Interpreting risk

Have barely survived hours of being before Times Now television cameras (at home) and for an hour at their studio where the relentless drive to be upbeat about PM Modi’s supposed success in persuading Obama to accept an ambiguous interpretation of the full liability provisions — sections 17(b) and 46 — in the 2010 Civilian Nuclear Damage Liability Act with promise of the GIC insurance pool, succeeded in pushing credible doubts about this solution into the background. Among the main points made in my last blog and NIE op/ed “Bending over backwards” published Jan 23 of the Indian taxpayer thereby bearing the full risk was repeated by Chellaney, a co-panelist, in the channel’s 7PM show. Hopefully, more analysts will pick up on this aspect subversive of the 2010 Act, and it will gain political traction, enough to convince the US companies who are suspicious of this as Delhi’s way out of a dilemma, to keep out. Besides, won’t this issue become justiciable? And can US companies risk Indian courts ruling against them and derailing bilateral relations in the process?

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Bending over Backwards

In his pronouncements, US president Barack Obama has indicated that American companies will be actively discouraged from investing in production plants abroad, offshoring operations, and exporting jobs; Indian pharmaceutical industries would come under the intellectual property rights hammer, and the H1B visa regime will not be loosened. Taken cumulatively, they pretty much muck up prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for productively courting America.

The serious clash of economic interests only highlights the even more severe collision of strategic interests which, despite the good intentions of both sides, will ensure that, as in the past, only a limited India-US partnership will accrue. This reality, not fully grasped by Delhi, is compounded by the fact that the Indian government operates without any definite ideas about what the national interest is or where it lies on particular issues, whence a lot is negotiated away in return for nothing.

One expected Modi to not turn national interest into a fungible commodity as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had done and, as a canny insider in the evolving global politics in which India’s centrality in an Asian security scheme to contain China is readily conceded, that he would extract maximum concessions from the US while surrendering little. This hope is belied by the list of giveaways in the offing.

On climate, Modi has apparently agreed to 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, bringing India in line with the Western consensus at the upcoming Paris summit. This presumes India can skip the smokestack industrial stage and absorb the inordinately high cost of going in massively for clean energy. It begs the question: Where are the resources for such rapid switching to come from?

Modi’s eagerness to buy enriched uranium-fuelled American reactors of untested design that the US is unwilling to risk installing on its own territory is equally puzzling. Especially because the contemplated executive action to get around provisions in the Civilian Nuclear Damage Liability Act 2010 imposing “unlimited” liability on nuclear technology suppliers is subversive of this Act, which the BJP voted for in Parliament and, which in fact represented a congealing of the opposition to the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US. But consider the proposed solution: An insurance pool is to be created by the public sector General Insurance Corporation (GIC), meaning that the Indian people will be the guarantors of untested foreign nuclear technology and in case it proves faulty and leads to an accident, will have to pay up for the thermal and radiation deaths in the hundreds of thousands and for damage to public and private property running into billions of rupees in case of a nuclear accident traced to faulty foreign nuclear technology beyond the measly $300 million the supplier company coughs up per the Convention on Supplemental Compensation Manmohan Singh hurriedly signed. With the perpetrators thus going scot-free, it could be the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy plus all over again.

For surrendering so much India gets the promise of entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Though why Modi is keen on joining these groups, considering they are means to drag India into the 1968 non-proliferation treaty net, is a mystery. Indeed, by not buying foreign reactors or joining NSG India can at any time resume testing to obtain a credible thermonuclear deterrent, export without any restraint its highly evolved natural uranium reactors and technology under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and the billions of dollars saved from not buying the inordinately expensive foreign reactors, could be invested in realising the three-stage 1955 Homi Bhabha plan for energy self-sufficiency, by developing on a war-footing the indigenous advanced pressurised heavy water, breeder, and thorium reactors. Indeed, the GIC “insurance pool” could be more imaginatively deployed to insure Indian companies producing indigenous nuclear reactors and ancillary hardware and erect any number of power stations in the country and to export to friendly states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This will spur Indian industry, generate more industrial employment, increase the value of India’s share of global trade, and more vigorously push the “Make in India” policy than putting Indian money in American pockets.

