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India and Pakistan are rearming with US support. For the first time, the US Navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F will be sold to a foreign country – India. This offering comes as France, Sweden, and Russia also bid for the Indian contract for 126 tactical aircraft. France’s Dassault Aviation is offering its Mirage, Sweden its Gripen, and Russia unspecified MiG series aircraft. Two major US companies - Lockheed Martin and Boeing - would now be bidding for the Indian Air Force's contract on acquisition of 126 multi-role combat aircraft. Lockheed Martin is said to be about to offer its F-16 in the bid. The US Air Force recently received its last F-16.
It is notable that India is interested in a tactical aircraft designed to be operated from an aircraft carrier. In 2004, India signed to buy as part of a $1.5 billion deal the ex-Admiral Gorshkov, an uncompleted Soviet carrier being refurbished by Russia for the sale and designed to carry the MiG-29 naval variant. The Gorshkov is to be delivered in 2008. Further, India has announced it is building its first indigenous carrier, to be started this year and delivered to the fleet in 2011. Currently, India operates one carrier, INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes), which can carry up to 30 Sea Harrier aircraft. India decommissioned its first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in 1997. The Indian Navy’s official goal is three modern carriers within ten years. In order to base F/A-18s at sea, India will need a carrier considerably larger than the 24,000 ton Viraat. By contrast, the soon to be decommissioned USS John F. Kennedy displaces 82,000 tons.
Predictably, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has urged the government to reject the US offer in order to avoid an arms race with Pakistan. The Marxists claim that the US is trying to fuel an arms race between India and Pakistan with the sale.
Meanwhile, across the border, Pakistan is buying approximately two dozen F-16s in a move that has infuriated India. The US has been wooing Pakistan as an Asian partner in anti-terrorism despite the continual flare-ups between India and Pakistan over border issues and the fact that neither country is shy about rattling its nuclear weapons at one another. Pakistan is reportedly the only nuclear-armed Muslim country that the US believes can make a safe ally, despite persistent charges that Pakistan shares much of its acquired Western technology with Beijing (one charge being that the J-10 benefited greatly from early F-16 sales to Pakistan). India’s prime minister expressed “great disappointment” at the US’ offer to Pakistan. The US had agreed to sell 32 F-16s to Pakistan in the late 1980s, but canceled the deal after Islamabad refused to slow its nuclear weapons program.
INS Viraat is to be joined in the Indian Navy by two additional carriers within the next ten years