Insulating Indo-Iranian ties

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(Rouhani at a Hyderabad mosque)

As I write this, Iran President Hassan Rouhani is sitting down to talk with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The latter can firm up bilateral relations in a way that hasn’t been done before in that the stake is now immeasurably strategic. Having shown tremendous strategic nous in getting Oman and Muscat on India’s side, something the Sultan Qaboos regime has been sending out feelers for, for more than a decade, and getting Duqm as a prized Indian military base in the Gulf, Modi now has the opportunity for sealing the country’s presence in that region — and maritime-wise outflanking China out of Gwadar at one end and Djibouti at the other end. Duqm, built up by the US military, is an alternative (to Bahrain)  forward headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet.

Rouhani has made clear what Tehran is putting on the table — permission for Indian investment in the rich Farzad-B gas field in southern Iran, Chahbahar as the Indian entrepot to the hinterland of Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, and a regime that will allow Indian investment in that country in rupees — in a sense monetarily extending India’s reach to the Gulf. With respect to Chahbahar, Modi needs to formalize — even if in a secret provision — not so far there — in the draft agreement on the table, the Indian military’s use of this port as an Indian naval base to preposition its stores. This is an imperative because in the regional chessboard a worried Pakistan military has revived its old association with Saudi Arabia by posting  a Pakistan Army contingent in Riyadh.

What does Rouhani expect in return? Tehran will very much appreciate a two-way economic-trade-investment milieu entirely insulated from the arbitrariness of the US policy towards Iran. Washington has tried to corral the lot of proximal Asian states to fall in line with the US policy of pressuring the shia clerics-run Iran. Most Gulf states being sunni, their religio-ideological interests adhere to American posture. But not so India, with the second largest shia population in the world (and nearly 20% of the almost 200 milllion strong Indian Muslim community) and in the thick of the sunni-shia contestation in the extended region. Indeed, one of the largest en bloc supporters of the ruling BJP are the Indian shia voters. Delhi can no more afford to alienate Tehran and the theocrats of Qom than it can upset the sunni world. So while Modi’s “balancing” act between Israel and Iran is a matter of traipsing along the sidelines because India’s policies to these two countries are on different tracks, avoiding the US call to Delhi to bandwagon with it against Iran is centrally injurious of the Indian national interest, and cannot be tolerated.

It is here that Modi will have to show strong conviction and communicate to Trump and Washington that it will be no part of any concerted Western-Arab sunni moves to inconvenience Iran, because it cannot afford to, that too much rests  on good relations with Tehran for any Indian government to risk losing a friendly country historically close to India. And that if, in extremis, India is asked which side it is on — the US should be told in no uncertain terms that the Indian government is on the side of India. For too long — almost 30 years now — Delhi has prosecuted relations with Tehran with an eye cocked to Washington. This is not necessary any more.

India has humungous leverage where the US is concerned — economic in terms of access to the largest free market in the world, and strategic in terms of size and location and formidable, if largely unimaginative, military forces, and the clear message that the US cannot do without a friendly India if it means to counter China. It is leverage that mousy Indian governments to-date haven’t used. Time Modi did.

India is pivotal, in a curious way, for both Iran and the US. Rouhani’s Iran recognizes this; Trump’s America doesn’t.

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Why is Modi seeking US permission to remove Yameen in Maldives?

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(Yameen among friends)

As was intimated in previous post,  and something newspaper reports today confirm, the Modi government is seeking Washington’s permission to act on Maldives to restore the sanctity of the Courts in that country that ruled against President Abdulla Yameen’s staying in office. Yameen is described by his political rival and India friend Mohammad Nasheed as the “villain in paradise”, whose ouster from power is sought by Nasheed and the entire political opposition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot have a clearer picture of the emerging China threat in the Maldives than the one Nasheed has painted for Delhi. If despite this, he persists with the “frightened rabbit” policy natural to MEA that abhors coercion and “military diplomacy”, then the Indian PM will deserve every brickbat that is coming his way. Maldives, Nasheed wrote in an op/ed, is being “sold off” “piece by piece, island by island” to China. (  ).