Modi buying into the MTCR is still more troubling. It will mean abandoning the option of paying back China for nuclear missile arming Pakistan by transferring nuclear missile and related technologies to countries on its periphery and compelling Beijing to share in our “nuclear nightmare”. But if pleasing Washington is priority then the rumour doing the rounds gains substance that Avinash Chander was kicked out of DRDO because he was pushing for the 12,000km intercontinental ballistic missile frowned upon by Washington to complement its disapproval of India’s acquiring high-yield thermonuclear warheads/weapons.

The one bright spot is the military-to-military links the 2005 defence cooperation framework has delivered with joint exercises. Its extension to 2025 will mean more of the same laced with billion-dollar buys of US hardware (such as C-17 and C-130J airlifters), a transactional slant Washington is satisfied with. As regards, military technology transfer, Delhi seems reconciled to the US policy of starting low, going slow—hand-launched drones and surveillance modules—as the way to go!

Acknowledging the global power shift, America has been inclined to pass the baton of the predominant power to China in the manner the “weary Titan” Great Britain did to the US during the turn of the previous century. Such a policy was proposed by Obama’s deputy secretary of state James Steinberg and enunciated in 2008-2009 as the doctrine of “strategic reassurance”. It led to the “G-2” concept and president Xi Jinping’s conceiving of “core relations” to, in effect, run the international system. This is the strategic disjunction keeping India-US ties from becoming intimate. Because to brighten the prospects of a possible US-China condominium, Washington since the 1990s has been systematically hindering India strategically, hugely complicating the Indian national security calculus. In the circumstances, bending over backwards to please the US will only invite derision, not win India respect, even less international standing. It is a lesson that remains unlearned.

[Published in the New Indian Express January 23, 2015, at

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Ousting Chander

The termination of Avinash Chander’s tenure as Science Adviser to the Defence Minister and head of DRDO was too sudden and created shock waves. The sotto voce explanation that Dr. Chander was a little tardy in following up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice to speed up ongoing projects, streamline the internal processes, and reward younger scientists with bigger responsibilities, and Mr. Parrikar’s statement that DRDO needed a younger helmsman, is all very well. But, it is also a misplaced punitive initiative because it presumes that radical changes can be readily and speedily affected, and that the working ethos transformation can happen overnight by diktat from DRDO HQ. And, ironically, it involves a man who unlike most of his predecessors in the post, was elevated to the position on the basis of a stellar record of success. Chander was previously Director-General of the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), Hyderabad, the one stop design and development bureau for the Agni family of missiles — perhaps the most outstanding success story, other than the ATV programme to produce the Arihant-class SSBN, that DRDO can boast of.

ASL and ATV projects are fairly unique in their dogged pursuit of obtaining for the country deterrent reach and punch, ASL’s advanced Agni-5 IRBM/ICBM being among the most sophisticated delivery systems available anywhere with any country. ASL is also an organization fortunate enough to have enjoyed fine leadership starting with RN Agarwal, Chander, and the current DG, VG Sekharan.

DRDO is by and large a useless organization, like all the defence public sector units, it is true, and I have so slammed them all in my writings (see my blogs in the defence industry category) for being involved in jobbery. Many DRDO heads need to roll, and the bulk of DRDO programmes can be safely shut down to save the tax payer’s money and the rest handed over to private sector companies to prosecute more effectively and efficiently. But to tar a proven performer, such as Chander, as a laggard is to dump on an individual the ills of a system, and to do him grave injustice.

In the event, the Chander case should be the metric to judge all leadership in the government sector, by which standard the horde of senior IAS, IPS and other civil services officers as well as much of the armed forces brass — all of them perpetually gumming up the works — should likewise be summarily ejected, replaced by younger. more energetic, officers. In that event, the Chander dismissal, even if unfair, will be seen to have some merit. But because this last won’t happen, kicking out Chander will be seen especially by many in the defence science and technology sphere as a one-off whimsical move of the scapegoating kind. It will grow puzzlement and discontent in DRDO and destroy what go-go spirit prevails there, and thus do more harm than good.

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Ditching Rafale

Like an able pilot with his wits about him in an out-of-control warplane, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar may be preparing to ditch Rafale touted as the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) answer, which the Indian Air Force has set its heart on procuring at any cost, and going for the more economical and sensible Su-30 option instead.

