Impending MMRCA Waste

Narendra Modi has handled Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping, and Barack Obama well. So fending off pressure from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and European states on medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) should be easy, especially because favouring the French Rafale aircraft or the German Eurofighter is likely to permanently tar the reputation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as the Bofors gun scam did the Congress party. A boondoggle lurks just below the MMRCA decision and requires, not finalising, but scrutiny by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The MMRCA was conceived by the IAF brass as means of procuring Western aircraft under the rubric of “diversifying supply sources”. The deficiencies in the MMRCA concept and the Rafale aircraft and deal have been analysed in my previous writings. But how supplier states brazenly play a con game using transfer of technology (TOT) provisions with the full connivance and complicity of the ministry of defence and services headquarters is astonishing and has, so far, gone unnoticed. An egregious example is that Dassault, as part of the Rafale contract, has promised gallium nitride (GaN) technology to make semi-conductor chips utilised in high-powered avionics but refused to part with technology for the foundries to fabricate the chips! India will thus pay through its nose for technology that cannot be converted into a component, which will end up being imported for the lifetime of the aircraft.

Eurofighter has come back into the reckoning because the visiting German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered 126 of this aircraft for Rs 20,000 crore less than the Rafale. A discounted price cannot outweigh the redundancy aspect attending on the MMRCA in general and the negatives of the Eurofighter/Rafale in particular. Take the case of the AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar enabling combat planes to shift between ground attack and air-to-air interception roles. The European consortium EADS talked up the dated and deficient Captor-M PESA (passive electronically scanned array) radar when IAF was assessing the Eurofighter. It is to be enhanced to full AESA capability courtesy a $1.8 billion 5-year Captor-E project just sanctioned by the UK government. New Delhi will thus pay for the development of the enhanced Captor-E system, which will be available a decade late for retrofitting on the Eurofighter peddled to IAF without, however, enjoying intellectual property rights on the AESA technology as its development-funder!

More significantly, this plane has an unstable flight control system driven by faulty software that, according to a story in reputable periodical Der Spiegel dated July 10, 2013, has led to many near-disasters such as the aircraft almost flying into the air traffic control tower at the Neuberg air base in 2007. Other serious problems afflict this plane such as a flawed pilot ejection system. Design and system deficiencies have periodically grounded the Eurofighter fleet in the German Air Force. The Austrian Air Force, with 15 Eurofighters in service, detected 68 defects in it that potentially could have caused fatal crashes such as the altimeter being off by nearly 200 feet, unbalanced aircraft owing to incorrect pumping of aviation fuel into the engine, etc.

The main production plant at Manching, moreover, lost its licence to manufacture the Eurofighter because a German defence ministry review, in the words of Der Spiegel, found “unprecedented sloppiness in production”, identifying 35 defects in the production process and another 49 in the quality control process. Worse, EADS delivered only 108 aircraft instead of 143 Eurofighters for the contracted sum of 18.6 billion Euros. Further, the Eurofighter, like the Rafale, has found no buyers, because it represents obsolete technology! Most problematically from the Indian perspective is the fact that Eurofighter has many US-made components and its networking system (data fusion, air-to-air and other communications links, etc.) is designed by the American company, Raytheon. From India’s past experience of the US terminating spares and other material supplies over policy differences and in violation of contractual obligations, Eurofighter is thoroughly compromised goods. Grounding of C-17/C-130 transport fleets is one thing; losing whole squadrons of frontline combat aircraft this way in a crisis is something else altogether.

Interesting revelations may tumble out if CBI inquired into how, why, and by whom the MMRCA decisions were crafted. In the early 2000s, as a “stop gap” measure a decision was taken to acquire 12 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft with 85 per cent of its life still remaining from Qatar, which had acquired them from France in 1997. The tripartite deal, involving aircraft producer Dassault, was struck in April 2005 for $600 million, including a stock of 500 air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. It was aborted a few months later when IAF headed by Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi arbitrarily slashed its offer to $375 million. The decision by a protesting Qatar to back out of the deal was used to conjure up the entirely novel MMRCA requirement and push for global tender, which Dassault hoped to win and, surprise! surprise!, did.