And the Indian government will not find a cleaner cause for armed intervention. Armed for many reasons. Yameen, no babe in the political woods, is the wolf masquerading as a lamb, his bidding done not only by the Maldivan military but, more directly, by his police and his own (late Haitian dictator) Papa Duvalier-style “tonton macoute” — a sort of praetorian guard made up of young, Islamic zealots, some of them veterans of the Maldivan armed forces, who are well armed, and can and will put up a fight, seeing their future in the survival of the Yameen presidency.

These roughnecks, in the pay of the Yameen crony class-Chinese nexus, are not going to be subdued by genteel Indian diplomats in Male arguing reasonably for respecting the supreme court verdict, restoration of democratic order, rule of law, and supremacy of the Maldivan Constitution. What will persuade them and Yameen are an Indian frigate and missile destroyer (incidentally, already in the waters not too far from Male) with embarked Marcos to knock a few Maldivan heads, take Yameen into custody along with some of his personal “tonton macoute” guard, fly in Nasheed and get Maldives back on the rails.

It is a very good sign of the Indian armed services’ alertness that it is readying the necessary military wherewithal for intervention should Modi display strategic sensibility for a change and order them into Male to write finis to the Yameen episode in Maldivan history. While a joint Marcos-army paracommando operation is fine, there will be nothing more effective than a big warship or two offshore of Male to speed up Yameen’s decision to depart for exile (lest he, oops! be shot up in his presidential residence).

But Modi is sitting on his hands, awaiting an OK from the US –when this is basically India’s problem to solve with rough and ready methods. Those in MEA telling friendly press reporters that Nasheed is no angel and that he once flirted with China is to discount the prime opportunity for installing him in power, winning his gratitude, keeping the Maldives on India’s side, and for the expeditious rescinding of all contracts signed with Chinese companies for the “dual use” infrastructure they are stealthily building so that the China threat is zeroed out for the nonce.

To the other line put out in the press through friendly beat reporters by MEA that using strongarm methods will create a blowback, as Rajiv Gandhi’s blockading decision did in Nepal, besides mis-analogizing, is to not even comprehend what is at stake in the Maldives — which is not surprising considering just how habitually unstrategic MEA’s and the Indian government’s collective mind (assuming there is such a thing) is.

The larger issue that Modi’s wanting Trump’s approval for action that is centrally in Indian national interest shows up the far more worrisome trend apparent from Vajpayee’s days of surrendering the country’s sovereignty and Delhi’s capacity for sovereign decisionmaking, making it hostage to American concerns.  Does Delhi expect  the US to consult with it about how it treats Cuba? Or, Mexico? If not why should Modi be concerned about what Washington thinks about the hard option India may exercise in the Maldives to protect and safeguard India’s security stake in the non-China influenced Maldives? Or, have things gone so far that Modi/Doval/MEA/GOI cannot separate India’s interests from the US’?

Modi is seriously compounding his political problems that got a jolt with the Congress raking up the Rafale controversy on the cost angle — which this analyst has been stressing over the years in my books and writings (including in this blog). If Modi ends up losing the Maldives, he will find it impossible to recover his standing or “nationalist” image and reputation. What the country won’t be able militarily to recover from is the geostrategic loss of Maldives to China.

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Maldives, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, society, South Asia, Special Forces, United States, US. | 14 Comments

Modi should not miss the opportunity to rid Maldives of Yameen NOW

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(The arrest and bloodying of Maldives opposition leaders)


The BJP government of Narendra Modi will rue not ousting Abdullah Yameen in Male now when it has the opportunity, the Maldivan opposition and people, and just cause on its side for doing so. That country’s supreme court has ruled Yameen’s imprisonment of the opposition party — Malidives Democratic Party (MDP) leaders illegal, a judgement that ipso facto voids the trumped up charges against Yameen’s political adversary and India’s friend — Mohammad Nasheed. It shows that between the political opposition and the Maldivan people, they have had enough of the idiosyncratic and authoritarian Yameen, who seems intent in depositing Maldives into China’s lap.

Nasheed has been vocal in propagating from his exile in Sri Lanka India’s right to replace Yameen, if necessary by forceful means.  In fact Nasheed has gone so far as to say that Maldives is in “Ïndia’s ocean” and that China has no role in it, and definitely not in his country. This reference to Ïndia’s ocean is a response to a Chinese admiral who some years back warned that “The Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean”.

