Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Russian connection

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Dec 12

Although India now buys its defence hardware from a range of countries in addition to Russia, the Indo-Russian defence relationship remains stronger than ever. Instead of fighter aircraft, tanks and air defence guns, Russia is now India’s prime source for “sub-strategic” systems that incorporate closely guarded technologies. These include the nuclear-propelled submarine INS Chakra, which Russia has provided on a 10-year lease; the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya; and potential access to the precision code of Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System. After jointly developing the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, the two countries are joining hands to develop next-generation systems for both their militaries, like the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft and the Multirole Transport Aircraft. Russia has also helped India develop its own nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarine.

Although the defence relationship has recently made headlines for negative reasons – cost escalations, time overruns and serious glitches in technology transfer – it remains not just a positive driver of Indo-Russian relations, but increasingly the primary one, along with the other two strategic fields of space and nuclear co-operation. With trade relations languishing, Moscow playing hardball with Indian hydrocarbon companies, and the Sistema row roiling relations, the defence relationship is a reliable sheet anchor that steadies the overall partnership.

Importantly, given the wariness that characterises relations with China, any distancing from Russia would make India appear uncomfortably like a western ally. With Russia growing politically closer to China and increasingly dependent on the Chinese economy, strong Moscow-Delhi defence ties give Russia the strength to keep China’s defence industry at arm’s length. Moscow’s ambitious State Armament Programme aims at practically re-equipping the entire Russian military by 2020 at a cost of $650 billion. This requires developing a whole menu of new-generation systems and technologies, something that Moscow cannot fund on its own. The trust between Moscow and New Delhi makes India the ideal partner for co-development, with the cost and the technological risk shared by both of them rather than absorbed purely by Russia. Furthermore, the vast requirements of the Indian military, combined with Russia’s own modernisation drive, provide the economies of scale needed for both militaries to obtain high-tech, low-cost systems.

Beijing’s institutionalised embrace of reverse engineering means Russian technology czars prefer India, which buys cutting-edge systems and customises a few key sub-systems to suit its own requirements. While India benefits from Russia’s superior technology and experience in building advanced weaponry, working with a senior partner could create an undesirable dependency unless there are clear systems in place to ensure that technology is absorbed by Indian engineers. New Delhi has also realised that there are times when it has to accept delays and cost increases. There are geopolitical and military advantages of a close relationship with Russia, but New Delhi needs to deal with the disadvantages that are evident at the transactional level and shape the relationship to both parties’ advantage.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Kaveri engine to fly futuristic unmanned aircraft

The Kaveri undergoes testing at the GTRE

By Ajai Shukla
Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Bangalore
Business Standard, 26th Dec 12

The Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) faltering project to develop an indigenous jet engine has sparked into life again. With the Kaveri engine, born from this project, found short on power for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the MoD has nominated the Kaveri to power the hush-hush Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle (USAV), a pilot-less bomber aircraft that the DRDO is developing.

The veil of secrecy surrounding the USAV project was thrown off on Dec 10, when the defence minister told parliament that, “(The) Kaveri spin-off engine can be used as propulsion system for (the) Indian Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle.”

Already drones, or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), are changing the nature of air power with their ability to strike targets without endangering pilots lives. USAVs are bigger, 8-10 tonne drones, akin to strike fighters in their ability to carry heavy weaponry including bombs, rockets and missiles. Since they are piloted by remote control, they can be built lighter, stealthier, and sent on even the most risky missions.

The Indian USAV project is a lease of life for the Kaveri engine. Although India will import jet engines worth Rs 1,60,000 crore over the next decade (DRDO projections) none of these can be used for the USAV. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) prohibits its 34 signatories --- including every major engine manufacturing country --- from selling engines for unmanned systems with ranges of over 300 kilometres.

An Indian jet engine, therefore, must power the USAV and the Kaveri is the only option. Although underpowered for fast-moving fighter aircraft, the DRDO believes the Kaveri is well suited for the USAV, which is lighter, flies slower and manoeuvres less sharply. 

Business Standard visited the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the DRDO laboratory that is developing the Kaveri engine. It reached a key landmark last year, when a prototype Kaveri was flight-tested in Russia at the Gromov Flight Research Institute (GFRI). The engine’s performance was measured on a “flying test-bed”, a four-engine IL-76 transport aircraft that had one of its original engines replaced with a Kaveri.

During this test the Kaveri did well, generating 49.2 KiloNewtons (KN) of “dry thrust”, marginally less than its target of 51 KN. But there was a serious shortfall in “wet thrust”; the Kaveri generated just 70.4 KN, well short of the targeted 81 KN.

[“Dry thrust” refers to the standard output of an engine in routine flight. “Wet thrust” refers to the enhanced output that is generated when the fighter requires maximum power, e.g. during take-off or in aerial combat. Termed “lighting the afterburner”, this is achieved by pumping fuel into the engine’s exhaust.]

The Kaveri’s dry thrust is deemed adequate for the USAV, which does not require wet thrust since its survival depends on stealth (invisibility to radar) rather than on speed or manoeuvrability. The Kaveri will propel the USAV with dry thrust alone, eliminating the afterburner.

“Since the USAV will weigh less than 10 tonnes, the Kaveri’s 50 KN will suffice. And, with the afterburner removed, we would significantly reduce the weight of the Kaveri,” says a top DRDO scientist.

GTRE has a three-fold plan for perfecting the Kaveri for the USAV. First, it will remove the design flaws that were detecting during testing in Russia in 2010-11; then, after ground testing in Bangalore, the Kaveri will undergo a round of confirmatory tests in Russia; finally, it will be fitted on a Tejas fighter for flight tests.

