Friday, 15 February 2019

Viewpoint: How far might India go to “punish” Pakistan


By Ajai Shukla
BBC Online
15th February 19

Link to webpage on BBC Online: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47250994

A suicide attack killed more than 40 members of the Indian security forces in restive Indian-administered Kashmir on 14  February. Threats from Indian leaders, who face a tricky general election before May, raise the spectre of Indian military retaliation against Pakistan for “state-sponsored terrorism”, writes Indian defence analyst, Ajai Shukla.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to give security forces free rein to respond to the militant attack – the deadliest in the region in three decades. Home Minister Rajnath Singh blamed Pakistan for the attack and threatened a “strong reply”. Influential Indian television networks are baying for revenge.

The car bombing has been claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which numerous countries, as well as the United Nations, have designated a terrorist group. Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was captured and imprisoned in the 1990s by Indian forces. He was later released as part of a hostage exchange after an Indian airliner was hijacked to Kabul in 1999. New Delhi has always held Pakistan responsible for that hijacking.

For several years now, India has been pressuring the UN to designate Azhar a “global terrorist”, but China – a close ally of Pakistan – has repeatedly blocked that move.

The involvement of the Jaish to the car bombing directly links Pakistan to the attack. In 2001, a Jaish suicide squad had attacked the Indian parliament, killing nine security men and triggering an Indian military mobilisation against Pakistan that kept the two countries on the brink of war for months. In 2016, Jaish attacks on Indian military facilities in Pathankot and Uri resulted in the Indian army launching “surgical strikes” on Pakistani military targets and terrorist camps across the Line of Control (LoC), the de factoborder that divides the state of J&K.

This time, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government could feel pressured to do more. The 2016 strikes were deliberately limited in time and choice of targets, allowing Pakistan to deny that they took place at all. The Indian military has acknowledged contingency plans exist for punishing Pakistan more severely in the event of a damaging terrorist attack. But all such plans carry the danger of retaliation and uncontrolled escalation. This fear is exacerbated by the fact that both countries possess nuclear weapons. Pakistan has repeatedly signalled it would not hesitate to use them.

For now, Pakistan’s foreign office has tweeted its “grave concern” and rejected “any insinuation by elements in Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to State of Pakistan without investigations.” However, given that the Jaish has claimed credit for the car bombing and Masood Azhar roams free in Pakistan, Indian public opinion is unlikely to demand much more by way of proof.

Pakistan’s central intelligence agency, the army-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), faces a conundrum with regard to the Jaish. Unlike the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which unquestioningly follows the politically dominant Pakistan Army’s diktat, the Jaish has not shrunk from attacking Pakistani military targets, including two deadly bomb attacks on General Pervez Musharraf in 2003. Given the Jaish’s utility in keeping the Kashmir pot bubbling, the Pakistan Army has turned a blind eye towards it so far. It remains to be seen whether serious pressure from India – and possibly from China, which might believe it has gone far enough in sheltering Azhar – could result in a shutdown of the Jaish. 

Away from the geo-politics, there is also an important local dynamic to the car bombing. Over the last year, Indian security forces have killed almost 300 Kashmiri militants in the Valley, with most of them from the South Kashmir pocket where the car bombing took place. The under-pressure militant groups, therefore, faced a pressing need to reassert their presence with a high-visibility attack. The predominant group in the area, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, regards suicide attacks as anti-Islamic. That left the onus on the Jaish and the LeT.

For India’s security establishment in J&K, this was an unalloyed intelligence disaster. The police and intelligence agencies face questions over how the Jaish managed to stage such an attack, which involved rigging up a car with a large amount of explosive, carrying out reconnaissance, rehearsals and penetrating several layers of security to reach their target.

For now, the Indian establishment is weighing its options. A union cabinet meeting the morning after the attack has decided to withdraw the economic Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status that New Delhi granted Pakistan, without reciprocity. But, in the absence of any Pakistani action against the Jaish, there would be more to come.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

IAF wants to accept Russian offer for 21 surplus MiG-29 fighters

These 21 fighters were built in the 1980s by MiG, but the Russian Air Force could not afford them

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Feb 19

The understrength Indian Air Force (IAF), already making do by extending the life of its MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar fleet, is now evaluating an unexpected windfall from Moscow – for a brand new squadron of upgraded MiG-29 multi-role fighters. 

These 21 fighters were built in the 1980s by Russian firm, RAC MiG, for the Russian Air Force, which eventually could not muster up the money to pay for them.

