Monday, 23 May 2016

Mr Modi’s defence report card

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th May 16

On Thursday, this government will mark its second anniversary in power. Even before Chief Minister Narendra Modi became Prime Minister Modi, serving and retired soldiers, sailors and airmen hoped that, unlike the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would nurture a long neglected military. How successfully has the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government met those expectations?

In electioneering, Mr Modi talked up a muscular, populist alternative to Manmohan Singh’s widely ridiculed milquetoast image. [In the 1940s, HT Webster created the comic strip character, Caspar Milquetoast, describing him as “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.”] On September 15, 2013, two days after being anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Mr Modi promised a huge gathering of military veterans in Rewari he would give the military its due --- both in money and attention. Declared the future PM: “My friends, the problem is not on the border, the problem is in Delhi… and, thus, we will have to find its solution also in Delhi! Until we do not have an efficient and patriotic government in Delhi, it does not matter how capable our military is, or how modern our equipment.”

In April, just days before voting, Mr Modi released the BJP’s election manifesto, which included, in unprecedented detail, pledges to rewrite defence policy, restructure procurement, modernize weaponry, and make India a defence manufacturing hub. Yet, the soaring expectations of the generals, admirals and air marshals who were jumping onto the BJP bandwagon were clearly unrealistic. Reading between the lines, the manifesto clearly prioritised economic development: “Comprehensive national security is not just about borders, but in its broad terms includes military security; economic security; cyber security; energy, food and water and health security; and social cohesion and harmony. To effectively address the issues of national security, we need to address the issues of - human resources, science and technology, system of governance and money.”

Given that, the real decline in defence allocations should have been expected. From about 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the UPA’s last two Budgets, defence allocations declined to 1.73 per cent in Modi’s first two Budgets; and just 1.65 per cent of GDP this year. To dress this up, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley changed the basis of calculation this year, adding into the defence allocations the expenditure on the “pensions” and “defence ministry” heads, which had never previously been counted as a part of the defence budget. This is not to suggest subterfuge; pensions and ministry staff expenditures legitimately belong to the defence budget. But doing that diverted attention from this year’s reduced allocations and made the defence budget look fatter. By the previous methodology, this year’s allocations would have been Rs 2,49,099 crore ($37.18 billion). Using the new calculation, defence allocations rose to Rs 3,40,922 crore ($51 billion). Even so, at 2.26 per cent of GDP, this remains well short of the recommended allocation of 3 per cent of GDP that defence planners say is needed over a sustained period to modernise India’s huge inventories of obsolescent weaponry. Furthermore, even more so than preceding governments, the NDA is failing to spend its allocations. On March 31, billions of unspent dollars were returned to the treasury.

In fact, Mr Modi’s money problem is less one of insufficient allocations than of poor expenditure priorities. Using the new basis of calculation, three-quarters of this year’s defence budget is for “revenue expenditure” --- running expenses like salaries, pensions, housing, equipment maintenance, fuel, training, etc. A mere quarter is for “capital expenditure”, or modernising the army with new weaponry and kit. Despite India’s cheap manpower, 55 per cent of the budget goes towards the payroll. This ratio is being skewed further with the One Rank, One Pension (OROP) scheme bloating the pension bill, and the 7th Central Pay Commission recommending 15 per cent salaries rises. Without higher defence allocations, there will be even less for capital expenditure. Mr Modi seems aware of this conundrum, having warned his military commanders that growing numbers would adversely affect modernisation. Yet, there is no decisive move to trim the flab.

Meanwhile, equipment acquisition proceeds randomly. Like with the UPA government, contracts for new weaponry are pursued not on the basis of how urgently the item is needed, but in the leisurely order in which proposals clear the endless obstacle course of ministry procedure. Every official knows the military’s most critical needs --- artillery and air defence guns for the army; torpedoes, sonars and air defence missiles for the navy; and mid-air refuelling aircraft and strike aircraft for the air force, to name a few. There exists a fast-track procedure for urgent purchases. Even so, glaring operational voids remain, providing reassurance to our foes.

Similarly, the military’s operational capability remains hamstrung by the weakness of tri-service operational command and planning. The defence minister has repeatedly promised to address this issue; the PM himself told the military’s top commanders on December 15 that: “Jointness at the top is a need that is long overdue. We also need reforms in senior defence management... This is an area of priority for me.” Yet, action: zero.

