Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Opaque MoD promotion policy creates legal challenge for next army chief

Lt Gen Ravi Dastane is the latest in a seemingly unending line of senior officers  going to court over promotions denied

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Apr 14

With India on track to get a new government next month, the army --- arguably the country’s most admired institution --- is mired in embarrassing uncertainty about who will succeed General Bikram Singh as army chief on July 31, 2014.

The last succession, when Gen VK Singh handed over command to Gen Bikram Singh on May 31, 2012, was mired in controversy and lawsuits. This time again the Supreme Court is hearing a petition by a senior officer, Lieutenant General Ravi Dastane, who cites an array of policy violations to allege that the army and ministry of defence (MoD) have denied him the right to be an army commander. If the apex court rules in his favour, Dastane will be in consideration to be the next army chief. He will be the senior-most army commander, although Lt Gen Dalbir Singh will still be the senior-most lieutenant general.
At fault is the army’s and MoD’s failure to create transparent promotion policies for its top-most appointments. The Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) --- the MoD’s departmental judicial tribunal --- in rejecting Dastane’s petition last September, embarrassingly noted that the absence of a clear promotion policy was repeatedly bringing aggrieved officers to court.

Dastane has pleaded before the Supreme Court that the army and MoD have reduced the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) --- the final authority on appointing top commanders --- to a rubber stamp, by placing before it a single name for each appointment. This violates an earlier Supreme Court judgment which had ruled in 2000 (Union of India versus Lt Gen Rajendra Singh Kadyan) that appointments should be on merit as well as eligibility, with the ACC choosing between at least two candidates for each appointment, rather than merely rubber-stamping the appointment of the senior-most eligible candidate.

The army and MoD told the AFT that they internally evaluated seven eligible officers who senior enough to be considered. The AFT judgment notes that “there was no Selection Committee constituted”, but the army chief and the MoD zeroed in on two candidates for two posts and sent the names to the ACC. The AFT concludes that the principle of merit was thus kept in mind.

Dastane is challenging this conclusion. In addition, he contends that the army illegally undermined the “discipline and vigilance ban” (DV ban) policy. His petition argues that, on May 31, 2012 --- the day army chief, General VK Singh, and western army commander, Lt Gen Shankar Ghosh, retired --- Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra and Dastane himself, the two senior-most lieutenant generals eligible to become army commanders, should have been recommended to fill their vacancies the same day. Lt Gen Dalbir Singh, while senior to both, was ineligible, having received a “show cause notice” from the army chief, General VK Singh, for a rogue intelligence operation. Dalbir, therefore, was under a DV Ban.

Inexplicably, the MoD moved to elevate only Chachra to army commander. It left the second vacancy unfilled, pending a decision on Dalbir’s DV Ban. The new chief, General Bikram Singh, quickly lifted the ban on June 8 and Dalbir was appointed army commander on June 15.

Dastane contends that this effectively “reserved” a vacancy for Dalbir Singh for 15 days, until his DV ban could be lifted. The AFT has rejected that contention, but the Supreme Court will examine it afresh.

The backdrop to this was bitter internal feuding between Gen VK Singh on the one hand; and his successor, Gen Bikram Singh and Lt Gen Dalbir Singh on the other. With Gen VK Singh trying to amend his date of birth and gain an additional year in office, he was targeting Bikram and Dalbir as beneficiaries of his early departure.

An army commander is a senior lieutenant general, appointed to head one of the army’s six geographical commands --- the western, northern, central, eastern, southern and southwestern commands. A seventh “functional command” is the Shimla-based Army Training Command (ARTRAC). In addition, army generals take turns, alternating with their navy and air force counterparts, to command the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) in Port Blair.

To be appointed army commander, a lieutenant general should have successfully commanded one of the army’s fourteen corps, and also have two years of service left before retirement at the age of 60. The ACC selects army commanders from a list of eligible names forwarded by army headquarters (AHQ), through the MoD. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Come out of the nuclear closet

Scrap "no first use". Scrap "automatic massive retaliation". Create realistic options for handling nuclear crises (photo: Agni-4 missile)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Apr 14

The BJP, many presumed, would reverse India’s pledge of “No First Use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons, which allows nukes to be used only against entities that have struck Indian targets with weapons of mass destruction. This assumption was based on the BJP’s April 7 election manifesto, which undertook to “Study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” This boilerplate formulation, which says absolutely nothing about reversing NFU, was inserted into the manifesto without any serious discussion within the BJP on nuclear policy. Yet party spokespersons like Seshadri Chari, Nirmala Sitharaman and Ravi Shankar Prasad, all unschooled in nuclear policy, responded in gung-ho fashion to media questions about an NFU review. The clarification on Monday by BJP president, Rajnath Singh, that no review of NFU was planned is a disappointment to many who touted the muscularity of the BJP’s security policy.

