The Tragedy of Tejas

The Government doesn’t see that the commercial bonanza for foreign countries is choking off funds for home-grown aircraft

——-DEPENDING ON WHAT’S involved, legacy can be a good thing or a bad thing. In the case of the Indian state, bureaucracy, and especially the military, legacy has proved a liability. The colonial system and approach were retained in every aspect of government for want of ready alternatives and the fear of disruption. It has particularly hurt the armed services because they have stayed stuck in time. Thus, the Army’s main force is arrayed northwestward, the Air Force thinks as a tactical regional adjunct of another out-of-area air force (with the Royal Air Force missing), and the Navy imitates the attitude and outlook of the US Navy, which replaced its British counterpart, replete with a tilt towards big ships at a time when supersonic and hypersonic cruise missiles and remote-controlled mini-submarines and attack boats are making them obsolete.

The three services also have in common the acute institutional hankering for Western military hardware, which was thwarted for 30 odd years (the mid-60s to mid-90s) by Cold War politics and the availability of Russian equipment in the Soviet era at ‘friendship prices’. Now that that constraint is lifted, they are reverting wherever possible to buying cost-prohibitive Western armaments with a vengeance, often at the expense of indigenously designed and developed weapon systems, such as the Arjun Main Battle Tank and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), that have proved as good, when not better, than foreign items.

No, a kill order by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the LCA programme is not in the offing because it is advisable for the politician and the military brass to talk desi and not openly prefer firang (refer the glossy AeroIndia pullouts in newspapers). A high technology ‘prestige’ project capable of seeding a burgeoning aerospace sector in the country and imperilling imports will, however, be undermined on the sly, by restricting funds and the offtake of the indigenous on the plea that the monies are needed to finance imports of combat aircraft to meet immediate requirements, and by simultaneously diverting the attention, effort and resources of the LCA programme into the Mk-II version and the more ‘futuristic’, ‘super-stealthy’, Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft project. By insisting on stiff specifications and delivery deadlines, these programmes will be set up for eventual rejection. Meanwhile, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA)— the progenitors of the Tejas—will be thus kept occupied and out of the IAF’s hair, which will shield the service from unwanted political pressure to ‘buy Indian’ or to invest in the LCA. But we are getting ahead of the story.

The AeroIndia 2017 Air Show, that opened in Bengaluru on Valentine’s Day and ends on February 18th, features the foreign accomplices—the Swedish Saab Gripen E, the Super Hawk optimised for short-range air defence and touted in some quarters as the UK’s answer to the LCA, the French Rafale, and the American fighter planes, the Lockheed Martin ‘Block 70’ F-16 and the Boeing F-18E/F with the prospective payoffs overcoming the initial resistance from President Donald Trump. Except for the Super Hawk, these are all aircraft that had been entered in IAF’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, won in 2012 by the Rafale. Except, new-generation warfare featuring drone-swarms and advanced air defence systems are expected to make manned fighter planes extinct.

But why the immense foreign interest? Firstly, because India is expected to buy 200-250 of the chosen plane with a full weapons suite and costing $250-$300 million each, for a total contract with only limited holdings of spares and service support of around $7.5 billion to $9 billion. Every supplier also promises to set up a modern global manufacturing and servicing hub for his aircraft and a technology innovation and industrial eco-system of small and medium scale enterprises (SMSEs) to generate employment, and, with full transfer of technology, a capacity locally to design and develop follow-on fighter aircraft. This will take many years to realise. So add another $3-4 billion to the bill for hub-development. After factoring in inflation and currency fluctuations, over the 30-40 year lifetime of the aircraft, the total take from this deal for a single-engined fighter for the winning foreign firm could be as much as $50 billion. To get perspective, this sum equals the cost of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with networks of roads and power plants stretching from Baltistan to Gwadar, which will be that state’s infrastructure and economic backbone.

Secondly, India’s track record of squandering high-cost transferred technology by the Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs) and ordnance factories, and their never venturing beyond licence manufacture (LM) entailing Meccano-level screwdriver technology, is well known. Thus, no technologies were ingested from the MiG-21, Jaguar, and Su-30MKI LM contracts nor any design bureaus for technology innovation created. The international arms peddlers are only too aware of this situation and of the likelihood that LM agreements will inevitably lead to cascading sales of tech upgrade packages and CKD (completely knocked down) and SKD (semi-knocked down) kits to assemble the aircraft with. For the foreign supplier, it is an endlessly profitable cycle ensuring that, in real terms, at least 80 per cent of the monetary value of the contract is returned to the home country, and the remaining treated as ‘offsets’ mandated by the Indian Government that have so far produced few real benefits.

Thirdly, just as India’s buy of the Hawk trainer rescued British Aerospace, and that of 36 Rafales—with possibly another 80-100 of these planes in the pipeline—has put the French Company Dassault in the clover, New Delhi’s purchase of the Gripen will throw a lifeline to the combat aviation industry in Sweden, and Lockheed’s worn-out F-16 assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, instead of being discarded, will be sold to India to earn revenue. Too much is at stake for the foreign companies in the race not to over-promise and under-bid. The extent of under-bidding is evidenced in Dassault’s original price for 126 Rafales of around $12 billion that actually ended up fetching the IAF a mere 36 planes. The larger pattern that has emerged over the past many decades is for an apparently ‘very rich’ India to subsidise and sustain defence industries in seemingly ‘poor’ states—namely, the United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, France, and Israel.

