Monday, 26 February 2007

Feeling for the frontlines

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Feb 07

While the United Kingdom scales down its forces in Iraq to just 6400 soldiers, Second Lieutenant Henry Wales, otherwise known as Prince Harry, will proceed with his regiment to command four Scimitar tanks in southern Iraq. Third in line to the throne, Prince Harry was granted permission only after a two-hour interview with British army chief, Sir Richard Dannatt. The prince, better known for partying than patriotism, told his chief what he had pithily said in an interview on his 21st birthday. “There is no way I am going to put myself through Sandhurst (military academy) and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.”

Pertinent questions are often raised about the relevance of the British monarchy and the prince’s insistence on military service in a dangerous war zone will be dismissed by many as a PR gimmick to encourage the British taxpayer to continue paying millions of pounds each year to support the royalty. But Prince Harry is going ahead anyway, exactly as the British elite has since the crusades: by stepping forward at a time of war. Royalty, aristocracy, and the landed gentry traditionally formed the kernel around which the British built up armies in times of crisis, like when Napoleon rose in Europe. When the storm passed, the armies were disbanded and the upper classes went back to the good life, their credibility burnished. The Royal Navy stayed intact, ruling the waves in both war and peace.

India’s royal families had some of that √©lan, but this fading tradition seems to have ended with Captain Amarinder Singh of Patiala. The closest royals come to the military today is in polo matches with the army. If one were to scan the houses of parliament, military tradition would be even harder to find. Amongst the old guard, there are BJP ministers Jaswant Singh and BC Khanduri. The young are anything but Turks; only Barmer MP, Manvendra Singh, who served two tenures in J&K in the Territorial Army, has done his bit to beat back the barbarians at the barricades.

Military service may sit well with royal tradition, one might observe; is there any virtue in military service by the representatives of the people in a democracy? Is the grassroots activist who has devoted his or her life to serving the masses any less equipped for making legislative decisions in parliament? Despite the many with criminal convictions, parliament can boast of eminent social workers, academics and industrialists, doctors, lawyers and economists. Nobody seriously suggests that sitting in parliament should entail a pre-condition of military or other national service. But there is cause for concern when practically nobody who sits in parliament has ever served or been closely associated with national defence.

The result is a military that is utterly isolated from the power elite and a ruling class that knows only second-hand about the hard issues of defence and security. This disconnect will be starkly evident in parliament house when the annual budget is discussed later this week. If half a century of experience is anything to go by, the one ministry allocation that will pass without debate will be the largest that Mr Chidambaram will make on the 28th of February: almost 100,000 crores to the defence of the realm. With little institutional knowledge in the House of strategy, force structuring, manpower utilisation and equipment options, the possibility of a vibrant and interrogative defence debate is dead on arrival.

Paradoxically, this unquestioned windfall provides no joy to a military that increasingly believes that, with little personal stake in the health of the armed forces, the powerful merely allot them money and turn away. Chain emails are circulating widely amongst junior and middle-ranking officers, complaining of widespread indifference to soldiers and to their harassed families at home. When military officers approach the state and district administration for redress or assistance, there is little response. Rising suicides in the military are wrongly ascribed to difficult working conditions. The biggest killer is jawans’ rising frustration at being unable to do anything for their families back home. Seeing itself as “special”, different from other professions, the military feels terribly let down by mere lip service from parliament.

The shortfall of personal connects with the leadership is compounded by a new tendency within right-of-centre political parties like the BJP to view the military as a possible vote bank. But the BJP has run up against the cold reality that serving and retired soldiers do not constitute a significant vote bank in any constituency. For a polity that increasingly thinks in vote-bank terms, defence is disqualified even on that account. Taking the enormous trouble to acquire a defence background, therefore, carries little premium in Indian politics.

In contrast, Prince Harry’s decision has reminded British soldiery that their country’s elite is not entirely disconnected from the boys in the trenches. For the rest of his cosseted life, Prince Harry will have a clear sense of what is involved in sending soldiers to war, and a first hand experience of the feelings and thoughts that drive the men and women of his armed forces. These are important issues that those on Raisina Hill know little about.

Book review: Frontline Pakistan: the struggle with militant Islam

By Zahid Hussain
Penguin/Viking, 2007
220 pages
Price: Rs 395/-

[Review by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Feb 07]

On Pakistan, a subject that tends to polarise opinion, there is finally a book that analyses events with a simple clarity that is likely to be accepted by all but the most extreme observers. In this slim, attractive volume, Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain explains his country’s situation in simple terms: Pakistan is at war with itself.

Studiously accurate, but without being tendentious, Hussain describes the range of actors that have brought his country to its present state. Most of those responsible are from Pakistan itself: an incompetent polity, praetorian military, power-hungry clerics, an intelligence community with its own agenda, and an evil scientific genius greedy for profit. Cynical outsiders nimbly step in and out of this strategically located political snake pit.

Where Frontline Pakistan rises above predecessors that have listed out these same factors is in the objectivity with which the author has analysed how Pakistan’s internal and external embitterment has flowed from a growing cascade of political and social blunders. Hussain’s obvious affection for his country has not prevented him from training on its failures a pitiless gaze. He draws upon a variety of documents, sources and personal interviews to illustrate how short-term and motivated decision-making by Pakistan’s power elite has combined with geo-strategic circumstance to take that country to the edge of disaster.

An example of Hussain’s wide-ranging vision is his riveting analysis of Pakistan’s deadly cocktail of terrorism: external jehad against the Judeo-Christian world symbiotically intertwined with internal jehad against Muslims who deviate from Wahabi principle and practice. Wanting to religiously mobilise the majority Sunni community, General Zia-ul-Haq created the Shia “other” by fanning the resentment of the middle-class Sunni trading community against the Shia feudal aristocracy around the town of Jhang in Punjab. Thus emerged the violent anti-Shia group, Sipah-e-Sahiba Pakistan (SSP), it’s birth celebrated, and paid for, by Zia and also by Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia as a proxy against Shia Iran. This short sighted consummation of local, military and regional power plays created, besides enormous sectarian stresses within Pakistan, synergies and infrastructure that are today plugged into by externally-oriented terrorist outfits.

Divided into 11 chapters such as, “The Conflict Within”, “Kashmir: A General on a Tightrope”, and “The Tribal Warriors”, the book allows the reader to cherry-pick subjects of individual interest. And while informed readers may be irritated by the comprehensive footnoting telling them, for example, who Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were, this would be welcomed by lay readers or foreigners unfamiliar with South Asian politics.

Frontline Pakistan provides an interesting and unusual perspective on Pakistan’s complex relationship with Afghanistan. The author was present at Kandahar airport during the hijack drama of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, when the future Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Azhar Mehmood was freed by India. A week later, on 7th Jan 2000, Hussain watched from amidst the thousands who cheered Azhar Mehmood when he resurfaced at the Al Rasheedia mosque in Karachi. “I will not rest in peace until I wrest Kashmir from India”, declared Azhar. The Pakistani administration watched silently; four years later the Jaish-e-Mohammed tried to assassinate President Musharraf. But while the Taliban did what the ISI demanded on that occasion, the author recounts many more occasions when Taliban leaders turned down Islamabad’s pleas: in destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, and when the ISI chief personally travelled to Kandahar after the 9/11 attacks to ask Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden. Hussain points out that far from providing Pakistan with “strategic depth” against India, Afghanistan’s influence radiating into the North West Frontier Province provided Kabul with strategic depth in Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland.

The internal power dynamics of Pakistan’s generals are well illustrated through Musharraf’s dilemma after 9/11 in making his Afghanistan U-turn. On 14th Sept 2001, he merely informed his civilian cabinet of the new strategic realities and Pakistan’s new role as an American ally. Few dared to protest, but when his Corps Commanders’ meeting produced four dissenters, Musharraf was worried. In a nationally televised announcement to Pakistan, Musharraf appeared in uniform, wrapping his humiliating turnaround in warnings to India to “lay off” Pakistan in its moment of crisis. Within weeks, the dissenting generals were sidelined.

In the final balance, the book is about power and how it is played out in Pakistan by a peculiar selection of players. Zahid Hussain’s analysis provides a sane and balanced backdrop for a fascinating tale that could be set in any period in history. And for Indians, sometimes inclined to see events in Pakistan through the prism of Indian power realities, this book is a must read.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Accountability: across the board

In the midst of some important issues raised in your replies, the one jarringly irrelevant question was: why do you point the finger at DRDO alone. Why not blame the army (probably meaning all three services here) as well?

Someone queried: “by this same funda i can say that the armys budget needs to be similarly scrutinised. this is what is so funny about your prescriptions, they are quite simply, a power grab. if i were to say that drdo needs to have veto over the army budget u would cry bloody murder, but u have no problem saying the reverse.”

