Monday, 28 November 2011

Part II: Army’s delayed orders halts T-90 tank

Views of the T-90S production line at the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF), Avadi. The HVF is looking for an army order for 700 more T-90S tanks.

By Ajai Shukla
Avadi, Chennai
Business Standard, 29th Nov 11

If India has a capital for battle tanks, it is the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) at Avadi, outside Chennai. This flagship factory of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) produces all of India’s main battle tanks: the Arjun; the T-90S; and before that the T-72 and the Vijayanta. Of the OFB’s total turnover last year of Rs 11,300 crore, HVF alone generated Rs 2,500 crore.

But when Business Standard visited HVF last week, the buzz of production work on the shop floors that build the Indian Army’s T-90S tank was drawing to a close. Of the one thousand T-90S tanks that the army plans to build in HVF --- and has already paid Russia licence fees for --- HVF has received an indent for just 300 tanks. With that order likely to be completed by mid-2013, and with no follow-on order in sight, the T-90 line will grind to a halt.

As this newspaper reported yesterday (“Technology transfer, supply of assemblies hit Russian stonewall”) Russia’s non-compliance with the contract for technology transfer ensured that indigenous production of the T-90S was delayed for 6 years after the contract was signed in January 2001. Now, 11 years after the contract was signed, production is hitting its stride. HVF says 24 tanks were delivered in 2009-10; 51 in 2010-11; it will be 50 this year; and annual production will hit 100 next year (i.e. 2012-13). But there are no army orders beyond that.

Despite that, the MoD has sanctioned expanding the capacity of the T-90S line to 140 tanks per year, says the OFB.

“We are in touch with Army HQ and MoD for the follow-on order of T-90S tanks. The lead-time for positioning of materials and components is about 30 months… that’s how long it takes for ordering, getting the material, manufacturing and assembly and delivery. We are progressing the case with the Vice Chief of Army Staff… and have requested the MoD to pursue the matter,” says RK Jain, Addition DG of the OFB, who oversees HVF.

The army has apparently held back its indent until it is sure that the T-90S tanks already built by HVF are free of production glitches.

“The army wants indigenous T-90s to be observed and user confidence built up [before placing a fresh indent]. So far, the users have run only the first batch of 24 tanks, delivered in 2009-10, to the extent where they can properly evaluate their performance. The 51 tanks that we delivered in 2010-11 have yet to be adequately exploited,” explains Jain.

It is evident that piecemeal ordering is blocking potential economies of scale. MoS for Defence, Rao Inderjit Singh, told the Lok Sabha on 30th Nov 06 that the T-90S tanks that came ready-built from Russia cost Rs 11 crore each; and the knocked down tanks from Russia that were assembled in Avadi cost Rs 12 crore each. But the tanks built in Avadi now cost Rs 18.1 crore, says the OFB.

Asked how much this price could be whittled down through timely bulk orders from the army, HVF officials estimate a potential cost saving of 25-30%. Spurning this opportunity would result in the army paying Rs 3,800 crore more than is necessary for the remaining 700 T-90Ss that HVF will build.

The MoD has not responded to an emailed query from Business Standard, asking why a supplementary indent for more T-90S tanks had not yet been placed on HVF.

A range of facilities feed into HVF’s T-90S production line. Two OFB factories in Kanpur build the gun and breach block. Another in Jabalpur builds the recoil system, while another one in Tiruchiralapplli fabricates the 12.7 millimetre air defence gun. The sophisticated thermal imaging sights and gunner’s sights come from OFB’s Opto-Electronics Factory in Dehradun. The gun stabilizer, which allows the tank to fire accurately while moving, comes from Bharat Electronics Ltd.

Within Avadi, HVF builds major components of the T-90S: the hull, turret, transmission, gearbox and the running gear. Another OFB facility next door, Engine Factory, Avadi, builds the tank’s 1000 HP engine. Thousands of minor parts are outsourced to local industry: electrical items, cables, starter generator, instrument panel, hardware and rubber components. According to OFB’s Jain, the T-90S has been 70% indigenised; this will increase to 80% next year.

Bringing together all this parts takes 30 months. Then HVF assembles them into a tank.

Piecemeal indenting by the military routinely causes production breaks in India’s defence industrial complex, including its defence shipyards and public sector behemoths like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL). Senior officials in these defence companies that that jerky indenting hinders the smooth planning of production cycles, economic utilization of skilled manpower, and the provision of lead times needed for out-sourcing materials and assemblies from external vendors.

Blundering in AfPak’s cultural maze

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Nov 11

As with much else in Pakistan, the unfortunate deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike on Saturday raise more questions than answers. Afghan soldiers now claim that this was not an accident; they requested a NATO air strike onto the Pakistan Army post after taking fire from that direction. But Pakistan’s military spokesperson, Major General Athar Abbas, has revealed that NATO was given map references of all Pakistan’s Durand Line posts. It would seem, therefore, that Pakistan Army posts are now legitimate targets for coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan itself, locals have learned over the last decade that it could be life-threatening to fire celebratory gunshots during weddings, travel in convoys through remote areas, or to have the Taliban anywhere in the vicinity. All these invite the arrival of a 500-pound precision-guided bomb fired by US-NATO aircraft at “Taliban activity”. This trigger-happy regime was extended some years ago to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) that delivered death from the sky to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, unquestioningly despatch any family members or innocents who happened to be in the line of fire.

There is little sympathy in India for the Pakistan Army; its hands are stained with too much Indian blood. Consequently many Indians would react to this latest coalition fiasco with an indifferent shrug that implies, “The Pakistanis have made their bed; now let them lie in it.” But that would be inhuman, short-sighted and strategically unwise.

Instead one must deliberate upon the western military penchant for untrammelled firepower. When a dispassionate history is written this will be recognized as the key factor in the US-NATO defeat in Afghanistan. In an obvious contradiction that is sporadically recognized but never resolved, US strategy aims at winning Afghan hearts, but the overwhelming use of firepower that underpins US tactical doctrine ensures that for each heart won a dozen are alienated. What should be a smooth continuum between strategy and operational doctrine is actually a glaring fault line that continually undermines US aims.

In this case, a border operation of merely tactical consequence has created such bad blood with Pakistan that Islamabad has stopped the movement of supply convoys to Afghanistan; given Washington 15 days to vacate the Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan; and begun a re-evaluation of its strategic relationship with the US. Is Washington prepared for such a reaction? If yes, it could have held Islamabad’s feet to the fire on major issues like support to the Haqqanis or ISI operations inside Afghanistan. Instead, Washington is paying a strategic price for a tactical blunder.

