Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Wen it’s time to talk…

Photo: courtesy Ajai Shukla
At a frozen waterfall, in Arunachal Pradesh last winter, near the Line of Actual Control with China

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Oct 09

Indian policymakers have always been better at formulating strategy than at moving on after it has served its purpose. In so many of our engagements --- non-alignment, nuclear non-proliferation, trade talks and climate change, for example --- our intellectually and morally grounded positions have been policy rocks that withstood decades of pressure from competing interests. But, when changed times demanded changed strategies, Indian policymakers --- entranced perhaps by the beauty of their creations --- remained leaden-footed in responding to new realities.

Nobody would advocate a continually shifting policy framework, and the role of parliamentary resolutions in immobilising Indian policy is well understood. Despite that, New Delhi must wonder at its flat-footedness in seizing fleeting strategic opportunities.

One such opportunity will again arise on Friday, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, at the ASEAN summit in Thailand. The meeting, requested by Chinese officials, will almost certainly focus on the escalating rhetoric between India and China and the need to cool tempers. Dr Manmohan Singh has two clear choices: on the one hand, he could repeat India’s oft-repeated position that Arunachal is an integral part of India; that the Dalai Lama is a religious head who is free to travel anywhere in India without engaging in political activity; and that peace and tranquillity should be maintained on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

That would constitute a missed opportunity. A more pro-active strategy would use this opportunity to persuade China to cooperate with India in defining the LAC.

The present undefined situation on the LAC contains the potential for an armed clash, something that would dramatically inflame current tensions. Despite the “Peace and Tranquillity Agreement” of 1993, and the “Confidence Building Measures” of 1996, patrols from both sides routinely “intrude” into each other’s territory in nine separate hotspots where India and China disagree about where the LAC lies. Since 1988, Indian officials in the Expert-Level Sub-Group of the Sino-Indian Joint Working Group (JWG) have argued for clearly delineating the LAC. Only then would the potential for patrol clashes be eliminated.

For twelve years, Beijing resisted that Indian argument, believing that by leaving the LAC ambiguous, China would retain the potential for extending its holding later. Only in 2000 did China agree to a “sector-by-sector” exchange of maps, with each country marking its perception of the LAC. Negotiations were to follow to agree upon a common LAC, aimed at ending “patrol intrusions” by creating for both armies a line that they could not cross.

In the 8th JWG meeting, in late 2000, India and China exchanged maps of the relatively inconsequential central sector (on the Uttaranchal-Tibet border), marked with the respective perceptions of the LAC. But, even for the central sector, no “agreed LAC” has yet been negotiated. And China remains unwilling to exchange maps of the western sector (the Ladakh-Tibet border) or the eastern sector (the Arunachal-Tibet border).

Influencing China into delineating the LAC, important as it is, requires a major mental shift amongst Indian negotiators. Over decades, beginning with the 1962 conflict, skilful Chinese manipulation has induced the Pavlovian mindset amongst Indian interlocutors that raising issues forcefully with Beijing would invoke some form of diplomatic punishment. On the other hand, relatively anodyne statements and actions from New Delhi would ensure the relationship remained “on track”.

Consequently, until last year, China never faced “destabilising” political visits to Tawang, Indian troop increases in Arunachal, the refurbishment of border infrastructure, or even a modicum of political freedom to Tibetan refugees. This self-imposed Indian restraint has inhibited the timely resolution of problems; instead, issues fester until a breaking point is reached.

As New Delhi acts more vigorously to assimilate Arunachal, its diplomacy must acquire a matching assertiveness. Beijing must be frankly told --- not through the media, but face-to-face --- that raising the rhetoric will invoke a robust diplomatic response from New Delhi, not the back-pedalling that China is used to. And Beijing must be certain that an armed patrol clash, stemming perhaps from an undefined LAC, would greatly inflame Indian public opinion.