The Indian defence industry has ‘largely failed to produce competitive indigenously-designed weapons’, a view the Indian military endorses. But why is this so? Principally because the armed services obstruct indigenous arms projects from succeeding

US defence sources estimate India’s military procurement outlays in the next few decades to be of the order of $250 billion. If roughly 10 per cent of any contracted deal is the usual down payment—in the Rafale case, for instance, it amounts to Rs 9,700 crore—a staggering $25 billion will have to be shelled out before a single item turns up on Indian shores. One can see why India is the consumer of choice in the international arms market.

IT IS WORRISOME that the Government, trapped in its ‘Make in India’ rhetoric, doesn’t see that the commercial bonanza for foreign countries will choke off the funds necessary for the home-grown, and for investment to build a comprehensively capable defence industry in the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar appear not to have caught on to the fact that foreign arms suppliers are not in the business of making customers independent of them, but of bolting them down as dependents. Making the country a minor partner in the global supply chains of major transnational defence industrial corporations—the best that the present tilt of ‘Make in India’ policy can achieve—begs the question if this is all India should aspire to. And more, importantly, whether India will ever have the kind of financial cushion needed for $250 billion worth of military wherewithal, even as the tradeoffs between social welfare and developmental needs on the one hand and nation security demands on the other hand get starker. If such massive defence capital expenditure is somehow managed, whether frittering away the country’s wealth when it perpetuates only a hollow national security, is politically prudent. But there’s no gainsaying that it will firm up the country’s reputation as the largest arms importer in the world. India accounts for 14 per cent of the world’s arms imports, followed by China at 4.7 per cent (except China has compensated by increasing its arms exports 143 per cent in 2010-2015 to reach $1.6 billion). Put another way, over 2000-2015, India bought weapons valued at $120 billion: money that could have obtained for the country sizeable defence industrial infrastructure and skilled manpower instead of military hardware that can be ground to a stop anytime any of a host of suppliers decide for whatever reasons to withhold spares. So, not only is India’s security hostage to the interests of external players, but the country is paying exorbitantly for it too.

The reason adduced for this sorry state of affairs by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is that the Indian defence industry has ‘largely failed to produce competitive indigenously- designed weapons’—a view the Indian military heartily endorses. But why is this so? Principally because the armed services obstruct indigenous arms projects from succeeding. The Tejas programme has progressed in fits and starts, and been delayed interminably, in the main, for two reasons. One, the Air Staff Requirements were changed numerous times on the plea of the IAF wanting an up-to-date plane. Thus, re-design and structural alterations became necessary, for example, when the IAF demanded installation of a refuelling probe after prototypes had already been built. It imposed significant time and cost penalties and hurt the delivery deadline. Two, the IAF insisted on a ‘finished product’ with all weapons trials and fitments completed and Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) secured, before accepting it.

This is contrary to the procedure followed by all other major air forces. In the US, its newest joint strike fighter, the F-35, first entered squadron service with the US Air Force and the US Marines with technical refinements, structural modifications, and proper weapons and avionics integration being carried out on the basis of continuous feedback from frontline pilots after the plane’s induction. Some serious problems with the F-35, such as with the zero- zero ejection seat system, helmet-mounted sensors, avionics, and the F-135 power plant, are all being corrected even as the aircraft is flying around. This rigmarole is called ‘concurrency’, meaning induction and capability improvements happening simultaneously after the user-service has taken charge of the combat plane. In the case of the Tejas though, the onus is entirely on the development/ production unit to put in IAF’s hands a battle-ready fighter aircraft, inclusive of the promised weapons load. It reflects IAF’s reluctance to take ownership of the Tejas even after it has proved its druthers. The truly dastardly aspect is that the standard applied by the IAF to the LCA does not apply to imported aircraft. Thus, the Mirage 2000 inducted in 1985 flew unarmed for the next three years because the contracted weapons had not been delivered. It was political prompting alone that hastened the formation of the so-far-only-Tejas unit in the Air Force, the 45 Squadron with only a handful of LCAs, based in Sulur, Andhra Pradesh.

The other means adopted by IAF to undercut the Tejas programme is to order only a few aircraft at a time to deny the production units economies of scale. Thus, the official indent is just for 20 LCAs after IOC, and another 20 for post-FOC, with the possibility held out for 43 planes for a total strength of only 83 Tejas, when the actual requirement is for 200-250 single-engined combat aircraft of this type, which IAF proposes to meet by buying one of the foreign aircraft displayed at AeroIndia. This is because IAF doesn’t take pride in the LCA, or care to have it in its fleet, and also perhaps, because the Tejas programme offers no material inducements for persons in the procurement loop, such as endless trips to Paris, Stockholm, etcetera, what is risibly called ‘pocket money’, and so on. With the IAF variant of Tejas so stymied, its navalised version too will be emasculated, with the Indian Navy now joining the Air Force in opting for imported aircraft for its carriers—the navalised Rafale, Gripen, F-18, and the MiG-29K all seen at the Air Show.