A decade along in the Afghanistan war, the west has failed to understand the region, which it continues to view through a western prism. The futile enterprise to establish a strong centralised state in Afghanistan; the reliance for security on a unitary Afghan National Army; indeed the unswerving conviction that most Afghans detest the Taliban; these are some of the key misconceptions that will lead inevitably to a full western pullout.

For now, Washington is busy creating the fiction of an Afghan National Army (ANA) that will allegedly take over full security responsibility from NATO by 2014. Around that time, or so goes the myth, 260,000 motivated and trained Afghan soldiers will have cast aside ethnic and regional identities and melded into a professional force that will keep the ISI-backed Taliban at bay. Since the ANA would be financed, armed and equipped by the west, and helped along by US mentors, it would gradually morph into a western style force. Proponents of this fairy tale will remind sceptics that Najibullah’s Russian-funded Afghan Army held off the mujahideen for several years until Moscow’s coffers ran dry.

This narrative of hope should be consigned to the dustbin. Firstly, Najibullah’s Afghan Army was not a newly created, western-midwifed unicorn but an existing professional army with an Afghan tradition. Secondly, today’s figures of desertion and re-enlistment are so abysmally low that raising 260,000 troops seems wildly optimistic. An even thornier problem is the ethnic balance of the ANA. Guidelines issued by former US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, called for 38% of the troops to be Pashtun, 25% Tajiks, 19% Hazaras and 8% Uzbek. But Pashtuns are reluctant to join (many accounts say the ANA is barely 10% Pashtun), and Tajiks dominate the officer corps. Many Pashtuns (and certainly the Taliban) view the ANA as a Tajik militia that former Northern Alliance commander, Marshall Fahim, controls.

When the Taliban piles on the pressure, post-2014, the ANA runs a serious risk of cracking along its ethnic fault lines. Power in Afghanistan has long been fragmented between a patchwork quilt of local militias. Traditionally, power shifts not through bloody battles and fights to the death, but with the shifting allegiance of these local militia commanders, each sniffing the breeze and allying with whoever he believes is best positioned for broader power. An ANA under pressure could well break up into multiple smaller entities, each of them making their independent power calculations.

It is hard to tell if the US has simply not grasped these Afghan basics, or whether the ANA is merely a convenient narrative for a face-saving pullout. Given America’s increasing unpopularity across AfPak, and the growing radicalisation that this simmering anti-Americanism catalyses, an early and complete US exit from Afghanistan might be best for New Delhi. Having recouped its strength, the US would emerge refreshed to robustly re-engage the Asia-Pacific, a familiar strategic playfield for Washington where it will hopefully avoid the serial blunders of Afghanistan.

T-90 tank: Technology transfer, supply of assemblies hit Russian stonewall

A decade after Russia contracted to provide technology for building 1,000 T-90S tanks in India, just 150 tanks have actually been built. Pictured here, completed T-90S tanks at Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF), Avadi

By Ajai Shukla
Avadi, Chennai
Business Standard, 28th Nov 11

India’s purchase in 2001 of Russia’s T-90S main battle tank (MBT) was touted as a world-class upgrade of our battlefield capabilities at a rock-bottom price. For Rs 3,625 crore, India would get 310 new tanks; a full transfer of technology (ToT) from Russia; and a licence to build 1000 tanks at the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) in Avadi, Chennai.

A decade later, HVF has built just 150 T-90S tanks, hamstrung by Moscow’s obstruction in transferring technology and the Russia-built assemblies needed even for the India-built tanks. With India’s production line stymied, the MoD bought 347 more ready-built T-90S tanks in 2007, handing Russia another Rs 4,900 crore. Even today, India’s T-90S fleet remains seriously constrained; with war clouds looming after the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike, the army told the government that the strike formations were critically short of equipment.

From multiple interviews with officials who handled this contract, and from a visit to HVF Avadi, Business Standard has pieced together the full saga of the T-90S. It is an account of Russian duplicity in the face of Indian submissiveness. Moscow’s readiness to disregard signed contracts was recently highlighted through its additional demands for money for the Gorshkov aircraft carrier. But the T-90S arm-twisting came before that; and constitutes a blow to the heart of Indian defence.

The Embassy of Russia in New Delhi has ignored an email asking for their comments on this issue.

Here is what happened. After the T-90S contract was signed on 15th Jan 2001, the 310 made-in-Russia tanks began to flow in quickly from Uralvagonzavod, the Russian facility that builds them. But the transfer of technology (ToT) and the supply of assemblies for building the 1000 tanks in India quickly hit a Russian stonewall.

First it took one and a half years to transfer to India the ToT documents required for building the T-90S in India. The tonnes of documents that finally arrived were found to be in Russian; translating them into English took another one and a half years.

Then HVF officials discovered that Russia had withheld key T-90S technologies without valid reason. This included technology for crucial components like the tank’s main gun and a key section of the turret armour. When New Delhi demanded those technologies, Moscow blandly responded that they were secret. To this day, Russia has not transferred full technology for building the T-90S in India.

The MoD has not responded to emailed questions about this issue. But when Business Standard asked MSN Rao, General Manager of HVF Avadi, how the T-90S was being built without these technologies, he confirmed: “We developed the tank gun indigenously in Central Ordnance Depot, Kanpur, and the turret armour component in CVRDE (Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment), Avadi. This is still a sticking point between India and Russia.”

That this remains an irritant is evident even from the careful language of MoD press releases. On 5th Oct 11, Defence Minister AK Antony met his Russian counterpart, AE Serdyukov, in the apex Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC). The Indian press release noted, “Shri Antony drew the attention of the Russian side to the vexing issue of delayed export clearances for vital repair equipment for already contracted weapons systems. This has been affecting supplies of defence equipment and spares.”

By end-2007, Russia’s blockade of contracted T-90S technologies and components had stalled indigenous production for almost 7 years. Under pressure from the army for more tanks, the MoD capitulated to Moscow rewarding Uralvagonzavod with an order for 347 more made-in-Russia T-90S tanks. Only after this additional contract was signed did Russia begin supplying components for building the T-90S in HVF.

An Indian Army officer who voiced his frustration to his Russian counterparts recalls the taunting Russian response: “Starting T-72 production took you 10 years. How do you imagine that you will produce the T-90 in just 6-7 years?”

Meanwhile the army was struggling with a more immediate issue. In 2002, poised for war with Pakistan, the army found that the newly inducted T-90S fleet was not battle-worthy. The Thales-Optronika thermal imaging night sights supplied with the T-90S --- essential for firing tank weapons at night --- proved unable to function in the blistering desert summer. This remains a problem; in 2008 the MoD approached international vendors to air-condition the T-90S.

“If we manage to reduce the temperature by ten degrees, the performance of the electronics will be improved,” says Sudhakar K, Joint General Manager, HVF.