Yameen  has been a thorn in India’s side and has for the last few years played Modi for the idiot he thinks the Indian Prime Minister is. Every time the situation reaches a crisis point — the last time recently when he ordered the police physically to bar the opposition members of Parliament from voting against his proposal to lease some atolls in his country to China, which would have ended that particular political pro-China initiative, he gauges Delhi’s reaction and just when he thinks the Indian govt may act, moseys over to Delhi. He did this and made peace with Modi. It is not certain what assurances the Indian PM was given by Yameen, but Delhi ended up doing nothing. Naturally Yameen has grown bolder, and has indicated he would disregard the court’s ruling and, Trump-like, change the political complexion of the supreme court by appointing his friends to the Court to ensure there are no legal challenges to his reign of terror hereafter. He is thus setting himself up as President for life of Maldives and China’s pet poodle in the region. If this isn’t provocation enough for Delhi, it is hard to know what is.

It is time for India to sort things out and for Modi to reassert India’s prime interest in having a friendly Maldivan regime at any cost — meaning without Yameen and his PPM anywhere in the picture. Yameen ought to be removed permanently from the scene. But Modi seems to be falling into the familiar do-nothing mode — the calling card of MEA and Indian diplomacy; perhaps concerting with the US to see what can be done. This is the WRONG THING for him to DO. He should without further ado immediately order a brace of frigates with a MARCOS contingent embarked on them to move post-haste to the Maldivan waters, disembark the MARCOS with full authority to disarm the Maldives police and what forces that country has and, along with a unit of army’s paracommando if needed, arrest Yameen and family and leadership elements of the corrupt ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), fly in Nasheed on special aircraft from  Colombo into Male, and hand over power to him. The Indian forces can remain to assist the new Nasheed dispensation purge the local administration, police, and forces of Yameen  and PPM sympathisers. And as a first order of his business ensure that all agreements with China are summarily scrapped.

There’s no time to lose. MEA’s habit of slow and ponderous  pondering can be left to after this commando action to forever remove the Yameen threat from Male. Modi is increasingly being seen especially in the external realm as clinging to the US apronstrings, fulminating against Pakistan, but talking and amity and peace with China, when the priority should be to consider China the main threat and take it head on. Xi, like his predecessors in office, is good  at pursuing Sun Tzu’s favourite tactic of playing up strengths and hiding weaknesses. West of Malacca, China should be made to actually feel the heat of its being on India’s turf. This India has never done.

This is how the international power game is played, not liaising with some big power or the other to see what’s the best way out of an increasingly difficult situation for India. Should Modi fail to act for any reason at all and permit Yameen to stay on, India may as well kiss Maldives good-bye and prepare to see a full-fledged Chinese naval base a stone’s throw away from the Indian mainland. It will be an ironic denouement considering all the brouhaha over Gwadar and the fact of a self-confessed “nationalist” BJP government being in power and Modi in command.

The question is: Is Modi alpha-male only for show, and at the hustings, or will he also act to protect India’s security and strategic interests?



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An inadvertently wise defence budget!

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(Jaitley with defmin Sitharaman by his side)

India’s defence allocations in the 2018-2019 budget of Rs 2,95,511 crore, saw a meagre increase from Rs 2,74,114 crore last year, with  Rs 99,563.86 crore set aside for the capital stream, 80% of which sum will be consumed by “committed liabilities”, meaning to service the procurement contracts already signed for, and Rs 1,95,947.55 crore for revenue expenditure (day-to-day running and payroll costs). (The rocketing pension allocations have a separate budgetary dispensation.) It will have the armed services twirling their collective mustachios in anger. The armed forces had hoped for a bloc commitment of Rs 26.84 lakh crore (in excess of $400 billion) for the next five years to ensure their modernization plans proceeded smoothly rather than fitfully as they are fated to do now.