Such a shift in India’s engagement with China requires skilful diplomacy. National Security Advisor, Mr MK Narayanan, who is sufficiently preoccupied with internal security, cannot realistically continue as India’s special representative in the flagging political dialogue to resolve the border issue. Since 2005, this political initiative has only gone backwards; the recent discussions in New Delhi eulogised China’s “shared vision” with India and the “strategic and cooperative partnership”. But, for a dialogue mechanism set up to negotiate a breakthrough on the border dispute, little was said about the border.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Astra air-to-air missile to make its first flight

Photo 1: A front view of the Astra missile, which will make its maiden "captive trial" flight this month on a Su-30MKI

Photo 2: The current version of the Astra has a range of 44 km. This will be stepped up to 80 km in the Astra Mk II

Photo 3: The ground trial of the Astra in Sept 08, during which key flight and guidance parameters were validated

Ajai Shukla
DRDL, Hyderabad
Business Standard, 19th Oct 09

Veteran fighter pilots lament the end of the dogfight, the evocative name for a twisty, sky-ripping, adrenaline-packed aerial duel, in which the winner gets behind his opponent and shoots him down with a burst of cannon fire.

Today, it is less about flying skill, cold nerve and highly-responsive aircraft; the modern-day dogfighting ace is an airborne video-game expert who uses radar to detect his foe at long ranges, and launch a beyond visual range (BVR) missile even before his victim realises that the engagement has begun.

Just days from now, a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter will take off from an Indian Air Force (IAF) base, an Astra missile fitted on its wing. This will be the first-ever flight of this indigenously developed BVR missile, which the IAF hopes will add punch to its fleet of Sukhoi-30MKI, Mig-29, Mirage-2000 and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) fighters.

The Astra, built by the Defence R&D Laboratory (DRDL), Hyderabad, will allow IAF pilots to hit enemy aircraft up to 44 km away, at altitudes up to 20,000 metres. Improving on that will be the Astra Mk II, with a longer range of 80 km.

The Astra incorporates many cutting-edge technologies. Here is how an Astra would take on an enemy fighter: an IAF fighter’s radar picks up the target; the pilot launches an Astra missile. A high-energy propellant quickly boosts the missile to several times the speed of sound. At ranges beyond 15 km, the Astra cannot “see” its target, so the IAF fighter guides the missile, relaying the target’s continually changing position over a secure radio link. Once it is 15 km from the target, the Astra’s onboard seeker picks up the target; after that the Astra homes in on its own.

At this point, the target would start turning and diving to throw off the missile. But the Astra manoeuvres better, and moves much faster, than even the most agile fighters. A radio proximity fuse measures the distance to the target. When the target is within 5 metres, the Astra’s radio proximity fuse detonates its warhead, sending a volley of shrapnel ripping through the enemy fighter.

Most of these technologies have already been proven. The propulsion system, the data link between the aircraft and the Astra, the radio proximity fuse, the onboard computer, the inertial navigation system and other key technologies were developed at the DRDO’s missile complex in Hyderabad.

The Astra’s seeker is still imported from Russia, but the DRDO hopes to develop one.

The forthcoming test with a Sukhoi-30MKI is called a “captive flight trial”; it will evaluate whether the Astra can withstand the physical stresses of supersonic flying and high-speed manoeuvring. Early in 2010, a “captive-II flight trial” will check whether the Astra’s avionics are properly matched with those of the Sukhoi-30MKI. The fighter should receive the missile’s signals; and the Astra should receive the aircraft’s commands.

“Matching an Indian missile with a Russian fighter’s avionics has turned out to be a complex task”, explains Mukesh Chand, one of the Astra’s key developers, “But the Astra will be much better integrated with the Indian Tejas LCA.”

Only in October 2010, after all the Astra’s systems are certified airworthy, will a live Astra be fired from a fighter. But the project scientists are confident; in a September 2008 test in Balasore, Orissa, a ground-launched Astra shot down an electronic target, validating many of the most complex technologies.

A drawback in the Astra remains its high weight; even a heavy fighter like the Sukhoi-30MKI cannot carry the missile on its wingtip stations. In comparison with the Astra’s estimated 150 kg, other BVR missiles like the Israeli Derby weigh around 100 kg only.

Nevertheless, the IAF believes the Astra will usefully supplement India’s inventory of BVR missiles. The Russian R-77 Adder, which arms India’s Russian aircraft fleet, faces worrying questions about its reliability. And the R530D missile, carried by the Mirage-2000, is nearing obsolescence.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Broadsword articles stirs up China: Agni-5 creates ripples

Photo: A graphic, taken from a Pakistani blog, highlighting China's range of missile options to an Agni-5 strike

An article by me, published in Business Standard and posted on Broadsword on 12th Oct, has been picked up by the Chinese media, apparently to highlight growing Indian offensive capability. People's Daily online says:

"India's Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) has made its forthcoming Agni-5 missile highly road-mobile, or easily transportable by road, which would bring Harbin, China's northernmost city within striking range if the Agni-5 is moved to northeast India.

