Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Smoke signals from South Block

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 31st July 07

The smoke signals from South Block are seldom easy to read. But going by two Ministry of Defence (MoD) statements this fortnight, it would appear that, like industrial, financial and labour reform at the national level, the MoD's voyage of reform, too, has run aground on the rocks of the Left Front. On 16th July, Defence Minister AK Antony told a MoD Consultative Committee that public-private sector defence cooperation would not be at the cost of the public sector. And this week, in a published interview, Minister of State for Defence Production, Rao Inderjit Singh has declared that private sector companies have failed to do what it takes to become viable defence producers.

The MoD had announced that credible private defence manufacturers were to be given the status of Raksha Utpadan Ratnas (RuRs), and treated on par with Defence PSUs (DPSUs) and Ordnance Factories (OFs). But two months after the Probir Sengupta Committee recommended a dozen private sector firms for nomination as RuRs, those findings are gathering dust in the MoD. Inevitably, for this government, it has begun to bow to pressures from the public sector, the Left Front and their affiliated trade unions in the public sector, officers within the MoD who benefit from the patronage networks of the PSUs, even from some private companies within the list of RuRs who would like other companies to be excluded from that club. And inevitably, the MoD has chosen the safety of inactivity over the risk of a decision.

Consequently, the Defence Minister packed his bags for J&K and got down to dispensing hazy advice to the army on vacating buildings and orchards, something normally done in the form of a clear written directive to local commanders. But after nine months of relative immobility in Delhi, Mr Antony could be discovering the same truth that guided Mr George Fernandes through five years of the NDA government: rather than putting ones head down and making the difficult decisions of defence production and strategy, it is more convenient to hare off for conversations with jawans on the frontiers.

Going purely by official statements, it would appear that major reform has been underway in the MoD since the Vijay Kelkar Committee presented its recommendations in April 2005. A new defence procurement policy (DPP-2006) was formulated in September last year. The MoD signalled that the private sector would be treated on par with the public sector in arms purchases and offset tie-ups. The software industry was promised even greater benefits. As reported in this paper, the government had decided to provide R&D funding to private sector defence manufacturers for selected projects, a key step for private companies who cannot spare the vast sums needed for R&D that might never translate into firm orders. The Defence Minister then sounded a clear warning to the public sector Ordnance Factories (OFs) at their General Managers' Conference in May this year: reform or risk oblivion. Mr Antony became the first defence minister in recent times to clearly spell out India's threat perceptions; at the Shangri La dialogue, in Singapore, this June, he identified internal unrest as India's greatest concern, more so even than China and Pakistan.

All that promise, however, has not translated into reform. Despite DPP-2006, bottlenecks in procurements starve the military of equipment. The private sector remains a fringe player in defence procurement and offsets. Not one penny in R&D funding has reached a single private defence manufacturer. The MoD's OFs continue to function as South Block's commercially challenged children, granted interest-free capital at the beginning of each financial year and guaranteed uniformed customers for whatever they produce, at whatever price they produce it. (The OFs, astonishingly, complain about not being allowed to make a profit from the defence services). And despite Mr Antony's public realisation that the army is expending more time, equipment, manpower and blood on dealing with internal issues than with warfighting, the MoD procurement department remains single-mindedly fixated on high-cost weaponry for high-intensity warfare than on providing the jawans with the equipment they need everyday: protective equipment like helmets and bulletproof jackets, all-weather combat clothing and boots, reliable communications, and night-vision equipment. This lends credence to allegations that thesimple, low cost necessities provide less opportunity for the kickbacks that accompany most defence deals.

But while Rao Inderjeet Singh questions the private sector's ability, the officer who has been nominated India's next army chief, Lieutenant General Deepak Kapoor has publicly asked why, given India's rapidly developing industrial base, the army should be bound to the DPSUs and OFs. Sharing a platform with the Defence Minister at a meeting of Ordnance Factory GMs, the general has argued for procurement from the open market through open tendering. Revealing that the OFs take 42 months to deliver new orders, even simple requirements like tents and boots, General Kapoor points out that this makes equipment obsolescent even before it enters service.

Six years after George Fernandes announced the entry of the private sector into defence manufacturing, the declarations, recommendations and statements of intent show no sign of translating into investments, R&D, orders and production of defence goods by Indian manufacturers. The public sector continues on lavish life support, while the fledgling private sector has not even made it into the incubator. So if the smoke signals from South Block are being correctly read, New Delhi's growing defence budget only means good times ahead for the global arms majors.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Dysfunctional Defense

by Ajai Shukla
The Wall Street Journal, Asia: 19th July 2007

Last week a detachment of sophisticated Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter planes, having flown halfway around the world, conducted joint exercises at a British airbase with the Royal Air Force — a multimillion-dollar, cutting-edge preparation for a battle that may never come. Meanwhile, every day half a million Indian soldiers and paramilitary troopers across the country face off against terrorists who are better armed and equipped than the soldiers are. This contrast —between the wars for which India is planning and the wars it is actually fighting — is a serious national security problem that will only get worse the longer it persists.