For three decades, these aircraft have lain unused; their wings stored separate from their bodies. Now, the IAF has been invited to buy them at the price they were built – which is below $25 million (Rs 175 crore). That is cheaper even than the Tejas Mark 1 fighter.

“A high-level IAF team has returned from Russia, where we found the MiG-29s to be in excellent condition. They could make an excellent addition to our fleet and we are submitting a positive report,” said a senior air marshal who is directly involved in air force acquisitions.

The IAF inducted the MiG-29 in the late-1980s after the United States supplied the Pakistan Air Force the F-16 Falcon fighter. Since then, the IAF has operated three MiG-29 squadrons: called “First Supersonics”, “Black Archers” and “Tridents”. Two of these squadrons are based in Adampur, Punjab and the third in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

The IAF’s existing 69 MiG-29s are currently undergoing a $900 million mid-life upgrade to the MiG-29UPG standard. While the old MiG-29s were mainly twin-engine, air-superiority fighters, optimised for air-to-air combat with enemy fighters, the far more capable MiG-29UPG is a “multi-role fighter” that is also equipped and armed to strike ground targets. 

In addition, with the addition of large capacity fuel tanks and mid-air refuelling capability, the IAF regards its MiG-29UPGs as long-range, multi-role fighters.

“These are without question the most capable MiG-29s flying anywhere in the world,” said the IAF air marshal.

Russia has confirmed that it will upgrade the 21 MiG-29s now being offered to the same standard as IAF’s other three MiG-29UPG squadrons. That would add another $15 million or so to each fighter’s price.

In addition to the IAF’s fleet of MiG-29UPGs, the Indian Navy operates the MiG-29K/KUB variant off the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. This variant will also fly from the INS Vikrant, when it is delivered in 2020-21.

First Strategic Partner deal launched, Indian firm to build 111 navy choppers for Rs 21,738 crore

The Russian navalised Kamov-226T, one of the helicopters on offer to the Indian Navy

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Feb 19

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) on Tuesday kicked off the procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH) for the Indian Navy. This acquisition, estimated to be worth Rs 21,738 crore, is the first one being processed under the new Strategic Partner (SP) procurement model.

The SP model envisages the indigenous manufacture of major defence platforms by an Indian company, which will collaborate with a foreign OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to acquire niche technologies and set up production facilities in India.

With the MoD having green-lighted this acquisition on August 25, an Expression of Interest (EoI) was issued today, inviting potential Indian SPs and foreign OEMs to submit collaborative proposals to build the NUH in India.

“The OEMs have been mandated to set up [a] dedicated manufacturing line, including design, integration and manufacturing processes for NUH in India and make [the] Indian manufacturing line as a global exclusive facility for the NUH platform being offered,” stated the MoD on Tuesday. 

The first 16 helicopters can be delivered from the OEM’s overseas production facility, but at least 95 helicopters out of 111 must be manufactured in India by the selected SP. An ambitious level of 60 per cent indigenisation is being aimed at in the NUH project.

The Indian companies aspiring to be SPs have been given two months to respond to the EoI. The MoD expects Tata Advanced Systems Ltd, Mahindra Defence, Adani Defence, Larsen & Toubro, Bharat Forge and Reliance Infrastructure to participate in the process.

“The Indian companies would be shortlisted based on their capability of system of system integration, facility in the aerospace domain and financial capability,” announced the MoD today.

The foreign OEMs have been given three months to respond to the EoI. The MoD says the foreign OEMs likely to participate in the project are Lockheed Martin, Airbus Helicopters, Bell Helicopters and Russian export agency, Rosoboronexport. 

The RFP for procurement is likely to be issued towards the end of third quarter of this year to the shortlisted Indian companies.

The NUH is intended to replace the navy’s vintage fleet of French-origin Chetak helicopters in carrying out tasks like search and rescue (SAR), casualty evacuation (CASEVAC), ferrying passengers from ships and low intensity maritime operations (LIMO) such as dropping torpedoes. 

The basic SP policy framework is a part of the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016 (DPP-2016). However, equipment-specific selection criteria need to be separately drawn up for each of the four weapon categories the SP policy covers – fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines and armoured vehicles. 