Let's all agree on one issue: the army, navy and air force need to be scrutinised at least as vigilantly as the DRDO and the DPSUs; perhaps more so because we are spending more money on them than on the DRDO. I have sharply criticised the army in other writing (for example, see my piece on Indian Army operations in J&K in the Indian Express, some time in early 2006) and I will continue to do so whenever needed. But it is completely diversionary to see my criticism of the DRDO as coming from an army apologist. Because I am not.

I believe there are lots of flaws in the way the military frames its requirements and changes them as time passes. We can and should discuss ways of changing that. But let’s be equally clear on one thing: while some of DRDO’s delays can be pinned onto the services, its major issues are internal to the organisation and must be tackled as such.

Nobody is suggesting that the military have veto over the DRDO’s budget. What we are suggesting is a clear and transparent system of accountability.

The next point raised is that of insufficient funding of the DRDO. Someone actually quoted Brahma Chellaney --- an individual who will himself freely admit to being anything but a defence expert --- on how India spends so much money on arms from abroad. Statistics, they say, can be made to say anything, especially statistics like: The Trishul project received just $390 million, less than the $400 million that Microsoft paid Sabeer Bhatia for Hotmail.

What’s the point there? What’s the relationship between DRDO’s budget and the hotmail deal? That’s an entirely artificial equivalence.

Instead, look at what DRDO chief, M Natarajan, says on the issue of funding at an open press conference at Aero India 2007 on 9th February 07, with me in the second row taking notes and my tape recorder rolling. He said, “DRDO is entirely satisfied with the level of funding from the government and the MoD has assured us that there will be no shortfall of funds for any project. The problem, therefore, is not the money. The problem is: where are the engineers? Where are the designers? I don’t see money as a major constraint. The bigger constraint is generating the human resources of adequate quality and design capability.”

In sum, while DRDO’s apologists are crying wolf on the issue of funding, the DRDO chief himself is blaming the quality of his designers.

Again, this is not a problem for which DRDO alone can be blamed. With all its laboratories co-located with India’s IT giants, many young scientists stay just long enough to peek into a lab, write a CV, and then take off to join Infosys Technologies or TCS. Why do they do that? Whether it’s lack of a stimulating work ethos or just the lure of better salaries, it needs to be fixed between DRDO and government. And until such time as it is fixed, we need to stop throwing money at the DRDO in the vain hope that if we just throw enough we’ll finally produce a great aircraft, tank, whatever.

That’s the reality that purely funding-based comparisons of the Brahma Chellaney don’t address.

Ram: You say Trishul has been completed, guidance problems solved! Where do you get your stuff? The problem with the arguments of so many DRDO apologists is that you so much want to believe in the success of its products (and wannabe products) that you are taking at face value --- and quoting back as authority --- statements from within the organisation itself. In deciding on the culpability of any corporation being probed, say Enron, are you going to quote Ken Lay’s statements as proof that the corporation is above board? How can you cite the statement of Dr. PS Subramanyam, Director of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Programme Director for LCA, as proof that the LCA programme is healthy and kicking?

The first thing one learns as a journalist is to evaluate statements in the light of where they are coming from.

So let’s see what the government itself had to say on the shelving of the Trishul programme.

28th July 05 : (This information was given by the Defence Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee in a written reply to Shri Brajesh Pathak in the Lok Sabha): The Trishul missile project has procured a ‘Search on Move Capability’ modification kit from M/s Thales of France. CONTRARY TO WHAT MANY WOULD LOVE TO BELIEVE, INDIA’S “INDIGENOUS” GUIDED MISSILE PROGRAMME HAS BOUGHT MANY COMPONENTS FROM FOREIGN VENDORS. You would be horrified if I were to tell you how much of Trishul is indigenous and how much is foreign.

2nd March 06: (This information was given by the Defence Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee in a written reply to Shri Brajesh Pathak in the Lok Sabha): Akash, Nag & Trishul missile systems have completed the development phase and are ready for User’s Trials.

16th Oct 06 : (written press release from the MoD): Trishul Missile System was taken back in the R&D mode during 2002 for addressing certain technical problems. Having overcome these problems , twenty flight tests were carried out between June 2003 and mid 2006; the last three trials being conducted in July 2006. With this TRISHUL’s development stands completed. Decision on its induction is yet to be taken.

23rd Nov 06: (This information was given by the Defence Minister Shri AK Antony in a written reply to Shri Anandrao V Adsul and other in Lok Sabha): No decision has been taken by the Government to stop Research and Development work on the indigenous ship defence missile Trishul as reported in the section of the media. (THE 16TH OCT STATEMENT ABOVE SAID THEY HAVE COMPLETED DEVELOPMENT. HOW ARE THEY CONTINUING R&D NOW?)

29TH Nov 06: (This information was given by the Defence Minister Shri AK Antony in a written reply to Shri OT Lepcha and Shri Santosh Bagrodia in the Rajya Sabha): Initially, the Probable Date of Completion (PDC) was July 1995 which has been extended to Dec 07. Delay is mainly due to extra time required to develop and realize the state-of-the-art technologies required. (OKAY, SO NOW IT’S BEEN EXTENDED TO DEC 07)

29TH Nov 06: (This information was given by the Defence Minister Shri AK Antony in a written reply to Shri Janardhana Poojary in Rajya Sabha): The development of Trishul Missile Project has been completed. Air Force configuration has met the user requirements during its various developmental flight trials DRDO is in dialogue with Air Force for possible induction after jointly developing the user trial criteria. So far, Rs. 275.39 crore have been spent on this project. (THE SAME DAY AS THEY SAY THE PDC WAS EXTENDED TO DEC 07, THEY ARE SAYING THE DEVELOPMENT HAS BEEN COMPLETED)

29TH Nov 06: (This information was given by the Defence Minister Shri AK Antony in a written reply to Dr Narayan Singh Manaklao in Rajya Sabha): The development of Trishul, Akash and Nag missiles are currently going under Integrated Guided Missiles Development Programme (IGMDP). (THE SAME DAY AS THE ABOVE TWO STATEMENTS… CAN YOU GET MORE CONTRADICTORY THAN THAT?)

The basic point I make is that the DRDO believes that it can make any statement, couched in vague terms, and get away with it. But when you examine carefully what is being said, there are loopholes and ambiguities at every step.

It’s also important to understand who is saying what! When DRDO says that “development is complete”, or that “the missile has met user’s parameters”, this does not mean that the user (army, navy or air force) endorses the DRDO’s claims. Please note that the DRDO is not saying that the user trials have been done. The DRDO has been claiming for years that the development of the Arjun tank is complete and that it is ready for induction into service. But when it comes to user’s trials, it’s a very different story.

The bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, remains the need for careful and continuous scrutiny of every DRDO project and the linking of budgets and funding to demonstrable success in the project. There must remain margin for some failure, but not sustained failure, year after year, on an open-ended basis. After all, there are forces in the field waiting for that particular equipment.

Alternatively, if a certain technology MUST be developed indigenously, keep funding research without targets. But don’t hold up supplies to the field forces on the grounds that the DRDO is “about to produce” something soon. Let the DRDO keep at it in its labs, while the forces are provided alternative equipment through across-the-shelf purchases until the DRDO delivers. That will prevent the kind of situations that exist today, e.g. the country’s Air Defence network having huge holes in it because the Akash has not been developed yet, 23 years after the project started.

And for God’s sake, don’t justify failure by pointing to the failure of others. In the case of foreign research, sure there are cost over-runs, sure there is project mismanagement; but if you compare their record of finally delivering products (despite delays and cost-overruns) with ours, we come off very, very badly.

Ultimately, our management of defence must be defined by our own standards.

JUST IN: As far as the report on the IJT and Sarang crash is concerned (about which I note that the one of the journalists who you keep castigating is being quoted as authority) there is not dichotomy at all between what I said and what my friend Ram writes below:

He says the following was told to him by an IAF chopper pilot: "The Dhruv crashed because of "control saturation". Apparently it is an issue with rigid blade rotors like the Dhruv and needs careful attention. However most often this situation doesnt arrive till the aircraft is operating at its limits. Unfortunately in the case of the Sarangs they do operate at the limits of the design envelope, and it was a simple misjudgement of not handling the control - "pilot error" is correct but it is an oversimplification of facts as the margin is so fine that even the best pilots make the mistake. The problem is that is in this situation, the Sarang was pointing nose-down at a very sharp angle. Normally when this problem occurs there is some altitude left to regain."

Here is what I wrote in my article:

“HAL-built Dhruv helicopters continues to grapple with tail rotor design problems, but they must be fielded because there is nothing else.”

That's exactly what caused the accident isn't it? In no other country would a helicopter that is still dealing with rotor blade problems be participating in an aerobatics display, where machines fly at the extremes of their capabilities. But in Aero India 2007, despite knowing about the rotor blade problem, the Sarang team was fielded. It had to be; there was so little else to show as a success. The result: one pilot dead and another seriously injured.

Think about it.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Funding Research

by Ajai Shukla
Response to posts: 16th Feb 2007

Wow! There’s actually a good discussion going. There were lots of posts and many good points. Here's my immediate response on the issue of DRDO funding. 

