Thursday, 29 August 2013

ASEAN defence ministers cautious on South China Sea

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Aug 13

At a meeting of regional states at Brunei on Thursday, India’s Minister of State for Defence, Jitendra Singh, reminded China that it could not unilaterally write the rules in the region.

Addressing the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) today, many of whose members fear the rising power and assertiveness of China, Mr Singh said that territorial claims in the South China Sea could not block “unimpeded right of passage”, which were “accepted principles of international law.”

“These principles should be respected by all…. We oppose the use or the threat of use of force. We hope that all parties to disputes in the South China Sea region will abide by the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea,” said Mr Singh.

Indian public sector oil major, ONGC Videsh, is partnering Vietnam Oil and Gas Group in prospecting for oil in the Phu Khanh Basin in the South China Sea. So far no oil has been found; and Beijing has asserted that these are disputed waters.

Earlier this month, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned against hurrying through the envisaged “Code of Conduct.” China prefers to negotiate bilaterally with regional countries rather than having them ranged against it in a block.

But there is little unified will for confronting China. On Wednesday, Malaysia, which, along with Brunei --- and in contrast to Vietnam and the Philippines --- has traditionally downplayed tensions with China, declared that Chinese naval patrols are not threatening.

Bloomberg News quotes Malaysia’s defence minister, Hishammuddin, as saying that “Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies.” The Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of little concern.

The Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) brings together the defence ministers of India, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States with those of the 10 Asean countries.

The grouping has identified five non-controversial areas for cooperation --- counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, military medicine, and peacekeeping. The Brunei meeting added on a sixth area --- humanitarian mine action.

The meeting on Thursday was the second ADMM-Plus gathering, after its 2010 inaugural at Hanoi, Vietnam. Today’s meeting resolved to meet every two years.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Karzai meets Nawaz; New Delhi fumes at Pakistan role in Afghan-Taliban talks

Kabul warms to Islamabad as Karzai asks for help in bringing the Taliban to the table

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Aug 13

With the Afghan government in Kabul approaching Islamabad for help in opening “reconciliation” talks with the Taliban, a Pakistani role in shaping the political landscape in Afghanistan is now an uncomfortable likelihood for New Delhi.

Acknowledging Islamabad’s influence with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Islamabad today and asked Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “to facilitate peace talks” between Kabul and the Taliban.

Prime Minister Sharif, who declared that he wants a “peaceful, stable and united” Afghanistan, did not hesitate in accepting this opening.

"I assured President Karzai that Pakistan will continue to extend all possible facilitation to the international community's efforts for the realisation of this noble goal," said Sharif, in comments made live on Pakistani television after meeting with Karzai.

"In what observers and officials regard as an indication that the two leaders have found common ground, the Afghan president --- who was to return to Kabul on Monday --- has extended his stay in Pakistan in order to continue talks on Tuesday."

New Delhi, which enjoys enormous political leverage with Mr Karzai, has tried to convince the Afghan president not to approach Islamabad as a conduit to the Taliban. But, with the Pakistan-based insurgent group spurning Kabul’s direct overtures, and dismissing Mr Karzai as an American puppet, Pakistan has landed the role of middleman.

Speaking at a closed-door seminar in New Delhi on Friday, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid had repeatedly expressed regret that Kabul was talking to the Taliban. “Certain elements in (the reconciliation) process are not very comforting to us,” said Mr Khurshid

“We are not sanguine about some of the armed groups that Afghanistan is talking to, but that is for Afghanistan to decide,” he repeated.

It remains unclear who exactly Islamabad would bring to the dialogue table. Kabul has repeatedly asked Pakistan to release all Afghan prisoners from Pakistani jails, especially Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a key deputy of Mullah Omar. Pakistan arrested and jailed Mullah Baradar in 2010, reportedly after the Taliban leader initiated a direct dialogue track with Kabul.

In June, Pakistan claims it brought more than two dozen Taliban representatives to Qatar, for opening a political office. That initiative quickly collapsed, with Mr Karzai furious that the Taliban had adopted the trappings of a government in exile.

Today’s Pakistan trip is a climb down for Mr Karzai, who has repeatedly accused Islamabad of blocking the Taliban from talking to the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), the body set up by Kabul to pursue reconciliation between Afghan factions, especially the Taliban.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s new role, India’s influence remains strong in Kabul. New Delhi’s clout rests on an on-going, and widely appreciated, $2 billion aid programme in Afghanistan. New Delhi and Kabul signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in 2011.

Today, in parliament, Defence Minister AK Antony told parliament that India was engaged in “the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for the Afghan National Security Forces.”