Yet India’s nuclear doctrine badly needs a review. While the NFU pledge must quickly be scrapped, the ill-conceived commitment to “massive retaliation” is even more damaging to our nuclear credibility. Fifteen years ago, facing tight international sanctions, we needed a restrained doctrine. Today, with the security environment more challenging than ever, India’s nuclear doctrine must complicate the calculus of opponents, not simplify it as the single-minded focus on massive retaliation does.

The existing nuclear doctrine --- initially issued as a “draft nuclear doctrine” in August 1999, and solidified (in slightly changed form) through a gazette notification on January 4, 2003 --- pledges that India “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with massive retaliation should deterrence fail. India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapons powers.”

In simple terms this means that India will wait to get nuked before it fires nukes. Once nuked --- even by a small, tactical nuclear weapon fired by, say, Pakistan on its own soil against an Indian armoured offensive, that destroys one squadron of 14 tanks and kills 45 Indian soldiers --- New Delhi’s response will be automatic. India’s massive retaliation will unleash most of its 80-100 nuclear weapons against Pakistani towns and cities, that are termed “counter-value targets.”

Since Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is currently larger than India’s, and is dispersed and sheltered across that country, New Delhi will be visited by retaliation from the smoking ruins of Pakistan. In what is termed a “second strike”, that country’s nuclear command authority, safe in underground command posts, will fire its surviving nukes --- and there will be many --- at New Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities within the 2500-kilometre range of Pakistan’s Shaheen-II ballistic missiles. In this chain of events, most of Pakistan and large swathes of India will be transformed into radioactive wastelands and hundreds of millions of people killed. Remember, this level of destruction follows from a single tactical nuclear weapon, fired by Pakistan at its own territory. Most rational people would find this scenario incredible.

Indeed, New Delhi’s massive retaliation strategy rests on the belief that Pakistani policymakers are rational actors, who will avoid this cataclysm. Yet even rational actors behave irrationally when under enormous stress, such as an existential threat to one’s country. While New Delhi’s nuclear theologians bet our lives on the rationality of Pakistani generals, is that generous assessment corroborated by Pakistan’s heedless plunge into the abyss of radicalism and jihad?

Should India’s leaders have no choice but “suicide or surrender”? Remember that New Delhi, under BJP rule in 1999 (Kargil) and 2001-02 (Parliament attack), and under Congress rule in 2008 (Mumbai attack) shrank from employing even conventional military force against Pakistan. Will New Delhi sanction massive nuclear retaliation that could lead to the aptly-termed MAD ---mutual assured destruction? Probably not, which is why the misconceived massive retaliation strategy must be revisited even before NFU.

There are lessons here from the United States’ experience in the 1950s. President Dwight D Eisenhower, who was elected in 1953, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles adopted a “massive retaliation” strategy against the Soviet Union, based on clear US nuclear superiority in an era when Russian delivery systems could not cross the Atlantic. In October 1953, the seminal National Security Council Paper 162/2 first used the term “massive retaliation.” In January 1954, Dulles threatened that America would “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.”

Yet Dulles could see that massive retaliation was not a credible threat, especially as Soviet retaliatory power grew. Writing in Foreign Affairs in April 1954, Dulles shifted towards a so-called “flexible response.” Suggesting that massive retaliation was one of many options, Dulles wrote, “It should not be stated in advance precisely what would be the scope of military action if new aggression occurred… That is a matter as to which the aggressor had best remain ignorant. But he can know… that the choice in this respect is ours and not his.”

In the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy’s no-nonsense secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, could see that Kennedy needed usable options. Threatening the deaths of 360-450 million people in the Sino-Soviet block might deter a Soviet nuclear strike, but was hardly executable if deterrence failed. That led to a formal “flexible response” doctrine, in which assured destruction was only the apex of a long escalation ladder.

