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187 and no more – says Obama

June 26, 2009

It is arguably the best fighter plane at present in the world, with stealth technology that is unsurpassed. It also costs $200 million each. The USAF has it. Others are pining for it, and that includes the Japanese, the Australians and the Israelis. The sale of this aircraft outside of the US is banned. Even such allies as Australia, Israel and Japan, if they manage to lay their hands on it, will get a watered down version. It is the fighter plane that has such stealth technology that it is invisible to the naked eye when in flight. I am talking of the Raptor – F-22 Raptor.

That this is by far the best fighter aircraft that is in active service anywhere in the world is generally accepted. Lockheed Martin/Boeing the manufacturers of this aircraft make 20 of these each year. The other fact is that after 2011, its production will have to be stopped. The manufacturers hoped that such a hugely advanced aircraft will have a longer manufacturing life. They may have to close the production line if they do not get export orders for a ‘watered down version’ of the aircraft. The reason: Obama says no more! The various think tanks’ that abound in the US assess that the initial order for these state-of-the-art fighter aircraft suffices US requirements. The manufacturers expected an order of another 250 such fighter jets from the US government. The initial order of 187 of the Raptors will be completed in 2011 and that may be the last of these that will be made.

It must have taken some courage and conviction for the president to say – no more! The defense industry has a strong lobby. It is true that there is a recession but the apologists for such extravagant expenses cite the loss of a few thousand jobs as reason enough to continue with the manufacture of these hugely expensive war machines. What they do not say however, is that the same money could be used to bolster the economy and to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs not only in the US but across the globe. I may add here that the Raptor, from what we hear, has never seen combat till date. That is not to negate the superiority of the aircraft, but to see in perspective the utility of these super machines, vis-à-vis the threat perception for the US and the capability of other crafts in the inventory to counter the challenges faced by the US and their allies. The Raptor, were the Japanese to buy these planes, would mean a special permission from the parliament as this expenditure would mean that the 5% of the GDP ceiling on defense budget would have to be overlooked. Tel Aviv finds these planes too expensive. Australia too says that they cannot afford the Raptor as their requirement is for at least 100 fifth generation fighter aircrafts. They will wait for the F35 to fructify before placing an order.

There must have been a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to place order for another 250 of these aircrafts so that the cost per unit comes down and then perhaps the company can manage to get orders from Japan, Australia and Israel. Obviously, the priorities of President Obama are different. It appears that he is also keen on talks with the Russians and the Chinese to scale down the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenal.

There is a lesson here for a poor country like ours. Every year there is an Aero-India Show in Bangalore at the Yelahanka Air Base and a Defense Expo at Pragati Maidan in Delhi. I live very near the Yelahanka Air Base and see these beautiful flying machines doing their maneuvers. These beautiful monsters are also agents of death and destruction. Billions of dollars are spent every year by India on armament. We have a higher threat perception than many nations, I agree. But what is also true is that our neighborhood is very poor. South Asia and the Far East can ill afford such massive expenditure. Recently India has placed order for six stealth frigates for a whopping $9.6 billion. India has purchased 60 Sukhoi 30 MKi’s. There are another 250 of these that will be brought to Bangalore as semi-knocked down kits and assembled at Hindustan Aeronautical Limited. We were told that India was going to buy 126 fighter jets to upgrade its fleet and that this will be the mother of all defense deals. But we went ahead and purchased more than 300 Sukhoi jets in addition to the 126 that we propose to buy. We have also purchased AWAC’s from Israel with American approval. One of these force multipliers was inducted into the Indian Air Force recently. Then we have maritime reconnaissance aircraft P2C Orion from the US, another multi-billion dollar deal. We have recently acquired the Hercules military transport planes, again from the US. We are on the verge of buying a bunch of 155mm howitzers shortly. Admiral Groshkov, which will be re-christened INS Vikramaditya, the latest aircraft carrier to be inducted will cost more than $3 billion, up from the proposed $911 million initially. Then we have an indigenous program to produce nuclear submarines. The list is endless.