Veteran tank commanders ridicule the idea of air-conditioning a tank. “It would add weight, and consume more power from the tank’s limited supply. And what happens if the air-conditioning breaks down? Every tank system must function in the environment of the battlefield,” says Brigadier (Retired) Vijay Nair, a former armoured brigade commander.

During that crisis with Pakistan, the army also discovered that the T-90S sights were not calibrated to Indian tank ammunition, which was falling well short of the targets that it was fired at. A panicked MoD appealed to the DRDO and other research institutions to re-orient the T-90S’s fire control computer to Indian ammunition. Meanwhile, shiploads of tank rounds were ordered from Russia at great cost.

A simultaneous crisis developed around the T-90S’s Invar missile, earlier cited as a clinching reason for buying the tank. But the Invar missiles that came were unusable and they were quietly returned to Russia. On 2nd March 2006, Antony told Parliament, “The Invar missile on T-90 tank is not a failure. However, the completely knocked down kits received for assembly have been found to be defective.”

Russia’s status as India’s premier arms supplier is being eroded by the US, France, Israel and the UK; and by indigenous advances in areas like tank building that have long been Moscow’s stamping ground. The recent success of the indigenous Arjun tank; and any progress in developing the planned Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT), would ensure that the T-90S is the last tank that India buys from Russia.

(Tomorrow: Part II: T-90S production starts; only to quickly stall)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Improving the Arjun's already great suspension

With Dr P Sivakumar, CVRDE's director, a formidable suspension systems specialist. Here's a brief on the Arjun Mark II's improved running gear...

by Ajai Shukla

One of the distinctive features of the Arjun tank is its hydro-pneumatic suspension, distinct from and far more advanced than the "torsion bar" arrangement that conventional MBTs (including the T-90) feature. The Arjun's suspension provides a smoother ride, making the tank a more stable gunnery platform that permits more accurate engagement of targets whilst on the move.

The Arjun Mark II features an enhanced version of the Arjun's well-proven hydro-pneumatic suspension, with the new one designed for a 70-tonne load. This is part of an improved "running gear", including the road wheel mountings, the road wheels, axle arms and shock absorbers.

The new suspension has already been tested in the recent trials and run for 1,300 kilometers. In order to obtain an accurate comparison with the earlier suspension, the trial tank was fitted with both: the old suspension on the left side and the new one on the right. The photographs --- in which the new suspension still looks new while the old suspension looks somewhat the worst for wear (not surprising; 1,300 km is a lot of running!) --- point to a successful upgrade.

The Arjun's suspension will be practically all-Indian. The road wheels, which continue to be built by Sundaram Industries, have been improved with better manufacturing and bonding processes for the rubber. Tractor Engineeers Ltd (TENGL), an L&T company, is doing parallel development of the Arjun track (imported so far), including development of one of the most difficult running gear technologies: the track pins.

I am amused at the many who appear to believe that the Arjun is "built entirely of foreign components" that are "hammered together in India". This kind of view is rooted in a deep lack of understanding of the processes of indigenisation. It is true that almost 60% of the cost of the Arjun goes on imported components. Practically all of that goes on just three components --- the power pack; the gunner's main sight (GMS); and the gun control equipment (GCE). Almost all the Arjun's other 10,000-odd component are sourced from Indian industry, which is rising to the challenge. More support from the government, in terms of better procurement procedures, would accelerate this.

There will be more on this particular issue in Broadsword. Stay tuned...

In ---

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Large orders can make Arjun tank cheaper

The Arjun line at HVF Avadi, near idle, after delivering 110 of the order for 124 tanks

by Ajai Shukla
Avadi, Chennai
Business Standard, 26th Nov 11

The army could clear the indigenous Arjun Mark II main battle tank (MBT) for frontline service after trials next year, but a question mark hangs over the Arjun’s prohibitive cost. Heavy Vehicle Factory, Avadi (HVF) has already built 124 Arjun Mark I tanks for the army at Rs 18 crore per tank. But on 29th August, Defence Minister AK Antony sprung a bombshell when he announced in parliament that, “The likely estimated (sic) cost of each MBT Arjun Mark-II… will be approximately Rs 37 crore.”

This is twice the price of the Russian T-90 and not much cheaper than USA’s M1 Abrams, the world’s most advanced MBT. On 1st July 11, the US Congress was notified that Egypt would buy 125 Abrams tanks for $1.3 billion --- i.e. $10.4 million, or Rs 54 crore, per tank.

During a visit to HVF and to the Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE), which has developed the Arjun, Business Standard was explained that the cost of the Arjun is easily reduced. If the army places a larger order the price will drop by 30%.

P Sivakumar, Director of CVRDE, explains that 50% of the cost of the Arjun Mark I went on three imported components --- the gunner’s main sight (GMS) from OIP Systems, Belgium; the gun control equipment (GCE) from Bosch, Germany; and the power pack (engine and transmission) from Renk, Germany --- which together cost Rs 12 crore. Ordering just 124 pieces left little leeway to beat down that price.

“If you are talking just 124 tanks, there is a problem. Bring an order for 500 tanks. We will go for ToT (transfer of technology) for the foreign parts… The cost of labour in Germany is the highest in the world. We will build 70% cheaper in India. If we buy the power pack of the Arjun for Rs 7.5 crore today… I will produce it in India for just Rs 4-5 crore,” says Sivakumar.

For an army with more than 3,500 tanks, including 2,400 obsolescent T-72s that are crying out for replacement, ordering just 124 Arjun Mark IIs seems unduly cautious. But the army has little incentive to reduce cost. Though the generals are now willing to order more Arjuns, they are placing their orders piecemeal.

Since most of the Arjun’s 10,000 components are outsourced, the size of the order is a crucial determinant of what price they are supplied at. Says RK Jain, Additional DG of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) who oversees HVF: “If the army’s indent is for just 124 tanks, the vendors charge higher prices. Besides, the amortisation cost of jigs, tools and equipment is reduced over a larger order. HVF and CVRDE have been jointly requesting the army to confirm an order of at least 250 Arjun Mark IIs so that we can negotiate from a stronger position,” says Jain.

Another reason for the Arjun Mark II’s rising cost becomes obvious at the Arjun production line at HVF, where the army is collecting the last of 124 Arjuns that were cleared for production in 2008. Just as the Rs 50 crore Arjun line has hit its stride, it must shut down for at least two years since another order can come only after the Arjun Mark II trials next year.

I walk through the giant workshop, now almost empty, with the HVF manager who oversees Arjun production, HR Dixit. “Even if the army clears the Arjun Mark II next summer, and indents for 124 more tanks by October 2012 (an optimistic time-frame), we require at least 12 months for obtaining the items that go into the Arjun. So end-2013 is the earliest that the Arjun assembly line can restart,” says Dixit.

