Tuesday, 3 July 2007

How not to do it…

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd June 07

Last Friday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) breathed life into one of the world’s most keenly anticipated defence contracts: India’s proposed purchase of 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) for an electrifying Rs 26,000 – 30,000 crores ($6.5 – 7.5 billion). The MoD’s Request for Proposals (RFP) from prospective vendors, however, is only the first step towards actually buying the cutting edge fighters. Before that, bids from manufacturers of aircraft like the F/A-18, F-16, MiG-35, Eurofighter, Rafale and the Grippen must be technically evaluated for issues like warranty and maintenance support, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will conduct its invariably prolonged user trials and, finally, prices will be compared and negotiated with the vendors. It has taken six years just to send out the RFP; signing the contract could take even longer.

The MRCA is an expensive and long-playing fetish that has diverted attention from the urgent needs of national defence. In a single example, the MRCA proposal encapsulates much of what is wrong with Indian defence planning and procurement.

Both common sense and strategic tradition dictate that the first step towards dealing with threats to the security of the country is to identify those threats. Unlike countries like the USA, which spells out (and regularly updates) strategic threats in a publicly available Quadrennial Defence Review every four years, India has never burdened its people with such information. Last month, however, Defence Minister AK Antony broke with tradition. Addressing the Asian Security Conference in Singapore, he perceptively identified India’s greatest security threats as long-playing insurgencies, movements like Naxalism that stem from lack of governance, and communal and caste dissension, like the Gujjar agitation for scheduled tribe status. China and Pakistan came a poor second.

Changed threat perceptions demand fresh debate on the broad direction of defence spending. In fact, however, India’s defence allocation continues to be parcelled out between the army, navy and IAF in a fixed percentage and the MoD is unwilling to rock that boat even if changed circumstances so demand.

The MoD does little to scrutinise the logic that all three services produce to justify their share of the pie. The IAF has made an article of faith of the myth that national defence requires 39.5 squadrons of fighter aircraft (some 630 aircraft), a figure about which the only certainty is that it was arrived at decades ago. In those times, the air force roles of air defence, ground attack, photo-reconnaissance and interdiction were all carried out by different types of aircraft. As their name indicates, MRCA are built to carry out all of these roles, but no MoD official has interrogated the IAF with the obvious argument that smaller numbers of qualitatively superior fighters can do what larger numbers of older aircraft achieved. Today’s mobile phones perform the roles of the cellphone as well as the personal digital assistant of the last decade. But nobody I know has bought two cellphones because it is performing two functions.

The IAF backs its demands by suggesting that a large number of fighters are completing their service lives. The previous boss of the IAF, Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi wrote to Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee complaining that IAF numbers were dwindling so fast that Pakistan would soon have more fighters than India unless the MRCA contract was quickly concluded. Well-informed analysts credibly disputed those figures, arguing that upgrades and overhauls could keep existing aircraft going until the Sukhoi-30 production plant gets into full flow, and the India-Russia 5th generation fighter comes into production.

In every military across the globe, armies, navies and air forces are competing for a limited budget. In the Indian context there is no referee to officiate in this contest. Despite long-standing recommendations, there is still no Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who can define the equipment his three services must have. The MoD, with neither analysts nor in-house expertise, accepts whatever comes from the three services. Any MoD objections to the IAF’s purchase of MRCA (or for that matter the navy’s demand for aircraft carriers, or the army’s insistence on more T-90 tanks…) invite complaints from that service of discrimination and under funding.

Equally worrisome is the bureaucrats’ unwillingness to make the hard choices of defence. George Fernandes, one of the more outspoken defence ministers in recent years, had openly bemoaned his babus’ unwillingness to put signature to paper without first building bulwarks of noting sheets against any possible investigation by one of the Three Cs: the CAG, the CVC and the CBI. In the MRCA procurement, this MoD tendency shines forth from Friday’s press release on the RFP: “MoD officials have confirmed that great care has been taken to ensure that only determinable factors, which do not lend themselves to any subjectivity, are included in the commercial selection model.”

National defence, unfortunately, cannot be reduced to a mathematical model. Nor can the selection of a particular weapons platform like a MRCA, which is inherently a subjective process where one advantage, say high engine performance, is bought by compromising on attributes like fuel consumption and range. Security-related decisions are inherently subjective, which is why there is still hope that the decision-making over the MRCA could take so long that the ill-conceived project is superseded by full-scale production from other fighter lines, like the Su-30MKI, and the 5th generation Indo-Russian fighter, that exist amongst India’s options.


Ravi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ravi said...