It has been repeatedly emphasised by this analyst that the IAF misconceived the MMRCA requirement, disregarded the uncommonly high costs involved in procuring the chosen Rafale and France’s past record of unmet transfer of technology promises, and the Su-30s/MiG-29M2s as sustainable alternative. I also warned that the massive expenditure on the Rafale would starve the indigenous programmes (Tejas and the advanced medium combat aircraft — AMCA) of funds, and stifle the Indian aviation industry trying to get back on its feet.

The reasons for the nose-diving deal are many, and they are serious. The unwillingness of Dassault Avions, the Rafale manufacturer, to guarantee the performance of this aircraft produced under licence at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd despite the original RFP (Request for Proposal) requiring bidders to transfer technology, including production wherewithal, procedures and protocols, to this public sector unit for the aircraft’s local assembly, has been reported. There’s, however, an untold back-story revealing France’s intended duplicity.

Perceiving India as the perennial sucker, Dassault chose Reliance Aerospace Technologies Pvt Ltd (RATPL) as partner in the hope that the fabled Ambani reach and influence in Delhi would help it get around the HAL production obligation. Problems were not anticipated as evidenced by RATPL approaching the Andhra Pradesh government in 2013 for land around Hyderabad to set up a factory. But because RATPL has zero experience in producing anything remotely related to aviation, Dassault saw it as an opportunity to “double dip”, meaning arrange it so India would pay it twice for the same aircraft! This was to be managed thus: Dassault would set up a production line under RATPL aegis importing every last screw and production jig and collect the money for the 108 Rafales it puts together here at the cost-plus-profit price HAL would charge IAF. In other words, Dassault would export the Rafale assembly kits and wherewithal virtually to itself and pocket the proceeds while paying a premium to RATPL.

But this double dipping ruse in the works merely whetted France’s appetite for more. Capitalising on the IAF brass’ penchant for newer French aircraft and the Indian government’s tendency eventually to cave into the military’s demands, Dassault proposed an enlarged Rafale deal with the cost revised upwards from the $30 billion level to a $45-$50 billion contract. For such enhanced sums, Dassault sought to replace the Rafale originally offered with the slightly better “F-3R” version, promised a mid-life upgrade involving retrofitment of the Thales RBE2 AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, and suggested India’s future fifth and sixth generation combat aircraft needs be met by the “F-4R” and “F-5R” configurations (or whatever designations they are given) now on the drawing board featuring crystal blade for jet turbines, “fly-by-light” technology, etc. Such contract extension suits the IAF fine because it plays on Vayu Bhavan’s antipathy for Russian hardware (expressed in terms of “diversity of suppliers”) as well as indigenous aircraft, and undermines both the multi-billion dollar project jointly to develop the fifth generation fighter aircraft, Su-50 PAK/FA with Russia and the Indian AMCA with its design finalised.

But for Parrikar’s welcome show of common sense this French plan would have rolled out nicely. Inconveniently for Dassault, he publicly disclosed that the far deadlier and more versatile Su-30 MKI costs Rs 358 crores (roughly $60 million) each compared to the Rs 700 crore price tag for the Rafale, meaning two Su-30s could be secured for the price of a single Rafale. Implicit is the reasonable conclusion that it made more sense to buy a much larger fleet of 4.5-plus generation Su-30s than to get stuck with a 4.5-minus generation Rafale sporting 5.5 generation aircraft prices. The cost comparison remains skewed even when the “super Sukhoi-30”, costing Rs 70 crores, is considered, when the added advantage of the plunging Russian ruble kicks in, allowing India to extract far more bang for the buck from Moscow.

Looked at another way, the original allocation of $12 billion for the MMRCA could fetch IAF at current prices a whole new, augmented, and more capable fighter/bomber armada and raise the force strength to 50 frontline combat squadrons. This because the $12 billion can buy 20 Tejas Mk-Is (in addition to the 40 already ordered), 150 Tejas Mk-IIs, some 35 super Sukhoi-30s, and around 50 MiG-29Ks/M2s (with the M-2s nearly equal of the MiG-35 the Strategic Forces Command wanted for delivering nuclear bombs, but were denied). In short, a composite additional fleet of 255 aircraft can be acquired for the initial price of 126 Rafales, with “incalculable” savings in streamlined logistics, training, and maintenance but absent the cost-hikes, delays, and aggravation of setting up a new production line (as HAL already produces Su-30 MKIs).