The skilled workers on the Arjun line, who have developed invaluable expertise while building 124 Arjun tanks, will be distributed to other parts of HVF, Dixit tells me.

“We can send our workers to HVF’s other lines. But what can we do about the dislocation of our sub-contractors, many of them small enterprises around Chennai, who supply thousands of Arjun components like fuel pipes and bearings. They will seek other work because they know they will get no orders until an indent is placed for the Arjun Mk II. And, when we need them again, they might not be available,” says Ashutosh Kumar, Works Manager.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Upcoming modifications on the Arjun Mark II

With an army crewmember of the Arjun, one of the men posted on deputation to CVRDE for the Arjun project


I know, like every married person, that “major” and “minor” are relative terms. But here is the list of 19 major modifications that the Arjun Mark II will feature. The list was finalized after extensive user opinion canvassing and feedback from the DGQA, DGEME, OFB, other DRDO labs.

1. Missile firing capability
2. Commander’s TI panoramic sight Mk II
3. Driver’s uncooled thermal imaging night sight
4. Additional ammunition (don’t ask… won’t tell!)
5. Enhanced ammunition penetrator
6. Effective alternative to muzzle reference sight (MRS)
7. Resin-based CCC
8. Ten-round containerised bin
9. Explosive reactive armour panels
10. Infra-red/Thermal imaging resistant paint
11. Air defence weapon remote firing
12. ALWCS (advanced laser warning and countermeasure system)
13. Roof mounted driver’s seat
14. ATT in GMS (gunner’s main sight)
15. Advanced land navigation system
16. New final drive with increased reduction ratio
17. Advanced running gear system
18. New track system
19. Mine plough

In addition, there are 74 “minor” improvements (adding up to 93 improvements in all) that are not really that minor. For example:

1. An improved sprocket wheel that modifies the manufacturing process from rolled homogenous armour (which required gas cutting and machining) to a forged sprocket which is 50% the cost, 50% easier to build and gives a longer life.

2. Another minor modification is the incorporation of stainless steel fuel tanks. The painting required for the insides of the earlier mild steel tanks was creating residue that clogged the fuel lines and filters. But stainless steel requires no painting.

3. Internal electrical wiring has been comprehensively re-laid, incorporating the dozens of modifications that have been incrementally carried out over the years. The wiring has now been laid systematically, making it easier to track and repair.

4. The radio harness has been modified, and internal communications are now digital. That makes it easier to integrate audio alarms and provides an SMS facility between the crew (how ‘bout sum chai?). It is totally noise free… now the crew can communicate easily.

5. Another improvement is the incorporation of a new compact Auxillary Power Unit (APU), which provides 8 KW of electrical power (uprated from the existing 4.5 KW APU). This requirement is based on fresh load budgeting calculations, allowing the tank to operate in “silent mode” with the additional electronics… also keeping a cushion for future electronic enhancements.

Of these 93 modifications, 45 have already been tested during trials in summer 2011… having been incorporated on one "improved Arjun Mk I" tank. A second tank is being cut open to put in three major modifications, including the commander’s panoramic sight Mk II.

I could bore you all at some length with this kind of stuff, but will let you chew on this for now…

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Video of purported Israeli hit on Syrian tank



What you are about to watch is an actual event. The Israeli Armed Forces filmed this in real time. What you'll see is a fully armored Syrian tank being hit by an Israeli laser-guided, steel-penetrating, phosphorous-filled "hand held" rocket.

The rocket is small, very portable and is a tightly controlled weapon. Each one is accounted for when they are checked out and back in.

There must be no fewer than two soldiers present to verify the use, one must be a senior officer with a minimum of 10 years military service. (the name and program - classified).

This tank was headed for one of Israel's settlements. There were four more tanks one mile to the rear of this tank. They turned around before getting to this area after learning what had happened to the lead tank.

You can hear the ammunition going off after the initial strike. No Syrian tank crew member survived this event, and it did not make the news.

It is an everyday event for Israel's Armed Forces to repel attacks, and they do not permit the "embedding" of news reporters with their armed forces like the Americans do. This weapon and its tactical use is meant for their survival, not for "news" entertainment.

Perhaps we, in India should take a page from the Israeli Military Handbook.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Heavier, more lethal Arjun tank poised for trials

The modified Arjun on which many proposed modifications are already done. Other improvements feature on another test tank. The graphic shows the proposed changes.

by Ajai Shukla
Avadi, Chennai
Business Standard carried a shorter version of this article on , 24th Nov 11

A heavier, more protected Arjun tank, called the Arjun Mark II, is poised for army trials. Scheduled for January and June 2012, successful trials would be the green signal for building 124 Arjun Mark IIs at the Heavy Vehicles Factory in Avadi, outside Chennai. These will supplement the 124 Arjuns Mark I already in frontline service.

Preparing the new Arjun for trials is the Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment (CVRDE), Avadi, which steered the Arjun through a difficult and delayed development process; to its emergence as India’s premier main battle tank (MBT). In March 2010, after the Arjun outperformed the vaunted Russian T-90S in performance trials in Rajasthan, an impressed Indian Army accepted 124 Arjuns into service. But the army has made a follow-on order conditional upon 93 improvements to the Arjun, including 19 major modifications. The CVRDE is finalising these modifications.

Business Standard visited Avadi for a detailed briefing on the Arjun Mark II, the first time the media has actually inspected the tank. This reporter was given unhindered access, including the opportunity to speak to the engineers working on the tank and the army crewmembers that drive and fire it.

The Arjun Mark II’s most remarkable feature is its extra weight, 3-4 tonnes more than the earlier 62-tonne Arjun. For years the army criticised the Arjun as too heavy for India’s road and rail infrastructure; now it wants modifications that will make the Arjun heavier. Fitting Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) plates on the tank has boosted crew protection, but also increases the weight by one and a half tonnes. An equivalent increase comes from added mine ploughs, which churn up the ground ahead of the tank, uprooting explosive mines that would otherwise blow up the tank.

The Arjun Project leaders, V Balamurugan and GK Kumaravel, are unfazed by the weight gain. During gruelling trials this summer, the Arjun has demonstrated a crucial modification in the transmission system that makes the 65-66 tonne Arjun Mark II more agile than the lighter, 62-tonne Arjun Mark I.

“We ran the modified Arjun for 1,300 kilometres, gradually loading dead weight until it was 65.5 tonnes. We demonstrated that its performance, acceleration, torque, working temperature and fuel consumption were better than the Arjun Mark I,” claimed Balamurugan.