Regarding the MRCA and its nonsensical saga, you might want to look at this piece by Air Marshal S Raghavendran.


chacko Joseph said...

Totally agree with you.

jazzy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abhiman said...

Hello Mr. Shukla. Sir, it may not be clear as to why the MRCA proposal has been delayed. Although I shall not argue as to why it is completely unnnecessary, it may be mentioned that foreign orders once announced are never rolled-back or cancelled.

Thus, even though all indications may point that there may not be any further need for medium-weight helicopters or more SAMs, now that the Dhruv and Akash are ready or on the verge of being ready, the services still place foreign orders. You may remember that the last chief of the IAF, Mr. Tyagi had assured the user-trials of the Akash SAM in February this year. The trials are yet to occur. But in the meantime, the French MBDA has signed several contracts to export short-ranged SAMs to the IAF, "Maitri", etc. This is a clear case of purposeful avoidance of the DRDO.

Sir, in my view the "malaise" lies in corruption. It is in everyone's interest---politicians, serving personnel and arms-dealers---except DRDO, to procure foreign equipment. Politically too it is justified by saying that "no compromise in security shall be done".

I think that more than decisions on division of the defence budget between the 3 services, there is a pressing need to include a commission to scrutinize indigenous equipment "in the loop".
For example, there was a news report just a few days back (though extremely dubious), that the IAF or Army is floating a global tender for medium-weight helicopters. The first question that came to mind was about the Dhruv which already serves in the services. When obvious questions were raised, nothing of the news was further heard at all. An independent Defence Commission that can deny the import of foreign medium-tonnage choppers over the avilability of the Dhruv, or one that can halt the needless purchase of LLQRS even though the Trishul and Akash have been "crying" for user-trials since last year, is much needed.

Similarly, even though the DRDO has conducted successful tests of the PAD, there were delegations from the US who were being entertained for their presentations on the Patriot or Aegis missile systems. However, since the media has publicised the test soooo much, even lay-men can question the purchase of the Patriot or Arrow systems. The Outlook magazine shall "rub its hands in glee" over the prospect of on abvoius corruption scandal involving the stubbing out of indigenous hardware.

Unfortunately, this hasn't happened in the case of the MRCA, which has been "imbibed" into us for so long in parallel to the Tejas' development, that we have ceased to question the MRCA's viability and its very need. Infact, systematic media criticims of the Tejas in conjunction with the extolling of MRCAs has had a subliminal "brainwashing" effect on the public. Nobody questions that, "a medium-weight fighter with an AESA radar and 'modern' technology" is very necessary for the IAF.
I may reiterate on your blog that had the MRCA contract been announced for the first time literally yesterday---at a time when the Tejas is "going great guns"---all observers from the media to BR would have seriously questioned the government. In my view, the MRCA propaganda has been injected into the public so skillfully, that it deserves to be called a masterpiece of a campaign.

Mr. Shukla, I may disagree with your final point which is against a Mathematical Model being applied to defence procurements. Range, payload, fuel and speed are the cornerstones of the procurement of at least fighters and choppers. The contract which started out by announcing a need for "medium-weight" fighters now includes the heavy F-18, Typhoon and MiG-35 to the lightest "Gripen". Except Mr. Shiv Aroor on his blog, no media entity has ever questioned that if the Gripen is being sent an RFP, then why is its home-grown clone, the Tejas, is not being sent one. All reliable sources on the internet point out that both aircraft are identical in performance of range-payload-speed.

Thank you.

Mirashub said...

Dear Ajai,

Thank you for your views on the MMRCA. There are several points made by you with which I agree, albeit not necessarily whole heartedly. However, your analogy of a multi-purpose hand-held device is some disingenuous. The primary reason for going in for a 'multirole' aircraft is economic and logistical efficiencies. In other words, if the same type of aircraft can undertake ground attack, air defence, recce, et al, then the air force can reduce the diversity of types and the attendant engineering/supply headaches. Although such a solution is seen as an ideal, in practice it is extremely difficult to produce but at a higher cost, with the help of hi-tech avionics, engine computers, radars, FCS, etc. But the wonderful appellation of multirole does not help reduce the numbers required.

Modifying your analogy a little bit, lets say you have a multi-purpose hand held device with which you wish to make a phone call. Should your family wait for their turn to have a go at the word processor which is part of the same device? On the other hand, if all members of the family had common multirole devices, then everyone would be able to do their own thing, yet things like chargers, software, data cables etc would be interchangeable - leading to more efficient and practical usage.