India’s doctrine must create similar options, allowing policymakers every possibility in a crisis --- pre-emptive strike, counter-force and counter-value targeting, even assured destruction through massive retaliation. Furthermore, the exclusive focus on massive retaliation has entirely demilitarised nuclear planning, with the agents who must deliver nuclear weapons --- the missile forces, the air force and submarines --- playing little or no role in planning and rehearsing. This must change.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

BJP promises defence reform, but does not say how

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Apr 14

The BJP’s unusually detailed defence manifesto, which forms part of the “BJP Election Manifesto 2014” that was released in New Delhi on Monday, appears to be a mix of polemic, populism, plagiarism and pragmatic planning.

Significantly for a party that is often accused of pursuing a divisive, majoritarian agenda, the BJP has defined security in comprehensive terms --- specifically mentioning “social cohesion and harmony” as a component of national security along with “military security; economic security; cyber security; energy, food and water and health security.”

Predictably attacking the UPA’s custodianship of security, the BJP holds it responsible for border intrusions by China, the shortage of combat aircraft in the air force, multiple accidents involving naval vessels, Maoist attacks, a growing presence of “Pakistan backed terror groups” and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. While these issues are mostly real, many go back decades and were grappled with by the NDA government from 1998-2004.

Like the BJP’s 1998 manifesto, which made substantive promises, e.g. to test nuclear weapons, the current manifesto makes important commitments on crucial issues. It pledges to “Study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” This has set off speculation that a BJP government would reconsider, if not abandon, the “No First Use” policy that New Delhi has so far held. The manifesto also pledges to “Maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities.” It is unclear whether this means a larger nuclear arsenal, or the creation of an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to counter Pakistan’s much-hyped TNW weapons.

Promising to restructure higher defence management --- a measure that the NDA shied away from whilst in power --- the BJP has promised to “ensure greater participation of Armed Forces in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence.” This would involve integrating the MoD with the service headquarters, and creating structures where uniformed soldiers worked alongside bureaucrats, even as their bosses. After a Group of Ministers proposed this measure in 2001, the BJP encountered strong opposition from bureaucrats, eventually leading to the creation of a halfway house --- the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), where the three services work together but the MoD remains aloof. Like the BJP, the UPA has gone along with this tokenism for the last decade.

The BJP manifesto promises to make up officer shortages within the three services, which currently function with just 75 per cent of their authorised officers. In February, Defence Minister AK Antony told the Lok Sabha that the services were short of 12,372 officers.

A serving general who deals with manpower says this would involve serious difficulties. These include motivating large numbers of high calibre youths to join the military, and expanding training facilities to handle more trainees. The manifesto is silent on how this would be handled.

The BJP says it will “Modernize armed forces, and increase the R&D in defence, with a goal of developing indigenous defence technologies and fast tracking of defence purchases.” There is no elaboration of how this would be done, how much additional funding would be allotted to R&D, or what the BJP would do differently from its earlier tenure, when defence minister George Fernandes lamented that equipment modernisation had been stalled by “the three Cs” --- the CBI, CVC and CAG.

The BJP manifesto carefully woos servicemen and their families. It promises to build a national war memorial, an emotive and longstanding demand from ex-servicemen lobbies that point to the incongruity of honouring Indian martyrs at India Gate in New Delhi --- a monument built by colonial power to commemorate Indians who died for the British Empire. The BJP’s promise to fulfil this demand does not mention where it would be built.

The growing political clout of ex-servicemen is also evident in the BJP promise to appoint a “Veterans Commission” for addressing problems of retired soldiers, sailors and airmen. This borrows from the Congress Party’s manifesto promise of a “National Commission for Ex-Servicemen.” The Congress claims credit for setting up the “Department of Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare” in the MoD. However, veterans complain about the insensitivity of this department, which has done much to push many ex-servicemen into the BJP fold.

The BJP manifesto attempts to benefit from measures already announced by the UPA. It promises to implement “one rank, one pension”, a measure already announced in the UPA’s last budget. It also promises to digitise all defence land records, something that Antony has told parliament is complete.

Significantly, the BJP’s new manifesto is silent on defence spending, even though the UPA has brought down spending to a 52-year low of 1.74 per cent of GDP.

In 1998, the BJP manifesto had noted “the country's defence budget has been declining in real terms… from 3.4 per cent of the GDP in 1989-90 to a mere 2.2 per cent this year (i.e. 1998-99). After six years in power, the BJP managed to raise defence spending to just 2.4 per cent of GDP in 2004-05.