Also modified is the tank's hydro-pneumatic suspension which is now capable of handling a 70-tonne load. This also incorporates some newly-developed technologies to overcome occasional problems that the Arjun Mark I has grappled with during its development period: grease leakage and track shedding.

The trade-off, though, is in maximum speed. The Arjun Mark II does just 60 kmph, compared with the 70 kmph top speed of the Arjun Mark I. But the army has accepted this trade-off. “Tanks need agility and acceleration in battle, not sustained high speed. And the advantages of ERA and a mine plough are enormous,” says a tank officer.

CVRDE chief, Dr P Sivakumar, an award-winning transmission specialist, is jubilant. “Earlier the army was criticising my Arjun [for weighing too much]. But, after seeing its cross-country performance, even compared with a lighter 40-tonne tank like the T-90, they realise that the Arjun moves like a Ferrari. Even at 65-66 tonnes, it will beat any MBT in the desert,” he promises.

Sivakumar backs that with the endorsement of a team from Israel Military Industries (IMI), designers of the renowned Merkava tank. Talking to Indian Army generals after a “third-party evaluation” of the Arjun, Israeli experts declared that the Arjun, especially ruggedised for Indian conditions, would outrun any competition.

Another crucial improvement in the Mark II is the tank commander’s thermal imaging (TI) night sight, which replaces the day-only sight of the earlier Arjun. Now the Arjun can operate at night in “hunter-killer” mode --- the commander as hunter; and the gunner as killer. The commander scans the battlefield through his new TI sight; targets that he spots are electronically allocated to the gunner to destroy, while he returns to hunting for more targets.

The Mark II also equips the driver with a new night vision device based on “un-cooled thermal imaging”, allowing him to clearly see 300-500 metres, even on a pitch-dark night. The “image intensifier” device in the Mark I required some ambient light. A DRDO laboratory, Instrument R&D Establishment (IRDE), Dehradun, has built the new driver’s sight.

“We also now have an ammunition containerisation system. If the tank is hit, and the on-board ammunition explodes, it will blow outwards, saving the crew. A metallic box with ‘blow-off panels’ directs the explosion outwards,” explains Kumaravel.

The man who oversees the Arjun project, DRDO’s Chief Controller for Armament and Combat Engineering (CC-ACE), S Sundaresh, says: “Four major modifications --- the mobility performance at 65.5 tonnes; the commander’s night sight; the driver’s night vision device, and ammunition containerisation --- were validated this summer.”

Coming up for trials in January is an important new capability: missile firing through the Arjun Mark II’s main gun. Israeli LAHAT missiles were proof-fired from the Arjun in 2004, but the sighting and control systems are now being integrated into the gunner’s sight by its vendors, OIP Sensor Systems (Belgium) and SAGEM (France).

The army will evaluate these new capabilities during make-or-break trials next summer. Just one crucial system will come later, perhaps next October: a “laser warning counter measure system.” This senses the laser beam that incoming missiles ride, giving just 10-15 seconds of reaction time. Within milliseconds, the system automatically launches smoke grenades, creating a smokescreen around one’s own tank that leaves the missile operator without a target to aim at.

While the army keenly anticipates the Arjun Mark II’s capabilities, HVF and CVRDE are grappling with a related conundrum: the high cost of the tank, currently estimated at Rs 37 crore.

(Tomorrow: Part II: Bringing down the cost of the Arjun)

You've harassed me enough... Arjun article coming!

Have never been hounded so persistently for an article before, not even by my most enthusiastic editors. Will never, Never, NEver, NEVer, NEVEr, NEVER... again post any hint of where I am, who I'm visiting, or when I'll be back!!!

Stand by for Arjun article Part 1 tomorrow. I plan to structure my tank commentary in 5 parts. This is necessary so that Business Standard can carry those 5 parts. After all, they pay my bills. Not Lockheed Martin, despite the worst fears of many...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

China in a corner at the East Asia Summit

Tensions simmer beneath the surface bonhomie at the East Asia Summit. Fear of an increasingly aggressive China provides an opportunity for India to develop the concept of the "Indo-Pacific"

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 19th Nov 11

Given China’s infrastructure building activity in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, there was more than a hint of irony in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark this morning to his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, that India’s oil and gas exploration, in partnership with Vietnam, in an offshore area claimed by China, was “purely commercial activity”. That and the PM’s remark that China’s claims over the South China Sea "should be resolved according to international law and practice" highlights a new Indian matter-of-factness in dealing with China. New Delhi’s diplomacy is increasingly unapologetic; without directly confronting Beijing, New Delhi will defend the robust pursuit of India’s national interest.

On the eve of the East Asia Summit on 19th Nov in Bali, China finds itself alone in its corner. In its unwise strategic over-reach during the preceding 18 months, Beijing has alarmed and alienated all of South East Asia by its aggressive assertion of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last year, Beijing made a crisis of a joint South Korea-US naval exercise planned in international waters in the Yellow Sea. The arrest of a Chinese trawler captain for illegally entering Japanese waters snowballed into a vociferous and ugly anti-Japan campaign across several Chinese cities. Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats were regularly intimidated. And after Hillary Clinton suggested that the US had a national interest in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Beijing for the first time labelled the South China Sea as a Chinese “core interest”, on par with Tibet and Taiwan.

Given the alarm bells across ASEAN, it is hardly surprising that the US was invited for the first time to the 6th East Asia Summit. To render that direct approach less offensive to China, Russia was invited too. For China, the signal is clear: the Asia-Pacific is wary of a regional order that is dominated by China.

But Beijing has continued a confrontationist approach, with the state-controlled Chinese media now threatening the Asia-Pacific states with economic retaliation. Global Times warned in a commentary on Friday: “China has more resources to oppose the US ambition of dominating the region than US has to fulfil it. As long as China is patient, there will be no room for those who choose to depend economically on China while looking to the US to guarantee their security.”

Washington has jumped in with both feet. President Obama has said twice over the last week that, “the US is a Pacific power” and made it clear that the Asia-Pacific is the new US focus. This assertive new approach contrasts with Obama’s faint-hearted G-2 proposal to China (a two-member condominium of superpowers, US and China, to oversee global matters) during his 2009 presidential visit to that country. The American withdrawal from Iraq and its ongoing disengagement from Afghanistan have freed up the strategic will and military resources to confront what America sees as a rising global challenge.

The US has begun actively confronting the expressed intention of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) for gaining overlordship over the western Pacific Ocean. The PLAN intends to hold off US aircraft carrier battle groups at a distance from the Chinese coast, using weapons like anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and “swarm tactics”, in which masses of low-tech attack vessels overwhelm the defences of US high-tech warships. This would allow the PLA to seize Taiwan, or to physically capture disputed territory in the South China Sea.

