In a dogfight mirroring the geopolitical intrigue on the ground, Asian fighter jets will jockey for billion-dollar military contracts and international clout when they take to the skies at the Bahrain Air Show that opens on Thursday.
This will be the first time India’s home-made Tejas combat plane makes an appearance at a foreign air show, seeking to offer an alternative to the JF-17 Thunder built jointly by rivals China and Pakistan. The debut is being closely watched as it comes on the heels of intense Indian diplomatic manoeuvres that forced Sri Lanka to back out of a deal to buy the Chinese-Pakistani jet, putting the kibosh on the already sputtering plans to broaden JF-17’s market.
So far Myanmar and Nigeria are said to be the only ones to have bought JF-17, or FC-1 Xiaolong, as it is known in China. Following that deal in July last year, Sri Lanka was the brightest hope after Malaysia last month denied media reports it was considering buying the jet.
India’s efforts to peddle military aviation have been no less bumpy. In October, Ecuador scrapped a contract for its Dhruv military helicopters after reporting that four of the seven it had bought had crashed and the rest were grounded.
“India is keen to demonstrate the credibility of Tejas and offer it as an alternative to the JF-17. But it’s still a work in progress, albeit in the final stages, before it enters squadron service. The air show will be an opportunity to prove its mettle,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, retired commodore and director of the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi.
Both Tejas and JF-17 are light, low-maintenance, and cheaper alternatives to Russian and Western jets. The first Tejas prototype flew in January 2001 while the first JF-17 prototype in 2003. But their flight paths couldn’t have been more different. While JF-17 is in service and ready to be bought, Tejas has been plagued by delays. More than three decades in the making, it is yet to be inducted.
Efforts to speed up Tejas’ induction and put it out on the international market have picked up under the Narendra Modi government, which is looking to encourage domestic military production as part of its ‘Make in India’ campaign to revive economic growth and wean the country off expensive defence imports.
“The Sri Lanka experience has given this issue a certain urgency and visibility that Delhi has internalised,” said Bhaskar.
Colombo was expected to sign a deal to purchase up to 12 JF-17s during Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s state visit there this month. Considered a done deal, there was, however, no mention of JF-17 during the trip. After Sharif left, Sri Lanka’s defence minister denied that JF-17 was even discussed.
It is still not clear if the deal has been canned for good and none of the parties involved will officially say India had a part in nixing it. But government sources in New Delhi told the South China Morning Post that the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo met the Sri Lankan foreign minister shortly before Sharif’s visit and “conveyed our concerns”.
“More than China, it was Pakistan we were worried about. Buying jets from them would give Pakistani operatives further access to Sri Lankan armed forces by way of maintenance staff and pilot training. We couldn’t have that,” said an official, who cannot be identified.
But fears about China are palpable as well. “Sri Lanka doesn’t have the money to buy fighter jets. Neither has Pakistan. So who would fund the jets? The credit would have to come from China, wouldn’t?” the Indian official said, refusing to say if India has made a counter-offer yet.
India has been concerned about an increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka since two Chinese submarine calls in Colombo last year. The incident was the final straw in India’s relations with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose China tilt had strained his ties with New Delhi. The JF-17 deal was first mooted by the Rajapaksa government.
Colonel R Hariharan, a former Indian military intelligence officer, however, sees wider geopolitical factors at play in Sri Lanka’s JF-17 saga.
“This is an example of the US not allowing China to expand its influence in certain areas where it might not be in conjunction with US global interests, such as the Indian Ocean region. The US last year similarly pressured Turkey to cancel its agreement to buy Chinese missiles,” said Hariharan, now associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.
“Indian navy air recce assets have increased with US aircraft. This defence co-operation is growing. So both India and the US have a common interest in keeping out China-Pakistan defence promotion in the Indian Ocean region.”