Settling on licence manufacture of foreign planes serves yet another purpose. It preserves the monopoly of aircraft production for the highly inefficient DPSUs, like Hindustan Aerospace Ltd. DPSUs are controlled by the Department of Defence Production (DPP) in the MoD and is valuable turf that its bureaucrats are loath to lose, which can happen if, despite every obstacle, a project reaches the cusp of commercial success.

Tejas is a success if only it is given a chance. A 4.5-generation aircraft, like the Rafale, the LCA is far stealthier, more agile, and with a far bigger potential for growth as a versatile fighting platform. Significantly, it has clocked in excess of 3,000 flying hours without a single incident—a record unsurpassed by any combat aircraft under development anywhere, at any time. Its sleek looks and ease of handling, evident in the demonstration flights at the Bahrain Air Show last year, evinced praise from experts and enormous interest world-wide, with many countries inquiring about its availability. Naturally, fear has arisen in HAL and DPP/MoD circles that the Tejas may elicit commercial interest in the private sector, and private sector proposals for producing this aircraft for the IAF and for profit from exports, may follow. This would set a precedent of a DPSU being bypassed, of the technologies required to be transferred to a private sector consortium by the Aeronautical Development Agency and DRDO, and the diminishing of the stake and role of the public sector and DPP/MoD in the budding Indian defence industry of the future.

It is an end-state the IAF-DPP/MoD-DPSU complex will not abide, and what it doesn’t want, it will do away with. It has a stellar record of success in eliminating inconvenient indigenous conventional armaments projects that threaten its vested interests, usually by ‘throttling them in the cradle’. In the late-70s, the Mk-II version of the Marut HF-24 multi-role fighter was terminated by the Indira Gandhi regime siding with the IAF to buy the Jaguar low level strike aircraft. The original Marut was designed by one of the greatest designers of the World War II-era, Dr Kurt Tank of Focke-Wulfe fame, who was imaginatively brought in by Jawaharlal Nehru to design and produce the first supersonic fighter outside of the US and Europe. Tank had a prototype flying by 1961, inside of six years of his getting the commission.

Tank’s most gifted Indian protégé, Raj Mahindra, designed the Mk-II, which was eliminated by the Jaguar buy, whence began India’s rapid slide towards an all imported Air Force. If Mahindra’s Marut successor aircraft was killed by jhatka, the Tejas will be bled slowly, killed by the halaal method.


Published in Open Magazine, dated Feb 17, 2017, at





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Defence budget: The central government has talked smart, not acted smart

The unambitious and low-key budget is emblematic of the Narendra Modi government’s approach of trusting in only small, cautious, steps. So nobody expected that the defence allocations would be used to reorient an Indian military that’s been long in the rut. This would have been a disruptive thing to do to shake up the armed services which, owing to weak political direction and oversight have compelled governments to rubber-stamp whatever they decide is in the national interest.

Predictably, defence allocations of Rs 2.74 trillion falling to 1.63% of GDP has sparked concern, while ignoring the fact that an enlarged budget would have led to the squandering of the taxpayer’s money anyway. The problem at heart is this: The Indian military weighs its self-worth purely in terms of in-date weapons. Absent contrary political instructions as corrective, the preoccupation is with importing hardware, whether or not this is cost-effective, or even appropriate. The result is a mangled decision matrix in which instead of threats and grand strategy defining strategy, force structure, and weapons requirements, in that order, the existing force composition dictates the threat and the choice of armaments and strategy. Whence, the army’s money-guzzling three strike corps, that are way in excess of need, have monopolised the army’s modernisation and maintenance budgets, even though this capability is usable only in the desert and the plains, justified only by the “Pakistan threat”, and driven by a largely unimplementable ‘Cold Start’ strategy.

The Modi government has talked smart, not acted smart. It has failed to channel efforts and resources to secure military capabilities principally to deter China, which would, naturally, also take care of any contingency involving Pakistan, and fetch a larger strategic and international political dividend besides. Indeed, the raising of the only mountain strike corps (17 Corps) is languishing for want of funds. A desperately needed reorientation of the armed services will have to be rammed down resisting throats. Left to itself, the Indian military, which seems incapable of transformative change, will stick to its outdated outlook, operational bearing and plans.

The Modi regime can use the fact of scarce financial resources as lever to change the military mindset as is routinely done in the more mature democracies. Selective approval of expenditure schemes can re-shape and redirect the armed services. A start along these lines can, perhaps, be made to prepare for next year’s budget. The defence capital (or procurement) budget — the nub of the issue — is, in any case, declining. It was Rs 945.88 billion in 2015-16, decreased by 8.7% to Rs 863.4 billion last year, plateauing at Rs 864.88 billion in this fiscal, except only two-thirds of this sum will be actually available for purchases. It is a trend that’s likely to continue.