The US strategy for dealing with this is called AirSea Battle and emphasises defence against Chinese ballistic missiles. This joint Navy-Air Force doctrine combines firepower from US Air Force fighters, bombers, and missiles; with US Navy aircraft flown from carriers and land bases; and with missiles launched from submarines and surface ships. US military bases in Japan, South Korea, and Guam will be physically strengthened to withstand Chinese missile attacks, while an “active defence” would destroy PLA aircraft and missiles, using a mix of fighter aircraft, air defence weapons, electronic warfare, and cyber operations. Nuclear war plans will also be dovetailed into the AirSea Battle concept.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will walk a fine line at Bali, where his schedule includes official meetings with both President Obama and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. US officials are conspicuously pushing the phrase, “Indo-Pacific”, to induce India to play a more visible role. New Delhi is also receiving this message with increasing clarity from the ASEAN countries. While there is little inclination to join any overt anti-Beijing grouping, New Delhi is likely to publicly support formulations like “rule-based systems in the global commons”, implicitly ruling out unilateral Chinese claims over any part of the Indo-Pacific.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Indian Air Force activates Vijaynagar Advanced Landing Ground

The MoD press release is reproduced in full below. It needs to be noted that Vijaynagar is on the border with Myanmar and the benefits of this ALG would be administrative or logistical rather than tactical or operational



New Delhi - November 18th, 2011

Hon’ble Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, General (Retd) JJ Singh accompanied by Air Marshal S Varthaman, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Air Command inaugurated the Advance Landing Ground (ALG) at Vijaynagar today. Lieutenant General Rameshwar Roy Director General Assam Rifles, Air Vice Marshal KS Gill, Senior Officer-in-Charge Administration, Eastern Air Command, Senior Officials from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam Rifles and Indian Air Force were also present on this occasion. The inaugural flight of AN-32 landed at Vijaynagar ALG today thereby bringing the local populace of this region on the air connectivity map of the country.

The Indian Air Force commenced its operations with Dakota and Otter in 1962 and subsequently the role was transferred to AN-32 since 1984. This ALG was made up of Pierced Steel Plate (PSP) sheets. Air maintenance operations had to be discontinued due to poor condition of the ALG since few years back. Subsequently extensive repairs were undertaken and the entire runway surface was renovated by the IAF with the help of the PWD Arunachal Pradesh. This ALG will now facilitate routine and regular air maintenance.

“The IAF has since been entrusted with the responsibility of developing the ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh with the dual purpose of giving a boost to local area development and enhancing military capabilities” said Air Marshal S Varthaman. He also added that since Vijaynagar is only accessible by air, revival of this ALG will provide immense relief to the local population. He conveyed his appreciation to the PWD and the immense support received from the Government of Arunachal Pradesh. Air Vice Marshal KS Gill welcomed one and all for the inaugural ceremony. He mentioned that with IAF commitment to the national security interests, it has revived this ALG for transport operations.

On this occasion, Assam Rifles had organised a colourful cultural programme which included the traditional dance by Lishu tribes and the Nepalese.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

DRDO plans early entry of Agni-4 into arsenal

Left to Right: DRDO Chief Controller for Missiles and Strategic Systems, Dr Avinash Chander; Director General, Dr VK Saraswat; and Project Director, Agni-4, Tessy Thomas; address a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday (Photo courtesy: The Hindu)

by Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 17th Nov 11

The day after the successful launch of the Defence R&D Organisation’s all-new Agni-4 ballistic missile, a triumphant DRDO chief proclaimed it as good as America’s Pershing-II missiles; and declared that India’s missile arsenal could no longer be constrained by technology denial sanctions

Highlighting the capability of the Agni-4, Dr VK Saraswat, the DRDO head, told the media in New Delhi that this 20-tonne missile could deliver a one-tonne warhead to a distance of 3,500 kilometres, significantly further than the 3,000 kilometres range of the much heavier, 48-tonne Agni-3 missile. Saraswat listed out multiple technological breakthroughs that had permitted this feat: composite rocket motors; a state-of-the-art navigation system and control systems that were both lighter and better.

Asked by Business Standard whether the Agni-4 was qualitatively in the class of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles (the Shaheen and the Ghauri), Saraswat responded, “Agni-4 compares with what is available [globally] in its class of missiles like the Pershing (US missile)… I am talking in terms of technology, not in terms of range, as Pershing missiles have higher range… it meets global standards.”

Saraswat may have mixed up his facts, since the Pershing II, the US ballistic missile he likened the Agni-4 to, is a decommissioned 1980s missile with a range of just 1,800 kilometres. But his claim, as evident from his other remarks, was that the Agni-4 met global benchmarks.

Saraswat also explained that the Agni-4 represented the final defeat of the technology denial regime that the west imposed on India from 1974 onwards. India, he said, could no longer be blocked from developing a world-class nuclear deterrent.

“No technology control regimes can stop us from making missiles in this class. We need to thank the technology sanctions for enforcing upon us a degree of self-reliance where we no longer need imports,” said Saraswat.

The DRDO chief praised a range of Indian entities for defeating western sanctions. Defence PSU, MIDHANI developed “maraging steel” for missile components; Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML) produces 500 tonnes per year of badly needed titanium; the blockage on Indian imports of composite carbon fibre --- essential for the Agni’s heat-resistant nose cone --- was defeated. “We have made our own carbon fibre which is better than anything that is available from those foreign countries”, said Saraswat.

The DRDO plans to quickly bring the Agni-4 into military service. “We hope to complete the test phase (two launches) in 2012; the user phase (two launches) in 2013; and in 2014 we would offer it for service. We have dramatically shortened the time from development to service,” said the DRDO’s missile controller, Avinash Chander.

Indian nuclear specialists worry that, although advanced simulation capabilities have reduced the requirement of actual test launches, there is a haste to introduce inadequately tested missiles into the Indian arsenal.

“In earlier times, missiles like the Pershing were fired dozens of times before being brought into service. But even today, at least 3-5 launches are needed to verify that the Agni-4’s performance can be replicated in various conditions. Only then should user trials commence,” says deterrence expert, Brigadier (Retired) VK Nair.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Agni-4 surprise launch a success, next missile in Dec

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Nov 11

The Defence R&D Organisation’s surprise test of a new Agni-4 missile, which the MoD says was launched flawlessly from the Odisha coast today, establishes India as a builder of cutting edge intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). While the Agni-4 was fired out to just 3,000 kilometres this morning, the DRDO claims it can comfortably deliver a nuclear weapon to a target 3,500 kilometres away.

That would make the Agni-4 India’s first true IRBM. Its predecessor, the Agni-3, with a range of 3,000 kilometres, was a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). Readying now for its debut launch is the 5000-kilometre range Agni-5, which will be only marginally short of the 5,500 kilometre range needed to be classified as that Big Daddy of rockets: an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The DRDO has stated that it plans to launch the Agni-5 next month.