The Agni-5 is similar to the Dongfeng-31A presented in China's National Day Military Parade in Beijing . India is going to test-fire the missile in early 2011.

The ASL, which develops India's long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles, enables the Agni-5 to reach targets far beyond its stated 5,000-km range by quickly moving closer to the target. Therefore, from various places across India, the Agni-5 can reach every continent except North and South America."

Friday, 16 October 2009

$11 billion MMRCA order set to become larger; Mirage-2000 upgrade negotiations stagger towards failure

Photo: A Rafale fighter; Dassault's chances in the MMRCA contest could be seriously damaged by a breakdown in the Mirage-2000 upgrade negotiations with India

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Oct 09
New Delhi

The winner’s jackpot could soon become even bigger in what is already the world’s most lucrative fighter aircraft tender: India’s proposed purchase of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated Rs 51,000 crore ($11 billion).

The reason: a breakdown in India’s long-running negotiations with French aircraft manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, for upgrading 51 Indian Air Force Mirage-2000 fighters. According to senior IAF sources, Dassault has flatly refused to reduce its quote of Rs 10,000 crores (US $2.1 billion) for extending the service life of the IAF’s Mirage-2000 fleet by fitting new radars and avionics. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) considers this price --- Rs 196 crores (US $41 million) per aircraft --- unacceptably high, given that the airframes and engines will not be changed.

In comparison, each of the 126 brand-new, next-generation MMRCAs will cost some Rs 400 crores (US $87 million) per aircraft. That includes the cost of technology transfers, as well as capital costs for setting up a manufacturing line in India. Once those costs are amortised, additional MMRCAs would be significantly cheaper.

Dassault’s India head, Posina V Rao has not returned multiple phone calls from Business Standard. MoD sources say that Rao is engaged in last-ditch attempts to salvage the deal.

But, the MoD is veering around to the viewpoint that the Mirage-2000 fleet should continue service in its current form. After six squadrons (126 aircraft) of MMRCAs have entered IAF service, an additional two squadrons of MMRCAs would be built to replace the 51 Mirage-2000 fighters. That amounts to a 40% rise in the MMRCA’s numbers.

Israeli aerospace companies have reportedly entered the fray, offering to upgrade the Mirage-2000 for half the price being quoted by Dassault. The MoD, however, is not inclined to accept that offer.

Price negotiations for the Mirage-2000 upgrade have travelled a rocky road over the last two years. Initially, Dassault quoted Rs 13,500 crores (US $2.9 billion), which it brought down to the current level of Rs 10,000 crores (US $2.1 billion) after the IAF diluted its upgrade requirements. But the MoD believes Dassault’s reduced bid only reflects the diluted requirements, rather than any flexibility on the part of Dassault.

The IAF, traditionally a staunch supporter of Dassault and the Mirage-2000 fighter, is apparently changing its views. Dassault, say pilots, has badly damaged its credibility during the recent negotiations by arm-twisting the IAF over the supply of spares for the Mirage-2000 fleet.

The Gwalior-based IAF squadrons that currently fly the Mirage-2000 are Number 1 squadron (Tigers) and Number 7 squadron (Battle Axes).

Five of the six contenders for the MMRCA contract --- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Eurofighter, Gripen and RAC MiG --- know they could reap handsome gains, through larger fighter orders, if India chooses not to upgrade the Mirage-2000. The sixth contender, Dassault Aviation, realises that failure to negotiate the Mirage-2000 upgrade contract could seriously damage the chances of its Rafale fighter in the MMRCA contract.

