No end of embarrassment

An acronymically-challenged Pakistan is always good for a laugh. In the wake of the recent Xi visit to Islamabad, RANDI — Research and Development International — was founded with some fanfare and tasked, presumably, to research issues of foreign policy and military concern to the two countries. It is another matter that potential staffers will be saddled with their intimate association with RANDI (whore in Hindustani!). It puts me in mind of an embarrassment I saved the Pakistan Foreign Ministry-funded Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. It was December 1982 and this Institute, founded with an assist from the army, by the good natured Brigadier (Ret) Noor Hussain (whose claim to fame was that he was ADC to Jinnah), ex-Lucknow, who died four years ago — was staging a coming out party as it were by hosting what was billed as “The First International Conference on Peace and Security in South Asia”. It was a grand affair with the Indian invitees — the redoubtable IK Gujral and K. Subrahmanyam, and yours truly, given star billing. The early afternoon I reached the Marriott Hotel, where the guests were lodged and which was also the Conference venue, I discovered on entering my room a beautiful leather folder with conference papers with the name ‘Pakistan Institute of Strategic Studies’ proudly embossed in gold. Walking down into the lobby a bit later I encountered the Brigadier and asked him if he had seen the folder. He asked if something was wrong. Not, I replied, if you didn’t care about the unfortunate acronym PISS! Hussain, who had scheduled the then CMLA (Chief Martial Law Administrator), dictator in other words, General Zia ul-Haq, for an evening with the invitees to the Conference, was mortified, thanked me profusely, and rushed for his aides, instructing them immediately to remove all folders and stationery with the offending PISS on them from the invitee rooms and to “destroy” them. The question is this: what will the erstwhile PISS do now that RANDI backed by the prestigious Tsinghua University, is on the scene doing much the same work? A question of working the same side of the street, no?

Posted in India's Pakistan Policy, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia | 1 Comment

Rafale sliding, BAE edging in with Typhoon?

Rafale had the shortest run imaginable. With the Modi govt sobering up after the Paris high when the PM merely broached — did not commit — to a G2G deal to buy the Dassault product outright, GOI is backing off which, if true, is a welcome return to good sense. These are, in any case, the soundings one is getting in Delhi circles.

However, this is seen as an opportunity by the British govt and BAE — albeit a slim one — to edge in with the European consortium (EADS) fighter — Typhoon. Whether or not the German chancellor Angela Merkl initiated the gambit this time around, the fact is London is using the visit by the Deputy Chief of the UK Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach to push the proposal. A senior BAE representative in in Peach’s team and, as he told me at a dinner last night, has been given “15 minutes” with Parrikar later today.

The British spiel I heard yesterday was that Typhoon had 20% longer range, blah, blah (Peach), in what combat profile he didn’t say; and that BAE, according to its rep, would readily partner HAL, Reliance, or anybody else GOI wished it to join, in setting up a full production unit in India generating 20,000 jobs and producing 50% of the aircraft in the country, and some 13 Typhoons for immediate detachment from RAF for Indian duty to be replaced with new Eurofighters as they begin coming in off the Indian line. So, I asked the BAE chap whether the 50% Indian component in the Typhoon would be by weight or value. And he shut up. In essence this deal is marginally better in that the bulk of the aircraft production will be in India but with minimal TOT (of the kind mentioned above). With the RFP system scrapped, this too apparently would be on a G2G basis.

The BAE rep in turn asked me what would get Parrikar’s attention in his quarter hour with the defence minister. And I told him straight out that if BAE was really serious and if it had to have smidgeon of a chance, it’d have to part with the source codes and control laws so India can actually learn how to build advanced aircraft from the ground up to add to the invaluable experience garnered by Indian aircraft designers at ADA on the Tejas, and not put on the table yet another Meccano-license manufacture deal. If BAE, overnight rethinks its attitude on opening up to genuine TOT, who knows, it may just get a hearing from a BJP govt which is plainly confused and doesn’t know which way to go. Otherwise it’ll be another polite thankyou-goodbye episode, which is what I expect to happen.