The 13th Defence Plan had projected, Rs 12,88,654 crore as the capital outlay, and Rs 13,95,271 crore as the revenue spend. Both the defence five-year plans and the 15-year long-term integrated perspective plan are formulated to conform to the defmin’s “operational directives” but, as newspaper reports have noted, like the 10th (2002-07), 11th (2007-12) and 12th (2012-17) Plans, it too is unlikely to be approved by Finance Ministry.
If the armed services have a reason to feel neglected, consider what would happen if their expenditure plans are fully funded. The country will be stuck with a World War 2 vintage order-of-battle — the same old hardware — more tanks, APCs, artillery, air defence guns, tracked guns, etc. , which remains determinedly uncued to changes in the cyber regime, and in the evolution of small lethal drones that can be maneuvered in swarm to take out individual tanks — large unmissable targets, and defeat vast tank armies with equal ease, small, guided, submersible drones to sink warships, and hard-flying drone-projectiles to destroy by collision, combat aircraft. The Indian military seems completely innocent of these technology trends, and the Indian government without, apparently, a smidgeon of technology trend-spotting expertise, merrily funds or doesn’t whatever the armed services put before it.
So, the taxpayer has to ask himself: Is less harm done, less monies wasted. by not having a large defence budget than giving into “nationalistic” impulses and seeing the scarce national financial resources being grossly misused, as always, on propping up useless, dated genus of hardware?
In a sense, the Modi government has to be commended for holding its nerve and not trying to win cheap applause with increased defence spend — because surely there will now be uninformed calls from the opposition ranks led by the Congress party for surge funding of unnecessary goods the military  would love to buy.
Resources are not the problem, what is is the Indian military’s mindless prioritizing of usually shortlegged weapons platforms and the like, and generally its  spendthrift ways. And short of a single, integrated, command structure there will be no structural mechanism for inter se prioritization of the three Services’ demands and requirements, and the country will always be shortchanged in terms of not getting the security it pays for.
So, yes, Finmin Jaitley tripped in doing the right thing without quite knowing why! But the good that comes from even inadvertent developments is no bad thing.
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Hurt China in its soft under-belly

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(Sihanoukville, main port of Cambodia)

Indian foreign and strategic policies suffer from perennial weaknesses. One of them is the Indian government’s/MEA’s lack of what the great geopolitical theorist, Sir Halford Mackinder, called “the map reading habit of mind”.  That’s why India’s foreign policy is usually bereft of a geopolitical frame and undergirding. Further, even when there is a glimmer of geostrategic understanding visible in a stance, it is voided by the tardiness in following up on policy initiatives. For example, the country’s “Look East” policy first enunciated by PM Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s remained just “looking” for some 30 years — a very long time for the policy to lose steam. Only in the last years of the Manmohan Singh regime did the pace pick up in this respect but fell short for want of boldness. Well into the Modi era, Vietnam and Indonesia, repeatedly pleaded for the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile but the invariably frightened Indian government didn’t get up the courage to sell it to them because of the fear of Chinese reaction. Indeed, there’s still some uncertainty about the Brahmos deal to Vietnam. But in his penultimate year in office (of his first term), Modi has finally mustered the vision to do something truly strategic for a change.  He is fully into courting Cambodia. To wrench Cambodia and Laos out of China’s grasp would be to hit Beijing in the gut — because these two states constitute China’s soft under-belly.

Look at the map. Vietnam is viscerally anti-China and so are, in varying degrees, the other ASEAN states on the South China Sea. Land-bound Laos and Cambodia on the littoral are the exceptions. Cambodia is of particular importance to Beijing because of its frontage on the Gulf of Siam (Thailand). Without access to this frontage on the South China Sea , the Chinese Navy would have no friendly landfall anywhere in Southeast Asia in war time. It would make difficult sustained maritime operations by the Chinese Navy even in this sub-region — with Hainan as the nearest base. That’s why China has been so solicitous of the Cambodian strongman Hun Sen. Except now Hun Sen will stay on after the other regional leaders have departed to enjoy some  special treatment — a State Visit just for him with all the pomp and ceremony Delhi can dial up to impress him. If the bait is half-way big and juicy enough he will bite because there’s almost palpable  interest in Pnom-Penh to get out from under the Chinese tutelage. And if Cambodia is detached from China, Laos will come unstuck from China soon enough. Vientiane, like Pnom Penh, has played a canny game, balancing between the benefits of the ASEAN and its connection to the West and the offers of Chinese subsidies, investments and trade concessions that have kept his country above water.

