reflections

Feb 27, 2008 | 03:00 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: A Military Choice and Challenge for India?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is visiting India. The most public issue between the two countries is the U.S. offer of civilian nuclear technology for India, despite the fact that New Delhi has declined to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. While this is not trivial, the most significant geopolitical dimension of the visit is the rumor that Gates plans to offer India the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, to be delivered when it is retired from the U.S. fleet in 2012. This rumor is persistent and widespread, though the Defense Department has strongly denied it. However, if the reports turn out to be true, such an offer would be an interesting and potentially effective U.S. move. This would place the United States and Russia in competition with each other over India. In 2004, the Russians and Indians signed a deal under which New Delhi would acquire the Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov for $1.5 billion. But in 2007, the Russians surprised the Indians by raising their asking price. After intense negotiations, the Indians agreed to pay approximately $800 million extra. In return, the Russians agreed to improve the modernization package they had offered the Indians to include a new ski jump facility that would allow for the use of the Russian MiG-29. Given the potential aircraft sale, the Russians are ahead on the deal. However, as of Gates visit, the new agreement had not been signed. If the rumors about a U.S. decision to offer the Kitty Hawk to India are true, the move clearly is designed to block the sale of the Gorshkov. An American and a Russian carrier in one fleet would create substantial problems for the Indians. Operating an aircraft carrier is one of the most complex military and engineering functions in the world. Having two different carriers made by two different countries housing two different sets of equipment separated not only by age but also by fundamentally different engineering cultures would create a hurdle that probably would be beyond anyone's capability to manage — and certainly beyond India's. If India wanted both carriers, it would have to sequence the acquisitions and have the second one rest on the lessons learned from the first. So, Gates could be offering the Indians a choice and a challenge. The choice would be between U.S. carrier technology — which, even when obsolete by American standards, is the result of several generations of battle-tested systems — and a Soviet-era system that challenged the Soviet ship and aircraft designers. On that level, the choice would be easy. But the potential U.S. offer also poses a challenge. India once was a historic ally of the Soviet Union and hostile toward the United States. After 9/11, U.S. and Indian interests converged. The United States offered India military technology, and the Indians bought a great deal of it. But as good as U.S. military technology is, each purchase increases Indian dependence on the United States for spare parts and support. It has not been easy shifting away from the Soviet weapons culture; years of training and a substantial Indian knowledge base rest on those weapons. If the Indians continue adopting American weapon systems, not only will they have to retrain and restructure their knowledge base, they also will get locked into American systems. And that locks them into dependence on the United States. If the United States were to cut the flow of weapons, parts and support, the Indians could be systematically weakened. Buying the Gorshkov rather than the Kitty Hawk would give the Indians second-rank technology with fewer potential political strings. Since the Indians are not going to be challenging the American fleet, the Gorshkov might well suit their purposes and keep their non-American options open. This is where the Russian decision to renegotiate the Gorshkov's price could hurt Moscow. The only reason to buy the Gorshkov instead of the Kitty Hawk is the perception of Russian reliability. But the Russians badly damaged this perception by renegotiating. The Russians assumed that the Indians had no choice but to rework the deal. But the purpose of Gates' visit could be to let India know that it does have a choice and that the Kitty Hawk is the safer option. If so, he will tell New Delhi that the Russians can't be trusted. They have shown India how they will behave if they think it has no options. The United States isn't going to be less trustworthy than that. And India doesn't have to go with Russian carrier technology and aircraft; it can have U.S. carrier technology, an upgrade of the Kitty Hawk and F/A-18 battle-tested aircraft, trainers and advisers, rather than MiG-29s. If Gates does make this case, the issue then will be whether the United States will permit some or all of the F/A-18s to be produced in India — something the Russians have permitted with other aircraft purchases. We suspect something could be worked out and U.S.-Indian relations will continue to develop if the Indian fear of being completely dependent on the United States can be overcome.

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