It is unfortunate that military bosses cry wolf in order to stampede the government of the day into approving purchases of often unnecessary weapons platforms they desire. The IAF brass did so to get the Qatari Mirages sanctioned before abruptly junking the deal and opting for shinier hardware; now they say they can’t do without the Rafale! If the need was so urgent 10 years ago, why was the termination of the Qatari transaction engineered? The problem of depleting fighter squadrons that IAF complains about can be filled in short order and at fraction of the eventual $30 plus billion MMRCA cost, as suggested by this analyst, by accelerating production and induction of the Tejas Mk-1 for short-range air defence combined with off-the-shelf buys of the multi-role and technologically superior Su-30s and MiG-29Ms (whose servicing infrastructure is in place) until the Indianised genuine 5th generation fighter, Su-50 PAK FA enters service by the end of the decade. Finally, after cutting Rs 3,000 crore from the army’s procurement budget as an economy measure, defence minister Arun Jaitley may find it hard to justify a requirements-wise questionable MMRCA costing Rs 1.8 lakh crore, or sixty times as much.

[Published in the New Indian Express, Oct 3, 2014 at

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Strange, show of sensitivity

It is puzzling why the Narenra Modi government was so solicitous of the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Instead of quietly urging on the Tibetan cause, the Delhi government under Central rule, as seems to be the convention whenever a Chinese notable is in town, acted as the Chinese ‘thanedar’. Hence the Delhi Police were marshalled in force to silence peaceful Tibetan protesters demanding a “Free Tibet” by manhandling and arresting them for the duration.
The main thing that distinguishes India from China (other than world class infrastructure — superfast trains, highways, etc) is democracy. And, it was the democratic rights of the Tibetans for peaceful protest and assembly were denied the Tibetans in India, much as the Tibetans in Tibet are, ironically, denied them by China! More astonishing still was the fact that the lone Arunachali in the cabinet, a Minister of State for Home no less, Kiiren Rijiju, was kept out of the State banquet and all other official interactions with Xi. Has GOI’s show of such sensitivity over Tibet vis a vis China fetched India anything over the years, except now all of Arunachal Pradesh is officially shown in Chinese maps as “Southern Tibet”. Some diplomatic exchange this! Instead, shouldn’t India have responded all these years — as per its own policy roots in recognition of only “autonomous region of Tibet” as falling within China”s sovereignty — and that if Tibet is not genuinely autonomous, doesn’t it logically follow that India is not bound to consider Tibert as in any way Chinese? Hence, shouldn’t Tibet then be shown in a different colour on Indian maps to denote its questionable status? When the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj equated India’s support for “Once China” policy with China’s “One India (including all of Arunachal Pradesh)” policy, there was reason to exult that India had entered upon a brave new world where national interest was uncomprisable and would be pushed hard. And then there was this show of deference to China. Modi’s personal relations with Xi are a great diplomatic plus, but so casually reverting to the Congress party era attitude to genuflecting to Beijing was unnecessary. Tibet is a strong leverage for New Delhi and the government shouldn’t shy away from using the Tibet card, with the Dalai Lama as the perfect knight to Beijing’s pawns. Beijing never has been influenced by concerns of showing sensitivity, or why else would Xi authorize PLA and “civilian”movement into the disputed Chumar sector of Ladakh knowing fully well it’d create a ruckus during his summit with Modi? It was a way of reminding India of Chinese claims. How to stake a position with regard to an autonomous Tibet and territorial claims on the LAC and sticking by them are something Modi needs quickly to learn from Xi.

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Orbital Jumps, But How?

In Beijing to prepare the ground for the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summit, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval talked of Sino-Indian relations as primed for an “orbital jump”. Seeing these bilateral ties as a satellite in a low-earth orbit which, presumably powered by the success in the apex level talks, will be thrust into a high-earth or more strategic orbit is fine. The problematic part is to know what will push the ties into that more desirable state.