Meanwhile, the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), another DRDO laboratory, will develop the USAV. Four years from today, the Kaveri --- having proved itself on the Tejas --- will be mated with the USAV.

“After extensive ground testing at GTRE, the Kaveri will go back to Russia for flight-testing to ascertain that all the problems have been solved. This is essential for airworthiness certification. Finally, we will test the Kaveri in the single-engine Tejas fighter,” says Dr CP Ramnarayanan, Director, GTRE.

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which oversees the development of the Tejas, confirms that it will provide a Tejas prototype for flying with the Kaveri. It has even nominated an aircraft --- the first prototype, numbered PV-1 --- which is currently being used for flight-testing new systems.

“(The PV-1) was originally built to support the Kaveri engine. While the engine, in its present form, would not suffice for the Tejas, a Kaveri “dry engine” could be used for one of the futuristic unmanned systems,” says PS Subramanyam, Director, ADA.

GTRE has asked the MoD for Rs 595 crore to develop the Kaveri dry engine for the USAV. This will fund the building of two new Kaveri engines, costing some Rs 50 crore each; and flight testing in Russia, which cost Rs 80 crore in 2010-11 and could cost significantly more now.

“We will take 48 months from the date we get clearance from the government, for completing 50 hours of testing the Kaveri on the Tejas LCA. During the last 12 months, we will actually fly the Tejas with the Kaveri,” says Ramnarayanan.

The defence minister told parliament this month that the Kaveri project was sanctioned in March 1989 at an estimated cost of Rs.382.81 crore, and was to be completed by December 1996. This was revised [in 2005] to December 2009, while the cost was enhanced to Rs 2,839 crore. So far, Rs 1,996 crore has been actually spent on the Kaveri.

Defending the cost escalation, GTRE points out that comparable engines --- such as the General Electric F-404 and the Russian Klimov RD-33 --- cost the equivalent of Rs 8,000 crore to build in the 1990s, and would cost Rs 12,000-14,000 crore today.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

A window into the Taliban

New Delhi is groping in the dark about the Taliban's intentions. They need to know what it is thinking

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Dec 12

What is behind the Taliban’s new flexibility? Has the fundamentalist Afghan group (and its backer, Pakistan) really performed a strategic somersault with its professed new willingness to share power in post-2014 Afghanistan? Is the Islamist group really willing to engage in electoral politics? Why did the Taliban show up last week for talks in Paris even though victory for its dogged anti-occupation resistance was just two years away? This is the Taliban that has taunted America with: You have the clocks, but we have the time!

So what made Shahabuddin Delawar and Muhammad Naim, the Taliban’s emissaries in Paris, offer to co-exist with their Afghan blood enemies, i.e. the Northern Alliance and the Afghan National Security Force? Is the Taliban really willing, as The New York Times reports, to allow girls to go to school in “an Islamic way”? Or is this all just tactical, a soothing smokescreen to facilitate, even hasten, the 2014 pullout?

From New Delhi’s wary viewpoint, the Taliban’s new reasonableness is just Pakistani trickery, aimed at recreating leverage on an Afghan playfield where Islamabad’s stock had hit rock bottom. Civilian deaths caused by cross-border shelling from Pakistani posts on the Durand Line had fanned bitter anger in Afghanistan. A livid President Hamid Karzai, frustrated at Islamabad’s bullying, was poised to negotiate with the US a Bilateral Security Agreement --- the framework under which a residual American “train, advise and assist” mission would remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

India’s mandarins also believe that Pakistan was worried by the growing non-Pashtun consensus within Afghanistan against a possible repeat of the post-Soviet power play of the 1990s --- i.e. a Taliban whirlwind fanned, financed and armed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). They believe that Islamabad is assuaging these fears and redressing its own meddlesome image by appearing to support reconciliation within Afghanistan. In fact, by choosing who speaks for the Taliban and what they can say, Pakistan would tightly control the dialogue.

In sum New Delhi is convinced that Islamabad is currying favour simultaneously with Washington, Kabul, and the non-Pashtun Afghan groups by appearing to bring to the dialogue table a tamed and conciliatory Taliban. For America this is a badly needed face-saver, as it is for Karzai’s High Peace Council, which the Taliban has contemptuously dismissed so far. But any talk of Pakistani “flexibility” or a “strategic shift” is fanciful. Islamabad’s real aim is to divide the Afghans since it wants an unstable Afghanistan, preoccupied with internecine fighting rather than with cohesively confronting Islamabad on long-standing Pakistan-Afghanistan disputes like border demarcation and Pashtun identity along the disputed Durand Line. Many non-Pashtun groups share this scepticism, particularly the influential Panjsheris, who held out against the Taliban in the 1990s and are readying for an encore.

Indian cynicism is understandable, given its stakes in Afghanistan and the need to prepare for setbacks that might even involve evacuating Indian workers from areas that fall to the Taliban. But assuming the worst can be self-fulfilling. While it would be na├»ve to believe that the Rawalpindi beast has suddenly turned benign, New Delhi policymakers must carefully consider whether the Taliban’s presence at the dialogue table could be stemming from seismic shifts within Pakistan, where factors invisible to outsiders might have become compelling to the security establishment.

For example, the Pakistan army might now be hearing from the ISI what Taliban watchers have long known: that the Quetta Shoora, i.e. Mullah Omar and the senior Taliban leaders who defer to him, is at increasing loggerheads with the ISI. Relations may now be so vitiated that the very foundation of Pakistan’s strategy --- to control Afghanistan by controlling the Pashtun leadership --- may no longer hold good. Even when the Taliban was a fledgling organisation dependent on Pakistan for arms, money and political direction, the strong-willed Mullah Omar resisted the ISI’s diktat. Today, a greatly strengthened Omar would be far less willing to take orders from Pakistan.