Last July, the MoD had promulgated the “implementation guidelines” for choosing an SP in the helicopter category, clearing the way for this procurement.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Rafale will fly, but the excuses won’t



By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th Feb 19

The controversy around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unilateral decision to buy 36 Rafale fighters from France, which picked up steam in late-2017, initially seemed a quixotic political attack by Rahul Gandhi, centred on allegations of over-payment and crony capitalism to favour the Reliance Group, headed by Anil Ambani, who is allegedly close to Mr Modi. However, over the last one-and-a-half years, a seemingly endless dribble of analyses and exposes have added credibility to a “Rafale scam” narrative, raising questions of impropriety, bypassing of procedures, modifying (no pun intended) standard contractual terms to suit foreign vendors and riding roughshod over the defence ministry’s concerns. The Congress Party president, initially alone in attacking the Rafale procurement, now has the entire Opposition chorusing his allegations.

During this period, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the government have won pretty much all the big Rafale battles. The Supreme Court tossed out a group of writ petitions, notably one filed by Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan. The apex court order relied on government arguments submitted on an unsigned piece of paper. The Central Bureau of Investigation has not initiated any investigation, despite urging by citizen groups. On Tuesday, the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) is expected to submit an audit report, which is already somewhat discredited after the Supreme Court mistakenly cited it, before it was made public, to clear the government of wrongdoing (this has been justified as a grammatical error, where future tense was confused for past tense). And on television news debates, as in Parliament, government and BJP spokespersons successfully confuse the issue with technical and procedural jargon.

Notwithstanding all these victorious Rafale battles, the Rafale war continues causing attrition on Mr Modi. That is because of continuing revelations about procedural violations that are clearly emerging from deep within the government, apparently leaked by officials who resent having been pressured to toe the line laid out by powerful decision-makers in the prime minister’s office (PMO). This discontent is widespread. Even before three ministry of defence (MoD) officials in the Indian Negotiating Team (INT) on the Rafale deal in 2015-16 dissented in writing about how “the basic requirement of financial prudence” was being thrown to the winds, this writer had reported how Mr Modi’s unilateral decision to replace the acquisition of 126 Rafales under the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender with the procurement of 36 Rafale fighters, had taken the Indian Air Force (IAF) and then-defence minister Manohar Parrikar by surprise. Both the IAF and Mr Parrikar are today defending the deal for different reasons. The IAF, desperately short of fighter aircraft, fears that, if the Rafale allegations stick, they might end up without even 36 Rafales. Meanwhile Mr Parrikar walks a fine line, messaging that this was Mr Modi’s idea, not his own, but he would grit his teeth and defend it as a loyal minister. 

With much water having flown under the bridge, let us summarise the arguments since then. The first is the charge that the French vendors, Dassault (aircraft) and MBDA (weapons) were allowed to get away with charging the IAF significantly more per Rafale than what the 126-MMRCA deal would have charged. This writer revealed that Dassault had bid Euro 19.5 billion for 126 Rafales in 2007, some 40 per cent cheaper per fighter than what the IAF is paying in the Euro 7.87 billion contract for 36 Rafales, signed in 2016. The government has argued that the Rafales are now coming with “India-specific enhancements” that make them far more capable, but it then emerged that those added capabilities were also a part of the earlier procurement. Further, the MMRCA contract included the extra benefits of technology transfer to build 108 Rafales in India, which would have galvanised India’s aerospace industry.

The government has privately sought to discredit such reports, but has declined to divulge official figures. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had promised to make them public, but then backtracked citing a secrecy agreement with France. Meanwhile, party spokespersons have argued that the price being paid for 36 Rafales cannot be compared with the 126-MMRCA tender, since that never resulted in a contract. In fact, the two are directly linked through the Modi-Hollande joint statement, which explicitly stipulated that the price for 36 Rafales would be less than what Dassault had quoted in the MMRCA tender. This linkage is even more direct in the cost negotiations, where Indian officials used Dassault’s price bid in the MMRCA tender to establish a “benchmark price” for negotiating the cost of 36 Rafales.

Another point of controversy, also first reported by this writer, was over the selection of Reliance Group as Dassault’s primary partner for offsets – which requires vendors to invest 50 per cent of their contract value in India’s defence industry. Offset rules required vendors to submit their offset plan for advance scrutiny by the MoD. However, after negotiations with Dassault began, an amendment on August 5, 2015 absolved the MoD from its responsibility to pre-vet and sanction offset proposals. The government says the changes were made earlier and notified only now, though it is difficult to verify that. This has allowed Ms Sitharaman to argue that Reliance Group was Dassault’s choice, notwithstanding its weak financial standing and inexperience in aerospace manufacture. Mr Hollande, now retired, has publicly stated that New Delhi had stipulated that offsets must be routed through Reliance Group. However, Dassault – its contract in the balance – gamely took responsibility for the decision.