Besides, France’s extortionist attitude is offputting. In response to the IAF’s request not too long ago for an immediate transfer of two Rafale squadrons from the French Air Force as a quick-fix, Paris agreed but demanded these would have to be paid for at the same rate as new aircraft and that these planes could carry only French sourced weapons. Worse still, France’s reputation for fulfilling technology transfer provisions too is suspect as past experience reveals.

The IAF trusts Paris not to cutoff the supply of spares if India follows a foreign policy not to France’s or even America’s liking. Except, heeding Washington’s directive, France recently stopped the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships Russia has paid for. What’s the guarantee Paris won’t sever supply links and leave HAL stranded mid-production and IAF frontline squadrons grounded in case India resumes nuclear testing, say?

The larger question is: How come France’s record of defaulting on technology-related parts of contracts combined with the unaffordability of French aircraft generally using any metric, were not factored by IAF and Ministry of Defence when shortlisting Rafale?

[Published in New Indian Express January 8, 2015

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diesel smugglers?

Over the weekend several military commentators, among them surprisingly RADM K.R. “Raja” Menon (Retd), were featured on TV news shows. If I heard them right, they ventured that the boat ex-Pakistani port that had been tracked from the start and nearly intercepted by the Coast Guard some 350 kms plus off Porbandar before the intruding vessel blew itself up, was seeking to smuggle contraband diesel into India. This is a most remarkable conclusion and stands the smuggler’s logic on its head! The highest consumption is of light speed diesel. It is available in Karachi @ Pak Rs 67.5/litre, and in Porbandar/Rajkot at Rs 61.31/litre. The price differential is even more pronounced in the case of other more costly diesel derivatives (high-octane blending compound. premium, and high-speed diesel). The conclusion is stranger still because diesel, in any case, is hardly the sort of goods smugglers fearing apprehension seek to destroy. Weapons and other support paraphernalia for seaborne attack, however, is something they wouldn’t want to be caught dead with!

Posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Internal Security, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Terrorism | 3 Comments

Arihant, bigger, more powerful

Compare photographs/videos of a Kilo-class SSK steaming out of harbour and the Arihant SSBN getting out of Vizag base and what do experts notice? In the main that the Arihant-class boat, not surprisingly, is a third longer and bulkier — it is, after all, a “boomer”for god’s sake! — more in the 9,000 tonne plus size than the 6,000 tonne plus, class. Derived from this observation is the logical conclusion that it would have to be driven by a bigger N-power plant than the 80MW-90 MW it’s been credited with. The HEU fueled Arihant reactor seems able to produce around 110 plus Megawatts of power. The bigger size and volume of the hybrid design vessel also means it can carry a larger reload of missiles and other on-board weapons. As to why the navy and GOI have consistently understated these various attributes of a strategic deterrent isn’t at all clear, except that this is the exact opposite tack to the one taken by Beijing and the Chinese Navy, which ballyhoo an armament in their employ even when it has proved all but useless, such as the Xia-class SSBNs that stayed in protected port conditions for most of their life until their decommisioning, now underway.

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Getting Pakistan Wrong

Every major terrorist incident in Pakistan begets the same old Indian response. At such times analysts and media commentators are either clucking in despair at yet more evidence of a supposedly “failing state” or, barely suppressing their satisfaction at seeing Islamabad’s carefully tended tool of “asymmetric warfare” turning on Pakistan, cautioning against cultivating extremists lest there be blowback of the Peshawar massacre kind. The basic premise undergirding all such opinion mongering is that terrorist outfits having been nurtured variously by the Inter-Services Intelligence/Pakistan Army and/or the government of Pakistan, the Pakistani state can collar their creatures, bring them to book or, at least, get them to desist from outrages in India.

But such easy conclusions veil certain basic characteristics of Pakistan as it has evolved since 1947. A state founded on the basis of religion mandated religious cleansing with non-believers either pushed to the margins (such as the Christian and Parsi communities) and, in case this population was too large to minimise, with pogroms aimed at ridding the country of them, as happened with the Hindus and Sikhs after Partition. With the intention to obtain a religiously more homogenous nation and, owing to the supposed popular consensus on its foundational aspects, a more easily governable state as well, the Pakistani people ended up achieving neither of these aims.