Incidentally, today's multirole combat aircraft have so many diverse capabilities that the weakest link is the man in the loop, namely the pilot. The Mirage 2000 was the first of our really multi role aircraft and it was quickly realised that barring the basic air defence and ground attack roles, it would be better to allow each squadron to gain expertise in some of the other specialist roles, eg Electronic Warfare or Recce. Similarly, the engineers too had to specialise in various aspects, such as Electro optical systems, rather than the whole machine as was the practice in the past.

Therefore, don't get misled by the term 'multirole'. It doesn't necessarily or axiomatically call for a reduction in numbers. Such aircraft usually require hours of preparation to switch from one role to the other, therefore a multirole aircraft which is airborne for an AD mission cannot be asked to carry out a recce mission unless it lands and is reconfigured.

Whether the IAF requires 39 ½ , or 45 or just 20 fighter/multirole squadrons is a very involved question, maybe we can discuss it whenever we get a chance to meet again……

Air Mshl S Bhojwani (retd)

chacko Joseph said...

Dear Air Mshl S Bhojwani(retd),

Your views on LCA pls.

Abhiman said...

Mr. Bhojwani, your post was informative about the actual reasons for the need of multi-role fighter planes. It may be mentioned that the official website of ADA describes the Tejas as a multi-role combat aircraft. Thus, I would like to know that wouldn't your reasoning suggest that the Tejas is also suited for the MRCA tender.

Thank you.

Ajai said...

Air Marshall Bhojwani's point is accepted without any contention.

The comparison of a multi-role aircraft with a hand-held device was a (admittedly simplistic) literary device used by me to convey to an audience of businessmen (Business Standard readership) the concept of a multi-role aircraft. Please do bear with me as I try and convey fairly complex military arguments in 850 words! Trust me folks, it's not easy...

But with due respect, I don't entirely agree with the argument about logistics being the prime reason behind multi-role capability. The cost of putting all those capabilities into one aircraft is far, far more than of building up separate logistical capabilities for different "types".

Most theoreticians who argue for multi-role capability cite operational flexibility (even though, as you say, it takes a few hours to switch an aircraft from one role to another) rather than logistical uniformity in favour of MRCA.

But the argument that I find most compelling against buying MRCA is one that I could barely accomodate in my article. And that is the one about directing spending towards the real threats. With peace processes galloping along with Pakistan and China on the one hand... and internal security going from bad to worse to uncontrollable on the other (I'm certain its only a matter of time before the army is called into counter-naxalite operations) we have to develop the high-tech, all-weather, day-night infantryman in preference to full-blown warfighting equipment.

This is a very unpopular argument, especially with my own ex-colleagues in the armoured corps, but as a man who has done counter-insurgency operations in J&K with the most primitive equipment (I didn't have a bullet-proof jacket for most of my tenures there, leave alone night vision devices). But it makes plain military sense.

Alas, there are very few kickbacks to be had in infantry contracts. You could perhaps fight a general election on the kickback from the MRCA contract. The kickback from an NVD contract would fund no more than a municipal election!!

Joe said...


Purposeful avoidance of DRDO may have more to do with DRDO's appalling history of mismanaged projects and failure to deliver (of which Akash is an excellent example), than with any form of corruption.

The consistent pattern is:

Start DRDO project... DRDO project not performing... Patience runs out... Foreign equipment that actually works and has defined costs is bought instead.

It has repeated itself again and again, and will continue to do so as long as an unreformed DRDO remains in the picture.

Beyond that, the issues raised in this post re: MRCA are good ones.

Raja said...

The arguements for and against multirole fighters are compelling. However, the offshoot of this discussion i.e. equiping the infantry needs closer scrutiny. The internal conflicts that the nation is facing and the resources that are deployed to counter them since the Punjab problem started upto the present are many times more than the combined resources deployed in all wars India has fought since independence. Kargil actually demonstrated this lacunae. The answer to this is to get the private sector involved in defence equipment technology R&D and manufacturing. It is the structure of DRDO, the obsessive secrecy attached to anything concerning defence related matter that has resulted in DRDO's present state.

Bulletproof vests, night vision devices, all terrain uniform, closed loop communication devices and a gun which the soldier can design are the urgent requirements. The dismal 5.56 Insas is a case in point.Why are special forces units using hybrid weapons and equipment sourced from all over the world? Small arms design and development capability right from metalurgy to ammunition configuration is very much there in the country. All it needs is harnessing it under able project managers.

If MOD floats domestic letter of interest among corporates for conceptual demonstration models among Indian companies, whole host of companies may want to enter the fray.

And in one respect Ajai is right. It is only a matter of time before special forces get deployed to tackle the Naxalites. The trigger would be any action they plan in a major metro.