Sunday, 31 July 2016

Games generals play: promotion tussle roils army

As army chief shuffles generals, western command without a head (Photo: Courtesy Getty Images)

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 31st July 16

A crucial series of top army appointments have remained vacant for months for no discernible reason. On Monday, the army’s most prestigious and vital operational command --- the Chandi Mandir based Western Command --- will be headed by a makeshift commander.

Even this temporary appointment is being made by army headquarters to avert criticism. Meanwhile, inexplicably, a fully qualified and experienced lieutenant general has been placed on the sidelines. Lieutenant General DRN Soni, who has successfully commanded a corps in Bhatinda and fulfills the residual age criteria needed to become an army commander, has been “attached” to army headquarters --- effectively placing him on hold.

Business Standard learns this is the latest shot fired in the long-running contest between the infantry and the armoured corps to have a larger number of so-called “army commanders” --- the army’s seven top lieutenant generals, each called a “general officer commanding-in-chief”, or GOC-in-C. Heading the army’s western, northern, eastern, southern, south-western and central commands, and the army training command (ARTRAC), these seven generals, along with the army chief and vice chief, monopolise vital decisions on the army’s future and promotions to the rank of lieutenant general.

Army insiders say Lt Gen Soni --- who is available and qualified for promotion to GOC-in-C Western Command --- is being denied this job since he is from the armoured corps. Instead, the army chief, an infantry officer, is slotting him into another appointment, which will render him ineligible to participate in army commanders’ conferences.

This will be presented as a fait accompli to the incoming chief, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, also from the armoured corps. While Bakshi’s appointment as army chief has not been announced, he will be the senior-most officer on November 30, the day the current chief, General Dalbir Singh, retires. Traditionally, the senior-most officer remaining in service is appointed army chief.

If proper procedure were to be followed, Bakshi --- who is currently GOC-in-C Eastern Command in Kolkata --- would be moved to army headquarters as vice-chief of the army staff (VCAS), as soon as he is announced as the next army chief. This allows an incoming chief the time to familiarize himself with ongoing army projects, procurements, and with functional procedures within South Block.

Instead, Bakshi is being kept at arm’s length from New Delhi, with the VCAS appointment now going to another infantry officer, Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, who is currently GOC-in-C Southern Command. Sources say the army is moving Rawat to Delhi even though he has commanded the southern army for just seven months. With two more years of service remaining, Rawat will fill the powerful VCAS slot through much of Bakshi’s tenure.

Many veterans are expressing disappointment that what should be healthy inter-arm rivalry is morphing into a blatant, no-holds-barred tussle for appointments. Lieutenant General (Retired) Aditya Singh, a former GOC-in-C Southern Command and an armoured corps officer, points out that all three of India’s strike corps are currently being commanded by infantry officers --- something that has never happened before.

“Strike corps are mechanized formations, based on tanks and infantry combat vehicles. That is why mechanized forces officers have traditionally commanded them. Having all three strike corps commanded by infantry officers can hardly be a coincidence. It suggests parochialism,” says Aditya Singh.

These regrettable turf battles are not just confined to the army. At the broader, tri-service level, the impulse to safeguard turf is now threatening to scuttle the important experiment of the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC). The ANC is India’s first tri-service command, containing elements of the army, navy and air force; it was to be commanded in rotation by flag officers from all three services. Instead, the navy is consolidating its hold on it, with the appointment, on February 1, of a second consecutive commander.

It was hoped that the ANC would lead the way to more tri-service commands. Instead, in what analysts see as a quid pro quo, the three services are jointly scuttling the notion of tri-service command by handing ANC over to the navy. In return, the air force covets the strategic forces command, while an army general could permanently head the integrated defence staff (IDS).

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Bulletproof glass ceiling blocks women from army combat roles

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th July 16

Allowing women into military combat units is fiercely contested even in countries like the United States (US) where gender equality is advanced. In relatively conservative India, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was forced to backtrack less than a month after mooting the idea of all-women combat units in the army, and their entry into Sainik Schools and the National Defence Academy (NDA).

In a statement in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, the defence minister announced: “Presently there is no proposal to raise a women’s combat unit in the army”.

Significantly, Parrikar has disavowed only a “women’s combat unit”, i.e. an all-women unit. He has not so far rejected the possibility of women officers serving as officers in mixed gender combat units.