Low-earth orbit satellites have relatively short life because pulled by the gravitational force they eventually collapse back into the earth’s atmosphere and burn upon re-entry. But a low orbit policy, metaphorically and otherwise, hews more closely to ground reality which is that, with the border dispute, the India-China relationship is dictated by the line of actual control (LAC) and what transpires around it.

The ongoing incident in Chumar with Xi in India, suggests China is playing a different game to what New Delhi believes it is in. For Beijing its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and in Aksai Chin are uncompromisable (hence, “stapled visas” for Arunachalis) because accepting the status quo as boundary solution with India would pressure Beijing into accommodating several Southeast Asian nations on its extensive “nine-dash line” claims in the South China Sea. So, a resolution of the dispute can be safely pushed out to the remote future, with Special Representative talks only offering cover for lack of progress.

Modi’s plea for increased Chinese investments in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors and for shifting Chinese manufacturing plants to India as means of balancing Sino-Indian trade grossly favouring China was met partially with promises of foreign direct investment in industrial parks, etc. But there’s an irreconcilable clash of visions here.

Modi’s view of turning India into an international manufacturing hub generating massive employment runs smack into Xi’s vision for an “Asian century of prosperity” premised on coupling China’s “workshop” to India’s “backoffice”—the hackneyed Indian software wedded to Chinese hardware type of thinking. In other words, Xi is for freezing China-India economic ties on the basis of current national strengths, which surely is unacceptable.

With economic relations on the upswing, hardpower and geopolitics will matter more. India can exploit the mutual antipathy China and Japan feel for each other by acting the cat in the Panchtantra tale playing the two monkeys off each other. Japan will need no coaxing to assist New Delhi in slanting the balance of power and influence in landward and maritime Asia against China.

Modi can mouth trade makes for peace-mantra and grow the Chinese economic stake in India. But for larger impact, he should payback Beijing for its planned proliferation of nuclear missiles to Pakistan by transferring Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam, the Philippines, and any other state on China’s periphery desiring them, something I have advocated for over 20 years. There was talk of such transfer when the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and later president Pranab Mukherjee visited Hanoi on the eve of Xi’s visit, but New Delhi got cold feet. Unless India exploits the prevailing fear in Asia of China to the hilt, India will be forever disadvantaged. New Delhi better muster the will to conduct this two-faced game, or lose ground to Beijing.

Ties with the United States can be launched into a higher orbit by simply agreeing to buy several Westinghouse enriched uranium-fuelled reactors, the Indian liability law be damned. This is not going to happen. In the event, the bilateral relations will fall back on familiar themes. The trouble here is that, contrary to the rhetoric of India as “net security provider”, the US is mostly interested in seeing how India can fit into its Asian security architecture.

Washington is habituated, from Manmohan Singh’s days, of talking up the “strategic partnership” but only as vehicle for advancing US interests. In its “war on global terror”, for instance, Washington expects New Delhi to do everything to zero out the risk to Americans but does little to pre-empt terrorism targeting Indians as that involves Pakistan Army’s sponsorship of terrorist outfits.

This is reflected in the nature of the intelligence exchanges — the US insisting on raw data while only providing information filtered through American policy lenses. In this same vein, the US government is always keen to shape Indian foreign policy as it did during Congress party rule regarding Iran, for example.

At the heart of the bilateral relations, moreover, is sheer divergence of interests, especially relating to India’s great power aspirations the core of which is nuclear security. The United States has been active from John Kennedy’s time to pre-empt and prevent India’s becoming a consequential nuclear power, scrupling to nothing, including buying into China’s scheme to nuclear arm Pakistan.

In the wake of the 1998 tests, it accepted a civilian nuclear cooperation deal that New Delhi for some mysterious reasons was eager to have on the condition India never test again, thereby ensuring India never has a modern high-yield arsenal of proven thermonuclear weapons to match China’s. The tragedy, of course, is successive Indian governments have partnered the US in thus reducing India.