The fighters in contention for the MMRCA contract are sequentially undergoing flight trials and evaluation, which the IAF expects to complete by April 2010. It will take another six months to finalise the trial report and submit that to India’s MoD. The MoD will then announce the winner of the contract.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Agni-5: multiple warheads, road-mobility, global reach

Photo 1: China's Dongfeng-31 missile, a canisterised ICBM operated by the PLA's 2nd Artillery Division. The canisterised Agni-5 will be somewhat smaller than this

Photo 2: The target end of a US MIRV test in the Marshall Islands. Clearly visible are the tracks of 8 separate warheads

Ajai Shukla
Business Standard
Hyderabad 12th Oct 09

The Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) in Hyderabad, which develops India’s strategic (long-range, nuclear-tipped) missiles, has dramatically increased the options for its forthcoming Agni-5 missile by making it highly road-mobile, or easily transportable by road.

That enables the Agni-5 to reach targets far beyond its stated 5,000-km range by quickly moving closer to the target. In a hypothetical war against, say, Sweden, an Agni-5 launcher, stationed near Bangalore, would be unable to strike Stockholm, 7,000 km away. But moving by road to Amritsar would bring Stockholm within range.

Similarly, moving the Agni-5 to northeast India would bring even Harbin, China’s northernmost city, within striking range. From various places across India, the Agni-5 can reach every continent except North and South America.

The Agni-5 will be the first canisterised, road-mobile missile in India’s arsenal, similar to the Dongfeng-31A that created ripples during China’s National Day Military Parade in Beijing on October 1. India’s current long-range missile, the Agni-3, a non-canisterised missile, can only be moved with difficulty from one place to another.

In many other respects, the Agni-5, which is scheduled to make its first flight in early-2011, carries forward the Agni-3 pedigree. With composites used extensively to reduce weight, and a third stage added on (the Agni-3 was a two-stage missile), the Agni-5 can fly 1,500 km further than the 3,500-km Agni-3.

“The Agni-5 is specially tailored for road-mobility,” explains Avinash Chander, Director, ASL. “With the canister having been successfully developed, all India’s future land-based strategic missiles will be canisterised as well”.

Made of maraging steel, a canister must provide a hermitically sealed atmosphere that preserves the missile for years. During firing, the canister must absorb enormous stresses when a thrust of 300to 400 tonnes is generated to eject the 50-tonne missile.

Canister technology was first developed in India for the Brahmos cruise missile. But it was the K-15 underwater-launched missile, developed here in Hyderabad for India’s nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, which fully overcame the technological hurdles in canisterising ballistic missiles.

Another major technological breakthrough that will beef up the Agni-5 is ASL’s success in developing and testing MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles). An MIRV, atop an Agni-5 missile, comprises three to 10 separate nuclear warheads. Each warhead can be assigned to a separate target, separated by hundreds of kilometres; alternatively, two or more warheads can be assigned to one target.

“We have made major progress on the MIRVs in the last two years,” is all that Avinash Chander is willing to say on the subject.

Nevertheless, extensive testing still lies ahead for this highly complex technology. MIRVs will be deployed on the Agni-5 only after another 4-5 years.

While MIRV technology is similar to launching multiple satellites through a space rocket, a missile requires far greater accuracy. A satellite would be considered in correct orbit even it is a kilometre higher or lower than planned.

But each warhead in an MIRV must impact within 40 metres of its target. With such high accuracies, even small nuclear warheads are sufficient for the job.

Strategic planners consider MIRVs essential, given India’s declared “no first use” nuclear policy. Even after an enemy has hit India with a full-fledged nuclear strike, destroying or incapacitating much of the strategic arsenal, a handful of surviving Indian missiles must be capable of retaliating with massive and unacceptable damage. Multiple warheads on a handful of Agni-5 missiles would constitute such a capability.

MIRVs also enable a single missile to overwhelm the enemy’s missile defences. Tracking and shooting down multiple warheads are far more difficult than intercepting a single warhead.

Providing each warhead with the capability to manoeuvre, and dodge enemy interceptor missiles, increases survivability further. The MIRV warheads are also being given electronic packages for jamming enemy radars.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Thanks from a Broadsword visitor to the Indian Navy

I received the following email from Bhushan Y Nigale of Bangalore. I've posted it on Broadsword because Mr Nigale's at least managed to write in his thanks. Thousands of others who the military helps have no way of expressing their gratitude.


Dated: 8th Oct 09

Dear Shri Shukla,

I read some of your posts on the Indian Navy on your blog and thought of narrating to you a recent incident involving the Indian Navy. I am trying to reach the Navy officers to formally express my thanks but have been unable to do so as I am not able to find the right feedback channel on the official websites.