Earlier, President Pranab Mukherjee --- the Supreme Commander of the military --- speaking at the inauguration of the budget session of parliament in February, stated that women would soon be inducted into the combat streams of all three services.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has already inducted women into combat, with its first three women fighter pilots commissioned last month on an “experimental” basis. The navy too deploys women officers on frontline warships, carrying them into harm’s way even while they perform non-combatant duties. Yet land combat remains a bastion denied to women, with powerful resistance from macho officers and veterans who pooh-pooh the notion of throwing women into hand-to-hand, physical combat.

This resistance is summarised by a highly regarded American veteran, Colonel Fred Dibella, who joined the US Army in 1969. Lamenting the political correctness behind the thrust for allowing women into combat, Dibella wrote: “Up to now, we have recognized the blatantly obvious: that battles and wars are won by Alpha Males. And why is that? Uh… because men and women may well be equal in the eyes of God, but they damned sure ain't identical in the laws of physics and psychology. Men are, by and large, bigger, stronger, faster, more aggressive, more violent, more ferocious, more intense, more powerful, more brutal, more belligerent, more destructive, AND THEREFORE MORE LETHAL than women” (capitals in original).

In India, identical attitudes are compounded by societal mores that relegate women to a subordinate role. Lieutenant General (Retd) Vinod Bhatia, a former paratrooper and director general of military operations points out: “Women officers have performed excellently in the non-combat roles that they have been permitted so far. But combat soldiers in the rank and file, most of them coming from rural areas, are not attuned to taking orders from women. This will be a real issue in hand-to-hand combat, like we had in Kargil, when officers have to not just issue orders but also personally lead the charge.”

Despite resistance, women officers have carved out a growing space in the army. As Parrikar told the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, until 1992, women could only serve in the military as doctors and nurses. That year women officers were allowed into four non-combat army branches: Army Service Corps (ASC) and Army Ordnance Corps (AOC), which manage logistics; the Army Education Corps (AEC), which trains and educates soldiers; and the Judge Advocate General (JAG) branch, the military’s internal legal department. Women “short service officers” could serve five years, extendable to ten.

Four years later, in 1996, another four departments were opened to “short service” women officers: combat support arms, Engineers and Signals; Intelligence and Electrical & Mechanical Engineering (EME).  Subsequently, the Aviation and Air Defence (AD) branches were also opened to women. Since 2008, women have been granted permanent commissions into the AEC and JAG branches.

On Tuesday, parliament was told that 1514 women officers were serving in the military, as on April 1. These women are now allowed everywhere, except into combat arms --- the armoured corps, infantry and mechanised infantry --- and in the artillery.

Meanwhile, the American experience is stuttering along. In 2013, the US military opened ground combat roles for women but, controversially, without relaxing physical standards, and with a two-year period for evaluating its feasibility. Last year, three out of 19 women who enrolled in the Ranger School passed its notoriously difficult course. Not a single woman officer has yet passed the even tougher Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course.

Even so, President Barack Obama’s administration continues to pursue the goal of bringing women into ground combat. Last year, General Martin Dempsey, the head of the US military, questioned the tough, exclusionary standards, stating in a memo: “If women can't pass the standards at Ranger School, SEAL School, and other similar training programs, then the standards will have to be justified to me.”

In India, objections to allowing women into ground combat centre not just on the difficulty of meeting physical standards, but equally on the possibility that women could be captured and raped. Wing Commander (Retd) Neelu Khatri, who served fifteen years in the IAF, dismisses this as irrelevant. “Women combatants would have volunteered for the job, full well knowing that they could be killed on the job. Rape is a lower-order hazard than death, and is a risk that male soldiers equally face.”

Actor and adventurer Gul Panag, the daughter of a combat soldier, says she always aspired to join the army until she learnt women were not allowed into combat arms. “Women must be allowed to compete for commissions into combat arms, but without relaxing the physical requirements. If concessions are granted, the role of women will degenerate into tokenism, defeating its own purpose,”

Some senior officers agree. Says one, off the record: “Equal opportunity means allowing women into combat units. This will require Indians to overcome regressive patriarchal attitudes to women, where men see them as their property, to be protected but not allowed independent roles. By empowering women as combat officers, the army would be spearheading social change by changing women’s subordinate status."