Modi can right the relationship with America by telling President Barack Obama some home truths. Such as the fact that courtesy US policies of the past there’s a huge trust deficit between the two countries, that the transactional tilt of US policy is robbing the bilateral relations of strategic value, that India’s nuclear liability law is not some trifling matter that can be overturned to please Washington, that the United States has gained in the last 60 years from Indian foreign aid worth hundreds of billions of dollars in Non-Resident Indian talent, and that the djinn of Islamic extremism was uncorked by the United States (with its founding of the Taliban in Afghanistan).

It will help that, unlike with Xi with whom he has a warm, personal, bond Modi, who was treated shabbily by Washington on the visa issue, will be correct when he officially converses only in Hindi, with a laboured translation for Obama, symbolising the distance that still separates India and America.

[Published in the New Indian Express on Friday Sept 19, 2014 and available at ]

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Month of Plain Talking

All diplomacy is calculation but it is how the lines of national interests and strategy clash or converge that are of concern during state visits which, otherwise, are staid, scripted affairs. The decade of the wimpish Congress party regime showed an India at its most pusillanimous, wracked by doubts about leveraging the country’s myriad strengths. The spate of visits this September starting with prime minister Narendra Modi’s to Shinzo Abe’s Japan followed by jaunts to New Delhi by his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott and by Chinese president Xi Jinping, ending with Modi’s September 30 meeting in Washington with US president Barack Obama will, hopefully, reverse the trend. These will be occasions when foreign leaders, because Modi is new on the scene, will be keen to size him up, read his mind, try and decipher his intentions and get a fix on his foreign policy orientation and attitude.

Modi must have been disabused of the notion that cultural links and personal bonhomie count for much in international relations when Tokyo insisted on an unambiguous commitment against resuming nuclear tests before approving a nuclear deal. Despite being fully aware of this precondition why Modi still pitched for a nuclear trade accord isn’t clear. It is troubling that the Indian government from Manmohan Singh’s days persists in making a “nuclear deal” with every passing country the test of its seriousness to engage India, when actually what it does is reduce India to a supplicant and erodes its prestige. One hopes Modi reminded Abe that sections within Japan, which is the proverbial screwdriver’s turn away from the Bomb, are calling for nuclear weaponisation to deal with the North Korea-China combine, and that a thermonuclearised India and Japan at the two ends of Asia is the best solution to keep Beijing quiet. Moreover, surely Modi isn’t prepared to waive India’s liability law and buy the unproven Toshiba-Westinghouse AP 1000 enriched uranium-fuelled reactor just to please Tokyo? An aside, but prioritising the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shinkansen “bullet train” line in existing Indian conditions may not be pragmatic considering it will also take a big chunk ($10-$15 billion) off the promised Japanese $35 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) in infrastructure build-up. It will cost more to protect the special corridor than run the high-speed trains.

Rather than “nuclear deals” and stuff, Modi should propound the logic of geopolitics and military cooperation. It pays. For instance, Modi’s reference in Tokyo to the 18th century-style imperialistic tendencies of China to grab land and sea territories, and Tokyo’s agreeing to sell 15 US-2 amphibious aircraft along with transfer of technology (ToT) that will result in a US-2i version tailored for Indian needs to be designed with Indian military’s inputs, and the talk of the Soryu-class conventional hunter-killer submarine in the Indian fleet, have made an Indo-Japanese pincer real. Beijing has reacted with reports suggesting that Xi Jinping is preparing to match Abe’s ante and to up it with even more attractive investment and other deals. To maximise geostrategic gains, Modi should maintain pressure by announcing the sale/transfer of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states in the run-up to Xi Jinping’s visit.

Beijing is worried. The Islamic insurgency is taking hold in the Uyghur Muslim-majority Xinjiang, and Tibet continues to seethe with people angry with the Chinese policy of rubbing out Tibetan cultural identity. In this context, Modi should respond to Xi Jinping’s pleas for restricting the Tibetan exile community’s activities by suggesting the restoration of genuine “autonomy” for Tibet and as buffer zone devoid of the Peoples Liberation Army presence as the foundation for lasting peace.