I submit though that there’s a radical flaw in most posters’ perception of what they think I’m saying. They think that because I’m saying the DRDO fails --- far too often --- to deliver usable conventional systems to the field forces, therefore I MUST be suggesting:

(a) Close down the DRDO.
(b) Don’t fund them in any way.

Actually, my position is far more nuanced. And it comes from:

(a) Having spent many years as a soldier, waiting in vain for DRDO-promised equipment to reach me.
(b) During that period, having tried and cleared alternative supplies from foreign vendors (Marconi for radio sets, French fire control systems, etc), we found that import blocked for years by the DRDO, saying that they were going to deliver it yesterday.
(c) Being pleasantly surprised, THE FEW TIMES THAT EQUIPMENT DID ACTUALLY GET TO ME, how much better it was in terms of availability, scaling and back-up support to have indigenous equipment.

So my position on DRDO is, I repeat, not to do away with R&D establishment. My position is:

(a) To be very clear what we need to develop indigenously and what is cheaper, better, faster and more reliable to import off the shelf.
(b) To give the DRDO clear-cut projects, with a clear-cut mandate and a clear-cut time-line, and to hold it accountable for delays.
(c) To re-evaluate the funding of DRDO from scratch. The calculation must not be done on the basis of “last year’s budget plus X per cent”, but rather by making allocations, project by project, for each of the projects that have been cleared for development (through the process at sub-paras a and b above).

If this process means that DRDO’s funding should be cut down, so be it. If, on the other hand it means an increase in DRDO’s allocations, so be it.

But what is essential is a result-orientated outlook where annual developmental targets are set down separately for each individual project and at the end of the year a hard-headed evaluation carried out by an expert body to decide on whether that project is worth continuing with. That annual review body must also decide the levels of funding for the next year, with projects that are doing well being rewarded with stepped up funding.

It is well understood that research often overshoots timelines. That must be taken into account by the review body. But it must equally be understood that research CANNOT be allowed to drift on without questions being asked and answers demanded.

Many who have posted here rightly point out the delays in projects overseas. But do remember that those delays are not endless… if a project looks like it’s going nowhere, MoDs like the Pentagon have been ruthless in ending them. If you like, I’ll be happy to produce and post a detailed study on foreign project management. Incidentally, a body along these lines has just been constituted in India. But eventually, what will count is how effectively this body functions. Let’s wait and see.

The question about sub-allocation of funds between projects: how much money is going into strategic projects and how much into other stuff like the production of Leh Berry Juice (a DRDO project, for those who didn’t know. And for my money, one of their few projects that have reached the user!). The DRDO keeps such details absolutely secret. If someone finds out, please do post it. In any case, it’s only a matter of time before someone from DRDO leaks the details.

Abhiman, the Tejas is nowhere near being accepted for introduction into service by the IAF. PLEASE, for God’s sake, don’t quote DRDO and HAL sources in this regard, because they are desperately trying to pretend that the Tejas project is going along fine. The Tejas will be accepted for introduction into service by the IAF and you should hear what they have to say about its state of readiness. No pilot I’ve spoken to, and I speak to dozens, believes the Tejas will ever enter service in its present form. This may break all your proud Indian hearts, but don’t be disheartened. India has a lot else to be proud of!!

You are absolutely correct, the DRDO will not be spending the 243,000 crores that Mr Natarajan envisions. Neither will HAL. That money will be spent by India, from the national defence budget, and provided by guess who: you and me.

Fortunately, since DRDO is as close to producing (in the next 15 years) what Mr Natarajan has rashly promised, none of that money will ever need to be spent. It’s all talk and the beauty is: since there is no accountability, the DRDO, the government, and practically everyone in India can just keep blabbering. Nobody will ever need to answer the question: why haven’t you delivered what you promised.

In 1983, then scientific advisor APJ Abdul Kalam promised a slew of air defence and anti-missile defence platforms within seven-ten years, including the Trishul missile. Sixteen years later, in 1999, when the Indian Navy was deployed for war against Pakistan, the naval chief had to write directly to the defence minister that the fleet was without the promised anti-missile defence. Eight years after that, the Trishul project has been discreetly buried. Today, 23 years of failure later, Kalam is President of India. Can accountability be more contemptuously tossed overboard?

Thursday, 15 February 2007

The economics of defence

by Ajai Shukla
A response to posts: 15th Feb 2007

Thanks for the (sometimes disarmingly frank) responses. The issues that we are talking about are at the heart of India’s defence preparedness and, therefore, the niceties of polite debate can be set aside for now.

Firstly, there’s no denying the advantages of a strong indigenous military-industrial establishment. Even in the interlinked global defence industry of today, where the ownership of multinational defence corporations is not always linked to a single country, being able to draw upon a vibrant domestic R&D and production establishment provides strategic comfort.

So to frame the issue in terms of “should we maintain a capability or not?” is just sloppy analysis. The real questions are two. Firstly, what opportunity cost is India prepared to pay to develop and maintain an indigenous defence capability, because it doesn’t come cheap. Secondly, what is the minimum that must be provided to forces in the field in order to justify continuing research on projects that don’t reach the field?

First question first. The Rs 6000 crores that were spent on the DRDO in financial 2006-07 were Rs 6000 crores that could have been spent on other things that provide national security. Look at it strategically: Rs 6000 crores could have been spent on improving border roads in Arunachal (would have improved national security); it could have been spent on improving local policing in J&K (would have freed up troops, improved local confidence, improved national security); that money could have gone a long way in fencing the Bangladesh border solidly. That would have improved national security too. The country has a finite amount of money it can spend on national security. And the Rs 6000 crores spent on the DRDO has an opportunity cost in terms of money NOT SPENT on other projects where it could have been.

Having put that down, let’s also define what is a “credible indigenous defence capability.” Only one country, the USA, defines its indigenous defence capability today in terms of being able to produce, through a minimum of two separate contractors, all the major weapon systems that are required for fighting both war and peace. Even Europe looks outside for many strategic systems; even capabilities like heavy airlift and battlefield command and control are procured from outside when the need arises.

That’s not because they don’t have the technological capability to produce them. It is simply that the hierarchy of cost-effectiveness prefers off-the-shelf purchases to developmental costs. In simple terms, the cheapest way to obtain a weapon system is to buy it off-the-shelf from a supplier, who has borne the development costs and the risk factors of research. The next cheapest way is to buy the technology and produce the goods in one’s own country. And the most expensive, and risky, method is to develop from scratch the equipment you need. To believe that making and building ones own weaponry is a way to save money is to fly in the face of reality.

Next, the need for “indigenous capability” stems from an anticipation of denial of equipment and technology from an outside supplier. So in deciding what should be India’s “indigenous capability”, the first question is “what is India’s vulnerability?” Should India prepare for surviving an equipment and technology denial regime from each one of its traditional suppliers, meaning Russia, Israel, France, the UK and Uncle Sam? And as relations improve with China, are we definitely ruling out getting supplies from China in the event of a denial regime from all the others? A country’s defence strategy is directly related to it international diplomacy and India’s diplomacy is increasingly bringing us to the point where every one of our traditional suppliers, and a new one, the United States, is keen to supply us equipment. It is therefore our choice. We may or may not buy from them but they are, and are likely to remain, keen to supply us defence equipment.

So rather than wanting to produce everything ourselves --- which would not just be hugely expensive, but also paranoid --- it would be more prudent to make out a list of items that are (a) strategically so vital that we should actually rely on nobody else for them, or (b) that are so sensitive that nobody will part with that technology anyway, or (c) equipment that is so specific to Indian requirements that nobody else build it.

In such a list of things that we MUST develop comes the various facets of our nuclear deterrent, including submarines, missiles, the bomb components, our ballistic missile defence system, electronic warfare and communication systems that involve codes and ciphers and the futuristic technologies that must go into building a few “vital technologies”. It is NOT immediately necessary to build everything from scratch, the way the DRDO is trying to do.

So the “robust and competitive military infrastructure” that Shakti yearns for needs to be conceptualised and defined in clear terms.

Now on to Tejas. Let’s get one thing clear: as a weapon system for the fighting forces in the field, the Tejas is a dud. Why do I say that when (contrary to some uncharitable comments!!) I know that some of its technologies are cutting-edge world class. It’s the most simple military logic: because if it comes to war today, the Tejas is not available to fight, and regardless of what many would like to believe, it will not be available to fight effectively even three years from now. What is needed to be delivered to the IAF is not the comforting knowledge that Tejas has the highest percentage of composites in the world. What they need is a functional weapons platform at the promised time. If the IAF chief has to write to the Defence Minister that by 2017, the IAF and the PAF will have the same squadron strengths, it is because the Tejas is far behind schedule in delivery.