Admittedly, the defence ministry got off the blocks late, after languishing for almost six months under the additional charge of the finance minister --- something Mr Modi has never explained. After Manohar Parrikar’s appointment in mid-November 2014, he has tried to reform the way his ministry does business. Despite opposition from his conservative bureaucrats, Mr Parrikar has pushed through badly needed measures to partly level the playing field between the public and private sectors; and he is popular with private sector industrialists for his consultative approach. However, he has promised more than delivered. A new defence procurement procedure (DPP-2016) has been only partly released. The ministry continues to grapple with an ill-conceived initiative to replace the public sector monopoly with a private sector one, dominated by a few “strategic partners”. A pragmatic “blacklisting policy” remains blocked. Despite Mr Parrikar’s laudable backing of indigenous development programmes, and the policy prioritisation of “Made in India” (designing and developing platforms in the country) over “Make in India” (manufacturing in India to foreign blueprints), few such projects have been initiated so far. The drive to reform defence policy and revitalize operational readiness is far from yielding results.

US defence cooperation Bill steered past anti-India lobbies in Washington

By Ajai Shukla
Philadelphia, USA
Business Standard, 23rd May 16

In 2008, the US Congress passed an innocuously titled legislation --- the “Naval Vessel Transfer Act” --- that has committed Washington to providing Israel a “qualitative military edge” over every potential adversary.

That act bound every US president to ensure Israel always has the “ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damages and casualties.”

Now, in similar fashion, the US Congress is binding future American presidents, whatever their alliances or foreign policies, to nurturing US-India defence ties.

On Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed the “US India Defense Technology and Partnership Act”, as an amendment to the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) --- which authorizes the US military to spend Budget allocations. Initiated by Representative George Holding, and supported by most of the House, this highlights Congress’ dramatic swing towards India and away from Pakistan.

The US Congress often passes important, but potentially divisive Bills, by tagging them as amendments to larger, compulsory Bills like the NDAA. A stand-alone Bill would be extensively debated, allowing potential opponents to oppose them. It is easier to pass them as an amendment to another less contentious Bill.

The passage of the Bill has not been without tension. Pro-India lobbies have worked discreetly to tamp down opposition from Congressmen disappointed with the tardy pace of India’s defence and economic reforms. There is also ire in Washington about New Delhi’s continued stonewalling of bilateral “foundational agreements”, even though American and Indian officials have agreed on the drafts of two --- the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). Anti-India critics complain that India has never fought alongside the US, the way allies like the UK and Australia have.

Even so, the growing pro-India mood in the House ensured the Bill comfortably passed. Congressional practice now requires the upper house, the Senate, to pass a similar “companion” Bill. On May 9, Senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn, introduced such a Bill, entitled “Advancing U.S.-India Defense Cooperation Act”. Senator Warner, a democrat; and Senator Cornyn, a republican, co-chair the Senate’s bipartisan, 35-member India Caucus which promotes Washington’s relations with New Delhi.

After the Senate passes the Warner-Cornyn Bill, as appears likely, the House and Senate versions of the Bill must be reconciled. This is done either by a formal committee, or through a series of Amendments in each chamber until the Bill looks the same in both. This would not be difficult, since the Senate and House versions are already close to identical. The agreed joint version would then be signed into US law.

American legislators are increasingly conscious of the Cold War divergence between India and the US; and Washington’s continuing support for Pakistan, which makes New Delhi regard the US as a potentially fickle partner. The new Bill aims at reassuring New Delhi of American strategic commitment.

Towards this, the House Bill (just passed) and the Senate Bill (under process) require the US president to “formalize India’s status as a major partner of the United States.” It remains unclear what this status would be. New Delhi’s historical non-alignment rules out a formal treaty, like the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) that binds the US and several European countries into a mutual defence arrangement. New Delhi might also be hesitant to be designated a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) --- which does not automatically include a mutual defence pact, but which permits Washington to extend a range of defence and financial benefits. The US currently has 15 designated MNNAs, including Australia, Japan and Pakistan. In 2014, Israel was elevated from an MNNA into a higher category and designated a “major strategic partner”.

For now, US-India defence ties are covered only by a 2015 executive agreement entitled “Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship”, which is valid for a decade. This follows previous, less comprehensive agreements signed in 1995 and 2005.

The new bill also requires the president to strengthen the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, and the India Rapid Reaction Cell --- a Pentagon department that irons out wrinkles in defence ties.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Hawk trainer, joint exercises to enhance defence ties with UAE, Oman

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th May 16

Until recently, the Indian Air Force (IAF) planned for the possibility of United Arab Emirates (UAE) supplying up to a squadron of F-16 fighters to boost the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in an Indo-Pakistan conflict.

