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Colonial Hawk cousin beats new ally

Sept. 4: A reassuring British order for Hawks and New Delhi’s abiding suspicion of US behaviour played a large part in closing the billion-pound advanced jet trainer deal for British Aerospace from the Indian Air Force.

India yesterday announced a deal for 66 Hawks with British Aerospace (BAE).

British defence secretary Geoffrey Hoon, whose job is on the line over the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly in the “sexed-up” Iraq war dossier controversy, is claiming much of the credit.

Only weeks ago, Hoon overruled advice from some of his own officials and objections from the Treasury — equivalent of the finance ministry in India — to order 20 Hawks for the Royal Air Force with the option to buy another 24. He then wrote to his Indian counterpart, George Fernandes, suggesting Delhi should follow his example.

For the India government — still shaky after corruption charges in military purchases — the British decision came as vindication of its own choice of the Hawk.

The British order for the Hawks came in the wake of some strong lobbying by all three competitors — the Russians and a US-Czech company, Aero Vodochody, being the other two — for the Indian deal.

Vodochody’s L-159B, though untested, would have been at least 25 to 30 per cent cheaper than the Hawk.

But India finds the US or US technology-based hardware unreliable because America does not have a political commitment to Delhi. It still fears, despite the recent strategic alliance, sanctions by Washington on military supplies.

After the Hawk deal, some critics are questioning the Tony Blair government on its professed “ethical foreign policy”, which treats India and Pakistan as equally bad and to whom the British should not sell weapons.

The British defence industry is cock-a-hoop that 4,000 jobs of employees and sub-contractors have been safeguarded for the next five years at BAE Systems.

Asked what had happened to the British arms embargo against India and Pakistan, a BAE Systems spokesman said: “This has been resolved. There will have to be an application (to export the Hawk) but we have had the support of the British government.”

Hoon claimed credit, not too subtly, for the deal in a statement released by the ministry of defence: “This decision by India to select BAE Systems Hawk aircraft is excellent news for the UK, which follows on from our own recent decision to buy Hawk for the Royal Air Force. The government, and in particular the MoD, has strongly supported BAE Systems’ campaign for the Hawk.”

“Mr Hoon did not miss the chance to remind doubters in the government of the role he had played,” the Financial Times newspaper said today.

The defence secretary’s allies were “pleased as punch”, it said. An insider was quoted as saying: “The British government would not have taken the decision in favour of Hawk without Geoff Hoon, and the Indian government would not have taken the decision in favour of Hawk without that. This is a major boost for British industry and something we’ve long fought for.”

Hoon may have saved British jobs but — says the paper — that might not be enough to save his own.

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