Also important is how the Taliban sees its position in the power-grab that will follow the 2014 NATO withdrawal (and the Afghanistan elections that would precede it). If the Quetta Shoora assesses that it is too worn out by a decade-long high-tempo insurgency to win power in the bitter civil war that could follow the NATO withdrawal, that would explain its overtures in Paris to the other Afghan players. It is one thing to keep the insurgency going against foreign occupation, and that too one that has laid down a timeframe for withdrawal. But it is quite another matter to take on an elected government and an array of armed Afghan groups that will fight tooth and nail to retain influence over their respective areas.

Not that Pakistan’s options are limited to the Quetta Shoora. There is also the ISI’s more reliable proxy, the Haqqani network, whose writ runs across the eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. And there is Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pakistan army’s old friend, who would not be averse to working for Rawalpindi again. But rather than trying to manipulate disparate groups that are engaged in a full-blown civil war, the ISI would probably see merit in brokering a cease-fire and then playing one against the other. In that case too, Pakistan would deliver the Quetta Shoora to the dialogue table and then shape the playground to its satisfaction.

But New Delhi can only guess at all this, simply because it has no dialogue with the Taliban. Devoid of any clear idea of what is happening, South Block operates on worst-case assessments that cause us to over-react simply because the consequences of under-reacting would be unacceptable. It is time to shed the old shibboleths and develop a window into the Taliban.

Putin's visit to Delhi: No big-ticket buys but Indo-Russia defence relations deepen

Indian defence gains muscle from the Russian partnership but, contrary to the breathless reporting, no new contracts were signed yesterday

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Dec 12

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s sixth visit to India on Monday has been his most barren yet in terms of defence contracts signed between the two countries. An earlier Indian order, placed in Feb 2010, for 59 Mi-17V5 medium lift helicopters was increased marginally to 71 helicopters. And a protocol signed last year for the purchase of 42 Sukhoi-30MKI fighters led to the signing of a contract for 42 kits for licensed manufacture in HAL.

Never having had to compete for defence contracts in India, Russia faces increasing difficulties in competitive contracting, which is now mandated by the Defence Procurement Policy of the Indian defence ministry (MoD). But Moscow remains India’s largest weapons supplier, by virtue of transitioning up the procurement chain. A step ahead of the competition, Russia has offered defence equipment first as arms sales, then licensed production, then joint development, and the growing supply of what is euphemistically known as “sub-strategic” systems.

One such system, the nuclear-propelled attack submarine, INS Chakra, joined the Indian Navy in April on a ten-year lease for US $920 million. Defence Minister AK Antony has confirmed that there is a proposal to lease a second submarine. Russia’s ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, terms the Chakra “a shining example of the very confidential strategic cooperation between India and Russia.” Off camera, Kadakin flatly --- and factually --- states that no other country would transfer such a system.

India pays a price for this privilege. When Russia raised the price of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya from $947 million to $2.3 billion, India quietly acquiesced. And when the delivery of the vessel --- which was originally scheduled for 2008 and then delayed to 2012 --- was pushed back by another year after a major engine failure during pre-delivery trials in September, India acquiesced again.

The matter was raised during President Putin’s visit today. It had been raised more strongly by Antony with his counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, when the former defence minister had visited India in October.

But Russia repeatedly compensates in the “sub-strategic” segment that remains below the radar. The indigenous nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, continues to benefit from significant Russian technological advice.

Another strategic programme being negotiated is for the “precision code” of Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS). This would provide Indian aircraft and weapon systems with a navigational accuracy of one metre, something that only US and Russian systems currently enjoy. MoD sources tell Business Standard that the matter remains “under discussion” but will eventually yield results.

Russian officials also cite the joint development programmes that characterize Indo-Russian defence cooperation. The Brahmos joint venture has yielded a sophisticated supersonic cruise missile that is now being developed into a hypersonic missile that will travel at above Mach 6 (4,300 kilometres per hour). The supersonic Brahmos, meanwhile is being adapted to be fired from a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter.

Next year, design and development will begin on the $6 billion Indo-Russian programme to jointly develop a fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA). No other countries are collaborating on such an advanced aircraft, which involves sensitive technologies like stealth. Another Indo-Russian JV, Multirole Transport Aircraft Ltd (MTA Ltd), began work this month on a military transport plane for both air forces.

Given the strategic relationship, New Delhi considers Russian sensitivities. After the Russian MiG-35 was rejected in Apr 2011 in the Indian contest for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), the MoD ordered 42 additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighter, without any tendering or competition.

For Moscow, New Delhi is an increasingly crucial partner, and not only because India buys 30% of all Russian arms exports. Joint development with India reduces development costs and risk at a time when Russia is spending heavily on modernising its forces. Its State Armament Programme will spend almost $650 billion to increase the proportion of modern weaponry in the Russian military to 30% by 2015, and 70% by 2020.

Russian analysts close to the Kremlin are urging Moscow to deepen “an emerging common defence market” between the two countries. They are recommending the co-development of a fifth-generation medium fighter program in addition to the FGFA (which is a heavy fighter); and an advanced battle tank based on the Russian Armata.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Boeing delivers first P-8I maritime aircraft to navy

The first three P-8Is at Boeing's Seattle facility this morning, where the first aircraft was handed over to the Indian Navy

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Dec 12

The Indian Navy got a significant boost today with the receipt of its first P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMA). In a small ceremony at the Seattle facility of Boeing Defense, Space and Security (BDS), a ribbon was cut and an Indian Navy officer was ceremonially handed over the keys to the aircraft.

