Britain condemned over £1bn deal to sell jets to India

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The Independent Online

Britain has been awarded a £1bn contract selling Hawk trainer aircraft to India after nearly two decades of stop-start negotiations, provoking accusations it is selling arms irresponsibly into a notoriously unstable region.

Human rights and arms control activists attacked the deal, saying it would exacerbate tensions in south Asia, increased last week by the Bombay bombings. They said that the aircraft could be converted to combat use in the conflict between India and Pakistan.

The Indian government said it had decided to buy 66 Hawk 115 advanced jet trainers from BAE Systems, Europe's biggest weapons manufacturer, all but clinching a sale which Tony Blair personally promoted even as India and Pakistan were in a hostile stand-off.

India said 24 of the jets would be built at the BAE plant at Brough, near Hull, while the remainder would be manufactured in India by a state-owned domestic aircraft maker, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, under a technology transfer licence with Britain. The decision, announced by India's Defence Secretary, Ajai Prasad, was seen by British officials as a triumph in the face of intense competition. Washington had pressed Delhi to accept a rival bid by the Czech-American company Aero Vodochody, which offered its L159B trainer. BAE's competitor Boeing has a 35 per cent stake in Vodochody.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, said the deal would help sustain highly skilled jobs at BAE in Brough and other aerospace companies. Government officials said a recent decision by Britain to buy 44 Hawks played an important part in the decision. Contracts have not been signed but British diplomatic sources were confident the deal would go ahead.

The move has been approved at the highest level in Delhi. The cabinet's security committee, which made the decision, was chaired by the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The deal made headlines in India, which has been increasing its defence spending in recent years, a reflection partly of its "great power" aspirations, countering the rise of China, but also of the chronic tensions with Pakistan. A press conference by Mr Prasad to announce the decision was carried live on at least three 24-hour news TV channels.

The deal was put on ice by international sanctions imposed by the West after India conducted its nuclear tests in 1998, although these were lifted after India sided with the Americans after 11 September.

The Indian air force, the fourth largest in the world, hopes the Hawks will help cut the number of pilots killed in non-combat crashes. More than 40 have died in 170 crashes over the past decade while flying Russian-made MiGs.

Roy Isbister, project co-ordinator on arms export controls for the pressure group Saferworld, said: "The aircraft is listed as a trainer but it also has a ground-attack function and is extremely well designed for the conditions in Kashmir."

The Institute for Public Policy Researchsaid the Hawk deal was a "source of serious concern". It said: "By supporting this deal, Britain will significantly strengthen India's offensive capability and contribute to further military build-up, tension and instability in the region".

Robert Parker, Amnesty International's arms and security trade specialist, said the sale would violate the Government's export criteria. He said a clause banned the issue of export licences for UK-made arms that might have an adverse effect on regional stability or be used aggressively against another country.