Australia is ready to sell uranium in order to balance the exports of the same commodity to China and as a hedge against Beijing cornering the market on Australian natural resources, whence Canberra’s encouragement to Indian industrial houses, such as the Adanis, to invest in the Australian coal and minerals extraction sector. But a strategically more potent issue requires to be broached by Modi. Abbott should be sounded out about permitting Indian SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing submarines) to stage out of a deep water port on the northern Australian coast as a means of increasing the strategic reach and deterrence impact of the Arihant-class boats. Such a basing-option will also enhance the “theatre-switching” maritime riposte preferred by New Delhi to Chinese aggression across the land border. An agreement on such basing would be welcomed by an Australia itching to be part of the evolving Asian security architecture rather than remaining a Western outpost.

The logic of strategic ties with the US is getting simpler. Washington has lost the will and doesn’t have the money to be very active in the Indian Ocean region and is eager for New Delhi to pick up the slack. America’s declining stock allows Modi to do some plain talking. The PM’s counter to changing India’s liability law should be to ask Obama to reform the nuclear deal enabling the 2006 Hyde Act instead. Washington wrongly assumes that an Act legislated by the US Congress is dearer to New Delhi than a law promulgated by the Indian parliament. He should also demand changes in America’s transactional, “buy this, buy that” bent of policy.

Modi should inform Obama that henceforth there’ll be no off-the-shelf weapons purchases, and US and other foreign armament producers will have to manufacture all military hardware from scratch in India itself starting with the first buy (as has been wisely decided in the case of the army’s utility helicopter fleet). It will catalyse high-tech manufacturing sector growth and generate a demand for skilled labour and massive employment opportunities. American arms companies should be incentivised to set up shop in India or concert with Indian private sector companies to “Make in India” for the Indian market and, to make such presence economical, use their facilities here to source whole weapons systems, spares and service support to countries in Asia and Africa. India’s aim of self-sufficiency in armaments will thus be advanced, the haemorrhaging of hundreds of billions of Indian dollars end, and the country’s economic prospects immeasurably brighten.

[Published in the New Indian Express on Friday September 5, 2014 at

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Create Defence-Industrial Giant

Prime minister Narendra Modi extolled “Made in India” products from “satellites to submarines” in his Independence Day address. A day later he demanded that “Instead of having to import even small things…India…become an exporter of [military] equipment over the next few years”. And, he exhorted foreign countries and companies to “make in India”. Rendering the country self-sufficient in armaments, it turns out, will help India emerge as workshop of the world manufacturing all kinds of quality goods economically. But it will require the PM to do to the Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs) overseen by the ministry of defence (MoD) what he did to the Planning Commission—utilise their resources more effectively.

At the core is a fact that cannot be glossed over: DPSUs are deadweight. Despite outputting some 800 combat aircraft and thousands of jet engines not an iota of any of the technologies, for example, have been absorbed let alone innovated over the past 60 years by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. Indeed, DPSUs haven’t progressed much beyond assembling platforms from imported kits achieved during the Second World War when Harlow PC-5 and Percival Prentice trainer aircraft, trucks, and mortars were mass-produced for the Allied armies. In this context, the indigenous HF-24 supersonic fighter developed from scratch in the 1960s seems an aberration. It is because the DPSUs have stayed stuck at the screwdriver technology level that the department of defence production in MoD has evolved a procurement system willy-nilly funnelling billions of dollars to foreign vendors with minimal transfer of technology (ToT). DPSUs neither ingest foreign technology nor let the private sector benefit from it.

How much the ToT provisions are eyewash and how much the military procurement system favours imports and enriches foreign countries may be gauged from a few facts. Firstly, the technology transfer content in deals is not required to be divulged by the foreign vendors until after the bids are in and a supplier chosen! This empowers the vendor to restrict the technology it chooses to transfer, usually basic stuff related to the platform—a ToT threshold DPSUs are comfortable with. As prime buyer India doesn’t use its leverage to squeeze state-of-the-art technologies out of the suppliers, is uncommonly generous in forking out huge sums at the outset, and tolerates delays in delivery and non-transfer of technology. Hence, gains from indigenisation even from the offsets policy are minimal. It leads to imports of high-value packages being locked into long-term deals. Dassault, for example, will supply 30% of the advanced avionics amounting to over $10 billion of the $30 billion plus contract for the full duration of the Rafale programme.