Considering that in excess of Rs. 3.71 lakh crore (or, roughly $55 billion) are already committed to purchasing weapons systems from abroad, and 10% as first payments in hard currency amounting to some $5 billion on the numerous contracts already made, the only option is to shrink the numbers of units contracted for, and to adjust the payments already made against the reduced outgo.

If the idea is to channel monies to realise more rational forces and capabilities, the signal has to be sent to the armed services that the government will not tolerate business-as-usual. Certain programmes are ripe for down-scaling and would set a precedent. Thus, the Field Artillery Rationalization Plan estimated to cost $12 billion can be shaved to $4 billion by reducing the demand for 1,580 towed 155mm/52mm caliber howitzers, 100 tracked self-propelled (SP) guns, 180 wheeled SP artillery, and 814 mounted gun systems by two-thirds, leaving enough hardware to meet the requirements of a single, compact, consolidated, corps-strength mobile warfare capability on the western border.

The deal for 464 Russian T-90MS tanks costing $4.3 million each in a contract worth nearly $10 billion, requires termination, not least because it is a buy at the expense of the indigenous Arjun Main Battle Tank that comprehensively out-performed the T-90 in test trials in all aspects in all terrains but was rejected as “over-weight”. This is an outrage requiring speedy rethink, if defence minister Manohar Parrikar is serious about not cutting the “indigenous” out of the government’s ‘Make in India’ policy. The plan for new generation infantry combat vehicle numbers too will require pruning to around 730 units costing Rs 52.5 billion, instead of 2,200 new ICVs for Rs 157.5 billion.


A similarly ruthless attitude should lead to the nixing of the 36 Rafale aircraft deal for $12 billion — engagement of Modi’s ego to this transaction notwithstanding, especially as the air force sees it as a means of pushing the government into buying 90 more of this supposedly “medium” multi-role fighter — a category of aircraft known to no other major air force. It will save India the down payment of Rs 97 billion. The navy, likewise, should be strongly dissuaded from accepting the American EMALS (electro-magnetic aircraft launch system) costing $533 million each for the second and third Kochi-built aircraft carriers.

Savings from such hard-headed procurement decisions will make available funds for appropriate capabilities, and indigenous design and technology projects, such as the Tejas 1A and Mk-II, and the navalised LCA, ordered to proceed on the concurrency principle of induction along with capability refinement, with senior air force and navy brass made accountable for their success, a procedure followed by all major militaries.

As this can happen within the time-frames for induction of imported aircraft, imports are pre-empted. The freed-up funds should also be invested in designing, developing, and producing a small 25 ton tank with an engine optimised for high-altitude operations to equip three mountain strike corps.

Published in the Hindustan Times Feb 14, 2017 at;  and in the print (Delhi) edition under the title “Reorient focus, cut the flab”.

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Single-engined ruse

AeroIndia 2017 opens in Bangalore Feb 14-18. It is restricted, apparently by design, to fighter aircraft that are only single-engined with special exception being made for the  two-engined Boeing F-18.  This order is  hard to make sense of except as a ruse to keep the Russian combat aircraft out of the fray altogether possibly for fear that the Su-35 or the MiG-35 even would outshine the Western jets over Yerlenka AFB. Sure, other than the Su-30MKIs doing their flights, Russian planes will not be present, not even on static display at the premier Indian air show. So, we will see the ‘Super Hawk’ supposedly jointly developed by HAL and British Aerospace, the French Rafale, the Swedish Grippen E, and the American items —  the less stealthy Lockheed Martin F-16 C variant without the conformal fuel tanks (in the variant E/SE sold to Qatar) being peddled to India, and the F-18.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi has decided on a decisive military turn Westward, finally and formally reducing its flagship ‘Make in India’ policy to the same old manufacture-under-license (MUL) of totally  foreign imported combat aircraft. It is an outcome the Indian Air Force seemingly desperately desired, fearing that the combine of Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar would impose a future force inventory of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft backed by the Russian staples — Su-30, MiG-29, and the upgraded Jaguars and Mirage 2000s. To keep Moscow from being miffed,  the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) Sukhoi T-50 entering Russian service by next year, is in the reckoning but just. Considering the desultory pace of negotiations and the tilt away from equipoise, there’s good chance this FGFA may not enter IAF after all.

While the Swedes are hopeful, the Americans confident that in the final analysis a Trumpian twist of Modi’s arm would fetch it a fortune for an assembly line that Lockheed Martin would otherwise have to tear up and throw away as the space  in the Fort Worth, Texas, plant is needed for putting in place modern, up to-date production wherewithal for the F-35, and the French are delirious with the possibility not only of adding to the number of Rafales India has generously bought from Dassault that will keep that aerospace major from sinking, by selling 200 more off the same aircraft, off the shelf, if at all possible but, and this is a new avenue that’s suddenly opened up with the Indian Navy appallingly joining the IAF in ditching the navalized variant of the LCA under development — of fobbing off to India its ‘novi avion’ (naval) version as well.

