The procurement choices of the Indian air force rarely make the UK news. Not so the announcement of 31 January that the Indian government had selected the Rafale jet fighter in preference to the Eurofighter Typhoon. The decision was reported widely, often emotionally, in UK print and broadcast media.
Mostly it was a blame game. Rafale is manufactured by France's Dassault Aviation, while Eurofighter is the product of a four-country consortium (Germany, Italy, Span and UK) in which UK arms giant BAE Systems plays a leading role. The Indians said that Rafale was better suited to their needs and was cheaper than Eurofighter.
The decision caused further strains in the British-French relationship, so close and cosy during the Libyan adventure. While President Sarkozy rejoiced, David Cameron declared his disappointment and determination to change Indian minds. Other were more outspoken. Uber-military MP Patrick Mercer declaimed: "it was an awful kick in the teeth for the Indians to give this work to the French". Others pointed the finger at the Germans for their lack of enthusiastic promotion.
Many focused on the supposed economic consequences. Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, went ballistic. The rejection was "a serious concern not just for thousands of workers but for our armed forces and our country as we seek to rebalance our economy" (Times, 2 February). Unite's Ian Waddell stated: "The Typhoon is a superb aircraft which supports thousands of highly skilled jobs in the UK, both at BAE Systems and in the supply chain. There are other export orders to be won and it is critical that the company maintains its commitment to Typhoon despite this setback."
Some commentators saw the decision as a rejection of David Cameron's personal style, displayed in his high profile trade mission to India in July 2010. Although he spoke of visiting in a "spirit of humility" his retinue was more in keeping with a minor potentate than a humble pilgrim. The highlight was Cameron signing a £700 million contract to sell BAE Hawk jets to India.
For others, it was the aid-trade nexus that came under fire. Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell accompanied Cameron on his 2010 trade jaunt. On his visit in December 2011 he announced that the decision to gift £1.2 billion in aid to India over five years was part of a broader relationship directly linked to building trade and investment: "It's a very important relationship. It is also about selling Typhoons."
There were some challenges to Mr Mitchell's linking of aid and arms deals, notably on Newsnight on 1 February and by the World Development Movement, but little challenge to the supposed benefits had India chosen the Eurofighter rather than Rafale. So what might those benefits be?
For many people, it is jobs that come first. Yet arms industry jobs have been falling steadily over the past two decades. BAE Systems has shed thousands of jobs in the past few years. An increased export drive for Typhoon will provide limited protection for UK jobs as buyers expect contracts to include local manufacture. The 2010 Hawk jet deal secured only 200 UK jobs and that for a limited time.
What about exports? Had Eurofighter been chosen we are told the deal would be worth £7 billion. This sounds impressive but the benefits would go an international business rather than UK workers. In fact, the value of UK arms exports are tiny in relation to total trade, supplying just 1.2% of exports and employing a mere 0.2% of the total workforce. What's more, arms exports are highly subsidised by the UK taxpayer. In 2011, a study commissioned by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) estimated the annual public subsidy as £700 million.
Rebalancing the economy to support manufacturing has wide appeal but don't look to the arms industry to do it. Both their home and traditional export markets are declining because of fiscal cutbacks which means more exports to rich, undemocratic authoritarian regimes - do we really want that?
There is another way. The UK is well placed to reap the huge potential of the renewables sector, whether using wind, wave or other energy sources. A well-resourced renewables industry could benefit our security and economy. It could create and nourish new jobs. The valuable engineering skills of arms industry workers would be easily absorbed. Renewables also have export potential in addition to a growing home market and, unlike combat jets, are an important tool in tackling climate change.
Is it not better to be supporting a renewables sector that benefits our security and economy, rather than propping up a stagnant, dangerous arms industry? This week, junior defence minister Gerald Howarth is leading yet another arms trade mission to India. Isn't it time to look at alternatives?