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Rafale discussion on HT TV channel

For those interested in the Rafale, esp’. interesting ACM Tipnis’position that it’d be “a disaster” if 36 Rafale MMRCA are followed up with some other aircraft as MMRCA in a TV panel discussion hosted by Karan Thapar (April 15, 2015) on the deal at

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Impatience Seals Worst Possible Defence Deal

With the price negotiations meandering into the fourth year, an impatient Narendra Modi intervened, circumventing the elaborate Request for Proposal (RFP) system of competitive bidding under which the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal was initiated. The prime minister decided to purchase the Rafales “off the shelf” without transfer of technology at the government-to-government (G2G) level.

This was portrayed as Modi’s “out of the box” solution for a problem that didn’t really exist. Plainly, he mistook the hard, extended, bargaining between the two sides as evidence of red tape, and cutting it as his unique achievement. But impatience is a liability in international relations and can cost the country plenty.

Rather than pressuring French president Francois Hollande and the French aviation major, Dassault, which is in dire straits and was in no position to resist sustained Indian pressure to deliver the Rafale and the technologies involved in toto to India, Modi eased off, promising a munificent $5billion-$8 billion for 36 Rafales off the shelf minus any reference to the L1 (lowest cost) MMRCA tender offer, possibly a buy of another 30 of them, and no onerous technology transfer obligation.

It is a turn that must have astonished Hollande and Dassault with its exceptional generosity, surpassing in its muddle-headed excess Narasimha Rao’s handout of Rs 6,000 crore in 1996 to Russia to prevent the closure of the Sukhoi design bureau and production plant in Irkutsk, in return for nothing, not even joint share of the intellectual property rights for the Su-30MKI technologies subsequently produced there, which could have kick-started the Indian aerospace sector. Then again, India is a phenomenally rich country, don’t you know?—the proverbial white knight rescuing the Russian aviation industry one day, French aerospace companies the next.

But let’s try and see if sense can be made of Modi’s Rafale deal. Much has been said about the G2G channel as a means of securing low prices. The record of acquisitions from the United States in the direct sales mode, however, shows no marked drop-off in the price for the C-17s and C-130J airlifters and the P-8I maritime reconnaissance planes. But in terms of maintenance, almost all the 20-odd ANTPQ-36/37 artillery fire-spotting radar units bought by the army from the Pentagon, for instance, are offline due to the paucity of spares. Supplier states in this situation routinely manipulate the spares supply to configure politico-military outcomes they desire. No saying what France will do with respect to the entire fleet of IAF Rafales in the years to come. Usually, the practice also is to sell the platform cheap but rake in extortionist profit selling onboard weapons and spares. In any case, it is unlikely the price of a fully loaded Rafale will be less than $200 million each or $7.2 billion for 36 Rafales, $13 billion for 66 of these aircraft, and $25.2 billion for 126 planes.

Then again, French fighter planes have proved inordinately expensive to maintain. How expensive? According to a recent report by the Comptroller and Accountant General, in 2012-2013, for example, the total cost of upkeep of all 51 Mirage 2000 aircraft in the IAF inventory was Rs 486.85 crore compared to Rs 877.84 crore for 170 Su-30MKIs—meaning, the annual unit cost of maintaining a Mirage was Rs 9.5 crore versus Rs 5.2 crore for the more capable Su-30MKI. Now ponder over this: The cost of upkeep of a Rafale is authoritatively estimated at twice the cost of the Mirage and, hence, four times that of Su-30!

The “Super Sukhoi” avatar of the air dominance-capable Su-30 entering IAF is equipped with the latest AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar permitting the switching between air-to-air and air-to-ground roles in flight, and which radar will be retrofitted on the older versions of this plane in service. In the event, in what combat profile exactly is the Rafale superior?