Our neighbors are no different. Pakistan is arming itself to the teeth. It was amazing that the Pakistani’s were more interested in getting the American drones than insisting that the drone attacks be stopped immediately. They have convinced the Americans (not that they needed much convincing) that they needed more F-16’s that have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons. They have acquired Agosta submarines from the French. Their shopping list is quite impressive too.

Our neighbors up north, China, have a huge army, the largest in the world. They are producing fighter jets which are variants of the MiG of the Soviet era. They have nuclear powered submarines and an impressive flotilla that makes up their navy. They see themselves not as a regional power but a global power. They have ICBM’s and what have you. They are helping Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma develop ports where their military frigates could dock, in an attempt to counter India.

Obama has proposed a cut in the nuclear arsenal. If he can do that, he can surely scale down the expenditure on conventional weapons. He has already scaled down many a defense projects, the Raptor was just one of them. I can’t help but think of a time when all nations big and small decide to do away with weapons. New Zealand has hardly an army. Their security concerns are addressed by the NATO. The trillions of dollars the world spends each year on weapons, many of which are never used, could mean a saving which could be channeled to health, education and family welfare. There are millions of Indians that go hungry every day. There are thousands of villages that do not have clean drinking water. There are thousands of villages where there is no electricity and no schools. What is true for India is true for Pakistan and China. I cannot help but wonder as to the various conflicts around the world being engineered directly or indirectly by those that stand to gain from these strife’s. Man developed weapons for his safety and security. The organizations that manufactured these lethal weapons became so powerful they began calling the shots. What would they do if there was peace all around? It’s the tail wagging the dog now.

India has also started producing weapons for itself and for sale to friendly countries. We have produced a supersonic missile BRaMHoS, with Russians and it is perhaps the best in its class. We are trying to build a Main Battle Tank called Arjun. A few of them have been inducted into the Indian Army. We are producing surface to air missile called Nag. The Agni series of missiles are also being produced and it appears that we should test fire an inter-continental ballistic missile – Agni V very soon. Defense sector is soon going to be open for private companies here in India. Many big groups like Tata, Godrej and others are keen to be a part of it.

The question remains – can we afford all this expenditure? Or are we condemned to remain a poor nation armed to the teeth? What is true for India is true for the region and the rest of the world, including the western world. A few billion extra spent on health care by the government has generated such heated debate in the US. The fact is that no country in the world can afford to keep buying arms at the rate at which they are produced and upgraded. Thankfully, there is a president of the world’s most powerful nation that recognizes the fact. He also has the guts to say – no more. I wish the countries in our region could take a leaf out of Obama’s book and decide together and say in unison – no more! Many a kids will sleep with their stomachs full, many a lives will be saved from hunger and many a schools will get started. The women will not have to trudge miles to fetch water. Villages will get dispensaries. And a country like India can then perhaps face a drought like situation better. Better quality of life could also mean fewer terrorists, a safer world. We need to take this road. Mr. President, show us the way.

Update, July, 3, 2009: Times of India: ‘Over 60% Indians live on Rs 20/day’, p. 18. The Economic Survey has stated that 60.5% Indians are capable of spending only Rs 20 (less than 50 cents) per day, as per the latest Sample Survey. Poverty alleviation is the real challenge facing India and the region. Rest, as they say, is academic.

In the same paper the headlines say ‘Meanwhile, reformers come out of the closet’ – pointing out to the fact that with Left Front out of the government, the reform process can now gather steam. This is a positive sign as the surest way of fighting poverty is not more controls but greater liberalization. If we look at the other side of the coin, almost 40% of Indians belong to the middle class – that is almost 400 million people. Bush pointed this out and said that India should be taken seriously as Indian middle class is almost as big as the entire population of the US! The challenge is to get the remaining 60% in the fold.

July, 07, 2009: Obama is in Moscow to take forward the American-Russian relations. One of the main items on focus was the renewal of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) that was expiring this year. Both countries have decided to scale down the number of nuclear warheads from 2200 and 2600 for US and Russia respectively to between 1500 to 1675. However, there is a lack of clarity on what to count.

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