The current revelations, which are being spearheaded by The Hindu, centre on the apprehensions recorded on file by several MoD officials about PMO interference undermining India’s negotiations with the French, especially on the issue of sovereign guarantees. Eventually, Paris got away with handing India a legally dubious “Letter of Comfort” instead of a cast-iron sovereign guarantee, which would have bound the French government to intercede on India’s behalf in the event of any glitch in contract implementation. Such apprehensions were endorsed even by the defence secretary of the time – the senior-most MoD official – and even Mr Parrikar did not dismiss the officials’ concerns.

Monday’s revelations were even more worrying. Documents indicated that, well after the Cabinet had approved the 36-Rafale contract document, the government diluted several contractual clauses, doing away with mandatory penalties for the use of “undue influence”, use of “agents/agency commission” and other mandatory clauses stipulated in the Defence Procurement Procedure, the rulebook for defence capital procurements. This raises troubling questions: why would the PMO intervene to remove an anti-corruption clause from a contract the Cabinet had already cleared? Did the French negotiators ask for the “integrity clause” to be removed, or was it an Indian initiative? Why did the PMO intervene to strike out the “integrity clauses”?

Even with further revelations, only a money trail would establish criminal culpability in the Rafale affair. Without that, judgment can only be pronounced in the court of public opinion. Yet, great damage has been done. Procedures and institutional mechanisms have been severely undermined and the already fraught process of defence procurement complicated further. We may never know whether there has been corruption in the Rafale deal. But the evidence of unforgivable incompetence is everywhere.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Defence modernisation budget rises just 5% each year in real terms

With customs duties imposed on defence in 2016 and GST in 2017, capex has fallen even more

By Ajai Shukla and Devangshu Datta
Business Standard, 11th Feb 2019

Business Standard analysis of defence capital allocations, the crucial component of the defence budget that buys new weapons and equipment, reveals that it has risen by barely 5 per cent in real terms each year, in the last decade. This is after accounting for inflation and foreign exchange rate variation (FERV). 

Thus, the military’s modernisation budget has trailed far behind growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which has risen at 6-8 per cent annually for that period.

Twice during this period, in 2012-13 and 2015-16, the adjusted capital budget was lower than the previous year’s allocations. 


There were large hikes of 23.38 per cent (2009-10) and 18.98 per cent (2010-11) in the first two years of the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA-2) government. After those two boosts, the annualised increase over the next eight years amounts to only 1.6 per cent with forex spending up from around $6.97 bn in 2010-11 to $7.73 bn in 2018-19 and domestic capex in constant rupees going from Rs 343 bn (2011-12) to Rs 398 bn (2018-19). 

Business Standard needed to compile allocations scattered across various budget heads and Demands for Grants in order to calculate capital allocations. For example, in the 2019-20 budget, the capital allocations for border road construction is not in the capital budget (Demand No 21), but buried as Demand No 19 under the Ministry of Defence head. It’s similar for the Coast Guard. Until 2016-17, capital allocations for the Defence R&D Organisation and Ordnance Factory Board were also part of the Ministry of Defence budget. These scattered capital allocations have been compiled and included in capex.

Each year’s budget is then adjusted. We have assumed that half of the capital Budget is spent domestically and the rest, abroad in forex. The domestic spending is presented in constant 2011-12 rupees to adjust for inflation, using the deflator given when the Budget is presented. 

The deflator is a ratio of the value at current prices of all the goods and services in the economy in a given year to the value during the base year, which is 2011-12.The capex figures for 2009-10 and 2010-11 have been adjusted “forwards”. The domestic sources of equipment, include the 41 Ordnance Factories (OFs), eight defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) and Indian private firms. 

The other 50 per cent, which is assumed to be spent in foreign exchange, is adjusted for FERV, using the median US dollar exchange rate of the respective financial year. While some equipment is paid for in Euros, most international defence transactions – even with Russia and Israel – are invoiced in US dollars. 