Promising to boost defence production, the BJP says it will “encourage private sector participation and investment, including FDI in selected defence industries.” This seems no different from the current regime, where 26 per cent FDI is permitted, with higher foreign holding permissible on a case-by-case basis.

The BJP says “Technology transfer in defence manufacturing will be encouraged to the maximum.” (emphasis in original). 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Henderson Brooks: too many questions

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st April 14

Were this a straightforward world, the recent unveiling of the Henderson Brooks report would have conclusively bared the secrets of 1962, answering the burning question: was the army’s shameful rout at the hands of China due to political mismanagement or was military incompetence largely to blame? Instead the Henderson Brooks report itself appears to be, at least partly, a cover up. The controversy has only become murkier.

Australian journalist and writer Neville Maxwell earlier this month posted on the Internet a hitherto “top secret” report on the military debacle of 1962, authored by Lieutenant General TB Henderson Brooks, a senior Indian Army officer. The so-called Henderson Brooks Report (HBR), which New Delhi has suppressed since 1963, had always been rumoured to contain the real answers. Critics of Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister, have alleged for half a century that the report was buried because it highlighted his political ineptitude. It was never explained why the BJP-led government failed to declassify the report whilst it governed from 1998 to 2004, or why the military itself has consistently opposed its release.

Like in many murder mysteries, the corpse turns up on Page 1 of the HBR, with the author making the startling revelation that his hands were tied from the start by the army chief --- General JN Chaudhuri, who was appointed after General PN Thapar resigned in the wake of defeat.  Henderson Brooks reveals that Chaudhuri had issued him “advice” not to review the functioning of Army Headquarters (hereafter AHQ) in his inquiry. In the army, a senior commander’s “advice” constitutes an order that is not given in writing. Significantly, the written orders for the inquiry mention no such restriction.

The author clearly felt that this restriction subverted his inquiry. He notes that it would “have been convenient and logical to trace the events from Army Headquarters and then move down to Commands (the headquarters under AHQ) for more details, and, finally, ending up with field formations for the battle itself.”

A frustrated Henderson Brooks rued that “a number of loose ends concerning Army Headquarters could not be verified and have been left unanswered. The relationship between Defence Ministry (hereafter MoD) and Army and the directions given by the former to the latter could, therefore, also not be examined.”

Why might General Chaudhuri have steered Henderson Brooks clear of AHQ and, by extension, of orders passed by Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon and his MoD officials? We must fish for that answer in the swirling political-military crosscurrents of that period, with army generals carefully disassociating themselves from the discredited General BM Kaul and those close to him --- the so-called “Kaul boys”. Kaul had leveraged his proximity to Nehru and VK Krishna Menon to bypass regular command channels (which were supine in any case) in establishing posts on disputed territory based on a political-intelligence assessment that the Chinese might bark but they would not bite. Chaudhuri knew that an inquiry that examined all the written orders, minutes of meetings in AHQ and MoD, and recorded personal statements from key protagonists might establish the damning truth --- that there were no “good guys” in 1962. If political direction was deeply flawed, General Kaul’s self-serving support for the political-intelligence assumption of Chinese docility led to national humiliation and 3250 soldiers dead. What better way for a new and ambitious chief to forge ties with the political leadership than to confine the inevitable enquiry to tactical issues?

In reflecting upon the possibility of a motivated cover-up, one must consider the personalities involved. General Chaudhuri was an articulate, intelligent cavalry officer about whom contemporaries say; “He was held in high esteem, especially by himself”. Chaudhuri and his wife were active socialites and would today be described as Page 3 people. Contemporaries recall their fondness for Balkan Sobranie cigarettes in stylish holders. Chaudhuri fancied himself one of the intellectual elite; in violation of norms he wrote a newspaper column for a national daily, under a pseudonym, even as army chief. His professional acumen was not impressive; faced with a Pakistani advance in Khemkaran in 1965, he ordered a retreat that would have handed a large chunk of Punjab to Pakistan. Fortunately, Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, his subordinate commander refused to retreat. This was the chief who whispered to Henderson Brooks not to wield the broom too vigorously.

Then there was Henderson Brooks himself, anglicised in accent, habits and outlook, a general who eventually migrated to Australia --- Neville Maxwell’s country. A competent, if plodding, officer Henderson Brooks lacked the flair and assertiveness of contemporaries like Sam Manekshaw. In “outing” Chaudhuri’s apparently confidential verbal directive to scale down his inquiry, Henderson Brooks must have surprised his chief.