Secondly, ostensibly because of foreign currency fluctuations foreign suppliers are not held to the cost-figure in their winning bids, even as Indian bidders who may buy technology from abroad and refine it here are! Foreign suppliers are thus incentivised deliberately to underbid to win contracts and then to raise the price at the price negotiation stage without incurring any penalties. The French firm, Dassault Avions, originally offered the Rafale combat aircraft with comprehensive ToT for $10 billion. But after winning the tender, it increased the cost to over $30 billion and the MoD did not blink! This skewed system is bolstered by the military’s preference for foreign, especially Western, hardware. India, consequently, is routinely relieved of monies and Indian private sector companies are prevented from winning procurement contracts.

The extant system has evolved around the fact that the remit of the Defence Production Secretary as the guardian of DPSUs is to ensure their order books are full. Because DPSU capability is limited to licensed manufacture, procurement deals centre on it. Committees chaired by ex-bureaucrats, the most recent one by Vijay Kelkar, are periodically constituted to recommend revamp of existing protocols and procedures but without disturbing the dominance of DPSUs. This is akin to leaving a cancerous tumour intact while fiddling with the tissues around it! In the event, documents such as “Defence Procurement Policy-2013” are meaningless.

But how can competition and profit motive, the two great drivers of any vibrant industry, be injected into the defence industrial and military procurement spheres? The solution lies in eliminating the spurious distinction between public and private sectors and meshing their resources and capabilities. It was outlined in a 1999 paper by me to the technology review sub-committee in the first National Security Advisory Board. Keeping in mind the need to amortise sunk costs in building up impressive laboratories and physical facilities for R&D and weapons testing under DRDO (whose “chalta hai” attitude was decried by the PM) and production facilities in innumerable DPSUs and ordnance factories, I proposed that all these installations, some 50-odd, be divided into two nearly equally capable defence R&D and manufacturing combines and be led as commercial enterprises by two of the most ethical and industrially versatile business houses—Larsen & Toubro and Tata.

These two combines, subsuming the capacities of L&T and Tata, would pay the government rent for the DRDO centres/DPSUs/ordnance factories in their group and royalty for the technology, software, and hardware outputted by them. They’d bid for all weapons contracts with funds being provided by MoD to develop prototypes, and the winner determined by a transparently conducted run-off. What technology is procured from where under what financial terms, and which foreign or local firms are associated on which project, would be the sole concern of the combines. It will hasten the globalisation of Indian industry.

Such a scheme, besides creating a world-class defence-industrial complex and arms exporter, will rid the procurement system of its most serious ills—the inclination to import, endemic corruption and influence-peddling, the self-defeating lowest tender (L-1) process, production orders in small tranches that undermine economies of scale, and the bans on commercialising imported technology and exporting military products. Integrating private and public sector skills and wherewithal, inducing competitive pricing, and rewarding performance will increase labour productivity and efficient resource-use resulting, say, in the Kolkata-class destroyer being produced not in 8-9 years but the international industry standard—three years. Unsurprisingly this “out of the box” proposal is collecting dust.

[Published in the New Indian Express, August 23, 2014 at

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Arihant has dived below “crushing depths”

Call up a recent photo of Arihant SSBN publicly available at

What do you see?

The most obvious thing that has not been commented on is the humpback on the hull — the so-called “one and a half hulls””– that
permits the boat to slice through water, performing diving and other actions more efficiently. It is a design aspect, along with several other design features, taken from the Russian Severodvinsk and Borei class nuclear subs.

The less obvious but far more significant things to notice is that Arihant has apparently returned from a mission where it dived below crushing depths of well over 300 meters, around 340-350 metres, to see how well the hull would hold up. It has held up beautifully.