Now, dramatically signalling the transformed relationship between New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, an IAF contingent returning to India next month from the on-going Red Flag exercise in the US will train with the UAE air force. Its pilots fly the world’s most potent F-16s, the Block 60 version, superior even to US Air Force F-16s and to the Block 50/52 version that Washington supplies Pakistan.

This and other aspects of defence cooperation with the UAE and Oman will be on the agenda of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar during his four-day visit to those two countries that begins on May 20.

The UAE is unlikely to choose defence equipment manufactured in India, the oil-rich country preferring state-of-the-art western weaponry, like the Block 60 F-16. Even so, New Delhi hopes to overhaul and upgrade the Hawk trainer jets that both the UAE and Royal Omani Air Force fly.

The IAF has the world’s largest Hawk fleet, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) continues to manufacture the advanced jet trainer at Bengaluru. In May 2015, HAL and BAE Systems, the Hawk’s original manufacturer, agreed “to collaborate towards developing a comprehensive fleet support service for India’s Hawk and Jaguar aircraft”. HAL hopes to take this forward, becoming the hub that supports several Hawk fleets in the region.

Of the 161 Hawks flying in West Asia, the UAE operates 46 and Oman flies 25. Saudi Arabia operates 72; Kuwait 12 and Bahrain six.

Another 190 Hawks fly with other Asian and African air forces, including 33 with Australia; 60 with Indonesia; 28 with Malaysia; 20 with South Korea; 24 with South Africa; 12 with Kenya; and 13 with Zimbabwe.

Besides the Hawk trainer, the UAE and India air force enjoy several other equipment commonalities. UAE operates 63 Mirage-2000-9 fighters, the most potent version of the IAF’s Mirage 2000. The UAE also flies the Apache AH-64D (28 attack helicopters) and the Chinook CH-47D (eight heavy lift choppers) that the IAF has contracted to buy from Boeing. Both air forces operate variants of the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

Growing defence and counter-terrorism cooperation between India and UAE has been catalysed by Abu Dhabi’s sharp U-turn from the time PAF pilots trained its air force and retired PAF technicians maintained its Mirage III and F-16 fighters. This has been catalysed by the radical threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to UAE last August, the two countries forged a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. On its heels came the February visit to New Delhi of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan, when “the two renewed their commitment to strengthening the existing cooperation in training, joint exercises, and participation in defence exhibitions, as well as in identifying opportunities to cooperate on the production of defence equipment in India”.

The UAE has detected and deported terrorist sympathisers from the two million Indians working in that country, handing them over to Indian authorities. Sheikh al Nahyan, visiting soon after the terrorist attack on Pathankot Air Base this year, condemned cross border terrorism.

If the UAE is a new friend, Oman has long been India’s most steadfast partner in West Asia. Muscat and New Delhi signed a military protocol in 1972, and the two air forces together conducted the Exercise Eastern Bridge in 2009 in Oman, and in 2011 in India. This incorporated the common Jaguar fighter, which both operated until Oman retired its Jaguars in 2014 and bought the Eurofighter.

Until then, Jaguar spares built by HAL were sold to Oman. With the IAF looking to extend the service life of its six Jaguar squadrons by fitting in new engines and avionics, Oman’s 24 retired Jaguars could be of interest to the IAF.

Oman sent a naval vessel to participate in the International Fleet Review that the navy hosted in Visakhapatnam in February. When the Tejas flew the long journey to Bahrain for its first international outing in the Bahrain International Air Show, it staged through Muscat, Oman.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

As Sea Harriers retire, Naval Tejas readies to fly off aircraft carrier next year

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th May 16

At the end of thirty years of flying from Indian Navy aircraft carriers, the iconic Sea Harrier jump jet will make its ceremonial last flight on Wednesday. Readying to take its place is the naval version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which recently completed a successful flight-test campaign in Goa.

While the Sea Harriers operated from the INS Vikrant and INS Viraat, now both retired, the Naval Tejas will operate from the Vikrant’s successor, an indigenous aircraft carrier that is scheduled to be commissioned in 2018.

Commodore (Retired) CD Balaji, chief of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which oversees the Tejas development programme, told Business Standard that taking off from a 200-metre deck has been fully established. So has “hot-refuelling” --- topping up the aircraft after a sortie with the engine running and the pilot in the cockpit --- which allows a rapid turnaround between sorties.