The Modi regime’s somewhat skewed reason for opting for the MUL route for its Make in India programme is the belief that producing any of these aircraft — from the fairly new (Gripen) to the really old (F-16/F-18) in India, will turn this country into a global hub for sales and service worldwide for this warplane. It is a line all the suppliers have succeeded in selling to the GOI. The surprise is New Delhi has swallowed it hook, line, and sinker without so  much as a show of discomfort!  Then again, the armed services and MOD are habituated to decades of milking the armaments imports cow for the collateral gains, personalized goodies — long good time in Paris, Stockholm, …(fill in the blanks), personal “fund augmentation” and similar considerations that keeps everyone up and down the decision loop happy and lubricating and hurrahing the final deal along.

But, who’s to say India cannot afford its follies? It will be the third largest, multi-trillion dollar economy by 2030 don’t you know? But, in the here and now, there’s no money to buy these cost-benefit-wise wonky aircraft that will, for one reason or another, fail to come up to their billing. However, one thing is certain. In the context of severe resource crunch, this deal — a carryover from the half-baked MMRCA requirement conjured up by Air Hqrs, will be at the expense of the poor, expendable, home-made, Tejas LCA — lovingly designed into a beautiful aircraft that’s now orphaned, its future put in doubt despite  having the real potential as huge revenue earner in the global arms market,  by a government that talks desi but acts firang. And this is happening even as we hear not a squeak out of the ruling party’s minders in Nagpur.

But Group Captain Madhav Rangachari, CO, “Flying Daggers” 45 Squadron, the only Tejas unit in AF,  based in Sulur, Andhra Pradesh will, as a consolation, be allowed to take up his locally designed and developed air defence aircraft to show the crowds below just what the country will miss seeing in the Indian Air Force — an LCA  armada with the capacity to take out more exalted fighters in combat.

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Incomprehensible position on N-testing

In an interesting Meet on “Revising the N-doctrine”hosted by the Foundation for Integrated National Security headed by Lt Gen DB Shekatkar, former chairman, AEC, Anil Kakodkar, and SK Sikka ex-N weapons group, maintained that there was no need whatsoever for renewed explosive testing if, per Sikka, one has only “evolutionary” weapons in mind to develop rather than “revolutionary” weapons, which will require new tests. Further, Kakodakar mentioned in an aside to me, that simulation and hydronuclear tests, etc. can, more than adequately, replace actual testing. He also denied — and this is a digression — that at least during his tenure in office CAT, Indore, where the Indian Inertial Confinement Fusion  unit is in great disrepair, was in fine fettle, when actually owing to active discouragement, deliberate under-funding, and lack of interest, the ICF had, when Chidambaram headed the DAE 20 years back, already slid into a state of rack and ruin. ICF is integral to fashioning new thermonuclear weapons w/o testing by facilitating miniature fusion explosions using a multitude of laser beams. The most talented scientists in Indore were hounded out, at least one of whom that I know, is right now packing his bags to re-locate to Beijing where he is promised oodles of money, a brand new lab, and a select team of bright local scientists to aid him in his researches in complex networks and similar cutting edge areas!

But to revert to the theme of this post, Sikka during lunch explained to me that in-built scalability in the nuclear and thermonuclear weapons designs tested in 1998 and enhanced simulation techniques together have made testing redundant, and referred to the correlation between the decline in testing generally with the phenomenal rise in computing speeds. He said — and this astonished me — that based on the 1998 data Indian designers could even design “yield-dialed” weapons by, as Sikka said, simply reducing/increasing the fissile material and changing the mass of chemical explosives to set off the fission implosion in the first stage.

In the formal session where a fairly large number of serving military officers were present (perhaps, because of Gen Shekatkar’s proximity to defence minister Manohar Parrikar), I evinced grave doubts about India’s deterrence based on untested weapons and intent to carry on without N-testing by staying, as Kakodkar said, within the limits of the N- deal and other restrictive agreements signed with the US and other states. More worryingly, he was of the view that the empirical data from the six tests conducted so far by India and enhanced analytics (simulation, high computing speeds) were sufficient to preempt testing.

As evidence of how closely the Indian military thinking hews to the reigning political view however unstrategic, were the statements made by two recently retired military officers on one of the panels. The army man (LtG Ravi Dastane) talked up the virtues of not “rocking the nuclear boat”; the naval person (RADM S Shrikhande), more sensible, nevertheless mentioned shaping a “minimum deterrent” for a 2-front N-war w/o outlining the force structure he had in mind.

In an offline conversation, Kakodkar revealed to me that the Meghalaya uranium reserves estimated at “tens of thousand of tons”, relatively “rich” in uranium constituting some 1% of the ore, were prevented from being strip-mined by a combine of unscrupulous local politicians eager to extract/extort large sums as royalty and extraneous payments, Christian missionary orgs, and environmental NGOs. That GOI cannot at a stroke remove all hindrances at state level by declaring it a strategic resource and imperative, indicates the degree of infirm political will. Kakodkar stated that Ur is fairly abundant in Andhra but is  less rich (0.5%), and that infrastructure is under construction to mine and refine Rare Earth Elements — now that China is slowly strangling RRE flow to the outside world from sources on the Tibetan plateau.

