New Delhi, April 1: As Indias military establishment sits on the cusp of a potentially game-changing strategic partnership through a $12-billion air force deal, the man who was at the centre of forging defence ties with both Russia and the US, Ronen Sen, today explained what it takes to leverage arms acquisitions for diplomatic gain.
The air force contract for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) is now at a decisive phase, seven years after the efforts for the acquisition began.
Bureaucrats, diplomats and military officers agree that the awarding of the contract would largely shape the contours of Indian strategic policies for some time.
Sen, who was the ambassador to Russia from October 1992 to October 1998 and, later, envoy to the US from August 2004 to March 2009, was in both assignments required to determine the turn military relations would take.
As the ambassador to Russia immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his political mandate was to restore military ties with Russia as Indias armed forces were dependent on its hardware.
As the ambassador to the US, Sen was not only at the centre of the civilian nuclear deal but also instrumental in drafting the June 2005 New Framework for the India-US Defence Relationship, which guides New Delhis military ties with Washington.
India and the US are just at the beginning of getting used to systemic differences, just like it was with the USSR and with (post-Soviet Union) Russia, Sen said.
In this addressing of systemic differences, the US support to our national security concerns and the rapidity of the change has not yet sunk in. I do not think either country can afford to take decades as it did with the Soviet Union, he explained at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) here. He said that the defence relationship with the US was revived by the Vajpayee government of the NDA.
Sen was speaking on Indias defence co-operation with its major traditional and new strategic partners. The major traditional partner was the Soviet Union/Russia and the new strategic partner is the US.
When Sen was ambassador to Russia he was instrumental in the contract for the frontline Sukhoi 30 MKi fighter aircraft that today make up the sharp edge of the air force combat fleet.
The total value of the Sukhois — the IAF will ultimately have 270 of the aircraft — is more than the estimated $12 billion that the MMRCA contract is worth.
In his insiders view of military-to-military relationships, Sen doubts Russias ability to sustain support for the hardware it transfers to India. Relations with Russia have also moved from friendship prices to international prices but Moscow was not following the globally accepted norms of military trade that involves sustained support with spares and equipment through the lifecycle of the hardware.
And despite the stability of the strategic partnership with the Soviet Union since 1971, there were differences in the relationship that disconcerted India, says Sen. The Russians are competing for the IAF MMRCA contract with the RAC MiG-35 aircraft. The US is backing the bids of Lockheed Martin and Boeing with the F-16IN Super Viper and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Frances Dassault Aviations Rafale, a four-nation European Consortiums Eurofighter Typhoon and Swedens Gripen are in the race too.
Each country is lobbying the Indian government intensely for the order, but probably none as publicly as the US. US Ambassador Timothy Roemer said only last month that the future of India-US strategic relations depended in large measure on the award of the IAF contract to a US firm.
Defence cooperation and partnership has to be seen in the context of the global geo-strategic architecture plus the promotion of economic interest through balanced trade, said Sen.
More than the threat perceived from Pakistan, the current emphasis on military modernisation in India is against the backdrop of a rapid upgrade by Chinas armed forces, Sen pointed out.
Though there was debate in India on conditionalities the US put on the transfer of military equipment, US controls on arms sales to Pakistan would be more rigid, he said.
Defence minister A.K. Antony has been raising this concern frequently.
Whenever we get the opportunity we tell them (the US) that they (Pakistan) are using the (US-made) arms for possible use against us, Antony had said in February.
Sen said that military purchases should be guided with the need to reduce our dependence and to increase inter-dependence.
Ultimately, Indias political leadership will have to take a call on its strategic partnerships: if that entails signing pacts like the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) with the US, it will have to be done.
Sen said that there was more to the 123 Agreement with the US than nuclear energy. It was a key to open a door and once you have opened the door you may find many other doors and windows of opportunity, he said.