The defence minister Manohar Parrikar was partial to the Su-30 option, having publicly stated that it was more affordable—its procurement price half that of a Rafale, and that owing to improved spares supply condition, its serviceability rate would rise to 75 per cent by year-end, exceeding that of the Mirage, incidentally. Even so, the loyal Parrikar praised Modi’s Rafale initiative as providing “minimum oxygen” for the IAF without letting on that it will maximally oxygenate French interests and industry!

While Modi talked of a low G2G price for the Rafale, he said nothing about its servicing bill. According to a former Vice Chief of the Air Staff, the total life-cycle costs (LCC) for a fleet of 126 Rafales calculated by Air Headquarters is over $40 billion. How will the LCC be downscaled if only 36 or 66 Rafales are eventually bought? If the real acquisition price of the ordnance-loaded Rafales is added to the LCC the total outgo will be upwards of $50billion-$55 billion, a figure this analyst had mentioned many moons ago.

Indeed, the odds actually are that India will end up buying the entire MMRCA requirement from France. Why? With 36 aircraft slotted in the direct sales category, it is already cost-prohibitive for any Indian private sector company to invest in a production line valued at $5billion-$6 billion to produce the remaining 60 or even 90 aircraft. In other words, by pledging to buy enhanced numbers of Rafales from Dassault the Narendra Modi government will be constrained by economic logic to buy the rest from this source as well, a denouement the IAF had always desired. Why else was the IAF Chief Arup Raha so desperate to get the PM to commit to buying significant numbers of this aircraft outright on the pretext of “critical” need when the Rafales will come in only by 2018 at the earliest but importing Su-30s from Russia would have beefed up the force by this year-end?

Previous prime ministers have been victimised by bad advice, and paid the political price, for instance, Rajiv Gandhi with regard to the Bofors gun. Modi will have to carry the can for this Rafale transaction—a boondoggle in the making. With the opposition parties and Dr Subramaniam Swamy waking up to its potential to politically hamstring the BJP government and mar Modi’s prospects, anything can happen.

[Published in the New Indian Express, April 17, 2015, at

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Rafale deal — live webchat hosted by Reuters news agency

Interesting stuff! The Trading India Forum live webchat with me on the Rafale deal was hosted by Reuters on April 13, 2015. It may be accessed at

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The Great Hanut, RIP

The death yesterday of the greatest armoured tactician and battlefield commander the country has ever produced, Lt Gen Hanut Singh, is a personal loss to those who served under him and the few civilians privileged to have known him. I was permitted to spend a few days with him in the last month or so of his last Command — the Armoured Warfare School and Centre, Ahmednagar in 1992 (if I remember right). Unwilling to meet civilians, he was persuaded to meet with me by his close cousin and fellow cavalry officer, Jaswant Singh (ex-Central India Horse) of the BJP and the then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

Not sure what Jaswant told Hanut about me, but within minutes of reaching my room in the Officer’s Mess, I was summoned for a meeting by the Commandant.The very tall, very thin, almost gaunt looking General with bushy mustachios curling at the ends greeted me with the easy courtliness he was known for. Ere I had settled down in the chair, the General then on duty — it being a week day — and hence in full fig, shot me a question, which I immediately realized was a “trick question” in that my answer would decide the sort of relationship I’d have with him. “Who’s the best armoured tactical commander in history?” he asked, like a headmaster testing a student whose alleged promise was suspect. I took my time answering but when I said “Herman Balck”, suddenly the atmosphere lightened and a twinkle came to Hanut’s eyes and he responded “I think so too”. It was smooth sailing thereafter, with great deal of time spent discussing with him the future of mobile warfare with armoured forces, and the many practical problems in marshaling and overseeing actions of large armrd and mech formations on the battlefield.