Kakodkar also disclosed that Modi’s government had approved the setting up of ten  Indian designed and developed natural uranium fueled 700MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors all over the country. He was not clear where the money for these power projects would come from, and was not convincing in refuting my assertion that there’d be paucity of funds for the indigenous 700MW plants because of the priority accorded the purchase of imported American, French and Russian enriched uranium reactors by the Manmohan Singh government and now the Modi regime.

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TEN MIRVs on Chinese missile

China test fired a MIRV-ed missile with ten warheads, attaining the advanced US level of warhead miniaturization. While the Chinese have had trouble with their multiple independently targetable vehicle (MIRV) technology, especially the guidance aspects, it wasn’t expected that they would overcome the technical problems so fast and so well. Essentially, this means the Second Artillery Strategic Forces (SASF) have nuclear/thermonuclear warheads clocking in at around 100 kg weight. This is an astounding achievement.

This’d enable SASF to stay with relatively small numbers of fission/fusion warheaded missiles while multiplying the strike capability many times over, allowing for a  very big potential augmentation as it starts adding to the missile holdings. This development is in sync with the holistic Chinese concept of “credible deterrence” involving parity or superiority  vis a vis the strongest adversary in all security-related areas — conventional, nuclear, space, and cyber/information.

With such miniaturized warheads, there is every likelihood of SASF retrofitting all missiles in its inventory with the MIRV technology, loading each system with as many warheads as the nose cone geometries of the various missiles permit. India will then be looking at multiples of the current lot of short range and medium range ballistic missiles emplaced on the Tibetan plateau which now total between 300 and 500 units. Even a small fraction of such a force will be able to saturate and defeat the multi-layered Indian missile defence, configured around the interlinked Prithvi AD, Ashvini Advanced AD, and S-400  AD systems slaved to the Green Pines/Swordfish long range tracking radar.

If the Indian government has strategic sense, however little, it would at once see the Chinese MIRVs as compounding and complicating a simplistic Indian, already fraught, deterrence posture and, instead of buying useless high-priced hardware, such as the Rafale combat aircraft,  it would invest in concurrent development and induction of the most modern missile in the Indian arsenal, Agni-5, approve immediate test-firing of the ASL, Hyderabad, designed and developed MIRV technology collecting dust — let me remind you for the last decade and more, retrofit the older long range Agni’s with the proven A-5 innovations like the System (or guidance)-on-chip (for terminal accuracy even at extreme range), and prepare to resume testing of high yield hydrogen  warheads to close the gap in the strategic wherewithal with regard to China that is widening at an alarming pace.

Then again, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be inclined to do nothing in the strategic sphere to mar the prospects of an early audience with the US President Donald J Trump in Washington. Even the Pakistani test this past week of  a MIRVed missile (with three warhead capacity — the technology being transferred to it whole by China) being not enough of a goad.

Posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Defence Industry, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Weapons | 25 Comments

Making a deal with Trump

Published in the ‘Open’ Magazine, issue dated 6 February, 2017. A slightly different version in the net edition at

. The print version below:


India First and the new America

Now that the over-hyped, over the top, self-congratulatory tone of the change of government celebrations in Washington (carried by the Indian electronic media in the fawning manner the fledging Indian press reported the 1897 festivities commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign) have ended, the United States and the world enter gingerly upon the ‘America First’ era promised by President Donald J. Trump. There’s much apprehension everywhere, reflected in the iconic ‘Doomsday clock’ published by the venerable Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which, until now showed three minutes to Midnight (denoting nuclear apocalypse), being advanced half a minute or so.

But the populist Trump, it must be noted, is in his outlook, demeanor, and in his outlier’s political experience and trailblazing journey to the centre of power not unlike the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. Trump means to remake the country and the Republican Party in his own image much as Modi has done the Bharatiya Janata Party and (at least the top part of) the Indian government. Trump trusts his own views, and hopes to translate them into corrective programmes starting with deregulating the economy, just as Modi, relying on his reading of the situation and his own counsel, has shaped India’s policies and taken measures to generate jobs, encourage local industry, and loosen credit flows. But Modi, more risk-averse in reducing the government’s footprint, is also more humble than Trump. When asked whom he consulted on foreign policy matters, Trump said he found he was “speaking with myself,  number one, because I have a very good brain.” It signaled disdain for domain experts and advisory agencies, which attitude is quintessentially Modi-like.  Elsewhere, even though similar sounding, there are real differences between Trump’s ‘America First’ and Modi’s ‘India First’ principles, which will cause a rift between the two countries.

‘America First’, as Trump envisions it, is a decisive turning inward by a country fatigued playing globocop, dispirited by the  unending drain of national wealth in “peace making” and “democracy building” missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and victimized (as Trump sees it) by a globalised economy in which America is taken to the cleaners, even as China, ruthlessly manipulating its currency and exploiting the current multilateral trade and investment regimes to US’ detriment, grows wealthier and militarily assertive in Asia. Trump has promised hard-knuckled bargaining on bilateral basis for more equitable trade agreements, by-passing the existing multilateral forums altogether.