It is significant that all the heads of state/government of the ASEAN agreed to be co-chief guests at the 2018 Republic Day celebrations, suggesting that there is now a collective consciousness among the ASEAN group about the perils of being in hock to China economically or being vulnerable, security-wise, to Beijing which plays with a heavy hand.  India is avidly sought as the alternate power node that can also provide security and free up the policy options for all of them.  It is an opportunity not to be missed. The likelihood, however, is that India will once again miss it. Because MEA’s delivery mechanism is faulty in the extreme — but that’s for another post!

What can Modi offer Hun Sen and, by extension, to Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos? Assistance to restore the Angkor Wat Temple complex is an ongoing Indian programme, but it is old school, encompassed by Modi’s rhetoric of India’s civilizational reachout to Southeast Asia, etc, and lacks the bite. This approach in the 21st Century, moreover, has severe limitations. What Hun Sen will appreciate are things like a programme to modernize the Cambodian railways and roadways, and to help build east-west telecommunications connectivity, all of which can be subsumed under the ‘Ganga-Mekong’ Plan envisaged during Vajpayee’s time. This will have to be done at India’s cost, and which grant-in aid will be a worthwhile investment. Pnom-Penh could be afforded an additional $5 billion credit line to import capital goods from India — which will boost the country’s manufacturing sector and open a new market for it, with the understanding that these goods will be moved to- Cambodia on Indian bottoms, thereby giving a fillip to Indian shipping companies. And India should undertake to re-equip the Cambodian armed services and to train their select officers and JCOs on a regular basis  at Indian military institutions here.

What Modi should ask for in return is the kind of logistics agreement India recently signed with Singapore that allows pre-positioning of naval and military stores and the use of the Sihanoukville port on the Bay of Kampong Som by the Indian Navy — the only deep water port in Cambodia and, use of the airport in the port area for use by Indian Air Force Su-30 fighter squadrons. It will be a deal that Hun Sen might readily agree to because it will principally show India’strategic intent, and lend him some breathing space vis a vis Beijing. And it will be reassuring to other ASEAN states, especially to Laos to the north. China will probably respond with increased aid, credit, etc. but it won’t overcome the desire of the Cambodians and Laotians to escape Beijing’s suffocating embrace.

By thus making the first cut on the Chinese umbilical to Southeast Asia, Delhi will signal its determination to counter China at every step and to establish an enduring Indian presence in these parts. Will Modi do any of this? His record does not hint that he will because, he says, he so hates doing anything disruptive.




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Fairy tales about the “Indian” F-16

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(Block 70, F-16)

A pink paper carried a startling bit of news suggesting that Lockheed Martin had readied a variant of its frontline F-35, in service with the US military and allied air forces, for offer to the Indian Air Force.

But scroll down the story a bit and one sees the catch.  Vivek Lall, head of Lockheed,  India, is talking about the Northrop Grumman APG-83 AESA radar with supposed 95% commonality with the radar on the F-35, being on the F-16 Block 70 pitched to India. This feature has led Lall to purposely obfuscate issues and try and sell the F-16 as another version of the F-35. To tweak that old saw some, sticking small tusks on a pig doesn’t turn it into a dangerous warthog.

As I long ago warned in my posts, Trump very early talked about retaining at least 25% of the F-16 production in the US itself — mainly to fulfill his promise to keep manufacturing jobs in America. The last F-16 inducted in the US Air Force was in 1997. And , it is in the interest of Lockheed to replace as fast as possible all F-16s in the US — whether in USAF or in the various state Air National Guard (of which George W Bush was a member — his rich and influential Pappy and former President, George HW Bush, having arranged this safe posting in the Texas unit than see his son risk his neck in the Vietnam War) with F-35s. This essentially means that the supposed 2,000-odd F-16s in the US are not going to be there to be serviced by the aircraft spares and assemblies produced in India.

