaluated and it showed. The US thought it could leverage a “strategic relationship” (whatever that means) into a sale of their middling products. They though they could limit TOT to having an Indian company make seat cushions for Boeing.

  • May 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

    The fault for american planes not being selected lies primarily with the Americans.

    First there is a widening technological gap between the commercially available solutions between US and Europe. Both F-16 and F-18 are relics of the past with little future and until F-35 becomes mature enough, US has nothing to offer that can compete with newer European solutions and even when F-35 becomes available, estimates suggest it may cost well over $150 million per piece.

    Secondly US has created a handicap for itself by insisting to monitor what it sells and to the extent it is willing to share technology. For India it is more evident due to recent purchase of C-130J and P-8I, both of which lack certain equipment because India will not sign the CISMOA.

    Third despite being the solutions of a bygone era US product prices are still the same or more than the newer better European solutions and thus not competitively placed.

    Forth Why should India trust US, when the same technology is made available to its arch rival for a fraction of the cost?

    Fifth it takes time to build trust, US share of the Indian defence market is growing exponentially and it will be foolish for them to miss the bigger picture.


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