The Agni-4 project has been overseen by Tessy Thomas, who the media variously dubbed the “Agni putri” (daughter of fire, a play on the Agni name), and the “missile woman” after she became the first woman to head an Indian ballistic missile project. Thomas has ensured that the Agni-4 makes a major technological leap from the Agni-3, testing out several systems that will be crucial to the success of the Agni-5.

Ravi Gupta, the DRDO’s public relations chief, told Business Standard, “The Agni-4 represents an entirely new class of missiles, which use advanced technologies to improve capabilities even while reducing the missile’s weight.”

A crucial first for the Agni-4 is the successful use of a composite rocket motor, made of lightweight composites rather than the heavier “maraging steel” that earlier rocket motors were fabricated from. This composite rocket motor will be key to the success of the Agni-5, as will other first-time technologies like a high-accuracy ring-laser gyroscope based inertial navigation system (RINS); and a micro-navigation system (MINGS); and a powerful new onboard computer. Through this surprise Agni-4 test (which was not announced in advance) the DRDO has technologically de-risked the high-profile Agni-5 test that the world will be watching carefully.

“This test has paved the way ahead for the success of Agni-5 mission, which will be launched shortly”, said Avinash Chander, who heads the DRDO’s missiles division. Chander also talked up the RINS and the MINGS, describing the Agni-4 as ushering in major advances in long-range navigation systems.

Navigation is critical for long-range ballistic missiles; striking very close to the target allows smaller nuclear warheads to inflict as much damage as heavy “megaton class” nuclear bombs that less accurate missiles deliver several hundred metres, or even a kilometre away. Speaking earlier to Business Standard, Chander had indicated that the Agni missiles’ high accuracy would allow India to restrict itself to smaller nuclear warheads.

“Megaton warheads were used when accuracies were low. Now we talk of [accuracy of] a few hundred metres. That allows a smaller warhead, perhaps 150-250 kilotons, to cause substantial damage. We don’t want to cause wanton damage [with unnecessarily large warheads]”, Chander said.

The DRDO emphasises that, although the Agni-4 tests several technologies that will go into the Agni-5, it is not a mere technology demonstrator but will be deployed with the military as an operational missile. According to a DRDO press release, the Agni-4 “has provided a fantastic [nuclear] deterrence to the country and it will be produced in numbers and delivered to the Armed Forces as early as possible.”

Launched from a road-mobile missile carrier at Wheeler’s Island off the Odisha coast, the two-stage, solid-fuel Agni-4 roared off its launch pad at exactly 9 a.m. in what the DRDO describes as a “text book fashion”. After reaching a height of 900 kilometres, tracked by a chain of radars along India’s eastern seaboard, it began its descent, encountering temperatures above 3000 degrees Centigrade while re-entering the atmosphere. Two ships of the Indian Navy that had been pre-positioned in the target area witnessed the final splash down.

Video of the Agni IV launch this morning

The DRDO has announced the successful launch this morning of the Agni IV missile, which has a range of 3,500 km. The DRDO says the test met all the mission parameters, and was fired out to a range of 3,000 km.

Pakistan: containment or engagement?

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Nov 11

Is Pakistan already a basket case, a country captured by militarized radicals and a radicalized military, and bent on self-destructive confrontation with India? Is North Korea-style containment the only answer to Pakistan’s propensity for the export of terrorism and nuclear proliferation? Or might engagement yet catalyze the resurgence of a decency that lurks, barely seen, behind Pakistan’s resentful façade and its tendency to blame others for all the ills that beset it?

That was a key topic of discussion at the think tank conference that I attended in Stockholm over the weekend. Opinion was near unanimous that engagement had to continue. This is hard to dispute; the Pakistani state cannot be allowed to shoot itself in the head because the region will then have to deal with an unusually large and toxic corpse. What worried me, though, was the logic invoked by our western co-participants --- including serving officials of the US Department of State --- to justify continued engagement. Too much pressure on Pakistan would push it into China’s arms, said one. Another argued that America could not countenance a return to 2001, when a decade of sanctions had engendered such a wide divide that there was nobody in Islamabad who one could pick up the phone and talk to. Sanctions don’t work, said another, overlooking their vigorous implementation against nearby Iran.

These are hardly good reasons to continue engaging Pakistan. Had Washington had a phone number in the wake of 9/11, which it could dial for a cosy “Hi, Pervez” chat, Pakistan might not have supported Washington so vigorously in the crucial period that was to follow. What elicited Pakistani cooperation was the placing of an official call and Richard Armitage thundering down the line at General Pervez Musharraf that he had two choices: unconditional support, or the Stone Age again. Nor is the China analogy valid; Beijing is hardly sitting with open arms, one of them clutching a chequebook, waiting to sign the enormous cheques that America has been doing for decades.

Nor was there much clarity on the modalities for engaging Pakistan. It was left to a prominent Indian analyst (Sorry, no names, Chatham House Rules were invoked) to advocate a rational basis for engagement: the replacement of rhetoric about partnership, with a more coldly transactional approach. In this, every release of funds or assistance would be conditional upon Pakistan’s implementation of specific counter-terrorism measures or steps to bring down the levels of radicalization. A transactional approach would confirm the aam Pakistani’s worst apprehensions about American exploitation of Pakistan, but is really the only option.

Furthermore, the engagement of Pakistan, would have to be underpinned by a strong element of coercion for Islamabad to treat it seriously. But traditionally this coercive role has been arrogated to India. In multiple crises over preceding decades, Washington has held the Indian sword over Pakistan’s head, forcing Islamabad into desired actions through the threat of Indian military retaliation. Once US aims were achieved, pressure was mounted on New Delhi to avoid a crisis (usually phrased in apocalyptic terms like “nuclear Armageddon”).

This has hardly been useful for improving relations between India and Pakistan and it needs a major re-evaluation. Going by the Pakistani cabinet’s recent decision to liberalise trade with India, and the increasingly optimistic statements from New Delhi and Islamabad, it would appear that India-Pakistan relations today are significantly less chilly than a year ago. Even the signing of an India-Afghan strategic accord elicited no more than a mildly worded caution from Islamabad. It is not a coincidence that such a détente-of-sorts comes at a time when western powers, particularly America, have themselves taken to upbraiding Pakistan for its support to terror. With America now leading a global chorus painting Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism, New Delhi for the first time has the luxury of restraint and behaving like the South Asian regional power that it has long aspired to be. Enhancing this extravagance is the visible upturn in India’s relations with long-estranged neighbours, notably Bangladesh and Myanmar.