There must also have been discomfiture over the HBR’s criticism of the higher military and political leadership. It pointed out that Krishna Menon’s orders not to keep records of his meetings absolved everyone of responsibility; termed “militarily unsound” the assessments of Nehru favourite, Intelligence Bureau chief BN Mullick; and expressed incredulity at tactical interference by Foreign Secretary MJ Desai. Was the decision to expand their mandate taken by Henderson Brooks himself, or by his co-author, the iconic, Victoria Cross winning Brigadier PS Bhagat?

Yet Henderson Brooks’ ire was directed mainly at the army’s failure. It is hard to argue with Srinath Raghavan who says, “(T)he army also bore an institutional responsibility — one that cannot be attributed merely to a few bad generals. The simple fact is that, from 1959 to 1962, the Indian army’s professional capacities at all levels were put to the test — and found badly wanting.”

Of course this conclusion is incomplete and one-dimensional; the muzzled HBR is as critical of the political direction of that conflict. Ultimately, the HBR’s even-handedness may have caused its suppression. With everyone --- the politicians, the MoD, the AHQ, General Kaul and the field command --- all heavily criticised, everyone has good reason to suppress the report. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

First upgraded IAF base commissioned at Bhatinda, under Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) project

Rs 2,500 crore upgrade of 67 bases to boost commercial flights and combat operations

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Mar 14

The Sukhoi-30MKI fighter swept low and fast over the Punjab landscape, heading for the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Bhatinda. It had completed a simulated combat mission, in which fighter controllers had directed it from an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) --- a flying command centre inside a giant IL-78 aircraft that controls air operations from 33,000 feet. Now Bhatinda air base had been ordered to “recover” the fighter, i.e. guide it back to base and facilitate its landing.

This unfolded during the validation on Tuesday of a new, state-of-the-art airfield system set up at Bhatinda under the “Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure” (MAFI) project. This involves modernising 67 military airfields, to let the IAF operate in weather and visibility conditions far more restrictive than what is possible today.

As the AWACS directed the Su-30MKI to head for Bhatinda, an alert was flashed to the airfield in secure digital code. With the fighter 300 kilometres away, Bhatinda switched on a DVOR --- Doppler Very High Frequency Omni-directional Radio Range --- a powerful radio beacon to guide the fighter home. Ten minutes later, with the Su-30MKI now just 30 kilometres away, Bhatinda switched on its new Category II Instrument Landing System (ILS). When fog or smoke obscures the runway, a “localiser” generated by the ILS lets the pilot electronically aligns his aircraft with the runway centre. Simultaneously, a “glide path” is generated, an electronic highway that the pilot can ride down at a steady rate of descent, until he can see the runway.

The Su-30MKI descended till its wheels touched the Bhatinda runway. Mission accomplished; the MAFI instrumentation worked perfectly. Without slowing down, the fighter lifted off and headed back to its real base.

Bhatinda is MAFI’s pilot project. By end-2016, 30 IAF and navy air bases, including 8 along the Sino-Indian border, will have been modernised to a level where aircraft can take off and land in visibility as low as 300 metres. This could generate crucial air support for ground forces battling in bad weather conditions.

The Rs 2,500 crore MAFI project was globally tendered, but won by an Indian company, Tata Power (Strategic Electronics Division).

Only Delhi provides better facilities than this --- a single runway has Cat III ILS that guides aircraft in to land in zero visibility. The MAFI upgrade will be good news also for commercial air operations --- almost 30 IAF and navy air bases are used by commercial fights, including Chandigarh, Goa, Leh and Srinagar.

“MAFI would substantially improve all–weather capability, aid the civil aircraft that operate from the joint–user aerodromes, enhance aerospace safety and in the process aid growth of the aviation sector in the country,” said IAF Vice Chief, Air Marshal RK Sharma, while commissioning the refurbished Bhatinda base.

The IAF’s ability to conduct air operations safely in bad weather and visibility would be enhanced further by end-2019, when 37 more air bases (including two owned by the Ministry of Home Affairs) would have been upgraded to MAFI standards.

The pace of work is hindered, since only 5-6 operational air force bases can be out of action at any give time. When work on those is completed, it begins on a fresh batch.

The IAF’s and navy’s newer aircraft --- C-130J Super Hercules, C-17 Globemaster III, Sukhoi-30MKI, MiG-29K and the Rafale (when it enters service) would utilize the full potential of MAFI. Older aircraft like the MiG-21s don’t have on-board electronics needed for utilising MAFI instrumentation.