On 2nd October 2009, my wife, our two year old daughter and me were traveling by our car from Panaji-Goa to Bangalore. At 7:30 am we passed the Argha gate of the Project Sea Bird, Indian Navy's base at Karwar. A group of protestorsgreeted us with stones and sticks. They were mostly villagers angry against the Navy for constructing a stone wall apparently blocking the flow of water to the sea. They had blocked the National Highway (NH 17), so we waited.

From 10:30 am onwards, the intensity of the rain increased, and by 11:30 am water was flooding our car. Holding my baby daugher, I jumped off the car, my wife followed. We waded a kilometer through navel-high water with the help of Navy Police personnel. They guided us to a shade.

The ferocity of rains increased even more, and a group of 200 civilians - passengers stuck on the highway and also the same protestors - were rescued by the Navy personnel and brought to the shade. We were drenched, heavy winds were blowing and we all were worried: there was no land in sight, the water level even in the shade was rising. The Navy personnel were very calm throughout and assuring us of support - an assurance that translated into action shwen they brought large containers of Khichadi and coffeee for us. I later learnt that the Navy police made food fo clsoe to 500 more peop-le stuck in the nearby village and transported it via boats on ths highway.

Above all, I want to mention with thanks the personal attention given by the staff towards our baby. Capt Sunder Lal, and on the next day - wer were at the Naval base for close to 30 hours - Lt. Dahiya brought milk for our baby specially from their homes. Sunder Lalji was a pillar of strength, masterminding the rescue operations, assuring us civilians of saftey. Lt Dahiya even tried to arrange a drop for us back to Goa. SUnder Lalji was intrumental in helping us find our car and then help us transport it on a truck back to Goa.

I felt a surge of pride when I saw our Navy personnel work very hard to go beyound thier call of duty and risk their lives to save us. I wallowed in happiness to know our country is secure in the hands of such committed and brave people. My heartfelt thanks to the Navy personnel!

Please mention this on your blog if you deem this story fit to bring to the notice of other people.

thanks and regards,

Bhushan Y. Nigale,
New Thippasandra,
Bangalore 75.

India announces foreign policy change: supports Afghan reconciliation with Taliban

India's Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao (pictured here) made the surprise announcement at a seminar in New Delhi on 7th Oct

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Oct 09
New Delhi

For the last eight years, since the Taliban fled from Kabul in November 2001, India has staunchly opposed a dialogue with any section of the Taliban. India’s position has remained: there is no purpose in talking to the Taliban; there is no such thing as a moderate Taliban.

But now there is a shift. In New Delhi today, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, addressing an international seminar on Afghanistan, declared that India would support the process of “reintegrating individuals with the national mainstream”, code for dialogue with the moderate Taliban who agree to renounce violence.

Ms Nirupama Rao stated that, “the existing process under (Afghanistan’s) National Committee for Peace for reintegrating individuals with the national mainstream must be both enlarged and accelerated. We support the Afghan government’s determination to integrate those willing to abjure violence and live and work within the parameters of the Afghan constitution…”

This change in stance came with a qualification. Pakistan, which is widely believed to support the Taliban and provide shelter in Quetta to its leaders, would need to cease assistance to the Taliban.

In words that echoed India’s earlier warnings to Pakistan on supporting terrorist camps across the Line of Control in J&K, Nirupama Rao said, “(India’s support for reintegration of the Taliban) should, of course, go hand in hand with the shutting down of support and sanctuaries supported for terrorist groups across the (Afghanistan-Pakistan) border.”

Since 2001, India has refrained from declaring political initiatives within Afghanistan. Instead, New Delhi has confined its visible diplomacy to drumming up international support and multilateral funding, even while coordinating its actions closely with President Karzai and his team. The bedrock of the India-Afghanistan relationship has been a $1.2 billion aid programme, India’s largest to any country. India is currently the 6th largest bilateral aid donor to Afghanistan.

Now, clearly, the MEA has concluded that an aid programme, howsoever successful and appreciated by the Afghans, cannot take the place of clear political initiatives. These initiatives are needed for protecting the infrastructure that Indian aid is creating in Afghanistan.

