Ambassador Loses Fighter-Jet Bid, Takes Marbles, Goes Home

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Some big news from New Delhi today on one of the world’s biggest outstanding defense orders: the $10 billion contract to supply 126 fighter jets to the Indian Air Force. After the news broke that both U.S. bids were out of the running, the U.S. Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer,  resigned.

This morning’s newspapers revealed that the Indian government has said no to both U.S. companies vying for the order. Boeing’s F/A-18 Superhornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Superviper were both in the running but were notified yesterday that they didn’t make the final cut. The Russian and Swedish bids were also knocked out, leaving France’s Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon, from a European consortium. As Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes in the Hindustan Times: “Defence Minister AK Antony has been signaling privately for weeks that the Indian Air Force and his ministry would go for one of the European fighters.”

This is not entirely a surprise. The F-16 is the same jet Pakistan has; India would want something that gives it a strategic advantage over its primary rival. The F-18, on the other hand, was at one point considered a front runners. But Boeing’s top India executive, Vivek Lall, announced his departure from Boeing at the end of March, reportedly to join Reliance Industries. That’s not the move of someone expecting a big win. Indian officials have made no secret of their desire to “diversify” their fleet, a signal that they would no longer rely on Russian aircraft. That left the Europeans, with Eurofighter the most upfront about its willingness to share technology with India. The U.S., on the other hand, is much more restrictive.

More surprising was the American reaction. The U.S. Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, issued a statement confirming the news, in which his pique is apparent:

Ambassador Roemer noted, “We are reviewing the documents received from the Government of India and are respectful of the procurement process. We are, however, deeply disappointed by this news.  We look forward to continuing to grow and develop our defense partnership with India and remain convinced that the United States offers our defense partners around the globe the world’s most advanced and reliable technology.  I have been personally assured at the highest levels of the Indian government that the procurement process for this aircraft has been and will be transparent and fair.  I am extremely confident that the Boeing F/A 18IN and Lockheed-Martin F-16IN would provide the Indian Air Force an unbeatable platform with proven technologies at a competitive price.

A coincidence? Perhaps. Roemer has served for nearly two years, a typical tenure, and hosted an extremely successful visit by Barack Obama to New Delhi in November. He has focused on building commercial ties, and as a political appointee he may want to get back to the States to help with Obama’s re-election bid. I think it’s more likely that India’s famously prickly foreign ministry was just as piqued in turn by Roemer’s remarks, and made its displeasure known. On paper, the new strategic partnership between India and the U.S. remains intact —  and the two countries need each other in Afghanistan — but this relationship will take much longer to become a working reality.