New Delhi intends to keep a sharp watch on Kabul’s talks with the Taliban. “We will study the solutions that Kabul evolves, and we will be grateful for being informed. But the solution has to be what Kabul wants, what it is comfortable with and which it must find for itself,” said Mr Khurshid.

Next year, Afghanistan is scheduled to undergo a dual transition. Mr Karzai, having served two terms as president, must hand over to a successor, for which countrywide elections are due. Also, 80,000 troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has underpinned security for over a decade, are due to be pulled out. Left in Afghanistan will be is a residual US presence, which remains to be negotiated between Washington and Kabul.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Under-defended India

The Akash missile, mounted on a T-72 based self propelled launcher

by Ajai Shukla
23rd Aug 13
(Slightly abridged version in Business Standard today)

The disastrous explosion in Mumbai that sunk INS Sindhurakshak, one of India’s 14 conventional submarines, and damaged another is a body blow to India’s depleted underwater force. A third submarine lies in Visakhapatnam, crippled by a decade-old attempt to overhaul it. At any given time, the navy can only muster 7-8 submarines. The 30-Year Submarine Construction Plan, sanctioned in 1999, planned to quickly build 24 submarines, but not one of those has entered service.

Meanwhile, the navy’s plan to field three aircraft carriers remains a pipedream. When INS Vikramaditya gets here from Russia, it will be more than five years late. The vintage INS Viraat is to be decommissioned by 2018-19, when Cochin Shipyard delivers the INS Vikrant. The navy continues to dither over the specifications of the Vikrant’s successor. The defence ministry silently watches.

Also languishing are Project 15A and 15B for building six destroyers in Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Project 17A for seven frigates. They are delayed by the navy’s decision to do “concurrent engineering”, that is developing advanced Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM) alongside the construction of the warship. But with the LR-SAM delayed, the warships are delayed too. This isn’t global best practice by any means; proven systems should be used on new platforms.

Indian Air Force (IAF) planning is even more lamentable, with just 36 fighter squadrons today, against an authorised requirement of 39.5 squadrons. Worse, in 2015, when 8 squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s are due to retire, to be replaced by only four squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI and a single squadron of Tejas LCAs. In 2017, another 6 squadrons of MiG-21s will retire, creating a fresh crisis. None of this is a surprise; these dates have been known for a decade. The Tejas LCA, now on the cusp of completion, would be a cheap and capable replacement; instead, the IAF has lobbied relentlessly for expensive foreign aircraft.

Consider: The cost of 126 Rafales is some $18 billion; 250 Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighters will cost $30-35 billion; and 100-odd Sukhoi-30MKI will cost $10 billion. Add another $10 billion for C-17 Globemaster III, C-130J Super Hercules and replacing the Avro; $3-4 billion for trainers; and $10-15 billion for the light, utility and combat helicopters currently being procured. That takes the IAF’s aircraft purchases to $81-92 billion over the next 10-15 years. If the IAF condescends to buy a few squadrons of Tejas LCA, its shopping list will kiss $100 billion.

This wish list is an unaffordable fantasy given the IAF’s modernisation budget is $5.7 billion this year. And, given that an aircraft’s purchase price is just 20-25% of its life-cycle cost, the MoD should have warned the IAF off costly foreign procurement and towards indigenous design, development and manufacture. Instead, there are pro forma statements, like “whatever our brave soldiers need for defending the country will be made available.”

Tokenism also suffuses the unnecessary announcement about strengthening the China border by raising a new strike corps and several tank brigades. Instead of tackling the key weakness on the border --- poor roads that prevent the army from moving --- the government has thrown Rs 70,000 crore at the problem. But a strike corps is useful only if it can deploy rapidly.

India’s defence crisis runs far deeper than a shortage of warships, aircraft or divisions. In the absence of a strategically aware opposition, academia, media and public, the government and the military are not called to account for their titanic misspending of lakhs of crores. During peacetime, pro forma statements can paper over the voids. But when the rubber hits the road, as it did in 1962, capability alone will matter.

Contempt notice to defence secretary over control of Armed Forces Tribunal


MoD ignores High Court's directive to place Armed Forces Tribunal under Ministry of Law

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23 Aug 13

The Punjab & Haryana High Court today issued contempt notices to the Defence Secretary and the Secretary (Justice) in the Law Ministry for not implementing court directions to place the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) under the Ministry of Law and Justice (MoLJ). The officials must respond by Sept 6.

The AFT is an independent judicial tribunal that soldiers must petition for justice before approaching the civil courts. However, since 2009, when it was set up through the Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007, the AFT has functioned under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

That led Chandigarh-based lawyer, Major Navdeep Singh, to file a public interest litigation (PIL) before the Punjab & Haryana High Court, highlighted a conflict of interest --- since the MoD was the respondent in every case before the AFT, how could it oversee the tribunal? In Nov 2012, the high court directed that the AFT be overseen by the MoLJ, not the MoD.