Like the pre-Iraq Pentagon and Whitehall, India’s establishment still believes that if the military has credible state-versus-state war-fighting capability, everything else will follow. Most weapons purchases in the pipeline are platforms needed for all-out war: an aircraft carrier, a submarine line, amphibious assault ships and heavy battleships for the navy; multi-role combat aircraft, mid-air refuellers and airborne cruise missiles for the air force; and tanks, air defense guns, medium artillery and intermediate range strategic missiles for the army. You’d think that India’s last two decades of counterterrorism operations have been a brief interregnum before the military gets on with its primary task of invading a medium-sized country. 

Yet in bloody theatres like Jammu and Kashmir, you wouldn’t guess that India is the developing world’s largest buyer of weaponry. If its forces are prevailing in the struggle against separatist, left-wing and jihadist movements, this has less to do with equipment and training than with the sheer manpower that the Indian state can deploy: some 1.2 million soldiers and 750,000 paramilitary troops today. 

This deluge has contained ethnic insurgencies in India’s northeast, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Punjab, the ongoing jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, a terrorist movement in Assam and now, potentially most worrying, a Maoist “people’s war” that is unfolding across vast swathes of India’s eastern and central states. Equally useful for New Delhi has been the Indian public’s tolerance for high casualties. The low-tech war on terror has killed 10,000 soldiers and policemen since Jammu and Kashmir flared up in 1989. 

One might expect such an experience to orient a country’s security forces toward counterterrorism, as in the case of Israel. Not so in India, a rising power deeply uncomfortable with acknowledging disaffection and alienation among its own people. Instead, New Delhi deflects the blame and holds external forces responsible for internal violence. It has blamed China, Burma and Bangladesh for separatism in the northeast; Pakistan for terrorism in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir; and now, incredibly, Nepal for the Maoist “naxalite” movement. 

Strategy has followed the “foreign-hand” rhetoric. India’s military has directed its energies towards the external rather than the internal threat. Of two million men in uniform, barely 5,000 are counterterrorism specialists. The rest, except for some counter-insurgency battalions, remain equipped and trained for full-scale war. Effectively, India uses makeshift means to deal with terrorism up to a point. If that doesn’t work, it threatens war with its neighbours. When Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacked the parliament building in New Delhi in 2001, India’s enormous military moved into battle positions and readied to invade Pakistan. Then, as now, the only lever in India’s counterterrorism tool shed was full-scale war. 

This attitude stems, ironically, from India’s success in defusing several ethno-religious separatist movements in its northeastern states by using regular military forces without specialized equipment. Success rested on the prolonged use of military force over years, offering negotiations when separatist stamina was running low and then buying their leaders over with the promise of power in a post-conflict polity. 

New Delhi seems to think this old strategy is viable against the new globalized structures of ethnic and religious separatism. But it hasn’t worked in Jammu and Kashmir because terrorists can replenish, materially and ideologically, by plugging into the structures of global Islamist jihad. Kashmiri separatists today piggyback their struggle on linkages with Pakistani intelligence, radical groups from as far as Afghanistan and, through the internet, even with al Qaeda.

India’s counterterrorism strategy also suffers from misdirected intelligence gathering. India’s intelligence agencies have successfully infiltrated the decision-making elites of each one of its neighbours. When Pakistan denied sending its soldiers into India’s Kargil district in 1999, Indian intelligence proved otherwise by producing recordings of incriminating conversations between Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Beijing and his chief of staff in Islamabad. But there has been little infiltration, either through human sources or electronically, of today’s terrorist cells run by radicalized educated professionals. 

India was taken completely by surprise when Kafeel Ahmed, a doctor from Bangalore, was alleged to have manufactured the bombs used in last month’s failed U.K. terror plot. Indian intelligence has failed to even identify those responsible for six major terrorist bombings that have taken the lives of hundreds of Indian citizens over the last two years. Instead of the “multi-agency intelligence centre” that was recommended five years ago by a Group of Ministers (the country’s highest version of a cabinet committee), India’s myriad intelligence agencies function at cross purposes. 

There are indications of change. At the sixth Asia Security Conference in Singapore in June, Defense Minister A.K. Antony signalled an important shift in India’s security perceptions from external threats to the internal issues that breed terrorism: communal confrontation, sub-nationalism and lack of governance. In an unusually forthright admission, Mr. Antony stated that India’s greatest security threat is not Pakistan, China, or nuclear weapons, but the difficulties of meeting the aspirations of all of India’s citizens at a time of rapid modernization. 

It remains to be seen how far India’s defense establishment will re-shape itself to respond to terrorism. One problem is that, despite the defense minister’s frank talk, the Ministry of Home Affairs remains primarily responsible for tackling terrorism. It has been too easy for the defense establishment to claim that terrorism is someone else’s problem, although historically MoHA’s ineffectiveness has quickly sucked the military into any crisis anyway. 