Already Trump has taken the axe to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Asia-Pacific trade channels will be next. China is the target, but India will suffer collateral damage in its limited areas of comparative advantage — Information-Technology and pharma sectors as Indian companies apprehend. With China ready to fill the global economic space vacated by the US, a stagnating India, dragged down by a moribund government apparatus, will get boxed even more into a corner. Further, following his dismissal of the United Nations as a “good time club”, Trump has cancelled the $500 million US contribution to it by President Barack Obama. The Modi government thus finds itself in a disrupted milieu, and on the outs with the incoming Trump Administration, missing two of its foreign policy crutches – an amenable America and multilaterfal diplomacy.

The “India First” concept was first coined by me and fleshed out in the monthly periodical ‘Seminar’ in 2002 (see By a process of osmotic transmission, it reached Narendra Modi in the late 2000s, who gave it a spin and made it his own ideological calling card. As originally conceived and explained to certain senior BJP leaders, ‘India First’ was a reaction to the wrong-headed foreign and military policies in the latter parts of the Narasimha Rao’s and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regimes that, in my view, promoted a vine-like clinging to the United States and the West for solutions to the country’s economic and security problems, rather than the country banking on itself, effectively mobilizing its own resources, selectively building up India’s strategic hard power, and more nimbly managing the international correlation of forces.

The tendency to outsource security became full blown during Manmohan Singh’s tenure, symbolized by the so-called “nuclear civilian cooperation” deal with the United States that, as intended by Washington, has prevented further nuclear testing and frozen Indian nuclear weapons at the low end of the technology curve and, worse, drawn the country into the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty net. ‘India First’ has mutated, in the Modi years into a still greater leaning on the US; the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement turning over Indian naval and air bases for contingent US military use and pre-positioning of stores, and his ‘Make in India’ programme providing foreign suppliers the cover to transfer old assembly lines to produce antiquated military hardware, such as the F-16 fighter aircraft.

It is in this larger context that one has to weigh the possible outcomes of Trump’s policies. Indian reactions have been predictable. Keying on the middle class aspirations, the media has focused on the abolition of the H1B visa track to the coveted ‘green card’ as the big downside of the Trump presidency when, in fact, starting with Obama’s ‘in-shoring” policy the Indian IT majors, had begun hiring Americans in large numbers and limiting their H1B exposure. Another reaction – that of BJP spokesmen, is to mistakenly conflate Trump’s threat to destroy “Islamic terror” and the Afghan Taliban with the US help in eliminating the various troublesome Lashkars active in Pakistan. In a similar vein, to expect that Trump’s harsh words about China will mean military pressure on Beijing, which could benefit India, is to discount the leverage its economic interlinks with and cross-holdings in America, provide China. Should the situation get hot, Trump will expect US’ Asian allies and partners – as he does European states fearful of an aggressive Russia — to protect their interests the best they can. Meanwhile, Trump’s closest European friend other than Nigel Farage of Brexit fame is President Vladimir Putin to cement relations with whom, Trump will lift the US sanctions imposed on Russia.

To complicate matters, New Delhi has, in its eagerness to “diversify” its military supply sources, distanced itself from Russia at the worst possible time, particularly as a helpful Kremlin would have been invaluable in offsetting China’s military strength. Indeed, Trump would more easily be persuaded about an informal concert of India, Russia, and the US to deter and contain China, rather than get the US involved in shoring up America’s treaty allies and possibly into a direct fight with China.

Yet another response by the Indian media, habituated to portraying every small achievement by NRIs as earth-shaking event, is to laud Trump for appointing Indian-origin Americans to high positions (Nikki Haley as US Ambassador to a diminished UN, Ajit Pai as head of the Federal Communications Commission, etc.) and to read a deep store of US goodwill for India in these appointments.

The many real downside aspects are thus missed. Trump sees himself as an incomparable negotiator, his hard line deal-making method stressing all take and no give. In practice, this will result in the bullying of friendly states, including India. Were New Delhi, for instance, to suggest a tradeoff between India’s buys of high-value US armaments and Washington’s easing off on the H1B issue, say, or conserving some other Indian interest, the access to the lucrative US market will be alluded to by way of sealing a one-way deal. More worrisome still, in between professing his love for “Hindus” and labeling everything Pakistani “fantastic”, Trump has evinced an interest in brokering a Kashmir deal. Islamabad has jumped at the chance to drag the US into the melee; New Delhi will demur. Faced with a receptive Pakistan, a resisting India, and the prospective loss of face (and possibly the Nobel Peace Prize to match his predecessor Obama’s), a vindictive Trump, of which there’s ample evidence,  may go ballistic, his ire erupting in hurtful diplomatic actions. What’s to stop him, say, exhuming the plebiscite option to resolve the Kashmir dispute per UN Security Council Resolution 47?

If the above is viewed as alarmist speculation consider that the person regarded as most able to inject sanity into the Trump Cabinet, is called “Mad Dog”, as in General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the US Defence Secretary. As a former head of the US Central Command, Mattis has dealt extensively with the Pakistan army and appreciates its utility in advancing US interests in a region where America finds itself bogged down. To ensure a smooth relationship with Islamabad, he would happily revert to the policy of alerting General Headquarters, Rawalpindi (GHQR) about Indian plans for “surgical strikes” or other operations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, as happened in the past when India, jointly with Israel, had planned in 1982 to bomb the nuclear complex in Kahuta and a solo IAF mission two years later, both aiming for preemptive strikes before the Pakistani nuclear programme had reached the weapons threshold.