Comparison over UPA-2 and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tenures

The UPA-2 increased domestic capital allocations in real terms by about 5.99 per cent annually. The NDA has increased domestic capital spending by about 2.62 per cent annually. The UPA-2 increased FERV-adjusted capital allocations by 8.8 per cent annually, while the NDA government has increased FERV-adjusted capital allocations by 3.46 per cent.

Double whammy: Customs duties and Goods and Service Tax (GST)

Two recent tax measures have cut into these already meagre capital allocations.  In April 2016, customs duty of 10.3 per cent was imposed on defence imports. Since 50 per cent or more of the capital budget is spent on imports, customs duties amount to five per cent of the capital budget. 

An even bigger blow came in July 2017, when Goods and Service Tax (GST) was levied on defence capital purchases. Most military equipment comprises “high end engineering goods” and falls in either the 18 per cent or 28 per cent bracket. As the end-user, the Defence Ministry cannot recover the GST paid out. This has impacted the capital budget in the last two fiscals. 

Ironically, customs duties were imposed for a laudable objective – to provide a level playing field to the private sector vis-à-vis DPSUs, OFs and foreign original equipment manufacturers (FOEMs). Before 2016, DPSUs enjoyed customs duty exemptions, while imports from FOEMs were tax-free. Only private sector firms were liable for customs duties and local taxes. Now everyone pays customs duty.

Before GST, the capital budget paid only the basic cost of domestic defence equipment. The defence firms paid excise duty and value-added tax (VAT), which were reimbursed, on the basis of evidence. But GST is collected before defence equipment is shipped out by a firm. The Defence Ministry doesn’t receive reimbursement for GST. Hence, this is an outflow from the capital budget.

As Delhi chokes, Punjab to convert rice husk into bio-jet fuel

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, US envoy Ken Juster, to attend signing in Chandigarh

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Feb 19

In a game-changing step towards curbing pollution in Delhi caused by burning of rice husk in Punjab, an Indian firm, Virgo Corporation, will sign an agreement with the Punjab government on Monday to set up a plant that will profitably convert rice husk into bio-jet fuel.

Bio-jet fuel garnered public attention on January 26, when an Indian Air Force (IAF) Antonov-32 aircraft flew in the Republic Day parade partially on bio-jet fuel made from the Jatropha plant. Earlier, in August, a SpiceJet airliner had flown on the same fuel from Dehradun to Delhi, a first in India.


So significant is this initiative for Punjab, that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh will personally attend the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between his government and Virgo in Chandigarh on Monday. 

The technology to extract bio-jet fuel from rice husk is being provided by US giant, Honeywell, which will supply Virgo the technology and processes for setting up a “Rapid Thermal Processing” (RTP) plant – a Honeywell trademark.

US envoy to India, Kenneth Juster, also plans to fly down from Delhi to attend. His embassy has facilitated this initiative with Honeywell.

Every rice harvest in Punjab generates 20 million metric tonnes of paddy straw. Being high in silica, animals refuse to eat it. Set aflame by farmers to clear their land for the next crop, the smoke drifts down to Delhi, causing allergies and lung conditions. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal regards this as a high priority.

Punjab, a predominantly agrarian state, regards new agriculture-based industries like bio-jet fuel as an essential buffer for when the Centre’s compensation for revenue losses due to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) tails off in 2022 – or, if it is extended – in 2025.

Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Badal had told Business Standard if new agro-based industries were not encouraged, Punjab would “fall off a financial cliff” when GST compensation was withdrawn.

For Honeywell, success in this project would open the door to processing some 150 million tonnes of surplus bio-mass across India. The feedstock would include non-edible plants like Jatropha, Castor Pongamia, Neem, Mahua, Sal and Kokum, since converting edible crops to fuel remains controversial.

Honeywell’s technology powers the world’s only commercial bio-jet fuel (also called “sustainable aviation fuel”) facility, California-based AltAir Fuels. The technology is called UOP Renewal Jet Fuel Process, after a subsidiary, Universal Oil Products, which set up India’s first oil refinery at Digboi, in 1932.

The impetus for bio-fuel stemmed from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s directive in November 2016 for a 10 per cent reduction in import and consumption of crude oil by 2021-22. The baton was picked up by the IAF, which consumes about 100 crore litres of aviation turbine fuel (ATF) every year. The IAF calculated that blending ATF with 10 per cent bio-jet fuel, would create an annual demand for 10 crore litres of bio-fuel.

IAF sources say they have recommended setting up an inter-ministerial Bio-Jet Fuel Board, and the allocation of Rs 1,000 crore to set up three production plants of 5,000 litres per day, each one using a different feedstock.

