An aerospace executive made an interesting point to me a while back about how building planes was similar to the way some nations make strategy. He said when you’re in the capital equipment business, you have to think in multi-decade cycles, because that’s how long it takes to design, develop and field a major new piece of equipment. The leaders of some countries, he said, seem to think the same way — in decades — when they formulate their national strategies. China is such a country. The United States typically is not. In America, political cycles unfold with startling rapidity, and the time-frames in which leaders think are correspondingly compressed. So U.S. leaders often are too preoccupied with the present to think coherently about the long term.
You might have thought a couple of years ago that defense secretary Robert Gates was guilty of focusing too much on the here and now as he killed off one next-generation program after another while pouring money into counter-insurgency warfare. However, his concerns may be shifting, particularly with regard to China. Last week defense acquisition chief Ashton Carter expressed a willingness to sell F-35 fighters to India when the time was right, a distinct departure from the Pentagon’s previous practice of ignoring inquiries from India about the stealthy multi-role fighter. Why the change of heart? Well maybe it’s because of all the recent evidence that China is building up its military power in pursuit of the long-term goal of dominating East Asia.
As I argued in a posting last week, China does not need to have forces scattered all over the world to be the dominant global power. It need only dominate the Western Pacific, which has become the industrial heartland of the global economy. There aren’t many nations in Asia that could resist the combination of economic leverage and military power Beijing will soon bring to any dispute. But one nation that could be a potent deterrent to Chinese ambitions is India — the sole country in Asia that can match the Middle Kingdom in population, productive potential and growth rates. As America confronts the limitations of its own power in the region, having an ally like India could make a big difference in managing China’s rise.
But that requires equipping India with weapons capable of matching or surpassing the warfighting systems of the Peoples Liberation Army. The F-35 fits that description perfectly. It is far superior to any tactical aircraft China possesses today, and it will remain operationally relevant long after the current crop of non-stealthy fighters passes into history. With India recently showing greater interest in acquiring U.S. military technology, it makes eminent sense to welcome New Delhi into the still-exclusive club of F-35 partners. The F-35 is well suited to Indian security needs — so much so that the Indians will probably team with Russia on developing a similar plane if America is unwilling to deal. But there’s no reason not to sell the F-35 to India: it is the world’s biggest democracy, it has legitimate defensive needs, and with the way China is growing, we are going to need India on our side. So thank you Secretary Carter for saying the right thing when asked.
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