The Indian Navy’s US $2.1 billion purchase of eight P-8I aircraft makes it the first military outside the US to operate this aircraft. With cutting edge sensors and weaponry mounted on a modified Boeing 737-800 aircraft, the P-8I will maintain “maritime domain awareness” over the Indian Ocean. For the navy, this means knowing exactly what is happening on its oceanic turf.

Based on INS Rajali, a naval base at Arakonam, near Chennai, the P-8I will fly 8-hour missions to seek out pirates, suspicious cargo vessels, or hostile warships and submarines. Its enhanced internal fuel tanks allow it to fly 1,100 kilometers to a patrol area, remain “on station” for six hours, and then fly back 1,100 kilometres to Arakonam. Using aerial refuelling, this range could be doubled.

The P-8I’s key strength lies in its sophisticated sensors. A multi-mode radar picks up aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Another belly-mounted radar looks backwards, like an electronic rear-view-mirror. Any suspected threat could be investigated further: sonobuoys are dropped to zero in on suspected enemy submarines, radioing back any suspicious sounds that they pick up. A submarine would be picked up also by a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) on the P-8I’s tail.

There is plenty of heavy weaponry to deal with such threats. This includes anti-ship Harpoon missiles, and the Mark 82 depth charge that is standard equipment with the US Navy. To destroy enemy submarines, five Mark 54 torpedoes lie warm in a special compartment in the aircraft’s belly.

The P-8 aircraft being built for India are designated the P8-I (I for India), distinguishing them from the US version, the P8-A. The aircraft handed over today will remain in Seattle for the next 3-4 months, while Indian Navy crews carry out flight tests of all the systems and sensors. It is expected to fly to India by about May 2013.

Two more P-8I aircraft that are nearing completion will also be handed over in 2013, say Boeing spokespersons. The entire order of 8 aircraft will be delivered by 2015.

The navy plays an increasingly visible role in maintaining vigil over India’s 7,500 kilometre coastline and over the maritime stretch from the Strait of Malacca in the east to the Strait of Hormuz in the west. In August, then navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma revealed that, in addition to eight P-8I aircraft, the navy would also augment its surveillance and reconnaissance capability with eight Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, and a fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The latest in a flurry of recent missile tests: Prithvi-II test fired today... this is the MoD's official release


New Delhi: Agrahayana 29, 1934
Thursday, December 20, 2012 

Army’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) successfully test-fired the Prithvi-II missile from the DRDO range facility at Chandipur off the Odisha coast today. The entire trajectory of the missile was tracked by a battery of sophisticated radars, telemetry observation stations, electro-optic instruments and naval ships.
The Prithvi-II missile is equipped with advanced high accuracy navigation system and guided by an innovative guidance scheme.  The improved Circular Error Probability (CEP) achieved is a testimony to the efficacy of this missile system.
An SFC spokesman said, “the flight conveys our preparedness to meet any eventuality”; The mission “fully validated our operational readiness”. With this launch the Army’s Strategic Forces Command has successfully carried out in operational conditions launches of all the variants of Prithvi and Agni missiles.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

MoD rejects HAL’s proposal to build basic trainer

With the HTT-40 now dead, the IAF's Rs 2,900 crore buy of 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II could rise to 181 trainers

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Dec 12

In a sharp rebuff to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), the Defence Ministry (MoD) has rejected the public sector aerospace company’s proposal to build basic trainer aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This after the MoD discovered that HAL-built trainers would cost twice as much as proven aircraft procured from the international market.

After a fatal crash in July 2009, the IAF had grounded its entire basic trainer fleet of vintage HPT-32 Deepak aircraft. To train rookie pilots, the IAF initiated a fast-track procurement of 75 trainers on the international market. Sensing an opportunity, HAL entered the fray, proposing that it develop an indigenous trainer aircraft, dubbed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer - 40 (HTT-40), and manufacture 106 of those for the IAF.

But when the MoD compared prices, it found that thousands of crore extra would be paid for HAL-built trainers. In September, the MoD summarily scrapped HAL’s proposal to build the HTT-40.

“Why should we pay HAL Rs 60 crore per basic trainer, when we can buy proven trainers from abroad for Rs 30 crore?” said a top MoD official to Business Standard.

“We would be willing to pay higher rates to build indigenous capability in strategic defence equipment. But can HAL argue that the capability to build basic trainers is strategically vital,” noted the official.

On May 24, 2012, the MoD signed a contract with Swiss aerospace manufacturer, Pilatus Aircraft Ltd, to buy 75 PC-7 Mark II basic trainers for some Rs 2,900 crore, defence minister AK Antony told parliament in August.

Now, with HAL’s proposal to build 106 trainers rejected, as many as 181 Pilatus trainers may be bought.

Contacted for comments, HAL did not deny that its trainer aircraft project had been shot down. “We treat all MOD issues/proposals as confidential… All our projects are conceived with national interest in mind though at times some of them take time to fructify,” responded a HAL spokesperson by email.

But HAL continues to dabble, so far unsuccessfully, in developing a trainer. Its long-running project to build an Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) has sputtered along for 13 years already. The IJT project --- which had its first flight in 2003 --- underwent a serious setback last year when a trainer crashed, fortunately without loss of life.

The IJT, to which pilots will graduate after completing “Stage-1” training on the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainer, is intended to replace the obsolescent Kiran Mark II. After “Stage-2” training on the IJT, pilots will graduate to “Stage-3” training on the Hawk advanced jet trainer. Only after that will they fly IAF frontline combat aircraft.