The sheer scale of India’s terrorism problem means that the military itself will remain involved and needs to realign its structure and weaponry. The defense minister has identified the problem. Now he and the rest of the defense establishment must create a solution.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Drawing the battle lines in Pakistan

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 17th July 2007

In Pakistan, where cynicism suffuses political discussion, most people are certain that President Pervez Musharraf engineered the Lal Masjid showdown only to deflect attention from the growing political challenge from suspended Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhary’s unlikely revolt. Bazaar gossip aside, only the General himself knows what drove him to flush out that den of extremism. But whatever his motivations, the Lal Masjid attack is a tipping point, the start of a bloody confrontation between the Pakistani establishment and the extremists that they have long nurtured and now turned their backs on.

The militant reaction has swept in like a summer storm. The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) erupted immediately after the Lal Masjid was stormed. On Sunday, the Taliban scrapped the shameful deal that Islamabad had inked last September, granting the Taliban sway over Waziristan provided foreign militants were kept in check. (At the time, Islamabad had claimed that the deal had been struck with “tribal elders” to empower them against the Taliban and Al Qaeda). Over the weekend, a spate of suicide attacks in the NWFP has directly targeted Pakistani security forces.

Islamabad has long differentiated between “our militants” and others. That pretence is becoming impossible to sustain. The Lal Masjid was always controlled by “our mullah”, its head cleric carefully screened by the ISI before being appointed. An unknown number of Jaish-e-Mohammad fighters inside, who defended the Lal Masjid to the end, were “our militants”, long nurtured as a pressure point against India. The Taliban suicide bombers who have blown up nearly a hundred people in the NWFP on Saturday and Sunday were “our militants”, created and cultivated as a lever against Afghanistan.

Today, Musharraf cannot choose which militants he wants to fight. The ideological, operational, financial and logistical linkages that bind together global jehad are too interlinked for differentiations to be made.

Superficially, Musharraf seems caught in a dilemma, with little choice but bloody confrontation. In fact, his chosen road is a convenient one. For the first time ever, all the stars that guide decision making in Pakistan are in propitious alignment. Musharraf himself, under dire personal threat, has believed for some time now that jehadi extremism must be stamped out. Now the only Electoral College that matters in Pakistan also backs that view; after having to storm the Lal Masjid, Pakistan’s corps commanders are rattled by the growth of a Frankenstein’s monster that is staring down the army. All weather friend, China, is nudging Islamabad towards cracking down on terror. And finally, the United States, with its own interests in Afghanistan, has welcomed the Pakistani army’s move back into the NWFP and urged it to act more forcefully. Stephen Hadley, the US National Security Advisor, has promised Pakistan all assistance. That translates into greater military and intelligence cooperation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The monthly stipend of US $100 million that the US gives Pakistan for operations in the NWFP will be continued, perhaps even upped.

Musharraf, far wiser than when he believed that domestic politics was irrelevant, has arranged adequate political cover for the battles to come. The religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), for all its lack of political scruple, can hardly be expected to support Musharraf in cracking down on Islamist militancy. So the General has brought on board the ever-opportunistic Benazir Bhutto who has effectively declared that she backs General Musharraf’s battle against extremism and looks forward to being elected Prime Minister soon. That’s something that the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment should be able to organise for her.

A notable aspect of this drama is the deafening silence from New Delhi. Washington, never a shrine to delicacy or circumspection, has made the mistake of publicly endorsing President Musharraf’s deployment of additional troops in the NWFP, laying him open to the inevitable charge of acting at the behest of the “alliance of Crusaders and Jews”. This is a constant refrain from the extremist, as well as the liberal chorus in Pakistan. India is doing well to avoid gratuitous advice or support.

The temptation to crow is high in New Delhi: the government has long warned Pakistan against the dangers of sponsoring terrorism, that lying down with dogs risks waking up with flees. But even the most indirect Indian blessing for a Musharraf crackdown on terror would be the kiss of death for this. Pakistan is at last tackling terror head-on and New Delhi must not retard that effort by making it appear linked with India.

Sceptics will correctly point out that this is not the first time that General Musharraf has stepped up to the plate, only to turn away when the decisions became hard. Musharraf’s list of discarded promises is long: non-interference in Afghanistan (September 2001), outlawing of Pakistani terrorist groups like the Lashkar, the Jaish, the SSP and the Lashkar e Jhangvi (January 2002), the ending of infiltration (May 2002) and madrasa reform (2002). But each of those pledges was opposed by important sections of opinion in Pakistan, sometimes even by Pakistani public opinion. This time the only significant opposition comes from radical fundamentalists. Though vocal, and widespread, their numbers are small.

Pakistan’s battle lines are drawn; it must now shape the tools. Islamabad is rewriting the “anti-Talibanisation” blueprint, which its National Security Council formalised last month. After Lal Masjid the NSC believes that the radical threat comes from towns and villages alike, cutting across conventional boundaries, both geographical and demographic.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Response to Air Marshall Bhojwani... on MRCA


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!!

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.