For the navy, it is vital to ready the Tejas for the INS Vikrant and, subsequently, the next aircraft carrier, INS Vishal. The MiG-29K will be the medium fighter on INS Vikrant, as it already is on INS Vikramaditya. The Tejas is crucial for filling in the light fighter slot.

Balaji reveals a committed navy is funding 40 per cent of the development cost of the Naval Tejas. The MoD has allocated Rs 3,650 crore for the naval programme.

The ADA chief described the flight trials in Goa between March 27 and April 25, in which two Naval Tejas prototypes flew 33 sorties from a Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) -- a full-scale replica of an aircraft carrier deck. Built on land, the SBTF allows carrier deck take-offs and landings to be validated, without unduly endangering an aircraft carrier, or an aircraft prototype and pilot.

When taking off from an aircraft carrier, a fighter revs up its engine to the maximum, while held back by a “restraining gear system” (RGS). Then, the RGS is disengaged, and the fighter shoots forward, accelerating to take-off speed in just 200 metres of deck. At the end of the deck runway, a “ski-jump” lifts the aircraft upwards, after which it flies on its own power.

In December 2014, the Naval Tejas had taken off from the SBTF ski-jump after rolling 300 metres. Now, the fighter has proven it can take off from just 200 metres, even carrying two R-73 close combat missiles.

“With this campaign, ski-jump launches are no longer a challenge. We will now explore the limits the fighter can be taken to. We will further fine-tune the control law software to take-off with higher payloads,” said Balaji.

In aircraft carrier combat operations at sea, the Naval Tejas must take off with up to 3.5 tonnes of payload--- more fuel for longer range; and more weapons for a lethal punch. For this, the aircraft carrier would steam into the wind, ensuring a “wind-over-deck speed” of up to 20 knots. That would provide added lift to the aircraft, allowing higher payloads.

In aircraft carriers with catapult launchers, as the navy’s next indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, could be, the catapult allows higher launch speeds and, therefore, higher payloads.

Similarly, fitting the Tejas Mark-2 with the more powerful General Electric F-414 engine (the current Mark -1 fighter has the smaller F-404 engine) will allow greater payloads and more ambitious mission objectives.

Even more challenging than taking off from a 200-metre carrier deck is to land an aircraft back on the carrier. This requires touching down precisely at the edge of the runway, aligning the approach with the help of an “optical landing system” and a “landing control post”. At landing, an “arresting gear system” --- including wire cables across the deck runway --- latches onto a hook on the fighter’s tail and rapidly decelerates it to a halt.

“In the current campaign, the Tejas did over 60 approaches (without actually touching down) to gather data for fine-tuning the control law software. In the next campaign this month, we will do “touch and go” approaches to validate the software and then graduate to full landings,” explains Balaji.

Finally, the Naval Tejas demonstrated its “fuel jettison” capability --- a safety feature that allows the fighter to quickly jettison on-board fuel if it encounters a problem soon after launch and must quickly return for an emergency landing on the carrier.

“By mid-2017, we will have established on the SBTF that the Naval Tejas can be flown off an actual carrier, and we will then graduate to ship-based testing. We currently have two prototypes in testing, and will build a third by then”, says a satisfied ADA chief.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Drama in Dharamsala

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th May 16

Last fortnight, the Opposition ferociously attacked the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for “kowtowing” to China by withdrawing the visas of anti-Beijing activists who were travelling to India for an unprecedented dissident gathering in McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala. Counter-attacking last week, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched an equally intemperate attack on the Congress Party for alleged corruption in buying twelve helicopters from Anglo-Italian firm, AgustaWestland --- a contract the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had signed in 2010, but which had already been shaped by decisions the previous NDA government had made in 2003-2004. In both instances --- the Dharamsala conference and the AgustaWestland contract --- the Opposition and government abandoned integrity, logic and restraint, calculating that shrill name-calling, howsoever unfounded, might discredit the other in voters’ eyes. Given the vital importance of India’s relationship with China, this column revisits the Dharamsala conference, looking beyond the noise and slander.

The key question is whether New Delhi showed a lack of spine in refusing visas to three activists, including Dolkun Isa, an Uyghur Muslim separatist leader from Xinjiang, now a political refugee in Germany, who Beijing is hunting as a terrorist --- as it calls all separatists in its strategic western province. New Delhi had issued Mr Isa an electronic visa on April 22; but withdrew it on April 25 after Beijing expressed disapproval. Separately, without Beijing’s prompting, India also denied visas to two other conference delegates: pro-democracy activist, Ray Wong; and a journalist, Lu Jinghua.