The MoD responded with a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court, seeking a stay on the Punjab & Haryana High Court’s decision. The apex court neither stayed the decision, nor issued a notice.

The government also set up an “Inter Ministerial Group” to look into the transfer of control of tribunals to the MoLJ.

The contempt petition pointed out that implementation of court judgments was not dependent upon the opinion of an “Inter Ministerial Group”. The contempt petition also alleged that the MoD was interfering with judicial functioning and violating law by “approving” appointments of AFT members, though the procedure does not require MoD approval.

This newspaper has reported (Apr 2, 2013, “RTI reveals MoD largesse to Armed Forces Tribunal”), how the MoD handed out largesse to AFT members --- paying Rs 67 lakhs for five “official foreign visits” by the AFT chairperson and members; and granting canteen shopping facilities to retired judges who are “Judicial Members” on AFT benches. Being civilians, the judges are not entitled to these.

Interestingly, the MoLJ has supported the idea of bringing the AFT, as well as tribunals in other ministries, under its jurisdiction. In an affidavit filed before the high court, the MoLJ stated that it had tried since 1997 to set up a Central Tribunal Division (CTD), but was opposed by most ministries and departments.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Defence ministry delays raise light artillery cost by thousands of crores

An American gun detachment fires the M777 ultralight howitzer in Afghanistan 

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Aug 13

A delay of over 3 years by the ministry of defence (MoD) in ordering urgently needed artillery guns for mountain division has raised the cost by as much as 90 per cent. New Delhi’s order for 145 pieces of the BAE Systems M777 ultra light howitzers (ULHs), which would have cost less than Rs 2,960 crore in Jan 2010, could now cost up to Rs 5,610 crore.

On Aug 7, the US Department of Defense (Pentagon) re-notified the US Congress of the sale to India of 145 BAE Systems M777 towed 155 mm/39-calibre ultra light howitzers (ULHs) for up to $885 million. This has superseded the earlier notification of Jan 26, 2010, which had stated a maximum cost of US $647 million.

This price increase of 38 per cent comes alongside the appreciation of the dollar by almost 45 per cent, from Rs 45.86 on Jan 26, 2010 to Rs 63.53 today. This double whammy has raised the cost by up to Rs 2,650 crore

However, senior Pentagon sources point out that the price of $885 million mentioned in the re-notification of Aug 7 is the “upper limit of the price envelope”, and that a deal finalized quickly might not cost substantially more than the previously notified $647 million.

“But some escalation is inevitable, given that the earlier notification dated back more than three years. Besides, BAE Systems has already incurred costs in keeping its assembly line open,” says the Pentagon official.

New Delhi is directly negotiating the purchase of 145 M777 ULHs with the Pentagon under what the US calls the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme. In this, India buys the gun directly from the Pentagon, which negotiates terms with the supplier (in this case BAE Systems), charging a small percentage for its services.

Most major components of the M777 ULH are made in the United Kingdom. However, since the US Army and Marine Corps are major users of the gun (the British Army itself does not use the M777), it is assembled at a BAE Systems plant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, USA.

Discussions continue between the MoD and BAE Systems but the purchase has not been finalised. There are reports of an effort to finalise a contract in time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US next month.

Production on the BAE Systems production line in Hattiesburg is winding down and would be closed in the absence of new orders. If New Delhi places an order for the M777 after the line closes down, that could result in a major cost escalation, since re-starting a shut down line and re-certifying suppliers of sub-systems would involve a substantial cost.

Business Standard understands that the previous commercial price bid from the Pentagon expired on July 31. The Pentagon is now likely to submit an “intermediate price offer” along with an expiry date.

The procurement of the M777 has been delayed partly due to controversy over the blacklisting of its competitor, the Pegasus howitzer offered by Singapore Technologies Kinetic (STK). Consequently, the M777 is a single-vendor purchase, which has made the MoD extremely cautious even though the army urgently wants the gun for the mountain divisions and strike corps that it is raising for the Sino-Indian border in the northeast.

If the M777 proves its worth, the initial order of 145 guns could be substantially increased in the form of “follow-on orders”. The Indian Army needs light 155 millimetre guns for seven corps that are deployed in mountain terrain. Unlike conventional artillery, ULHs can be lifted by helicopter to deployment areas high in the mountains.

India’s 220 artillery regiments (most of them fielding 18 guns each) have been making do with guns procured in the 1970s and 1980s. With overseas purchases repeatedly cancelled, and the ghost of the Bofors scandal lurking over the procurement of artillery guns, the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) is building 140 guns. Alongside that, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is partnering the private sector in developing and manufacturing modern 155 millimetre/52 calibre artillery guns.