But how can this be deduced?Look closely at the smooth skin on the hull. The titanium alloyed hull has withstood the quite enormous pressures on it in the deep without crimping. But on the differently metalled conning tower there is evidence of the skin being crunched — see the wavy formations? — at great depths. It cannot be reproduced in labs or synthetically. And it couldn’t have happened because the Arihant dived to the 100 metre depth of the Vizag channel leading to the open sea. That the structure held up very well may be attributed to the extraordinary welding that fused the tower to the hull.

While it has been publicly put out that the Indian SSBN was working up its nuclear power plant to full power, etc., the fact is it takes no more than a month at the most, at a graduated pace, to reach the full 80 MW drive power. So for the rest of the last 8 months or so, it has been cruising and diving, including below crushing depths. After several more such deep dives the Arihant will have anechoic tiles — able to absorb sound waves, making detection by sonar more difficult — attached to its outer surface, and it will be ready for induction into fleet operations.

The most commendable aspect, other than the high-class technology and manufacturing skills of Indian welders, is the guts shown by the CO, XO, and the rest of the crew of the Arihant in making these repeated hazardous dives but required as a stern test for an SSBN.

The BIG QUESTION that arises is: With so much evidence of indigenous design and manufacturing skills on the Arihant, why is the Indian Navy still hankering for foreign submersibles and not trusting Indian capabilities to produce the Project 75i conventional submarine???

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A former AOC-in-C, Operational Command, writes

[Reproduced below is an e-letter, dated Aug 10, 2014, from a highly respected Airman, a former test pilot and AOC-in-C, Operational Command, who wishes to remain anonymous.]
I read your pieces Fire Up Defence Industry & Favour Tejas to Meet IAF Needs with great interest as indeed I do your other writings.

I thought I would take the liberty of sharing with you my personal experiences borne out of having been intimately involved with the IAF Plans Branch and as a test pilot both with DRDO and the Industry.

In ‘Fire Up the Defence Industry’ whilst talking of the HF 24 programme you make the point about a foreign aircraft fixated Air Force and the aircraft being aborted for being underpowered. Also that this has resulted in an endless cycle of licensed manufacture.

Whilst it is true that the HF 24 did not get the uprated Orpheus and hence fell short of level supersonic performance, we had found it to be a first class ground attack platform. I can say with confidence that the squadrons were happy and if HAL had continued to promptly address its technical, maintenance and other design problems, perhaps it would have served the IAF well.

HAL could not introduce design changes to clear the aircraft to fire its four 30mm canons in service and there were in-service fire problems that led to serious accidents and prolonged grounding. In my view having got the HF 24 into service, the HAL design team lost interest in keeping up with in -service design changes (which are essential for any aircraft-I think the Hunter clocked many thousands in service modifications).

Instead they had their eyes on the HF 24 Mk 1R which was the airframe with GTRE modified Orpheus Reheat engines. We had many a lively discussions with the design team and I recollect their complete belief that this should enter service, not with standing the fact that modification of the rear fuselage to accommodate the reheat had increased drag and affected speed performance to below that of the Mk1! Sadly Gp Capt Das’s fatal accident put an end to this futile debate.

The HF Mk 2 was proposed with the Mig 21 (If I remember the R 25 engine). Again this would have involved major aerodynamic changes and we were not sure how this would affect the performance of a Kurt design with an ‘area ruled’ fuselage shape. Ultimately I think the proposal was dropped by HAL itself when they saw that the IAF had reservations. Such a programme even if it were viable would not have achieved fruition in time to prevent seriously depleting the IAF’s strike capability.

(You do mention Raj Mahindra in the context of the HF Mk II and if I recollect he did appreciate our reservations on modifying the HF 24 fuselage for an R 25 engine. I may mention that we worked very closely with him on clearing the HJT 16 for the IAF including the difficult spinning trials. He was truly a hands-on designer who worked so closely with us that we were one team. Perhaps this is one reason the HJT 16 has served the IAF so well for so long)

In the late sixties IAF had identified a requirement of a Fighter-bomber, as we could see that Medium Bombers like the Canberra were becoming vulnerable. After the 1971 operations, some instances of corrosion were reported from both the Hunter and Canberra fleets. This would have had a serious impact on our strike capability. This, along with our ASR for a DPSA resulted in the Jaguar induction, which was cleared by the Morarji government.

