The Reckoning

How Do You Say “Top Gun” in French?

French Rafale fighter jet

Take that, Anglo-Americains!

Photograph by Francois Nascimbeni AFP/Getty Images

Americans may have missed the Euro-kerfuffle that India started last week by choosing the French Dassault Rafale fighter over the Eurofighter Typhoon, produced by a British-led consortium that had acted as if the $20 billion order—and the resulting influence on an important rising power— was a sure-fire thing.

The decision by India late last week had British Prime Minister David Cameron particularly incensed because he insisted that the consortium that produces Eurofighter press its case separate of any other government promises of aid or future technology transfers. The French, of course, have never believed in doing anything for the sake of “Anglo”-style capitalist principle, and they promptly bagged the lucrative contract by packaging the already less expensive warplane with a $9.3 billion deal for two nuclear power stations and a nearly sealed contract to build diesel submarines for India. This is the dead hand of the state at its dirigiste best.

There could be something to Cameron’s moans—on paper (and probably in the air, too) the Typhoon is a superior aircraft, if slightly more expensive. But Cameron’s insistence that India review its decision looks a lot like sour grapes; nothing’s fair in war and arms sales. Still, the British media responded with the usual hackneyed clichés about the duplicitous French and the lack of tact and savvy displayed by Germans (who led the Eurofighter bid). The FT produced an admirable recounting of the competition, along with some analysis of what it means longer-term for European arms manufacturers (ex-France) given the chronic decline of their national budgets.

To my mind, though, the missing question—and forgive the parochialism here—is whether this competition would have played out completely differently had the Obama administration put America’s best foot forward. In an earlier round of this Spenglerian beauty context, the U.S.-built F-15 and F/A-18, which first flew in the 1970s, both got the thumbs down from India’s air chiefs (along with the Swedish Saab Grippen and Russia’s MiG-35).

This put Russian, Swedish, and American noses out of joint, of course. But at least the Russians and the Swedes entered their latest models. Would the competition had gone differently—along with the $20 billion in manufacturing jobs—had the F-35 Lightning II been the American entry?

I think so. Indeed, some analysts have argued that the F/A-18 probably outperforms any of the aircraft listed above, but that India’s air chiefs felt snubbed by the decision (made during the Bush administration and reaffirmed by Obama officials) not to offer the best export version of the F-35 to a country that the United States has been wooing for the past decade like a drunken freshman at his first mixer.

The F-35 Lightning has already been sold to Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the British (for the Royal Navy). Under what bizarre scenario did the U.S. military foresee its sale to India posing a threat to American national security? Pakistani sensibilities? If nothing else, the additional aircraft on the production lines might have helped bring down the ridiculous price of the F-35 program over time (though, admittedly, this could also have sunk the idea of selling it to India).

The British, at least, can say they tried—hey, we made the playoffs! The U.S. decision to withhold the F-35 was, in British parlance, an “own goal.” Nothing ventured, something lost.

I’d imagine my normally consensus-oriented readers will agree entirely with this analysis. I honestly hope not. I’d love to hear a good argument against entering the F-35. Bombs away!

BTW: In case anyone wondered, “Top Gun” in French, according to various translators, is something like fusil supérieur. But if that’s a mouthful for us ‘merkins, we can just say Rafale. One billion Indians—and $20 billion—can’t all be wrong.

Michael Moran is Director and Editor-in-Chief of Renaissance Insights, at Renaissance Capital, the emerging markets investment bank. Follow him on Twitter, subscribe to his Facebook feed, or preorder his book, “The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power,” coming in April from Palgrave Macmillan.