If this pleased Beijing, not much else about the conference would have. Jianli Yang, the well-known Chinese pro-democracy campaigner and Tiananmen Square survivor, whose organisation “Initiatives for China” coordinated the Dharamsala conference, told me he was extremely pleased the conference went ahead, albeit in a truncated form, bringing together a host of anti-Beijing activists at Dharamsala, just a hundred miles from the Sino-Indian border. He pointed out that the Dalai Lama, an inspirational figurehead for every shade of China activism, granted the delegates a two-hour audience. The elected head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Lobsang Sangay, also received them for an hour. Yang admitted he had been in close touch with both the foreign and home ministries in organising the conference --- putting paid to theories of a “lack of coordination” within the Indian government. In a frank telephonic conversation with me, he summed up what he considered a victory: “All except three delegates got their visas and spoke at the conference. New Delhi told us that, due to the high Chinese sensitivity, we should change the format of our talks into an ‘informal discussion gathering’. I regret the visa cancellation, but it is far more important that India allowed such a gathering to take place in Dharamsala.”

It is contextually important to note that India has, since 1959, provided political asylum to the Dalai Lama and over 100,000 Tibetan refugees. The CTA, effectively a government-in-exile, is based in Dharamsala. In contrast, important powers, including the United States, avoid stirring up Chinese ire on Tibet. Powerful western leaders shy away from receiving the Dalai Lama, even from being seen in public with him. Given India’s comparatively forward position on Tibet, to also host dissidents from Xinjiang --- Beijing’s other big separatist concern --- was always going to escalate confrontation. India has never hosted an Uyghur separatist leader before.

Charges of backtracking were inevitable given the narrative of confrontation around the Dharamsala gathering, even before the visa issue came up. The media had reported the conference --- actually organised months in advance --- as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s retaliation against Beijing for blocking an India-sponsored motion at the United Nations last month to designate the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Maulana Masood Azhar a terrorist under Security Council resolution 1267. China alone had objected in the 15-member UN council, saving Islamabad some awkwardness. Given this context, any moderation by New Delhi was always going to be termed a retreat.

Did Beijing intimidate New Delhi into withdrawing visas to conference delegates and emasculating discussions by banishing them to the backrooms? Or did New Delhi successfully signal a threat to Beijing and, having done so, make a mutually face-saving withdrawal based on an unpublicized compromise between the two sides? It is hard to say, but it is noteworthy that three senior Indian officials were in Beijing last week --- Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. They were not there for crisis management, since all three visits had been scheduled weeks in advance. But their presence would have helped a compromise.

Of course New Delhi could have chosen to disregard the Red Corner notification against Dolkun Isa, just as Germany does in giving him political asylum. But in focusing single-mindedly on the cancellation of his visa, critics of the government are forgetting that tens of other delegates were allowed in, after reminding Beijing about the Uyghur option. Allowing Mr Isa in would have inevitably triggered an escalatory spiral; with Beijing subsequently hosting Indian separatists. It was wiser to merely signal the option and allow Chinese policymakers the space to backtrack from their current position.

Crucially, the Dharamsala conference has served a reminder to the CTA-led Tibetan resistance of the need to join efforts with the larger, pan-China democracy movement. Close watchers in Dharamsala sharply criticise the CTA, which they regard as complacent and elitist --- benefiting, as it does, from guaranteed Indian hospitality and support from second-rung celebrities in the west. Even as the CTA’s leverage within Tibet has declined, and a rising China has become less vulnerable to international demands, the exile movement continues to base its strategy on attracting powerful western countries to exert pressure on Beijing. Says one expert cuttingly: “It is most fortuitous that this conference has gone ahead. The CTA is turning into a political basket case, with morale and hope for a constructive post Dalai Lama leadership lower than ever. So dialogue with other partners in the pan-china democracy movement (which the CTA has never wanted) seems like breath of fresh air in a very stale political environment. At least it sets a precedent.”

It remains to be seen how the CTA and New Delhi take forward the cooperation initiated at Dharamsala. Jianli Yang’s concluding words in his inaugural address at the gathering would not have pleased Beijing. He finished with: “I believe this assembly will strengthen our alliance and jumpstart the next round of our joint work.”