New Delhi’s comfort levels are also rising by growing Indian capabilities in forestalling and reacting to terror attacks, a rising number of which are springing from India-based groups rather than those operating directly from Pakistan. And with violence levels in Kashmir also falling, India’s smile no longer comes through gritted teeth.

If the western powers, especially the US, believe that Pakistani insecurity from India lies at the root of its historical reliance on sub-conventional forces (terrorist and militant groups) and non-conventional power (nuclear weaponry) it can no longer leave the high-decibel highlighting of Pakistan’s follies to India alone. The new pattern of engaging Islamabad --- and there must be both engagement, and a new pattern --- cannot rest any longer on Indian outrage and western indifference. If the international community sees a problem, it must highlight it and deal with it without firing their guns from Indian shoulders.

After a decade of close US engagement of Pakistan, and the resulting crisis in their relations, it can be ventured that even India is better positioned to generate a positive influence in Pakistan. In the immediate future, India can plan to engage Pakistan through trade, through people to people contacts and eventually meaningful dialogue on the political issues that divide them. The west must prosecute its own engagement of Pakistan, with inbuilt incentives and disincentives for the outcomes and pitfalls that it envisages.

Monday, 14 November 2011

It's the Gripen NG test aircraft...

That's right, folks! It's the Gripen NG test aircraft. The only existing one.... Do you all want to know about this visit?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Here's why there is no Arjun report so far....

The Arjun report will come up just as soon as I'm back... along with the report from this visit.

Saturday, 5 November 2011


Just back from a two-day visit to the Combat Vehicles R&D Establishment and to the Heavy Vehicles Factory, Chennai... got a full update on all the armoured vehicles programmes.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

End this MMRCA hara-kiri

The J-20 fighter prototype, a 5th generation combat aircraft built by China's Chengdu Aircraft Industry, made its first flight on 11th Jan 2011. This necessitates a re-evaluation of the IAF's procurement of 4th generation medium fighters, which is close to being finalised

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard
1st Nov 11

Knife-edge tension is guaranteed as senior executives from Eurofighter GmbH and Dassault assemble on Friday in the office of Vivek Rae, Director General (Acquisitions) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The purpose of the gathering: to open commercial bids for the world’s most ill-conceived and biggest international arms purchase. I refer to the Indian Air Force’s harebrained proposal to buy 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) that will be outrun and outgunned by Chinese fighters soon after they enter Indian Air Force (IAF) service.

The opening of bids in any big contract is a tense moment. Eurofighter’s and Dassault’s inordinate anxiety also stems from the fact that the IAF buy is crucial to their future. Eurofighter GmbH faces serious internal problems with partner nations scaling down their orders. India is desperately needed to restore the economics of production. Britain’s Royal Air Force has already slashed its order for Typhoons. And, last week, The New York Times reported that Germany’s Luftwaffe (which ironically spearheads the Typhoon campaign in India) is trimming its purchase from 177 to 140 Typhoons. Dassault is in even direr straits, with Rafale having failed to find a single international customer; there are just 180 Rafale fighters on order, all for the French military, which hardly has a choice.

The only relatively carefree man at the start of that meeting on Friday might be Mr Rae himself, who will be sitting on the defence ministry’s war chest of Rs 42,000 crore. But his good cheer may not survive the opening of bids because the MoD’s estimate – arrived at some six years ago – will almost certainly be dwarfed by the lower bid. Last month the MoD revalued its original estimation in a process called “benchmarking”. But Mr Rae knows that if the winning quote emerges significantly more expensive than the MoD’s “benchmarked” figure, the process will begin anew.

Such an eventuality would be a blessing in disguise; and the best way to sidestep this cockamamie purchase of overpriced fighters that will take heavy casualties in any future conflict with China. Both the Typhoon and Rafale are “4th Generation-plus fighters”, inferior in crucial aspects like stealth to the J-20, China’s “5th Generation” (Gen-5) stealth fighter that took to the skies this year. Admittedly the J-20 would need a decade of flight-testing before it enters operational service, but the first MMRCA would only be delivered to India by 2015-16. Five years after that, operational J-20s, of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), will be dominating the Himalayas. The IAF MMRCAs, already outclassed by 2020, will limp around the skies till 2050 since the MoD will rightly protest that Rs 42,000-84,000 crore have been spent on them.

The IAF sadly is shutting its eyes to this even as China’s rising aerospace profile informs the security calculus of other regional air forces. Japan, South Korea and Singapore are realising that a Gen-5 fleet is needed for a credible defence capability against the PLA. South Korea is set to choose Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightening II, the only Gen-5 fighter on offer in the global market. The Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) too is veering around to the F-35 after Lockheed Martin was denied export clearances to supply Tokyo the F-22 Raptor, unarguably the world’s most advanced fighter. In 2003, Singapore invested money into the F-35 development programme; it is on course to buy the aircraft.

Given that a rising China makes choosing Gen-5 a no-brainer, why then is the IAF (presumably a rational actor) inexplicably buying Gen-4+ fighters? The reason, sadly, is the political-bureaucratic stranglehold over procurement in which any IAF re-evaluation carries a penalty of years of delay. In the early 2000s, when the IAF framed the case for buying an MMRCA, no Gen-5 aircraft were available for sale. The F-35 was under development but was not ready for flight-testing, an essential part of India’s procurement process. Unwilling to wait for a Gen-5 fighter, the IAF scaled down its requirements and initiated an impartial multi-vendor contest for whatever Gen-4+ fighters were there in the market.

Years later, as the IAF finds itself choosing between two Gen-4+ aircraft, it must also note that the F-35 is on the cusp of operational clearance. It’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has signalled in multiple ways that it would supply the IAF that fighter at a fly-away cost of $65 million per aircraft (significantly cheaper than the Rafale and the Typhoon) with deliveries beginning by 2015. Washington has indicated that any F-35 sale to India would be expeditiously cleared. But for an insecure IAF, used to being shoved around by the MoD, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The MMRCA purchase would bring in six squadrons of reasonably good fighters, even if they were outclassed by the PLAAF in war. Any change at this state, or so the IAF believes and accepts, would require fresh MoD clearances and financial sanctions that could take another three years.

But there is an alternative. The IAF must frankly tell the MoD that the situation has changed, and that national security demands scrapping the overpriced MMRCA procurement and buying the F-35 through a single-vendor contract. The defence of the realm cannot be held hostage to the procedural requirement of multi-vendor bidding; nor is overpaying justifiable if it was done through competitive bidding. New Delhi has recently procured several fine aircraft on a single-vendor, government-to-government basis: the Sukhoi-30MKI from Russia; and the C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft from the US. The procurement of a new fighter that will form the backbone of the IAF for decades must be treated with the same urgency.