Abhiman, you are right that the JF-17 is no more than generation 3.5. But it’s a Gen 3.5 that will soon fly in combat squadrons while Tejas continues to be a Potential Gen 4.5 that flies only in air shows with everyone keeping their fingers crossed. That is the key difference between a successful programme and one that is not: delivering platforms into service is the vital technology that the DRDO has never mastered. By the time Tejas (or an aircraft that looks like Tejas but has lots of foreign sub-systems) enters service, the technology that you are waving about so proudly will have become outdated. The services don’t fight on technologies; they fight on usable platforms.

Sudeep, your logic about Eurofighter being more expensive than JSF-22 is only partly correct. With close to 800 confirmed orders from the participating countries and orders already starting to come in from abroad (almost 80 from Saudi Arabia), the final Eurofighter figures might well end up costing the participating countries less in the final balance than if they had gone in for F-22s. But to develop a programme successfully and still make it cost-effective, you would need not just R&D burden-sharing amongst several participating countries, but also sell to many foreign buyers. India is nowhere near that.

But the real lesson from Eurofighter is not just the burden-sharing model. The real lesson is the way they have introduced it into service in “tranches”. They made it sufficiently functional as a warfighting machine and then introduced it in a less advanced form into service in all participants’ air forces. Developmental work continues and a more advanced “tranche 2” model will be introduced this year. By 2012 or so, “tranche 3” models will come into service, which are expected to be Generation 5 standard. But here’s the key: THE R&D WAS GOOD ENOUGH TO QUICKLY COME OUT WITH A BASE MODEL. So you quickly reached the point where the Eurofighter was not an expensive drawing-board fantasy, but an aircraft in service in the air forces. And that’s what the LCA has never been able to do, nor looks likely to achieve shortly. 

That’s the crisis of confidence that exists between the scientific community and the military in India. The military (rightly) protests that the R&D whiz kids continually fail to deliver usable systems. The R&D people (rightly) protest that the military keeps setting the bar higher and higher. The military (rightly) says that it does so because the R&D people take so long to deliver that technology has moved along by then. And that is really the bottom line.

So Rammohan (your “my nation” plea is heartrending, but I’m not a colonial occupier; it’s my nation as well!!) the real question is: how long should the R&D people be given? If your suggestion is that just keep handing them 6000 to 10,000 crores each year on an open-ended basis, without demanding accountability in terms of systems delivered, I think that would be a good subject for the next debate.

And Vikram, cheap insinuations about “getting vodka from the Russians” are normally a substitute for sloppy analysis. It would be sad to reduce an important debate to whether one’s liquor comes from the Kremlin or the Swadeshi Jagran Manch! And for those who believe that I’m soft on Russian systems, please do read “From Russia With Love”. It’s just a couple of posts below; it’ll reassure you on that account.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

The healing nature of failure

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 13 Feb 2007

Aero India 2007, India's biggest ever air show, terminated in Bangalore on Sunday. Costing over Rs 100 crore, most visitors agreed it was a spectacle. But the displays, the bands, the line-up of top line fighters and transport aircraft, the flags of 33 countries fluttering in balmy Bangalore and the delegations of businessmen from the world's largest arms corporations --- none of these could mask the embarrassingly obvious fact that in sixty years since independence, India has achieved little in building up its indigenous defence industry.

Defence Minister AK Antony bravely paid lip service in his welcome address: "Aero India aims to provide a platform for Indian aerospace industry to showcase its capabilities to the global audience." The one thing clearly showcased was that large portions of "India's aerospace industry" are better at building plastic mock-ups than systems that fly. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), having rented probably the largest space in the entire exhibition, created an inadvertently symbolic display. Dominating the HAL stand was a hastily constructed scale model of the planned Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). Other than that, the LCH actually exists only on a government document dated October 2006, sanctioning HAL vast sums of money for its development. Displayed next to the LCH was a smaller plastic model of the Medium Transport Aircraft that Russia signed up for two weeks ago to co-develop with India. Nearby was a model of the Hawk trainer; HAL's role will be to build it on machinery supplied by British Aerospace, to blueprints from the same company.

Outside the exhibition halls, HAL's products were responsible for the only accidents in an otherwise safe show. Just two days before the opening ceremony an accident involving a Dhruv helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) aerobatics team claimed the life of a young IAF pilot and critically injured another. And during the show, in an embarrassing accident in front of horrified spectators, a HAL-developed Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) veered off the runway and ploughed into the ground, triggering off a full-scale accident drill.

HAL-built Dhruv helicopters continues to grapple with tail rotor design problems, but they must be fielded because there is nothing else. The IJT continues to be an expensive hobby. And HAL's Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), a black hole for funds, and an embarrassment in every other respect, rounds off HAL's resume as the cutting edge of "India's aerospace industry".

But instead of hard questions and accountability, there is indulgence. In a jaw-dropping press conference at the Aero India 2007, head of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and ex-officio Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, Mr M Natarajan, announced a new 15-year DRDO programme to build combat aircraft that is not just hugely expensive but unrealistically, indeed laughably, ambitious. Funding this programme would require stepped-up allocations from the defence budget, but the DRDO chief points to a Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence recommendation that the DRDO should get increased funding: from the current 6% of defence budget, it should be stepped up to 10%. Mr Natarajan says the government has reassured him he will get what he wants. With defence allocation heading for the Rs 100,000 crore mark, the DRDO would get Rs 10,000 crores a year.

Mr Natarajan envisages building 300-400 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the IAF and the navy, about 50-100 advanced trainer aircraft, 200-300 Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) and then 100 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) that will fly without pilots. The possibility of India buying 126 fighters soon has the world aerospace market slavering today. The DRDO chief has rolled out plans for making 650-900 aircraft. At current rates this amounts to an expenditure of US $54 billion, or Rs 243,000 crores, spread out over some years.

Besides the unrealistic financial projections, what makes such talk outrageous is the failure-plagued platform from which it comes. But the DRDO chief has a ready answer: India doesn't appreciate the healing nature of failure! "In this country, everyone assumes that R&D efforts must have a 100% success. Failure is an integral part of learning. In fact, I call failure as the initial step to success… we have to change the psyche of this country."

This celebration of failure is seldom understood by the armed forces which plump for foreign equipment, regardless of its higher cost. The rationale, they say, is that lives often depend on equipment reliability. But if the military prefers foreign equipment, Mr Natarajan clearly doesn't think highly of them.

The DRDO chief says, "Our own services or our own people, they may be getting very glamoured (sic) by visiting the foreign firms…. unfortunately when you buy a car, you only look at the paint. Very rarely you open the bonnet to see what is inside. The fact is technology is hidden. If you expect the services to appreciate all aspects of technology, we are asking for too much from the environment in which they have grown."

This is an already yawning gulf that is growing ever larger between a government-funded DRDO which produces, at best, passable equipment, and users who expect and demand more. The government, meanwhile, stands and watches.

Storming the bastion of aerospace design

Symbolism was evident at the Aero India 2007 air show that concluded in Bangalore on Sunday. Looking out from the plush Boeing Aircraft Corporation stand, the view accurately reflected the choices before the US major in cracking India's air force and civil aviation markets. On one side was the exhibit of public sector firm Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with a huge plastic mock-up of a helicopter that existed only on drawing boards. The slick Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) stall dominated the rest of the landscape, a 12-projector cyclorama catching the eye with images rotating on a circular band.

Despite strong backing from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for its defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), the more high-tech, nimbler and innovative software companies like TCS, Satyam Computer Services and HCL are cornering a growing share of the business from aerospace giants like Boeing and Airbus. And it's not back-office work like inventory management; Indian software majors are directly involved in cutting edge design work including airframes, engine components and aircraft interiors. TCS designed parts of the airframe of the giant Airbus A-380, the world's largest airliner, and the exhaust outlet for the famous Pratt and Whitney engine that powers large numbers of commercial aircraft.

The aircraft design work being done by Indian companies cannot be acknowledged by them; Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) throw a smokescreen over contracts with foreign aerospace companies. Company resumes can only mention banalities, like this one from a Satyam Computer Services brochure, "Manufacturing services for one of the largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft based in Europe".

But R Suresh Babu, Director Aerospace Engineering, TCS points out that it's easy to zero in on the foreign company. "There are only two major commercial aircraft manufacturers: Boeing and Airbus. And there are just three big engine makers: General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, and Rolls Royce."

In fifteen years, TCS has made aerospace design one of its most important revenue streams, accounting for 7% of the company's turnover this year, or well over Rs 1000 crores. Over the next three years, TCS is targeting a four-fold growth in its aerospace design revenue, bringing in well over a billion dollars annually.

Companies like Satyam are equally bullish. Fuelling their optimism is a global spurt in aerospace growth as the west emerges from its post-9/11 aviation slump. Aircraft manufacture has risen sharply over the last three years and the trend is to push design and development to downstream suppliers that have the technical capabilities to handle cutting edge design work. But most exciting for companies like TCS are the huge business opportunities that will arise from offsets as defence and civil aviation sales increase. Instead of the low-cost, low-benefit offsets of the past, like the HAL's contract to manufacture Airbus doors based on design blueprints supplied to them, now high-tech private companies can design as well as manufacture aircraft components. Already, TCS has designed aircraft floor beams, control surfaces and satellite solar panels for manufacture by another group company, Tata Advanced Materials Limited.