The trouble was that Mohammad Ali Jinnah didn’t long survive the state’s founding and his design to make Pakistan a secular democratic state, along the lines Jawaharlal Nehru was crafting one in India, died a sudden death for lack of popular support. The underlying reason was that if Pakistan was merely to be a modernist and secular Tweedledee to India’s Tweedledum, what was the point in making Islam the differentiating factor and stoking religious sentiments for a separate state?

However, a Jinnah determined to get his Pakistan was reckless, conflating the Islamic faith of Indian Muslims with differences with the majority Hindus in culture and even cuisine. Jinnah told the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, visiting Delhi in 1946 that Muslims could not be expected to live with Hindus when the former ate cows and the latter revered them, a statement that belied a history of a thousand years of living together even if fist by jowl.

In every sense then Pakistan resolved to be different than India, with this synthetic differentiation having the most unfortunate consequences for nation building in that god-forsaken country. To the extent Jinnah’s democratic design survived it did so as a shell of participatory government hoisted on the newfound state. Except, the democratic ballast that substantial minorities provide a country was lost once the country divested itself of Hindus and Sikhs (who, incidentally, comprised a majority in pre-Partition Lahore, for instance). It made the ground fertile for politics in Pakistan where Islamic extremists could never muster the popular vote in elections but growingly defined the Pakistani state in religious terms. It followed that the more fundamentalist and extremist versions of “desert Islam” represented by the Wahabbi sect of the Salafi school gradually began edging out the more tolerant, easygoing, and syncretic Sufi Islam that was instrumental in spreading the religion in the subcontinent and was the glue holding an Islam-wise diverse Pakistan together.

The Islamic state that took shape began to be measured by the medievalist criteria of the early caliphates regarded as the “golden age” of Islam, entirely divorced from modern-day science, ethics and social norms. Religious minorities and liberal sections of society opposed to being thus dragged back in time were cowed down by Kalashnikov-toting religious goons with links to the “deep” Pakistani state. And political leaders were left subdued, compelled to express their support for the underway process of slow and halting Islamisation.

The break point for Pakistan arrived with the 1977 coup staged by General Zia ul-Haq. The former army chief General Tikka Khan, under house arrest when I met him in his Islamabad residence in December 1982, recounted how he had warned president Zulifikar Ali Bhutto against appointing Haq—“makkar mullah” (“hypocritical mullah”) he called him as his successor, even though Zia was the junior-most and placed at the bottom of the shortlist Tikka had drawn up on Bhutto’s instructions. Tikka rued Bhutto’s bad choice—“Qayamat ko kaun pehchanta hai?” (“Who recognises one’s own nemesis?”), and the rest, as they say, is history. While Ayub Khan brought the army centrally into the affairs of state in 1958, he had during his time at the helm kept the Islamists out. Zia, a “kutter” Muslim who during his college days at St. Stephens in Delhi was a strict namazi, was hewn out of different cloth. Once in power, he promulgated the nizam-e-mustafa, eased the Wahabbists in, and let the joy out of the life of ordinary Pakistanis.

Then the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan happened and Zia cannily traded the nation’s newfound status as “frontline state” to extract from the US, inter alia, its acquiescence in China’s programme of nuclear missile arming Pakistan, helping it achieve notional parity with India. And the arms pipeline to the Afghan mujahideen managed jointly by ISI and the US Central Intelligence Agency to unsettle the Soviet occupation forces alerted Pakistan army to the potential of well-financed and equipped terrorist guerilla fighters to disrupt and possibly wrest Jammu & Kashmir from India. Elsewhere, an extremist group like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was found useful by the Muslim League (Nawaz) party, originally favoured by Zia, to strengthen itself at the grassroots in Pakistani Punjab.

In a global milieu grown less tolerant of terrorism, however, Pakistan army finds itself fighting Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan, but unable to demobilise LeT et al considered assets in Pakistan’s ongoing “asymmetric war” against India. The Sharif dispensation, meanwhile, cannot act against Hafiz Sayeed at a time when LeT muscle may be required to deflect the Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s direct challenge. Unless both the army and the political establishment in Pakistan realise terrorism, like peace, is indivisible, the prospects for genuine Indo-Pak rapprochement will remain bleak.

[Published in the New Indian Express, December 26, 2014, at

Posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian democracy, Internal Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, society, South Asia, Terrorism, United States, US., Weapons | Leave a comment