Hanut had, perhaps, in mind his tenure as GOC, II Corps in the 1987 Operation Brasstacks that, as subsequently revealed, had a secret thrust (Op Trident) of transiting from a war exercise into a full-scale operation for ingress deep into Pakistan to catch the Pakistan Army by surprise, except Sundarji’s surprise also surprised Hanut. He reportedly protested not being told about this sub-surface plan and the difficulties in virtually turning his Strike Corps around and sustaining a hard push westwards. Hanut was careful to skirt around Brasstacks in our interactions. I remember, in this respect, talking when in Pakistan a decade back to Gen. Khalid Arif, the de facto Pak Army Chief in the late 1980s, who countered the Indian concentration, albeit for a war exercise, by amassing his forces as a precautionary measure — including Army Reserve South — in the chicken neck area north of Gurdaspur to cut Kashmir off from the rest of India if the massed Indian armour aggressed on the southern Rajasthan front. Arif was confident Sundarji and Rajiv Gandhi’s govt wouldn’t risk having J&K thus severed. The only slight doubts Arif hinted at by indirection was about the uncertainty attending on how Hanut would maneuver his forces once they broke through the Pak defensive line. In the larger picture, Arif calculated right; India did lose its nerve.

One can see why Hanut empathized with Balck, who like him, believed in leading from the front — Hanut’s Basantar river crossing and maneuvers in the Shakargarh salient in 1971 and Balck’s heading the lead unit of the 1st Panzer Div in Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps across the Meuse River and the breakthrough to capture Sedan in 1942. Both Hanut and Balck ended their careers by being relegated to minor commands — to Ahmednagar and Panzer Group in Hungary respectively, their remarkable operational experience and competence under-valued by the armies they served.

I remember too the fierce loyalty he inspired among those who had fought under him, from the lowest to the highest. Such as the lead JCO instructor at Armrd School, who was instructed by Hanut to run me around on tanks so I could experience what it is like inside the closed, claustrophobia-inducing, mobile steel cans travelling at high spds over uneven ground — back-breaking and senses-numbing!, who recounted his hair-raising experience as Hanut’s tank driver in 17 (Poona) Horse’s lead tank as it led the armrd column across the minefield on the Basantar, and swore how every army unit would follow the “Colonel sahib” — as he called the General — anywhere w/o hesitation or doubt. Hanut’s chief of staff at the Centre, Brig Shergill, again a veteran of the Shakargarh op, recounted in greater detail Hanut’s on-battlefield tactics and instructions that awestruck juniors would w/o hesitation implement and his magical feel for the battlefield and, more notoriously, his differences with his armrd bgde comdr Arun Vaidya (later Army Chief) who advised caution, which Hanut expressly disregarded with a withering “Keep off my back!” warning to Vaidya issued over the bravo link. That Vaidya was awarded a Bar to his MVC for this action that he opposed, led to Hanut’s initially rejecting the award of MVC for himself. It was only after the Army brass all but got down on their knees and begged him to accept the gallantry award that he relented but, his fealty to the truth meant he never ever wore the MVC decoration! In fact, Hanut’s official portrait at the armrd school and Centre, if I recall, doesn’t have the MVC on his chest.

But great commanders are rarely appreciated by their peers. Hanut was scorned and reviled by lesser, even near incompetent, cohort of big-talking cavalry generals, as the “chaplain General” — because of the religious rituals he followed by going into his “meditation bunker” even during mil ops, venerating “Mataji”– an avatar he believed of the Goddess Durga. But these rituals never hampered his work or his duties, but nonetheless were something he was pilloried for. The General explained his devotion simply as seeking divine guidance.

It was a pity Rajiv’s defence minister K.C. Pant, whom I was close to,
didn’t have the gumption to over-rule the army brass arrayed against Hanut’s deserved elevation to army command and later, perhaps, even COAS, fearful that his cleaning of the Service’s Augean stables that would inevitably have followed, would have shown up the rot that had set in in the Indian Army, and would otherwise set a bad precedent!

