International observers are somewhat mystified as to why India’s air force selected the Dassault Rafale as its next fighter, committing billions of dollars to the purchase of 126 combat aircraft. The plane hasn’t developed much of a market outside France, and India had other options including the far more survivable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being developed for three U.S. military services and a dozen allies. At the rate China is fielding new military equipment, the Indians may be at a decided operational disadvantage even before the Rafale is fully fielded.
New Delhi is a complicated place, and there were probably multiple reasons for the decision. But here’s one factor that hasn’t been reported. India made three different requests for information to the U.S. government over the last several years about sea-based versions of the F-35, and somehow nobody in Washington ever managed to answer any of them. Not surprisingly, the Indians eventually went away, but the lack of a U.S. response can’t have made a good impression.
This situation is reminiscent of the way Japan, another first-tier Asian power, was treated when it made repeated inquiries concerning possible purchase of the twin-engine F-22 fighter. Military planners in Tokyo felt the F-22 was uniquely suited to Japan’s geostrategic circumstances, and therefore were seriously contemplating its purchase. Their inquiries weren’t just ignored in Washington, but bluntly rebuffed. Tokyo eventually decided to buy the single-engine F-35 instead, which is just as stealthy but not as agile in the most demanding engagements (it’s still far superior to any foreign fighter).
Tokyo undoubtedly made the right choice among the options it had, and South Korea will probably soon follow suit. India is another matter, though, because the Obama Administration’s oft-stated desire to form a strategic alliance with New Delhi sometimes doesn’t seem to translate into appropriate respect for India’s needs or aspirations. If Washington wants to get along with India’s government, it should begin by answering the phone when New Dehli calls. The Indian navy may still be interested in the jumpjet version of F-35, and the air force could give the conventional takeoff version a second look as China’s military capabilities grow, but first someone in Washington needs to act like they care.
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