Much of this business will take place behind closed doors. Stringent secrecy clauses in design contracts firewall design teams that are working on a project. Companies like Boeing and Airbus specify that a design team working for them cannot be located in the same city as teams working for their competitors. Secrecy clauses lay down computer firewall regulations, which means that a design team cannot even have a TCS email address; the email address would be an internal team address, serviced by a special server that is continuously monitored. An aerospace designer working on a Boeing contract must have a cooling off period of up to a year before starting work with Airbus. Such is the secrecy that when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, during his visit to India in 2005, wanted to visit a TCS facility that was working on a General Motors contract, GM was requested to grant permission.

And so neither Boeing, nor TCS will comment when you ask them outright what business they did during Aero India 2007. But there's a twinkle in their eyes, a buzz around their stalls. And many people are saying the location next to each other was not exactly a coincidence.

Behind the hype at Aero India: civil aviation

Obscured by the roar of fighter aerobatics at the Aero India 2007 air show in Bangalore from 7th-11th February, is the buzz of business being done in a far less glamorous field: civil aviation. Visitors feast visually on the red-and-white Russian MiG-35 and the American F-18 and F-16 on the display tarmac, but a new generation of moneyed Indian businessmen prefers to inspect the largest display of executive jets ever seen at an air show in India.

The third biggest aircraft company in the world, Canadian manufacturer Bombardier is here, along with US giant, Raytheon, that has brought an unprecedented four executive aircraft to consolidate its 60% hold on the Indian market. Aiming at selling more than fifty executive jets over the next three years, Raytheon Vice-President Ted Farid says that Aero India is different from any air show he's ever seen before. Here, businessmen come to buy, he says, not to watch.

Mr Farid says Raytheon has already sold five jets in three days and the numbers could rise. "Indian businessmen, unlike their American counterparts, don't flaunt wealth. American corporations buy aircraft at an earlier stage on the income curve; but as Indian business is going global, corporate heads really need their own jets".

Civil aviation is seeing even larger spending than military aviation. Despite last year's big signings for airliners --- Air India's $11 bn order for 68 Boeings, Indian Airlines' purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft for $2.2 billion, and similar purchases by newer airlines like Kingfisher and GoAir --- companies like EADS (the parent company of Airbus) at Aero India eye bigger bucks ahead. EADS pegs India's demand for airliners at 1100 aircraft, worth $105 billion, over the next 20 years.

These airliners cover just one segment of the market: the metro and inter-city shuttles between 61 airports that are presently connected by scheduled airlines. Flights still do not operate to the majority of India's 450 airports, 126 of them run by the Airports Authority of India. This is the segment that low cost carriers (LCCs) like Air Deccan are building growth on. Air Deccan Chief Operating Officer, Warwick Brady, points to a McKinsey study indicating that 50% of India's highly qualified graduates live in towns and cities that are not serviced by airlines. This could change: Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel, announced on Tuesday clearance for private operators to set up new regional airports, " built on privately owned lands, within permissible civil aviation parameters." Mr Patel also said New Delhi would discuss with state governments the activation of 300 airstrips lying unused across the country.

Targeting this demand are exhibitors like Sukhoi Aviation with its 95-seater Superjet 100, developed in Russia as the Russia Regional Jet (RRJ). Sukhoi pegs India's future demand for regional jets at 150 aircraft. Flaunting an international order book of sixty aircraft, Sukhoi declares that newer Indian airlines like Air Deccan and Kingfisher have expressed interest in the Superjet 100, and that there will be signings soon.

Another buzz surrounds the cargo business, currently at a microscopic 4200 tons per day. Aviation analysts at a two-day civil aviation conference during Aero India 2007 agreed that India's cargo infrastructure was practically non-existent. But plans to build cargo terminals as part of new airports are changing the cargo landscape. Boeing announced a major expansion in its cargo presence; confronting Boeing head on is Russia's Tupolov Aircraft Industries. Marketing Director, Evgeny Efimov candidly declares his intention to out-punch Boeing's "second-hand 757 cargo planes on offer" with brand new Tupolev Tu-204C aircraft that can lift a cargo of 30-35 tons. An unidentified Indian airline, says Efimov, will be signing up later this month in Moscow for five Tu-204Cs with an option for ten more.

Another major area of business is in the field of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO). Despite labour costs being 60% lower in India, the major MRO facilities in the region are at Dubai and Singapore. Now Kingfisher has announced a joint venture MRO, which will come up next year in partnership with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and a foreign partner. Deccan Aviation has announced the setting up of Deccan Technical Services to meet its own MRO demand.

With pilots in short supply, training facilities are coming up quickly. Boeing has announced a $185 million investment in training facilities, while Air Deccan has announced a partnership with French manufacturer ATR for a training centre in Bangalore, with the latest generation of flight simulators. This will service Air Deccan pilots as well as other carriers.

The American eagle circles over Bangalore

Thanks to the Aero India 2007 air show, running from 7-11 February at the Yelahanka Air Force Base near Bangalore, visitors are paying up to US $1000 for a night in the city's more tony hotels. There are many more visitors than rooms and skewing the balance further is an enormous American delegation that includes five generals, 24 top-level businessmen from the business chamber US-India Business Council (USIBC) and displays from over 50 US corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Electric. If confirmation was required that the Indo-US nuclear deal has opened doors for business between the two countries, it is here.

More revealing than the large American presence are the objectives that the USIBC has set for itself. Beyond the rhetoric of "displaying commitment to India" and "long-term business partnerships", two strategies are guiding the US in entering the defence market in India. Firstly, close coordination between the US Department of Defense (DoD), US industry, and the USIBC. Secondly, a clear mission objective: to use the newly introduced mechanism of offsets to gain the advantage in bidding for Indian business.

Offsets are a new element in India's defence business. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has, in its current Defence Procurement Policy of 2006 (DPP-2006), stipulated that any defence contract worth more than Rs 300 crores will automatically include a "direct offset liability" of 30%, which means that the vendor will have to source from Indian suppliers components or technologies worth at least 30% of the contract value. A new MoD organisation, the Defence Offsets Facilitation Agency (DOFA) has been set up to evaluate offset proposals and to facilitate their implementation. DPP-2006 makes it clear that the better a vendor's offsets proposal, the greater his chance of winning a defence contract.

The US DoD declares that it is opposed to the concept of offsets, but has adopted a pragmatic approach to DPP-2006, letting the private USIBC do the talking with India's MoD to define offsets in ways that suit American bidders. The USIBC has already made headway in getting India's MoD to broaden the definition of "direct offsets" to defence products not directly connected with the contract linked to the offset. In other words, a contract for Boeing aircraft need not necessarily be offset by production in India of Boeing parts. The offset could also take the form of, say, production of vehicle tyres.

The USIBC, however, has pushed for more. It has asked India's MoD to permit "offset banking", or the accumulation of offsets credits encashable later, when a defence contract is actually signed. That's not all; the USIBC wants India to accept "indirect offsets" as well, i.e. allowing joint ventures in sectors like infrastructure to be counted as offsets, bankable towards future defence contracts. And a company that banks some offsets but does not win a contract should be allowed, says the USIBC, to transfer those offsets to a company that bags a contract.

The strategy looks towards entering joint ventures with India's private sector companies in infrastructure, while using that business to build up a bank of offset credits. Ron Somers, President of the USIBC told Business Standard, "Every one of our companies are over here right now scouting for offsets projects. And guess where they are looking. They are looking into the Indian private sector, beyond the Indian public sector… at Indian private sector like Tatas, L&T and Reliance and Mahindras and Kirloskar; even the smaller Indian companies, the IT companies and the emerging software groups."

Indian government agencies have been discreetly supporting the USIBC in this approach. In February 2006 Defence Secretary, Shekhar Dutt met a USIBC delegation and discussed the concept of "offset banking". And at a closed door meeting with the USIBC at the Indian embassy in Washington last month, Indian ambassador Ronen Sen suggested the USIBC use the Indian private sector to exert pressure on New Delhi.

For now, Defence Minister AK Antony is both firm and flexible. At the inauguration of Aero India 2007 in Bangalore on Wednesday, Mr Antony said about the proposal to broaden the definition of offsets, "As of now, we will go as per DPP-2006 as it stands. If there is scope for improvement, we'll adjust and make minor changes to policy. Our mind is open."

Defence Ministry officials, speaking off the record, express their reservations on the banking offsets proposal. They say that if a vendor already has a big bank of offsets that could create pressure in deciding who should get that contract.