Yet, this is a vital force multiplier for the IAF. Said Air Marshal Sharma, “By fulfilling the need to match ground infrastructure with capability of the modern aircraft, (MAFI) will enhance the overall capability of India’s air power.”

Electronic security is greatly improved with MAFI. A high degree of automation over digital networks reduces insecure voice transmissions. All electronics are activated only when launching or recovering aircraft, and can be switched off thereafter at the push of a button.

As a backup for when navigational aids fail, MAFI caters for a Category II airfield lighting system. This deploys runway lighting in a particular pattern that guides aircraft to the touchdown point. MAFI also provides two 750 KVA generators that can take on the entire load of the electrical and electronic equipment in the event of a power failure.

While much of the airfield instrumentation is commercial, MAFI provides military air bases with a tactical air navigation (TACAN) system that is compatible only with military aircraft. 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Global interest in cause of IAF C-130J crash

Five IAF crewmembers die as Super Hercules (pictured here landing in Daulat Beg Oldi) crashes near Gwalior

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Mar 14

An Indian Air Force (IAF) C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, recently acquired from the United States, crashed near Gwalior on Friday, killing all five people on board --- three crew-members (pilot, co-pilot and loadmaster) and two more IAF officers.

The IAF tersely stated on Friday that the Super Hercules “crashed 72 miles west of  Gwalior airbase… (after getting) airborne from Agra at 1000 hours for a routine flying training mission. A Court of Inquiry has been ordered to investigate into the cause of the accident.”

So far there is no indication of what caused the crash in easy terrain and clear weather of an almost brand new, four-engine aircraft. In 2010, the IAF bought six Super Hercules for $962.7 million (Rs 5,750 crore). A subsequent contract has been signed for six more, which will start being delivered in 2016.

The Super Hercules is the world’s most survivable combat aircraft. Unlike fighter aircraft that zoom over their target, release their weapons load and return home at a thousand kilometres an hour, the Super Hercules transports soldiers to the heart of the land battle. Flying low, in pitch darkness to evade radar and visual detection, the Super Hercules uses satellite navigation to land without lights on a few hundred metres of unpaved mud in the tactical battle area. The 64 fully kitted Special Forces soldiers it carries quickly emerge to strike strategic objectives like unsecured nuclear weapons, terrorist leaders or key enemy headquarters.

Nor is the Super Hercules sensitive to rough weather. A variant of this aircraft is flown by the Hurricane Hunters --- the US Air Force’s legendary 53rd Weather Reconnaissance squadron that flies into typhoons and hurricanes to gather data about how such storms form. The Super Hercules was an integral part of India’s contingency plans for Cyclone Phailin last October, during the Uttarakhand floods, and the ongoing search for Malaysian Airways Flight MH370.

The C-130J Super Hercules is a significantly improved version of the venerated C-130 Hercules, which has been in continuous production longer than any other military aircraft. 70 countries, including Pakistan, operate the C-130. In 1988, Pakistani president, General Zia-ul-Haq died in a C-130 Hercules crash that was believed to be an assassination that involved disabling the crew in mid-flight.

16 air forces worldwide that operate almost 300 Super Hercules, have had only one fatal accident in over a million flight hours, including years of intense combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lone accident was not due to technical failure; a Norwegian C-130J crashed into a mountain in 2012.

Last August, when New Delhi wanted to send a message to Beijing about India’s ownership of a strategic salient near the Karakoram Pass at India’s northern tip, the IAF landed a Super Hercules on the mud-surfaced, 16,600 feet-high Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip. Earlier, in May 2012, when the IAF wanted to display its strategic reach, a Super Hercules flew a six-hour, non-stop mission from Delhi to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Given the widespread usage of the C-130J, the IAF is not alone in wondering what caused the accident. The manufacturers of the Super Hercules, US giant Lockheed Martin Aerospace Ltd, is ready to assist in the accident investigation. Sources tell Business Standard that the IAF has not yet requested for technical assistance, but Lockheed Martin specialists will be made available whenever it does.

“As a manufacturer, we would certainly like to know what happened. There are users of the Super Hercules all over the world who would also be keen,” says a Lockheed Martin official.

The US embassy in New Delhi has conveyed its condolences to the IAF, Business Standard has learnt.