India’s aid programme in Afghanistan includes: a 218-kilometer road from Zaranj in Iran to Delaram in Afghanistan, inaugurated in January this year; the electrical transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri in northern Afghanistan to Kabul, which has brought regular power supply to the capital for the first time since 1992; one hundred small development projects in rural Afghanistan that have quick gestation periods; five medical missions that provide free medicines to 1000 patients per day; support to Kabul’s Indira Gandhi Centre for Child Health, and connecting it last month through a tele-medical link with two super-speciality child health facilities in India; a grant of one million tonnes of wheat, which is currently being distributed daily as 100 gram high-protein biscuits to two million school-going children across Afghanistan.

Besides declaring support for reconciliation, the foreign secretary also made clear that, as far as India was concerned, the results of Afghanistan’s vitiated presidential elections held in August was not yet a settled matter. Congratulating the Afghan people for participating in the elections in the face of Taliban threats, the foreign secretary accepted the possibility of a run-off between President Hamid Karzai and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and of working with whichever of them was elected to power.

Ms Rao also declared that India had made up its mind that its regional interests lay in a continued United States presence in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Indian ant in the Afghan flood

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Oct 09

India needs to remember that even the most industrious ants are swept away in a flood! Even as New Delhi logs up success after success in development projects in Afghanistan, the storm clouds of the Taliban are gathering across that country.

In only the latest dramatic example of how AfPak is going the Taliban way, 8 American soldiers were killed on Saturday when the Taliban stormed a US outpost near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The attackers’ rifles and rocket launchers were pitted against American mortars, guns, and air strikes, but numerical superiority made up for that, with jehadis pouring across from hideouts in Pakistan. The locals supported the Taliban because an American air strike the week before had killed over a dozen villagers.

Today, the spectre of 1992 looms over Afghanistan, when Soviet-style communism collapsed and the civil war began, leading to the victory of the Taliban in 1996. It would not be rash to predict that US forces will pull out from Afghanistan by end-2011, a year before the next US elections. Two years after that, i.e. by 2013, the Taliban could well control Kabul.

But India’s Afghanistan policy appears paralysed, an aid policy substituting for a realistic political strategy. All India’s development projects --- those roads, electrical transmission lines, irrigation projects, schools and democratic institutions --- will cease to matter around 2013, when, like in 1996, New Delhi will have to pull down the shutters and exit from Kabul, ahead of the Taliban’s troopers. After that, as it did from 1996 to 2001, India will live on in Afghan hearts, while Pakistan-sponsored fundamentalists live in Afghan government buildings.

“What can we do?” shrug senior Indian officials philosophically; “If we have to pull out, we’ll pull out”.

This time, though, India could remain out of Afghanistan indefinitely. There is no Ahmed Shah Masood to keep the Taliban at bay, even if in just a sliver of Afghanistan. And the chances of another 9/11 --- which swept India back into Kabul, piggybacking on American power --- can be safely discounted.

The one way of preventing this disaster is by working with the US to split the Taliban, winning over fighters who are not ideologically committed. Instead of silently acquiescing in the blunt US and NATO strategy of defeating the Taliban militarily, India must point the way towards a more nuanced strategy: understanding the Taliban; identifying each of its components; stepping up military pressure on the irreconcilable ideologues; then winning or buying over the opportunists.

The prospect of “Talking to the Taliban” evokes strong reactions, mostly: “You can’t talk to those jehadis! Just crush them underfoot.”

That line of talk comes from those who don’t understand the nature of warfare in Afghanistan and its shifting system of alliances. After three decades of warfare and turbulence, Afghans see no glory in dying in battle. Fighters expect their leaders to switch allegiance in time, to avoid unnecessary casualties and to remain on the winning side. Building a winning image is half the battle won, because half the opposition will cross over.

A handful will never change sides, being ideologically committed. That is why, a strategy of talking to the Taliban excludes dialogue with Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. They are beyond the pale and New Delhi must ensure that Washington understands that. Islamabad’s recent offer to initiate talks with Mullah Omar merely invents a role for Pakistan. Instead, the Taliban Emir must feel the heat of US arms, even sitting in Quetta.