Friday, 9 February 2007

The American eagle circles over Bangalore

Thanks to the Aero India 2007 air show, running from 7-11 February at the Yelahanka Air Force Base near Bangalore, visitors are paying up to $1000 for a night in the city’s more tony hotels.

There are many more visitors than rooms and skewing the balance further is an enormous American delegation that includes five generals, 24 top-level businessmen from the business chamber US-India Business Council (USIBC) and displays from over 50 US corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Electric. If confirmation was required that the Indo-US nuclear deal has opened doors for business between the two countries, it is here.

More revealing than the large American presence are the objectives that the USIBC has set for itself. Beyond the rhetoric of “displaying commitment to India” and “long-term business partnerships”, two strategies are guiding the US in entering the defence market in India. Firstly, close coordination between the US Department of Defense (DoD), US industry, and the USIBC. Secondly, a clear mission objective: to use the newly introduced mechanism of offsets to gain the advantage in bidding for Indian business.

Offsets are a new element in India’s defence business. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has, in its current Defence Procurement Policy of 2006 (DPP-2006), stipulated that any defence contract worth more than Rs 300 crores will automatically include a “direct offset liability” of 30 per cent, which means that the vendor will have to source from Indian suppliers components or technologies worth at least 30% of the contract value. A new MoD organisation, the Defence Offsets Facilitation Agency (DOFA) has been set up to evaluate offset proposals and to facilitate their implementation. DPP-2006 makes it clear that the better a vendor’s offsets proposal, the greater his chance of winning a defence contract.

The US DoD declares that it is opposed to the concept of offsets, but has adopted a pragmatic approach to DPP-2006, letting the private USIBC do the talking with India’s MoD to define offsets in ways that suit American bidders.

The USIBC has already made headway in getting India’s MoD to broaden the definition of “direct offsets” to defence products not directly connected with the contract linked to the offset. In other words, a contract for Boeing aircraft need not necessarily be offset by production in India of Boeing parts. The offset could also take the form of, say, production of vehicle tyres.

The USIBC, however, has pushed for more. It has asked India’s MoD to permit “offset banking”, or the accumulation of offsets credits encashable later, when a defence contract is actually signed. That’s not all; the USIBC wants India to accept “indirect offsets” as well, i.e. allowing joint ventures in sectors like infrastructure to be counted as offsets, bankable towards future defence contracts. And a company that banks some offsets but does not win a contract should be allowed, says the USIBC, to transfer those offsets to a company that bags a contract.

The strategy looks towards entering joint ventures with India’s private sector companies in infrastructure, while using that business to build up a bank of offset credits. Ron Somers, President of the USIBC told Business Standard, “Every one of our companies are over here right now scouting for offsets projects. And guess where they are looking. They are looking into the Indian private sector, beyond the Indian public sector¿ at Indian private sector like Tatas, L&T and Reliance and Mahindras and Kirloskar; even the smaller Indian companies, the IT companies and the emerging software groups.”

Indian government agencies have been discreetly supporting the USIBC in this approach. In February 2006 Defence Secretary, Shekhar Dutt met a USIBC delegation and discussed the concept of “offset banking”. And at a closed door meeting with the USIBC at the Indian embassy in Washington last month, Indian ambassador Ronen Sen suggested the USIBC use the Indian private sector to exert pressure on New Delhi.

For now, Defence Minister A K Antony is both firm and flexible. At the inauguration of Aero India 2007 in Bangalore on Wednesday, Mr Antony said about the proposal to broaden the definition of offsets, “As of now, we will go as per DPP-2006 as it stands. If there is scope for improvement, we’ll adjust and make minor changes to policy. Our mind is open.”

Defence Ministry officials, speaking off the record, express their reservations on the banking offsets proposal. They say that if a vendor already has a big bank of offsets that could create pressure in deciding who should get that contract.

Flight delays: conflict over the cities

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 03 Feb 2007

It is 8.30 am, rush hour at Delhi's Palam airport. Thousands of business travellers are checking in for flights that will get them to their destinations at convenient hours for business. While outgoing flights are allotted places in the departure queue, the Aerodrome Control Tower Officers (ACTOs), hunched over their radar screens in Palam's Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower are telling the pilots of incoming aircraft the order in which they will land. It's a tense but well-practised procedure. With one of Palam's runways handling incoming traffic and the other being used for take-offs, no plane spends more than twenty minutes in the queue.

That's when the Supervisor calls out, "Hindon airspace, closed below 150."

In layman terms, that means that Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft at Hindon air base, on the north-western edge of Delhi, are starting their flying and that no civil airliner could enter Hindon airspace below 15,000 feet. With one quarter of the airspace around Delhi now unavailable for civil traffic, the Supervisor might just as well have called out, "triple the delay for all civil flights."

The first complication comes almost immediately; Jet Airways flight DKN627 from Leh, already descended to 8000 feet, can no longer circle around from the north-east, his usual route in to land. Instead, he needs to fly in a wide circle from the west and the south of Delhi (see graphic). As long as Hindon's fighters are flying, all airliners flying in from places to the north and north-west, like J&K, Punjab, and all European and American cities, will not just have to cover extra distance around the south of Delhi, but they will be flying across the paths of other aircraft coming in from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and the southern states. Severely complicating matters will be aircraft taking off from Palam, straight into their
paths.

Air traffic controllers are skilled at the tense and complex jugglery of separating fast-flying aircraft from one another by keeping them at different altitudes and areas. But it takes time and causes delays. Forced by burgeoning air traffic into streamlining its ground systems in Delhi, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has brought a second runway into service and built Rapid Exit Taxiways (RETs) to enable landing aircraft to quickly vacate the runway. That brought delays down from an hour to just a third of that time. But Hindon-type restrictions on freedom of airspace in a dense traffic environment is a problem the AAI says can only be resolved through moving IAF bases further away from metro cities. Expert committees on airspace like the Roy Paul Committee and the Naresh Chandra Committee of 2004 have also pointed the finger at Hindon.

AAI Director, K Ramalingam puts it bluntly, "It would be much better for civil aviation if the air force would base themselves some distance away from cities with airports. That would greatly ease the congestion over metro airports, which is partly caused by having to share the airspace with air force operations."

For the IAF, this would be an unacceptable step in what they see as a decades-old process of creeping acquisition. Since before independence Palam Airport belonged to the IAF; Safdarjang Airport handled civil flights, including those to international destinations. Fighters flying from Palam traditionally protected the capital's airspace; from here was mounted the Kashmir airlift in 1948. In the 1950s, the IAF moved all its operations to Hindon, leaving only a VIP transport squadron in Palam. This year, says the IAF, it will vacate Palam entirely.

But vacating Hindon as well, says Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi, is out of the question. "Hindon is meant for the air defence of Delhi. It cannot be shifted to somewhere far away. Besides, the IAF has put thousands of crores into assets in (airfields like Hindon). I can make procedural adjustments to accommodate civil airlines."

The IAF has, in fact, made many adjustments; Hindon is now freer with its airspace than ever before. But airspace bottlenecks have grown despite that accommodation because the IAF's generosity has been neutralised by a new paranoia. In the wake of 9/11, when images of airliners ploughing into landmark buildings fanned fears in New Delhi,a committee headed by former Director General of Civil Aviation, HS Khola, framed regulations to keep civil aircraft away from the so-called VIP areas of central and south Delhi. Those regulations add to the delays over Delhi.

Civil aviation in other metro cities suffers equally from having to share airspace with IAF installations. A new international airport is coming up in Bangalore but, as the graphic shows, it is surrounded on three sides by IAF airspace.

Paucity of pilots triggers aviation war

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 02 Feb 2007

When Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal resigned in 2002 as one of the most qualified test pilots in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and quickly found a flying job in a start up airline, Deccan Airways, he felt he had won a jackpot. With no new airlines and no new aircraft, India's dormant aviation landscape was strewn with young, newly licensed pilots from India's flying clubs who couldn't get a job. The four established airlines --- Air India, Indian Airlines, Jet and Sahara --- already had their quota of five co-pilots and five commanders for each aircraft they owned. Just four years later, Kothiyal, now Chief Pilot of Deccan Airways, shakes his head ruefully at how much things have changed.

Deccan Airways has expanded from a single aircraft to 41; four hundred pilots are on the rolls to utilise the fleet optimally. Jostling for pilots with Deccan are equally aggressive start-ups like Kingfisher, GoAir, Spicejet and Paramount. Today, India's 14 scheduled airlines operate more than three hundred aircraft between them. Every month the figure rises, and each aircraft that comes in brings along a demand for ten more pilots. Compounding the pilot shortfall are another 350 aircraft owned by non-scheduled airlines and private entities.

In this sellers' market, a Commerical Pilot's Licence (CPL) and a DGCA certification is enough to land a job that pulls in three to four lakh rupees a month. The requirement of junior co-pilots is largely met through a growing supply of newly trained pilots from Indian flying clubs (see graphic), supplemented by increasing numbers training abroad. At a premium, though, are the senior pilots needed to captain airline flights. Filling this gap are foreign pilots with 1000-1500 hours of flying experience, mostly from East Europe, Australia and Latin America. Deccan Airways alone has hired more than a hundred foreign pilots, paying them a package of 10,000 dollars a month, 50% more than their Indian counterparts.