And finally, a warning for Modi: As a self-confessed “germaphobe” Trump will not tolerate the Prime Minister’s hugs and, in meetings, will keep Modi at arm’s length, perhaps, symbolically describing the arc of the evolving US attitude towards India.

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Story behind the FS’ extension in service

That S. Jaishankar would get an extension in service as Foreign Secretary was expected. It ruined the promotion prospects of half a dozen IFS officers. But its official announcement naturally did not reveal the full story.  NSA Ajit Doval. who has had the main hand in installing persons in high posts, especially intelligence and investigative agencies — RAW, IB, CBI, because of his prior police career and presumed expertise in these fields, he has been on a slippery slope where foreign policy is concerned, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi consulting more with Jaishankar on external issues. A tug-of-war is thus on between NSA and FS for establishing proximity to the PM, because it is the perception of nearness to the centre of power which decides their individual clout and influence in the system at-large.

Jaishankar has been a favoured foreign service officer from the start, with good fortune to have K. Subrahmanyam, ex-IAS, the late strategist with whom many PMs in the past consulted, as father. An entirely self-taught person in terms of strategic matters, who initially gained a reputation  at home and abroad for advocating the Bomb for India, Subrahmanyam coupled this, in his later years,  to his reading of international affairs to institutionally root, to the great detriment to national interest, a view in government of a minimalist nuclear deterrence perspective to the extent of urging (along with the rest of the IDSA caboodle, including Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, et al) in the mid-1990s that the government, then under prime minister Deve Gowda, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before India even had a semblance of serviceable nuclear weapons. The insufficiently respected and regarded Deve Gowda had the common sense, the native cunning, and the political will to hold his ground, reject such myopic advice, and order the blocking of the CTBT in Geneva.

However, the US Government found Subrahmanyam’s “minimum deterrence” ideas endearing and his case for intimate relations with America based on conforming to Washington’s nonproliferation policy  metrics particularly useful. This aside on Subrahmanyam’s policy tilt is not irrelevant to Jaishankar’s storied rise in the foreign service, which owes not little to the FS’ “career management” by his father.

Subrahmanyam arranged for choicest postings, including as first secretary in the Washington embassy in the mid-80s (which is when I, then also residing in that town, first made his acquaintance) after a stint in Moscow station. Jaishankar’s posting order to Prague as deputy chief of mission in 1996 was changed, for instance, at Subrahmanyam’s request,  to DCM Tokyo. Then the Vajpayee regime initiated the US-leaning policy (eventuating in the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership) pushed by Subrahmanyam, and importantly, seconded by NSA Brajesh Mishra — the NSSP being the precursor to the nuclear deal.

With Manmohan Singh as PM the policy of intimacy-building with the US gathered heft and momentum, with Subrahmanyam again helping secure for his son the prize post as Joint Secretary (Americas) — pulling him into the MEA from Prague, where now he was  ambassador. As JS he was lead negotiator of the nuclear deal his father forcefully advocated.  Its successful culmination, with promptings from the sidelines and media support generated by Subrahmanyham’s writings, raised  Jaishankar’s profile, leading to the ambassadorship in China, despite having no knowledge of Mandarin, probably the first Indian plenipotentiary to be thus language-challenged. A US-loving Modi in 2014 sent him to Washington and annointed him FS in the nick of time before his retirement, ousting Sujatha Singh mid-tenure.

Now to revert to the beginning of this post:  Modi’s dissatisfaction with Doval’s lack of foreign policy expertise and inability substantively and properly to follow up on the PM’s instincts and intuitions — on which the Indian foreign policy has always been run. The PM banks on Jaishankar to carry out his instructions. This foreign policy bypass has, for obvious reasons, created tension between Doval and Jaishankar. But this actually reflects a serious tussle for nearness to  PM — the secret of Brajesh Mishra’s comprehensive power in the Vajpayee dispensation. While Modi would like to continue with these two horses drawing his chariot, it cannot be sustained. Whence, the extension to Jaishankar as a bridging action to a more enduring system.

But what’s such a system to be? A scheme of two NSAs — one for internal security, the other for external policies, has been mooted, but is inherently unstable and, perhaps, even unworkable, and something Doval is resisting. But he can resist only so long if Modi is intent on having it. The one year, in essence, gives both Doval and Jaishankar time to adjust to an equal standing in PMO or, contrarily, the opportunity to maneuver the other out of pole position. It will be interesting to see how this competition pans out, because, as insider accounts attest, these two are ruthless positional augmenters and bureaucratic in-fighters.

This still leaves a big hole where an expert with military competence and knowledge should be, because neither Doval nor Jaishankar has other than nodding acquaintance with matters military. And this could prove to be a liability, or not, if limping along on the great power path is considered par for the course.

Posted in China, civil-military relations, Decision-making, domestic politics, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Russia, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US. | 8 Comments