That should at a stroke eliminate a big chunk of the incentive for India to manufacture this late-Sixties vintage — 50 year old — combat aircraft that will be ready to move right off the Indian assembly line and into museums or the junk yard. (This last was the denouement faced, incidentally, by the underpowered Marut HF-24, which were flown out of HAL premises straight to IAF aircraft graveyards!) That’s the reason why Lockheed is canvassing furiously with the Trump White House to relent on this issue of keeping part of the F-16 production in its plant in Forth Worth.

In any case, with the F-16 phasing out of the USAF, America’s traditional allies and partners too will hanker for the successor F-35, which Lockheed will happily undertake to replace as well. This will motivate Lockheed to open more assembly lines for the F-35 to meet the rush demand from foreign customers. So, where exactly is the “international market” that Lockheed is promising for the Indian-made F-16 and for its spares, etc.??

It surely is not merely enough to “make in India”. There has to be a market for whatever is produced here by foreign companies beyond what the Indian market can offtake. In this context, what to make of the song and dance that Lockheed, the Pentagon, Ashley Tellis, the US thinktanks — Carnegie, Brookings, based in Delhi and in Washington, and the army of F-16 pluggers in the Indian media make about India becoming part of a “global supply chain”??

Sure, the period to replace the F-16 in the fleets of numerous air forces with the F-35 will stretch over the next 10-15 years at most. But the Blk 70 entering IAF will stay on for 40-50 years from the year of its entry into the fleet — should this happen — by, say, 2022. Is it anyone’s argument that this old crone of an aircraft can realistically serve until 2060-2070, when advances in air defence technologies, evident since the late 1980s, are already making manned combat flying a frightfully dangerous undertaking, and by 2030 will make it extinct? Like the Dodo bird. Or, the dinosaur.

It provides further proof, if it was needed, that the Indian military, like the Indian government and its agencies, including DRDO, are not perspicacious spotters of technological trends. Or, India wouldn’t be in the mess it is now.

Meanwhile, the wily Fiza’ya (Pakistan Air Force), which has operated the F-16 for the last 30 years, will be desperately hoping the GOI-IAF combine afford it the opportunity to make a meal of the prospective Indian F-16 contingent. Meanwhile, the contempt PLAAF, that is bidding fair to achieve parity with the USAF with its unending series of new aircraft, especially the J-20, that it seemingly effortlessly rolls out of it aircraft design bureaus and factories, feels for its Indian counterpart will be reinforced.

So, what’s new?

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Su-30 — back in favour?

(Sitharaman at Air HQrs with CAS Dhanoa and senior commanders of IAF)

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is, at her instance, going to fly in a Su-30 MKI tomorrow. Whether it is just a joy-ride, or an indication of the govt going with this plane as an answer to the urgent need to augment fighter squadrons, is not known. But there are signs that the Modi regime is finally reconciling to reality and the extreme scarcity of financial resources, especially in the period leading up to the 2019 general elections, when the state treasury is sought to be properly husbanded and marshaled for domestic social welfare programmes to maximally impress the electorate.  So, acquisition of the Swedish Gripen E, as also consideration of the Sixties’ vintage Lockheed F-16 Blk 70, has been pushed out of the picture (for now at least). And the finalization of the Rafale deal is also being put off.

It just so happens, as I have been advocating — look up all the posts over the years on this topic — that the Su-30 is at once the best fighter aircraft anywhere and the most cost-effective solution considering India has a 272-strong fleet already and produces it under license. One assumes the GOI will scrape up the monies to upgrade this entire fleet to the “Super Sukhoi” configuration with a new, more powerful, engine, better, more advanced, avionics, and an AESA radar to switch missions mid-sortie, from A2G to A2A and back. And the upgrade project will be for about a third of the cost of the Mirage 2000 upgrade programme. The bulk of the Sukhois will be upgraded at HAL, Nasik

IAF may consider the Su-30 a make-do solution. Were it not for its institutional tilt favouring Western combat aircraft, Vayu Bhavan would have long ago realized and appreciated the Super Sukhoi as an excellent solution to fill up the air orbat with a really superb aircraft.

This decision was also probably prompted by signals from Moscow that the relations were in difficult straits and hurting and a deal like this was needed to affect a recovery.


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