Observing this situation is Wing Commander Devesh Kakar (name and location changed on officer's request) handling flight administration at an IAF base in Allahabad. Although Kakar has logged 1200 hours on IAF aircraft, some 19 years of incident-free flying, that alone does not guarantee career progression in the steep promotion pyramid of the defence services. Kakar needs only to pass a simple DGCA conversion exam, for a civil license that could translate into a ten-fold jump over his IAF salary. He is exactly the person that Indian airlines are desperate for: experienced in flying in Indian conditions, adept at dealing with Indian situations and people, and considerably cheaper to employ than pilots from abroad.

But there's a hitch. Facing its own shortfall of over 200 pilots, IAF boss Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi has clamped down on letting pilots leave service. After his predecessor, Air Chief Marshall S Krishnaswamy let an unprecedented 250 pilots leave in the period before he handed over charge, IAF pilots today have been effectively locked in. Before Kakar's resignation is accepted, he will have to be rejected for further promotion by three separate promotion boards. Unlike any other employer, the Indian military can refuse to allow its personnel to resign and the courts have always upheld its decision. Flight Lieutenant Shakul Tyagi, a decorated pilot represented by top-gun lawyer Abhishek Singhvi, recently took the air force to court, effectively alleging violation of fundamental rights. The Delhi High Court ruled in favour of the IAF.

For the airline industry, keenly aware of the benefits of a lower pilot wage bill, this is bad news. The civil aviation administration, searching feverishly for managers, instructors and pilots to support India's burgeoning aviation growth, tip-toes around the Air Chief's decision, but continues to eye this manpower pool. Civil Aviation Secretary, Ajay Prasad, who recently employed a retired air force officer to run the prestigious Sanjay Gandhi National Flying Academy, says. "We need pilots as of yesterday… We are saying that pilots who are available to be released from the air force, we should be able to give them a greater role in civilian traffic. We can fly a person who is medically fit up to the age of 65 and air force people retire much earlier, so we can certainly use them as instructors and… even as online pilots."

But Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi points out that if civil aviation is expanding, the IAF is as well. The air chief told Business Standard, "Pilots are not a commodity that gets produced at short notice. I can get a civilian pilot from the market; the same is not true of a combat pilot. He's an officer, a highly trained military leader. If he's got ten years of service it will take me ten years to produce another
one."

Adding to the demand for Indian pilots is the language problem that many expatriate pilots face in talking to Indian air traffic controllers (ATCs). With instructions being snapped out in a variety of regional accents, ATC commands often have to be repeated, leading to loss of time. In at least one case, the mid air collision in 1996 near Delhi between a Saudi Arabian Airlines and a Kazakhstan Airlines aircraft, it has led to disaster. The Ramesh Chandra Lahoti commission that probed that crash found that the Kazakh pilot's inability to understand the directions of the ATC placed him on a collision course with the Saudi airliner.

Deccan Airline's Chief Pilot, Rajiv Kothiyal, who guards against this by putting all his airline's expatriate pilots through extensive familiarisation training, says it is this reason why he always prefers an Indian pilot, whether civil or military. "The accent is different and there is bound to be some communication gap between the controllers because the controllers in India speak very fast, and if they speak fast this (expatriate pilot) may not understand."

The IAF's inability to release its pilots may be infuriating for civil airlines today, but aviation consultant Tulsi Kesharwani believes that this could work well for pilots in the long term. "If just one airline folds up today and returns aircraft that have been taken on lease, you could quickly have a situation where there are more pilots than are needed."

But for an aviation industry that is grappling with the problems of today, and for air force pilots who feel aggrieved by the IAF's unwillingness to let them go, this is an entirely hypothetical situation. The problem is today.

India's pilot factory: ramping up production

Pilots needed: 3000-5000 (over next 5 years)
Annual supply: (from Indian flying institutions: DGCA figures)
2003 : 386
2004 : 499
2005 : 822
2006/07 : 1147

Indian Air Force pilot shortages

Authorised : 3278 pilots

Presently posted: 3068 pilots

Shortfall : 210 pilots

Released from 2003-05: 246 pilots

Released in 2006: 19 pilots

Mid-air collision: India`s tangled airspace

by Ajai Shukla
(Business Standard: 01 Feb 2007)

At Hyderabad airport, you buckle into your seat for the late afternoon flight back to Delhi. It’s been a hectic day; you flew out at dawn, attended the morning meeting in Hyderabad and had a useful working lunch, but you’ll be home before the children’s bedtime. The flight indicator tells you that Delhi is due north; it’ll be a straight flight, you believe, no time lost. You offer up silent thanks for India’s revolution in civil aviation.

Wrong! In the cockpit, the pilot has set course south instead of north towards Delhi. Flying in wide circles south of Hyderabad, he climbs to 20,000 feet before seemingly heading for Goa. Ninety kilometres later he will bank towards Pune, covering another 100 km before finally heading for Delhi.

These inefficient diversions of civil flights at Hyderabad are caused because the airport is bordered by a vast swathe of restricted Indian Air Force (IAF) airspace belonging to the IAF flying academies of Hakimpeth and Bidar. By the time you reach Delhi you will have flown an extra 20 minutes, and the airline will have spent Rs 40,000 in extra fuel costs. This wastage of time, fuel and, inevitably, money is eventually borne by the traveller.

The problem is not confined to Hyderabad. Almost half of India’s airspace belongs to the military. The country is dotted with IAF fighter, helicopter and transport bases, training facilities, manufacturing units and design establishments. Each of them was allotted thousands of square kilometres of surrounding airspace at a time when civil flights were few and far between. Today, in a civil aviation boom, hundreds of passenger aircraft zigzag everyday around a plethora of no-go areas.

Civil aviation officials have not been able to persuade the IAF to loosen airspace restrictions despite dramatically changed circumstances. Says Ajay Prasad, Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), “The problem was not coming into sharp focus as it is today. Now with this expanding fleet, opening new routes, bringing new cities into the air map, the need for opening up the airspace has become much more… It will cut short distances, it will save flying time because instead of making detours you could fly in more of a straight line.”

The Airports Authority of India (AAI), responsible for air traffic management around civil airports and civilian air routes, has been working with the IAF route by route, in an attempt to straighten domestic and international air routes. Under pressure from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) the IAF agreed to straighten seven international routes, but it has not allowed a single domestic flight to fly unencumbered through its vast airspace holdings. Says AAI Chairman, K Ramalingam, “We would like the Air Force to be more pro-active on restructuring air routes…. we have urged them to release the airspace to us when they are not using it.”

The IAF explains that it has several reasons for such restrictions. Without separate airspace, its highly agile aircraft, with flight patterns of rapid, unexpected climbs and manoeuvres, would be a serious hazard to civil airliners in the vicinity. In several cases the IAF has allowed civil flights to use its airspace provided they remain above 20,000 feet, the ceiling for fighter and helicopter flying. 

But dividing airspace by altitude doesn’t solve the problem. In cases like Hyderabad, Bangalore and even Delhi, the IAF’s airspace is so close to the airport that civil flights enter it before they can climb to 20,000 feet. Civil aviation authorities have come up with a proposal for “flexible use of airspace”, in which the IAF would freely allow civil flights into its restricted airspace when IAF aircraft are not actually using it. For example, a Mumbai-Indore flight, which today flies an extra 100 km to bypass the airspace of the Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) facility near Nashik (that produces and test-flies MiG aircraft) would fly straight over it, provided no MiGs are being test-flown at the same time.

Civil Aviation Secretary, Ajay Prasad, who has included this concept in the Draft Civil Aviation Policy to be released shortly explains, “There is an area that is earmarked for defence and if, at some point, some hours of the day, or some periods of the week if air force doesn’t need that airspace, it should become available to civilian traffic.”

Top IAF officers, however, dismiss the idea of “time-sharing”. The air force believes that civil authorities should manage airspace better, like in the UK where the Royal Air Force, a huge airline industry, private aircraft and even balloons and gliders effectively share a comparatively tiny airspace. Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi, Chief of Air Staff, tells Business Standard that the solution lies in technology, like better radars: “If every aircraft knows where the others are, we shall have solved the problem of wasteful flying. You could do time-sharing for now, till better technology allows you to deal with all the aircraft simultaneously.”