But most fighters wearing Taliban turbans today consist of ideologically uncommitted village militias who believe the Taliban is headed for a win. Most began their fighting careers in the 1980s as US-funded mujahideen, fighting the Soviet occupation; in the 1990s, when the communists sank and the Pakistan-aided Taliban was resurgent, they switched sides and grew their beards. After the Taliban were routed in 2001, the beards went off again. Scores of militias waited to see whether Karzai was worth joining; apparently he wasn’t, because shaving went back out of fashion and the Taliban ranks swelled again.

Karzai already discredited, is now untouchable after rigging the recent general elections. His lack of legitimacy has also put paid to America’s exit option, which involved training Afghan soldiers and policemen and handing over the country to a popular Afghan leader. New Delhi must point out to the US that a victory in Afghanistan, in the short time available, can only come by winning over large sections of the Taliban. Indiscriminate battlefield confrontation must make way for a carrot and stick policy, where Taliban commanders are lured over by a share of local power (even at the cost of Karzai’s officials) as well as dollops of money to ease their transition.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Strategic materials producer, Midhani, on high growth curve

By Ajai Shukla
Midhani, Hyderabad
Business Standard, 5th Oct 09

American, Japanese and European non-proliferation officials are keenly aware that Hyderabad based company, Mishra Dhatu Nigam (Midhani), supplies key materials for India’s nuclear, space and missile programmes. Midhani figures on all these countries’ “Entity Lists”, which have legally blocked supplies of materials, know-how and equipment.

But this international blockade has been in vain, I learn, during an exclusive visit to this most secretive of defence PSUs. “Despite the sanctions”, says Chairman and Managing Director (CMD), K Narayana Rao, “Midhani today manufactures the world’s best maraging steel, a critical component in nuclear reactors, fuel enrichment centrifuges, missiles and space rockets. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s GSLV rockets are clad in Midhani’s maraging steel.”

Such breakthroughs in strategic materials have placed Midhani in an unusual position. With international sanctions still in place, Midhani has joined one of the world’s most challenging, futuristic and expensive projects: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a $10 billion, multinational project that aims to generate electricity through nuclear fusion by 2018. India joined the project in 2005.

“We have produced a material called Low Activation Ferretic Martinsitic Steel, which the ITER project urgently needs”, explains a Midhani scientist. “This steel must have very low activation, allowing it to be placed in a highly radioactive environment (e.g. inside a reactor) without becoming highly radioactive itself. The ITER authorities are presently evaluating it at the Institute of Plasma Research in Gandhinagar.”

This foray into ITER is a one-time thing. Midhani remains a boutique manufacturer, focused exclusively on high performance materials for India’s space, nuclear and defence programmes to save them from being hostage to a supplier abroad. This is production at the cutting edge, groping in the dark, mixing and matching elements to develop materials that users have defined only as a set of properties.

“We experiment, we play with Molly”, explains Narayana Rao, describing the search for special alloys. Noting my startled look, he elaborates, “Molly is short for Molybdenum, an element that gives special properties to steel.”

Midhani works in close partnership with the Defence Materials Research Laboratory (DMRL), located next door. DMRL, focusing on fundamental research, develops new alloys and materials; Midhani scales up DMRL’s laboratory production into industrial production.

Set up in 1972, Midhani’s mandate was to indigenously produce materials for India’s strategic programmes, without regard to cost or profitability. Today, Midhani delivers not only critical materials but hefty profits as well. Midhani is now a Mini Ratna, Category-1 company; its profits have gone up six-fold in the last four years to Rs 40 crores in 2008-09.

With Midhani’s regular customers ramping up operations, that bottom line is poised to grow. From an average of 4-5 launches a year, ISRO is stepping up to 8 launches per year. And since nuclear power generation is a growth sector, the demand for reactor materials is likely to rise sharply. “BHEL and L&T have got a steam generator order for the Indian 700 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR)”, says Narayana Rao. “I need to be ready with my equipment and materials.”

The older Indian reactors, such as those at Kalpakkam, are also replacing critical components. Only Midhani supplies the metals needed for this.

Midhani has begun a Rs 200 crores expansion plan, with Rs 100 crores from its internal accruals supplemented by Rs 100 crores of equity participation by the MoD. It is adding a high-tech, 10-tonne vacuum arc refining (VAR) furnace, in which molten metal is purified by dripping it, drop-by-drop, through vacuum. The impurities, which become into gas at those temperatures, are sucked away by the vacuum.