The last time I met Hanut was in 1994 when, as adviser, defence expenditure, (10th) Finance Commission, India,chaired by Pant, I visited IAF’s South-Western Air Cmd HQrs then at Jodhpur, and took the time one evening to visit the General at his ashram he had built some ways outside the city. We talked about the state of the army and, even more animatedly, again about armrd warfare history. I recalled for him the haunting statement he had left me with from the Ahmednagar episode: “There’s no armrd commander in the army”, he had declared, “who can visualize a battlefield beyond the regimental level” [which statement I used in my 2002 (revised edition in 2005) tome — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, to argue, among other things, that the impressive wherewithal notwithstanding, the three Indian Strike Corps and pivot corps couldn’t successfully prosecute Cold Start]. He gently guided me away from that topic but his assessment has left me wondering about what will happen in a straight-out armrd war on the western front.

The General attained samadhi in Haridwar, going the way he wanted to. His missed army command and perhaps subsequent COAS-ship, will however remain the great what ifs in the army’s and the Indian military’s history.

Great having known you, General Sahib, and a final, most respectful, salaam. RIP.

Posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia | 19 Comments

Unexpected windfall for France with Rafale?

It was surprising news from Paris about the Indian govt finally settling on the purchase of some 60-odd aircraft as a via media between ditching the entire deal and continue struggling with Dassault for a compromise solution for the lot of 126 MMRCA. As of last night, HAL at least was sure that while their differences with Dassault had been sorted out, the glitch at the PNC (price negotiation committee) level was holding up the deal, and because the problem was with escalated cost of both the France-sourced and HAL license-manufactured aircraft, there was a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable, meaning HAL wouldn’t get to produce any Rafales.

This new turn of events, it may be deduced, was apparently something derived by the PMO that Narendra Modi, perhaps, assented to in line with MEA’s view that Paris needed to be mollified with bulk purchase of the Rafale to maintain goodwill with the French govt. Besides, it is a add-on to the initially floated proposal for some 24 Rafales bought off the shelf to stop the squawking about fast-depleting fighter squadrons by the IAF brass.This deduction because Parrikar’s MOD could not have turned around a full 180 degrees after the minister had shown his partiality for the Su-30MKI option, with the HAL Nasik produced aircraft available at around $80-$100 million per fully loaded plane. Now compare that with the $4bn India will be dishing out for 60 Rafales, i.e., at almost $50 million unit cost. Except this figure is just for the platform with no bells and whistles and no onboard armaments, and certainly no AESA radar. Once you begin totting up the costs for each of these items, the final bill for each of these Rafales would be nearer $200mn. For Dassault and France this is surely an unexpected windfall, something they could’t have possibly even imagined coming to pass, because Dassault gets to produce all these aircraft and no nonsense about TOT, etc involved by bringing HAL into the picture. The French combat aircraft industry pivoting on the Rafale, which was down to producing just 11 of these planes annually, will now be able to ramp up production and keep itself in the clover for another 8-10 years thanks to the infernally stupid decision by the GOI.

This is ultimately a regression which pretty much torpedoes the “Make in India” thrust of the BJP govt, which by resuscitating the “meeting the immediate need”-principle for acquisitions takes the country back to ad hoc procurement policies that ended up making India the largest arms importer in the world. The IAF brass may be happy. But consider the deleterious effects of yet another type of weapons platform added to the fleet. At last count IAF had 27 different types of aircraft in its inventory. Now add another one, and compound the logistics problem of handling a completely new aircraft and maintenance setup, requiring the retraining a whole bunch of people (other than pilots) in France, and then total up the costs. For God’s sake, is there no one with any sense of the tens of billions of euros involved? And has the Modi regime given up on responsible expenditure and been herded into buying the IAF line that all will be lost without the Rafale? The truth is much will be lost with Rafale in the IAF because now we’ll have to contend with an upset Moscow, which has been liberal in onpassing its frontline armaments and technology that Western suppliers will not part with for love or money.The manner in which the seller France stuck to its guns in the price negotiation, compelling the buyer New Delhi to backpedal is evidence enough of that.

Let’s hope that this story is only a kite being flown in the media by interested parties. But should it prove to be true then, boy, are we flying blind into a squall!

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