The decision to buy the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II has had its own share of controversy. One of the contenders for this contract, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), protested in writing that Pilatus should be disqualified, as it had submitted an incomplete bid. That would have given KAI the contract, as the next-cheapest, fully-compliant bidder. For ten months, the contract was on hold as the MoD investigated KAI’s complaint.

Seoul piled on the pressure, with South Korean defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, personally writing to Antony requesting a “high-level review” of the “allegations on irregularity” in the deal. But that did not work. On May 2, 2012, Antony informed parliament that KAI’s petition “has been found to be devoid of merit.”

The Pilatus PC-7 Mark II is expected to overcome key drawbacks in the HPT-32, which did not have an ejection system; in emergencies, pilots ejected manually. Poor instrumentation and avionics restricted training to good weather. The HPT-32 had no recording equipment, so instructors never knew when trainee pilots, flying solo, had violated flying procedures. The PC-7 Mark II is capable of aerobatics, instrument and night flying and tactical operations. It is a hybrid aircraft, with a PC-9 airframe mated with a smaller, PC-7 engine to lower procurement, flying and maintenance costs. It is in service with several air forces, including South Africa and Malaysia.

Friday, 14 December 2012

India’s Ocean?

A helicopter from INS Shivalik lands on PLA Navy warship, Ma'anshaan during exercises in June 2011

by Ajai Shukla
CSCAP Regional Security Outlook
Dec 2012

On the 13th of June, four warships from the Indian Navy’s Visakhapatnam-based Eastern Fleet sailed into Shanghai, China on a four-day port visit. The four vessels --- INS Rana, Shivalik, Karmukh and Shakti --- had participated in JIMEX-12 (Japan-India Maritime Exercise - 2012), the inaugural bilateral maritime exercise, and were now patrolling the South China Sea.

The same day, another Indian warship, INS Savitri, docked in Port Victoria, Seychelles. The Savitri had come to participate in Seychelles’ National Day celebrations and then spend two months patrolling the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Seychelles and Mauritius, along with two Indian Navy Dornier aircraft stationed in those island nations at their request.

Meanwhile, near the Gulf of Aden, an Indian guided missile frigate, INS Tabar, was engaged in convoy escort and anti-piracy patrols, coordinating with Japanese and Chinese warships under a joint mechanism called SHADE (Shared Awareness and De-confliction). Simultaneously, India’s Mumbai-based Western Fleet was sending a four-warship patrol to East Africa, the Red Sea and the Western Mediterranean[1].

As this busy naval calendar might suggest, India is fast emerging as the regional power that polices the Indian Ocean. Said India’s Defence Minister, AK Antony, to his admirals last May, “India’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and the professional capability of our navy bestows upon us a natural ability to play a leading role in ensuring peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region…. The security of maritime activity through the sea-lanes in Indian Ocean is of crucial importance for the economic prosperity of our nation and that of the world[2].”

Even as an increasingly muscular Indian Navy raises its profile in the Indian Ocean, it keeps a studied distance from any confrontation in the western Pacific. In January, President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to the Asia Pacific region” singled out India as a key US partner in Asia[3]. In the bilateral dialogue between Washington and New Delhi, there is pressure for India to enhance its role. But India’s strategic calculus remains centred on the patch of water that it regards as its bailiwick: the northern Indian Ocean.

Indian maritime policymakers have declared they would resist being drawn into the emerging US-China rivalry in the Western Pacific, South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. In August, India’s then naval chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, declared that, “notwithstanding major policy statements from the US, from our perspective the primary area of interest to us is from the Malacca Strait to the (Persian/Arabian) Gulf in the west and to the Cape of Good Hope in the south… The Pacific and the South China Sea are of concern to us, but activation in those areas is not on the cards.”[4]

Restricting itself to the Indian Ocean might seem like strategic under-reach for South Asia’s most powerful country, but even this is a new dawn for Indian policymakers. For decades India’s leaders have remained continental in outlook, fixing their gaze on the disputed land borders in the north despite having experienced colonization from the sea. A recent naval chief has publicly lamented “a national psyche of sea blindness.”[5] Only in the new century has relative weakness in the north, where a resurgent China looms large over the Himalayan frontiers, imposed a new maritime awareness on New Delhi policymakers, forcing them to look towards the oceanic south where India holds better cards than China. There the peninsular dagger of India’s Deccan Plateau thrusts a thousand miles into the Indian Ocean, dominating the International Shipping Lanes, or ISLs, the trade superhighways on which 100,000 vessels a year carry hydrocarbons and manufactured goods to and from the economic powerhouses of Southeast and East Asia.

Indian navy cadets practising drill

Enhancing India’s advantages are the strategically priceless island chains of Lakshdweep and Andaman & Nicobar, which straddle the ISLs, the former in the Arabian Sea and the latter at the mouth of the Malacca Strait. Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, is now home to a full-fledged tri-service command with a fighter base and a growing complement of naval, air and ground assets. In July India opened a naval air base, INS Baaz, at the very mouth of the Malacca Strait. This will eventually have a 10,000-foot-long runway for fighter operations, providing effective control over the Malacca Strait.

The runway at INS Baaz, the new Indian naval base near Malacca

In New Delhi’s traditionally restrained strategic perspective, the Indian Ocean is not regarded as a potential naval battlefield on which vital national issues would be decided. Instead, it is seen as an Indian economic lifeline that must be safeguarded; and as a key vulnerability of potential enemies, notably China, who could be garrotted through a blockade of shipping if hostilities elsewhere were playing out adversely[6].