In the mid seventies the following areas were drawing our attention in the Plans Branch.

· Reduce multiplicity of types

· Reduce total dependence on Only Soviet source

· Aim for a balanced Force- Mix of High performance/High Cost & Light/low cost. Keep affordability fully in mind

· Ensure that indigenous design and production expertise grows

That is why the Ajeet programme was launched by HAL even as the LCA requirement was being formulated.

Unfortunately, in a way, the Ajeet followed the same trajectory as the HF. As soon as it entered service our industry started to look for the next design project. Not surprisingly the Ajeet, like the HF was prematurely withdrawn from service. Having been part of the HAL team during the Ajeet development I can say that enough was not done by the industry to keep this programme afloat perhaps because they had their eyes on the LCA!

It was the desire for a relatively light, maneuverable and not very high speed and low cost primarily a ground aircraft in our inventory that resulted in our evolving the initial LCA ASR. Unfortunately this was hijacked by the scientific community who wanted to build a world-class light aircraft with multi role capability. What we were promised was an indigenous design with indigenous engine and indigenous multi mode radar in a time frame to replace our ageing Mig 21. Having deliberately kept the IAF out during the Project Definition Phase when many critical decisions were taken (Arun Singh was told that IAF was coming in the way of a fast track project) the IAF was finally asked to comment of the PDP report. I can say with hindsight that every cautionary note that we struck in that report has been more than proven by subsequent events. I have often written that purely as an exercise to learn lessons, an institution like the College of Defence Management should conduct a management study of how this vital project has been mishandled by personalities for egoistic ends.

As if this was not a challenge itself, HAL Design was kept out and instead a Society to oversee ADA was formed to manage the project. So we have ADA as the design authority, HAL as the production agency and one responsible for providing product support to the IAF. ADA will be busy with the next generation design and when in service problems arise, one can visualize passing the buck between HAL and ADA with the IAF facing the consequences! I do not wish to be a pessimist, but my experience cautions me of a repeat of the HF 24 and Ajeet histories. Sadly at great cost to the nation.

Let me also say that the IAF could boast of the finest Plans Branch and planning systems starting from the sixties. Integrated within the system were not just test pilots and engineers but financial planners as well. Our Air Staff Requirements were thoroughly made and then not compromised. Because planning is a long-term activity, people with experience were rotated within the system.

ASRs were what the IAF needed not what others thought we needed. So when the LCA ASR was being discussed and the DRDO wanted these to be moderated, the ASR was not changed. Instead the concession was mentioned against the required performance. In the ASR. Similarly, if for some reason of cost or availability, the MOD wanted concessions to be made, these were recorded as concessions with reasons and not as changes to ASR.

I must say to my regret that from the early nineties IAF leaderships, for whatever reason, failed to maintain the integrity of the Planning Branch. Whether it was external pressures or those from within, it is not for me to say, although I have my serious reservations on some of the leaderships of the time. Committing the IAF to the Su 30 heavy fighter within a year of the Chief saying there was no such requirement (and that too a two cockpit fighter which has a huge impact on pilot demands) is I believe an event that has not been studied enough nor commented upon. The rot was setting in and the recent revelations about the VVIP helicopter Staff Requirements being changed due to extraneous factors merely confirms this and does not surprise me.

I have always believed and advocated that we as a nation have the wherewithal to become a producer of world-class aeroplanes. What is lacking is a strategy and to work as one. When Dr Kalam was President of the Aeronautical Society of India a paper was put up for a National Aeronautics Policy. In 2004 the AeSI revised the proposal and a paper titled ‘National Aeronautics Policy’ August 2004 was put up to the government. As one of the Vice Presidents of the Society at the time I was one of the principal architects of this paper. I understood that the then NSA Mani Dixit was pursuing it, but perhaps because of his untimely demise no follow-up took place.

I do share concern of where IAF plans are leading us. I thought that as a historian and academic you may be interested in some of the more hidden aspects from the other side as it were, aspects which otherwise will die as generations move on, depriving us to draw appropriate lessons.

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