Also being procured is a 6000-tonne forge press, to press steel into sheets as thin as 4 millimetres, needed for India’s rocket programme.

“Today I’m running 2000 tonnes of products per year”, says Midhani’s CMD. “When the expansion plan is completed by 2010-2011, our output will double to 4000 tonnes. Turnover will go from Rs 300 crores to Rs 500 crores.”

Thursday, 1 October 2009

"Figures will not lie": A personal profile of nuclear whistleblower, K Santhanam

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Sept 09

His denunciation of India’s thermonuclear test on May 11, 1998 (Shakti-I), has generated a furious debate over whether India’s nuclear deterrent is actually credible. But now, his salvoes fired, K Santhanam sits alone in his South Delhi home, sipping Tajik vodka and watching Cartoon Network playing on the TV. He calls this refuge, “the calm in the eye of the storm”.

Santhanam is a slight, grey-haired figure with a puckish sense of humour. His conversation is peppered with repartee and jokes that range from off-colour ‘Santa Singh, Banta Singh’ cracks to sophisticated plays on the English language.

But for now, Santhanam has taken a three-week vow of public silence, to allow the government to appoint a panel of experts to examine the data from Shakti-I. Not a kangaroo court consisting of bureaucrats, he insists, but a blue-ribbon panel of genuine scientists, studying factual data from the tests.

“Liars will figure”, Santhanam twinkles, “but figures will not lie.”

This rumpus is uncharacteristic rebellion from a man who describes himself as “the ultimate insider”.

“I didn’t intend to trigger such a controversy,” Santhanam explains. “But once it began, I decided not to back down. I stuck to the ethics of my profession.”

His career story is the stuff of Kollywood. Born in Madras, and schooled in Tamil, Santhanam got a scholarship to Loyola College, Madras, moving on to a physics honours degree from that city’s prestigious Presidency College. In 1958, he joined the Atomic Energy Establishment, which meant another year at their in-house training school in Trombay.

Scientists traditionally dismiss revolts from renegades of their own community by blackening their credentials. It is difficult to do that to Santhanam after his 15 years at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, where he specialised in radiation hazard control and evaluating nuclear accidents.

Between 1961 and 1963, Santhanam went to the US, under the Atoms for Peace programme, studying nuclear physics at the Arbonne National Laboratory in Lamont, Illinois. A conventional nuclear scientist would have stuck to fission and fusion formulae. Santhanam claims he also mastered cocktails, working part-time as a bartender “to understand the American people”.

He certainly imbibed a healthy respect for the US, which he describes as the 900-pound gorilla in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Last year, an unambiguously pro-establishment Santhanam supported the Indo-US nuclear deal.

In 1973, Santhanam’s unconventional streak took him in a dramatically new direction: He became a nuclear spook!

He describes being called in by R N Kao, the legendary founder of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), to examine an Indian strategic nightmare: The suspected nuclear nexus between China and Pakistan. Over the next 11 years, says Santhanam, “I unmasked the cooperation between China and Pakistan, providing a comprehensive analysis of A Q Khan’s enrichment programme and his clandestine procurement.”

In 1986, Santhanam joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), where his assignments were apparently related to simulation, war-gaming, and software engineering. But, because of his old relationship with the BARC’s bomb-makers, Santhanam was covertly back-ending India’s nuclear programme. From his DRDO perch, he interacted with the PMO and liaised with the armed forces to prepare the Pokhran test sites for the 1998 tests. His BARC background and his experience with RAW made him perfect for the job.

But that same background, combined with his individualism, led him to question the thermonuclear test when measurements appeared to show it as less earthshaking than predicted. The weight of the establishment has come down on him, but Santhanam is at the battlements.

“(National Security Advisor) Mike Narayanan, who is trying to judge me, has been a cop and a spook all his life. He is totally ignorant about science and technology,” says Santhanam dismissively.

Santhanam’s deepest apprehension is that the global non-proliferation lobby will succeed in “freezing India on the nuclear curve”, preventing fission bomb know-how from being developed into fusion weapon capability.

“An arsenal based on fission weapons is not enough to deter China”, says Santhanam, all humour gone from his face. “A couple of 20-kiloton bombs over Beijing are never, never, never going to bring China to its knees.”