Even as this contingency figures centrally in Indian naval planning, defence ministry (MoD) planners pooh-pooh the US notion that India would be a natural partner for America in any superpower confrontation in the Indo-Pacific[7]. “Rivalry with China is not pre-ordained, nor will we be drawn into someone else’s battles,” a top MoD planner explained[8]. “Any walk down a path of naval confrontation with China will be driven exclusively by our own interests. The Sino-India dynamic is entirely different from the Sino-US one. We have to think dispassionately about the rivalries and differences here.”

Such caution has not held back Defence Minister Antony from voicing Indian concern at China’s assertiveness over the island territories that it claims in the waters off its coast. At the Shangri La Dialogue in June, Antony declared: “(M)aritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group…. (T)he fullness of maritime freedoms can be realized only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles.”

Antony also strongly backed the emerging Asian security architecture, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting – Plus (ADMM Plus); and consultative mechanisms like the IOR-ARC (Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation); and IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium), an Indian-sponsored forum that convenes biennially, bringing together 35 naval chiefs from around the Indian Ocean rim. In New Delhi’s perspective the East Asia Summit and the ADMM Plus, despite their non-assertiveness, are important forums where China can be periodically held to account[9].

The Antony MoD’s wariness of China is fully matched by its suspicion of the US[10]. But there is little restraint in the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA’s) enthusiasm over the US-India maritime relationship. Senior MEA diplomats conclude from the increasingly sophisticated US-India joint naval exercises that, “Common maritime interests allow US-India political convergence to play out in the political-military realm. Most of the political-military dialogue[11] between Washington and New Delhi centres on the Indian Ocean Region, and on the US intentions there.”

Given that the maritime-oriented US Pacific Command (PACOM) is responsible for the Indian and Indian Ocean geographies[12], it is unsurprising that naval exercises constitute the bulk of the joint military training between the US and India. It also follows logically that the US Navy, of the four American services, backs the military relationship with India most enthusiastically.

* * * *

On 3rd April 1989, the cover of Time magazine featured the Indian-built frigate, INS Godavari, with a cover story entitled, “Superpower India.” This was the end of the 1970s and 1980s, a golden era for the Indian Navy, when the Soviet Union provided it with a stream of missile boats (e.g. the Osa class, and later the larger Nanuchkas and Tarantuls, reclassified as the Vijaydurg and Veer class), frigates and destroyers (e.g. the Rajput class), all at “friendship prices.” With New Delhi offering little clarity about the nature and purpose of India’s naval build up; alarm bells were sounding from Indonesia to Australia. But India’s economic crisis of 1991, and the resulting cuts in defence spending, led to what the navy still calls “the lost decade”. No warships were ordered during this period, leading to a shortfall that will take decades to make up.

Today, even with an all-time high share of 18 per cent of India’s $36 billion defence budget[13], the Indian Navy is struggling to reach its planned force level of 160 vessels, including 90 capital warships.[14] These include the escorts and logistic backup for two aircraft carrier battle groups that New Delhi planners want “fully operational and combat worthy” at all times[15]. Towards this end, three aircraft carriers are on the anvil: the much-delayed, 44,000 tonne INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, built in Russia) that was due to join the fleet next year, but has encountered potentially serious engine problems during ongoing pre-delivery sea trials in the Barents Sea; the 40,000 tonne INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier that was to enter service in 2015 but is running three years behind schedule; and another 65,000 tonne vessel that will follow the Vikrant. Meanwhile the navy flogs its lone aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, which celebrated its silver anniversary in the Indian Navy in May after having earlier served 25 years in the Royal Navy. 

INS Vikramaditya has encountered an engine problem that will delay its delivery to India until late 2013

Like India’s aircraft carriers, the smaller warships are running late too. A report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the national auditor, reveals that the Indian Navy today has just 61, 44 and 20 per cent respectively of the frigates, destroyers and corvettes that it has projected as its minimum requirement[16].

India’s newest warship, INS Sahyadri, a limited-stealth, 5,600-tonne, guided missile frigate of the Shivalik-class that was commissioned in July, takes the overall tally of vessels to 134, twenty-six short of its projected requirement. Alarmingly for naval planners who hope to boost these numbers, the CAG report notes: “the 5 vessels that will be inducted each year will barely suffice to replace warships that are decommissioned after completing their 30-40 year service lives.”

Not everyone subscribes to the warnings that the Indian Navy’s fleet is dangerously short of warships. Analysts, especially air power votaries, point to the significantly greater firepower that a new generation of indigenously built warships carry, arguing that this more than compensates for any shortfall in numbers. Measured tonne for tonne, Indian-built warships are amongst the most heavily armed vessels afloat. The seven 6,800-tonne destroyers being built under Project 15A and 15B, the first of which could be commissioned next year, will each carry sixteen Brahmos-2 surface-to-surface supersonic cruise missiles; the new (still unnamed) Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM), an anti-missile system that India and Israel are jointly developing; a 130-millimetre super-rapid gun mount (SRGM); four 30-millimetre AK-630 rapid fire guns for close air defence; and a full suite of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment, including the latest, India-developed HUMSA-NG bow mounted sonar. Each destroyer will embark two helicopters, kitted out for ASW missions.

Either way, India’s growing ability to design and build warships is likely to drive its emergence as a credible maritime force. Of 18 major warships that joined the fleet over the last two decades, 12 were designed and built in three MoD-owned shipyards in India: Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL); Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE); and Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL). Last year the MoD bought a fourth shipyard, Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), which could be central to India’s submarine building programme.

These shipyards, however, do not have the capacity to build warships at the rate that the navy requires. So great are the infrastructure shortfalls that Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), a non-defence shipyard owned by the Ministry of Shipping, has been contracted to build the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. No defence shipyard has a slipway or dry dock large enough for an aircraft carrier, nor the modular shipbuilding facilities needed for such a vessel. To overcome this, MDL and GRSE have partnered private shipbuilders, which have recently put up excellent shipyards but lack experience in building larger warships. This will utilize private sector capacities, while also building them as constructors in their own right.