The IAF, while leading the bio-fuel charge in India is almost a decade behind the  global curve. The US Air Force (USAF) first flew a fighter aircraft partially powered by bio-jet fuel in 2010. The next year, it certified the C-17 Globemaster III – which the IAF also operates – for unlimited use of hydro-processed blended biofuels.

Meanwhile, the Royal Netherlands Air Force, starting from January14, 2019, began flying all its F-16 fighters with fuel containing five per cent bio-jet fuel imported from California.

In India, the cultivation of bio-fuel feedstock started when Jatropha captured the public eye in 2005. It grows on arid wasteland, requires no fertilizer or water, and has a high oil yield. Jatropha is used as a fence in villages, since animals don’t eat it. The challenge has been to grow it as an industrial crop, which has been taken up by the Chattisgarh Biodiesel Development Authority (CBDA). 

To process the Jatropha oil into bio-jet fuel and testing and certifying it, the IAFhas funded a collaborative technology development project with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP).

Friday, 8 February 2019

UK to invite India to co-develop the sixth-generation Tempest fighter aircraft

A mock-up of the Tempest sixth-gen fighter at the Farnborough Air Show last year (courtesy Reuters)

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Feb 19

After having spurned Moscow’s proposal to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will be invited this month by the UK to co-develop a sixth-generation fighter called the Tempest. 

Business Standard learns that a UK delegation, including ministry of defence (MoD) officials and executives from British defence giant BAE Systems, who will arrive on February 18 for the Aero India 2019 exhibition in Bengaluru, will brief Indian MoD and IAF officials and gauge the potential for collaboration.

We are looking for international partners to access the best assured capability [for developing the Tempest],” said Nik Khanna, who heads BAE Systems India.

The Tempest fighter will be targeted to enter service around 2035-2040, when the earliest Eurofighter Typhoons – in service in the UK, German, Italian, Spanish, Saudi Arabian and Omani air forces – start to retire. Tempest was first unveiled as a concept fighter at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK last summer.

The Tempest’s configuration and capabilities are still being worked out. Under discussion are questions like whether it will be manned or remotely piloted, whether it will have a variable cycle engine and be capable of “directed energy” attacks, using weapons like laser beams; whether it will control drones for “swarm attacks”, and incorporate artificial intelligence and deep learning. 

The only thing that seems clear is that the sixth-generation Tempest will be technologically far more advanced than current fifth-generation fighters like the F-22, F-35, J-20 and J-31.

The so-called “Team Tempest”, which will develop this futuristic fighter, includes, besides BAE Systems as the lead integrator, Rolls-Royce for the engines, Leonardo UK for sensors and MBDA UK for missile systems. 

In addition to these, the UK believes other international partners, such as India, will be essential. Officials in “Team Tempest” say international partners will be chosen based on four parameters: a large military that will buy more aircraft; a large defence budget to pay development costs; industrial capability to play a useful development role; and powerful international influence to support the alliance.

Asked what role India could play in developing such an advanced fighter, Khanna said: “A big cost driver for a futuristic aerospace system is going to be the requirement for more and more software engineers. India has a huge capability in that area.”

This search for foreign partners for “Team Tempest” comes at a time of decline for British defence industry. On Thursday, Financial Times cited a new report by research firm HIS Markit that finds “Britain is set to become a net importer of defence equipment for the first time since the civil war in the mid-17thcentury.”

To reverse this trend, the UK has unveiled a “Combat Air Strategy” that undergirds the Tempest announcement. BAE Systems sources say this is a Britishstatement of intent to retain its century-old leading role in the field of aerial combat, including nurturing aerospace industry as a key component of that.

In Farnborough, the UK government had announced a two billion pound investment into British aerospace industry, to create capabilities that would support the Tempest programme. It was hoped that this high profile announcement of an iconic programme would inspire young engineers to work in this sector. It was also hoped that this would encourage investments into the British aerospace sector.

“The UK combat air sector is a national asset. Not just the Royal Air Force, but also the industry that underpins that, creating 18,000 skilled jobs as well,” said a source in the UK MoD.

Asked whether India would be able to shape the configuration of the Tempest fighter, Khanna stated: “We are committed to engaging with potential international partners at the very start of the program so we can ensure that any system is designed with all partners’ interests in mind, as opposed to developing a system that is purely for the UK.”