But specialist opinion is ranged against this viewpoint. A series of expert committees on airspace issues, such as the Roy Paul Committee, the Khola Committee and, most recently, the Naresh Chandra Committee in October 2004, have pushed for flexible use of airspace. The Naresh Chandra Committee recommendations include:

· All “Reserved Airspace” should revert back to civil ATC whenever there is no substantial requirement for military activity.
· Airspace above a certain height, which is not required for military purposes, should be made available to civil ATC on a permanent basis.
· Domestic routes should be restructured to fly directly through reserved airspace, reducing flying time and saving fuel.
· Restrictions on civil flights due to multiple military establishments near Hyderabad airport should be relaxed, to facilitate direct civil flights and reduce flying time and fuel consumption.
· Air Force exercises at busy airports like Mumbai and Delhi should be reduced or avoided, to minimise the large-scale disruption of civil flights.

The IAF’s reaction to these recommendations mirrors the polarisation on airspace issues between civil aviation and air force officers. Senior IAF officers dismiss the recommendations, asking why the Naresh Chandra Committee does not include an IAF representative.

The IAF, responsible for India’s air defence, sees unrestricted airspace less as a civil aviation opportunity than as a possible playground for anti-national activities (such as the 1995 incident in which a Latvian civil aircraft airdropped arms in Purulia). Far from vacating airspace for civil aviation, the IAF is moving towards monitoring every flying object in India. It has divided Indian airspace into five geographical divisions called Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs), recently also adding a sub-ADIZ over the island territories of Andaman and Nicobar. In November, the MoCA reached an agreement with the IAF on a procedure to monitor every civil flight as it transits from one ADIZ to another.

But it will be an ongoing process of negotiation, with new issues arising even as old ones are resolved. Hyderabad’s new international airport being built at Shamshabad, 12 km from IAF training establishments at Bidar and Hakimpeth, was supposed to ease operational friction. But now, with new Hawk trainer aircraft being introduced in Bidar, the IAF has asked for its airspace to be extended towards Shamshabad. The AAI has flatly turned that down.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

LOSSES IN EXTRA FLYING

Sector Extra flying Extra time Extra cost (A-320)
Srinagar – Delhi 150 km 12-15 mins Rs 20,000 - 25,000
Mumbai – Hyderabad 160 km 13-16 mins Rs 21,000 – 26,000
Indore – Mumbai 100 km 8-10 mins Rs 12,000 – 14,000

AIRSPACE RESTRICTIONS

Prohibited areas: in which no aircraft are allowed, eg over nuclear installations, Bhakra Nangal Dam, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament etc.

Danger areas: in which coordination is required because there are activities that can endanger flying aircraft, eg firing etc.

Restricted areas: IAF owned areas in which aircraft can move but with IAF coordination.

Collision course on land

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 31st Jan 2007

Circling in to land at the tiny airstrip in Kargil, the Indian Air Force (IAF) AN-32 transport plane is closely observed by the Pakistan army pickets overlooking the area. With heavy winter snowfall on the Zoji La pass, the bi-weekly IAF flight is Kargil's only link with the rest of the Kashmir valley, and the world, from December to May. Through an MoU signed on 20th October 06, IAF aircraft run scheduled flights carrying civilians on military aircraft, to an Airports Authority of India (AAI) airfield operated by the military.

The relationship between civil aviation and the military is so close that it often goes unnoticed. As many as 28 airports regularly used by civil airlines, are actually IAF or navy bases. Landing in Pune, Bangalore, Goa, Srinagar or Chandigarh, even frequent fliers seldom realise they are at a military base, even if they notice IAF fighters parked at a distance, Their plane parks in what is called a "civil enclave", where passenger facilities like check-in counters and baggage collection are located.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) believes that, with new airlines opening up new destinations in India's astonishing aviation boom, it makes good economic sense to create "civil enclaves" in existing military airfields, rather than spend Rs 500-600 crore building a separate airport. The IAF good-humouredly obliged when this meant including just a couple of civil flights a day. But now, with 14 scheduled airlines jostling for business, there is increasing friction between the IAF’s military requirements, and the AAI’s need to provide infrastructure to a gaggle of airlines all clamouring for more operating time and better civilian facilities.

Newer and bigger airliners make newer and bigger demands on military airfields. Instead of the 6000-foot long runways at many IAF bases, today's wide-bodied aircraft need 7,500 feet. And aprons (parking areas in front of terminal buildings) that accomodated two earlier-generation aircraft, must now be expanded to cater to three or four larger modern aircraft.

As far as the IAF is concerned, these requirements are secondary to its own priorities of security and training. IAF chief, Air Chief Marshall Sashindra Pal Tyagi, told Business Standard: "My primary job is to train my pilots to fight and win a war. Beyond that, I realise the growth of civil aviation is vital for India's growth, and I only say 'no' when there's no way I can accommodate (AAI demands)."

But AAI officials insist that civil aviation growth is being stunted by the IAF's reluctance to make space for civil operations. They cite examples like Pune, which is both the home base of the IAF's front line Sukhoi-30 fighters, as well as a fast-growing civilian traffic hub. The IAF has only partially granted requests for landing and take off slots by airlines like Deccan, Kingfisher and Go Air, because morning and evening timings that suit passengers clash with the training schedules of Su-30 fighters. Air traffic controllers are another sore point: the IAF says its ATCs are overworked just handling fighter training. With restrictions on how long an ATC can be on duty, the IAF doesn't have enough manpower to extend operating hours for civil traffic.

Top AAI officials say they are willing to negotiate reasonably, but the IAF’s tendency to focus on what it is giving, rather than what it is getting, causes hard feelings. AAI chief, K Ramalingam, points out: "Whenever Air Force asks for help, e.g. when their Instrument Landing System broke down in Srinagar, we provide spares and technicians to repair their systems free of charge. Now, we've received a help request from the IAF for Bangalore, where they are about to hold an international air show: Aero India 2007. I will be providing that free of charge."

Civil Aviation Secretary, Ajay Prasad, believes that there is no choice but to work around this friction; duplicating hugely expensive air bases is scarcely an option. He points to the cooperation in Goa, a navy-owned airport, where the AAI gave the navy land in Kochi and Porbandar in exchange for land to expand operations in Goa. "The navy has been very accommodating,” he says. “They have allowed 24-hour (civilian) operations, and they are dovetailing their training requirements with civilian requirements."

So pleased is the MoCA with the naval model of cooperation, that Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel, met Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju on 24th August 06, to suggest a similar approach with the Air Force. Joint Working Groups have been set up for smoother interaction, but suspicion lingers between the AAI and the IAF.

The IAF has its reasons for caution, including long-term expansion plans for which free land is needed; and top-secret equipment at a handful of bases. Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi also says that some bases are already so crowded that even IAF fighters have to queue for the runway. "In Adampur, for example, there are over a hundred flights a day. There is no question of accommodating any outsider. We have to divide timings between four squadrons and when one squadron is using the runway, the other has actually taxied out and is waiting."

Despite the merits of both sides of the argument, this is a high-stakes game in which political, developmental, security and economic considerations often conflict. One example is the ongoing imbroglio over the proposed airport at Halwara, which stemmed from Ludhiana’s long-standing demand for an international airport for the Manchester of India. Worried that the Akali Dal would rake up this popular issue in the Punjab elections, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh proposed an airport at Ludhiana. The IAF, reluctant to allow another airport in the vicinity of Halwara—a major air base near the city—offered a civil enclave at Halwara air base, provided there was no cost to itself. With the Punjab government unwilling to contribute anything more than the land, the AAI would have to foot a Rs 220 crore bill to extend the runway, build a taxi track, and install international-standard instrument landing and navigation systems.

Since the AAI is a self-financing institution, the only option for raising such sums is through Public-Private-Partnership (PPP), where a private contractor is allowed to build and run hotels, restaurants and other revenue-generating mechanisms to recover his cost of construction. Here the proposal ran into the stone wall of security: the MoD refused to allow PPP contractors anywhere near the high-security base.

Such problems are not insoluble; once more, the navy has shown the way forward. The Rs 200 crore project to convert the naval airfield at Vishakapatnam into an international airport was shared three ways: the Navy provided Rs 130 crore, AAI chipped in with Rs 30 crore, and the Andhra Pradesh government contributed the balance and the land. With no private partners, security was a non-issue.

Despite the friction, civil-military cooperation is increasing, driven by the remorseless logic of resource optimisation. Pathankote became the latest military airport to support civil operations when, on November 22, Deccan Airways launched a daily flight to and from Delhi. How accommodating the AAI and the IAF, and their parent ministries, the MoCA and the MoD, can be, will play a substantial role in determining the future of India's aviation growth story.


FRICTION ON LAND ISSUES: Hardball bargaining

* Lohegaon, Pune 
AAI wants to extend apron size so more aircraft can park 
IAF says first pay 14 crores for parallel taxiway and upgrade ILS

* Bagdogra Air Base, W. Bengal 
AAI wants to extend apron size so more aircraft can park 
IAF first wants hangars and apron in Hyderabad civil airport

* Silchar Air Base, Assam 
AAI wants to extend runway from 6000 to 7500 feet 
Assam govt has given land but IAF not granting permission to build

* Trivandrum airport 
AAI gave IAF land on lease, is asking for payment from IAF 
IAF wants it regularised without making payment