The new modular shipyard at Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai

In July, MDL announced a joint venture company (JV) for building surface warships with Pipavav Defence & Offshore Engineering Company Ltd (PDOECL), which has a world-class shipyard near Bhavnagar, Gujarat, on the Arabian Sea. Another JV for building submarines was announced with Larsen & Toubro, which has played a central role in building India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant; and which will soon inaugurate a spanking new shipyard at Katupally, near Chennai. GRSE is also implementing its own tie-ups.

MDL and GRSE are also completing major modernisation programmes, installing the modular workshops, slipways and Goliath cranes that support modular shipbuilding. This is expected to cut down the build time of a frigate from the current 96 months to just 60 months; and the build time of a destroyer from the current 120 months to 72 months. This follows heavy criticism, most recently by the CAG, which has noted that “The lead ship in all projects is delivered or expected to be delivered after a delay ranging from four to five years from the original delivery date.”[17]

INS Teg, the first of three Project 11356 Russian warships, has been delivered to India

The mobilization of Indian warship building yards is long overdue, given the volume of navy orders. Already, 46 naval vessels are under construction: three in Russia (two Project 11356 or Teg-class frigates, and the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya) and 43 in India. These include three 6,800-tonne destroyers being built by MDL under Project 15A (INS Kolkata, Kochi and Chennai); four similar destroyers under Project 15B; and six Scorpene submarines. Meanwhile GRSE is building four anti-submarine warfare corvettes; and eight upgraded landing craft for deployment in the Andaman Islands. Meanwhile, GSL is building four offshore patrol vessels (OPVs); while private shipyards are constructing five more OPVs; two cadet training ships; and six new catamaran-hulled survey vessels.

Besides these, the MoD has sanctioned another 49 vessels for the navy[18]. These include: seven guided missile frigates under Project 17A, to be built simultaneously by MDL and GRSE; six AIP-equipped submarines under Project 75(I); four fast attack craft (FAC) at GRSE; eight mine hunter vessels (two will be built in South Korea by Kangnam Corp, with six more built by GSL after technology transfer). A private shipyard will build another cadet training ship, and shipbuilders are being identified for four Landing Platform Docks (LPDs) and 16 shallow water anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships. The navy is evaluating options for a Deep Submergence and Rescue vessel (DSRV). Contracting will begin “in the coming months” for one survey training vessel and two diving support vessels.

If lack of numbers in the surface fleet is worrisome, the shortfall in the submarine fleet amounts to a critical operational weakness. Down to just 14 operational submarines (ten Russian Kilo-class submarines, known by their Indian nomenclature, the Sindhughosh-class; and four German HDW Type 209 submarines, called the Shishumar-class), about eight are operational at any given time. The navy’s ability to shut down crucial waterways, therefore, hinges mainly on the INS Chakra, the 12,700 tonne Akula II class nuclear attack submarine (SSN) that joined India’s eastern fleet in April, on a 10-year lease from Russia. New Delhi and Moscow are negotiating a lease for a second SSN for India.

The INS Chakra at its commissioning in Apr 2012

Meanwhile, the six Scorpene submarines that MDL is constructing will be delivered incrementally between 2015 and 2018. Only the last two Scorpenes will be built with MESMA Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems ab initio; the first four will be retrofitted with AIP later.

A long-running technology debate continues to delay six more submarines that the navy’s “30-Year Submarine Construction Plan” of 1999 envisages building under Project 75(I). While all sides agree on the need for AIP, an argument ensued over which procurement model the navy should follow. One camp argued for ambitious specifications, with vendors tasked to deliver those. The contending view was to choose between proven designs that were on offer. The first view was discredited by Australia’s experience with the Collins-class submarines; but argument continues over the kind of AIP --- Sterling engine or fuel cells --- the navy should opt for.

The Indian Navy is acutely aware of its inferiority in numbers to the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), which operates some 50 conventional submarines and nine SSNs. Even the submarine wing of the otherwise moribund Pakistan Navy already has three AIP-equipped Agusta 90B submarines and is set to buy another six conventional submarines from China.

The picture is rosier in New Delhi’s quest for maritime domain awareness (MDA). For decades, the navy has relied on an outdated Soviet-era fleet of five IL-38 and eight Tu-142 aircraft. In early 2013, the first of eight Boeing P8I multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMA) will enter service, with the order likely to be increased by another four aircraft. The navy also plans to induct eight Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, and strengthen its MDA capability with additional Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)[19]. Naval strategists argue, however, that India’s 7,500-kilometre coastline; its 2.2 million square kilometre EEZ; and the need to monitor the ISLs, demands a land-based surveillance network, like the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) in Australia. That notion, however, is yet to translate into a procurement or development order.

The first flight of the Boeing P8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft at the Boeing facility in Seattle, USA

Security outlook

Occupied for now with consolidating its naval fleet, bases and doctrines, New Delhi is inclined to remain aloof from the unfolding confrontation in the Asia-Pacific. India has noted the lack of clarity in the evolving strategic matrix. While Beijing’s new belligerence over its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan has created an “alliance of the alarmed”, New Delhi sees that as a fragile coalition with serious internal fault lines. Nor is there great belief in American steadfastness; India’s faith in US resolve was badly shaken by President Barack Obama’s controversial “G-2 condominium” proposal to Beijing in 2009, which India bitterly regarded as the ceding of Asian overlordship to China.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that New Delhi is hedging its bets. The Indian Navy, while regularly patrolling waters claimed by China, and strengthening partnerships with littoral states --- especially Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia --- is also keeping the door conspicuously open for China. This is not lost on Beijing. After the Sept 2012 visit to India by Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister, a Xinhua commentary (which China’s Ministry of National Defense posted on its website) revealed that New Delhi and Beijing had discussed the US rebalancing to Asia. In a conspicuous departure from the cut-and-dried tone normally used in matters relating to India, the commentary noted: “As the world geo-political situation goes through a massive change, the coming together of the two largest countries that also have the strength of their economies could tilt balances.”[20]

Could China, worried by the growing confrontation with the US on its eastern flank, be looking at clearing its western flank through a border agreement with India? If there is a game-changer in the offing, it could be such a Chinese decision. In the absence of a border settlement, New Delhi will continue to hedge, strengthening its naval power in the Indian Ocean while avoiding provocation in the waters beyond the Malacca Strait.

In the medium term (2012-2022), the Indian Navy will accumulate the resources --- three aircraft carrier battle groups; coastal air bases and forward air bases in the island chains of Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar; and a mix of conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines --- that would be needed for imposing sea control over selected waters, while pursuing a sea denial strategy at multiple choke points on the International Shipping Lanes in the Indian Ocean. Networked through a constellation of satellites that will be launched over the coming decade, the Indian Navy would emerge as the predominant naval power in the northern Indian Ocean.

The southern Indian Ocean is another matter. New Delhi has evaluated, but appears currently disinclined towards building and operating overseas naval bases, especially in the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and the East African seaboard. Indian naval planners worry that the PLA(N) has already decided to have a significant presence in the Indian Ocean. Vice Admiral Anup Singh, who until recently headed the Eastern Naval Command, notes that the PLA(N) sends a task force of three warships --- a destroyer, a frigate and a logistics vessel --- to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy patrols, while the Indian Navy makes do with just one.

But a sustained PLA(N) presence in the Indian Ocean would require base support, as well as aircraft carriers on station. China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning (formerly the Varyag, built in Ukraine), is not being immediately followed up with a second vessel.[21] Nor has China moved towards setting up naval bases, which could perhaps be negotiated with Pakistan (Gwadar), and Sri Lanka (Hambantota). New Delhi believes that China’s supply to Pakistan of F-22 frigates, submarines and conceivably more equipment to come, is directed at creating local capabilities without the provocation of establishing a base.

For now, the Indian Navy’s growing muscularity has not evoked objections, not even from Beijing. Meanwhile, most littoral states have welcomed India’s growing control over the northern Indian Ocean, especially given the insecurity that piracy has bred. New Delhi, therefore, arguing that it is acting in the regional interest, is likely to remain an independent actor, eschewing overt alliances and maintaining a cooperative rather than a confrontational relationship with both China and the US.

[1]  The Indian Navy Public Relations Office (PRO) released the schedule of 13th June 2012 in an official press release that day.
[2] Ministry of Defence, Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) press release on 8th May 2012, on the inauguration of the annual Naval Commanders’ Conference.
[3]  The new US strategy, enunciated in the document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” was announced on 5th January 2012.
[4]  Admiral Nirmal Verma, at a press conference in New Delhi on 7th Aug 2012.
[5]  Admiral Nirmal Verma, addressing the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) on 25th June 2012, in London, on the topic: “Metamorphosis of Matters Maritime: An Indian Perspective.”
[6]  While the potential blockading of Chinese trade and energy supplies has never been explicitly enunciated in any Indian public document, this is the unmistakeable sense that is conveyed by multiple policymakers in various interviews with the author.
[7]  The idea of the Indo-Pacific, “a seamless stretch of ocean space linking the India and Pacific”, was highlighted by Shyam Saran in “Mapping the Indo-Pacific”, Indian Express, 29th Oct 2011. Saran pointed out that Hillary Clinton first spoke about the “Indo-Pacific” in a speech in Honolulu in Oct 2010. In an article in Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, Clinton again wrote about the need to “translate the growing connection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans into an operational concept.”
[8]  This was stated in an off-the-record briefing to the author on 29th Aug 2012. This corroborates similar views expressed earlier by multiple MoD officials.
[9]  This was pointed out by a senior MEA diplomat in an off-the-record interview on 6th Sept 2012.
[10]  Defence Minister AK Antony, rooted in the leftist politics of his home state, Kerala, tends to ideologically distrust the US.
[11] Washington and New Delhi resumed their political-military dialogue in April 2012, after a gap of six years, when Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro, visited New Delhi for a round of talks.
[12] The jurisdiction of the Tampa-headquartered US Central Command (CENTCOM) ends with Pakistan at the Pakistan-India border.
[13]  Until 1981, the navy’s share was consistently under 9 per cent; last year, it was 15 per cent.
[14] This can be gleaned from three recent documents: the Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan for 2012-27; the 12th Defence Plan; and 12th Infrastructure Plan.
[15] Admiral Nirmal Verma to the IISS, 25th June 2012
[16] Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Performance Audit of the Indigenous Construction of Indian Naval Warships, 2010
[17] Ibid.
[18]  Learning from the 1980s, the Indian Navy is transparent about its warship building programmes. These figures, and those in the preceding paragraph, were announced by navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, at a New Delhi press conference on 7th Aug 2012.
[19] Admiral Nirmal Verma, at a New Delhi press conference on 7th Aug 2012.
[20]  Xinhua commentary, “China, India make efforts to build military trust”, 5th Sept 12, posted on website of China’s Ministry of National Defense,
[21] Spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, Yang Yujun, at a briefing on 27th Sept 12.