Monday, 4 July 2016

Taking forward the Tejas

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th July 16

Over the preceding decade, under-informed defence writers and commentators have made careers out of bad-mouthing India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The commentary focused primarily on development delays, criticized the fighter’s performance and sneered at the under-funded, under-staffed Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) agency responsible for the Tejas programme. Regrettably, the Indian Air Force (IAF) colluded in undermining ADA, passing on tidbits to the media in order to show the Tejas in a poor light, apparently to clear the way for importing expensive aircraft. Thanks to this, most Indians came to regard the Tejas as a byword for delay, incompetence and the untrustworthiness of the DRDO. Most Indians concluded that the purchase of exorbitantly priced foreign aircraft like the French Rafale was unavoidable to keep India safe.

These critics have now done an about-turn after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar inducted the first two production version Tejas Mark I fighters on Saturday into the IAF’s first operational Tejas squadron (45 Squadron). In January, the Tejas made its foreign debut, performing well-received aerobatics displays at the Bahrain international Air Show. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, a steady hand at the IAF’s tiller, has supported the Tejas and committed to ordering 100 Tejas Mark 1A fighters --- similar to the current version, except for four specified improvements. Test pilots involved in the Tejas’ flight-testing had always praised its performance and reliability, but now there is also praise from the IAF. Group Captain Madhav Rangachari, the 45 Squadron chief who flew the Tejas on Saturday, reportedly observed afterwards: "I felt like being on top of the world when flying the Tejas fighter. It’s an excellent aircraft and a generation ahead of other fighters in the world.”

That nobody has contradicted Rangachari is a measure of how effusive the media has suddenly become in reporting this story. It needs to be pointed out that the Tejas is not “a generation ahead of other fighters”; it is a contemporary fighter, with several features that match the “best-in-class”, while others still require improvement. Even so, the most astounding achievement of the Tejas project is the development of a fourth-generation fighter and a respectable aerospace development, production and testing eco-system in India for the pittance of Rs 14,047 crore, just over $2 billion. This was done in the face of intensified international technology sanctions since the 1998 nuclear tests and, as discussed above, amidst media and IAF hostility.

The operationalization of the Tejas has not taken “over three decades” as critics dishonestly maintain. They incorrectly cite August 22, 1983 as the start of the Tejas project, when the government allocated Rs 560 crore for “feasibility studies and project definition”. In fact, it took another decade, until April 1993, when the defence ministry sanctioned the “Full Scale Engineering Development” (FSED) of the Tejas, and provided funds to build two fighters as “technology demonstrators”.

Taking April 1993 as the start of the Tejas development programme, the timeline suddenly looks more respectable. It took just eight years for the Tejas’ first flight in 2001; 20 years for initial operational clearance in 2013, and 23 years for final operational clearance and induction into IAF service. The significantly more capable Tejas Mark IA is expected to be completed by 2018 to meet standards that four agencies --- the defence ministry, IAF, ADA, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which builds the fighter --- have hammered out between them, to make the Tejas clearly more capable than current enemy fighters. If that deadline is met, the Tejas will have taken exactly a quarter century in development. That is a creditable record for building a first fighter.

The improved Tejas Mark IA will have an AESA radar, which the DRDO-HAL combine proposes to build in partnership with Israeli company Elta. It will be capable of air-to-air refueling to increase range and combat endurance. It will also have a “self-protection jammer” (SPJ) mounted in an external pod to confuse enemy radar. Finally, it will have an improved layout of internal systems to ease maintenance and allow rapid “turnaround time”, i.e. the quickness with which the Tejas can leave on a fresh mission after returning from an earlier one.

The IAF has already detailed the Tejas’ performance parameters, announcing: “The LCA has a very competitive and cotemporary operational envelope. It is capable of operations up to an altitude of 50,000 feet and a maximum speed of 1.6 Mach at [high] altitudes or 730 knots… at low levels. The aircraft [can turn at] +8G to -2.5G (which allows it to U-turn in 350 metres) in operationally clean configuration… or +6G to -2.5G with other external stores.” This respectable performance envelope will be further enhanced when the Tejas IA enters service. It is, therefore, incorrect to suggest, as some commentators and editorial writers have done, that only the import of fighters like the Rafale would give the IAF an operational edge. Directing those billions into the Tejas programme instead would be a more sensible course.

Even as the Tejas Mark IA is being developed, ADA is working on the Tejas Mark II. The key enhancement in that will be the replacement of the current General Electric F-404 engine with the larger, more powerful GE F-414 engine. The technological challenge --- which is to re-engineer the Mark I fuselage to fit in the bulkier F-414 --- would be offset by the Mark II’s greater power. The re-engineering would also provide the opportunity to replace the current generation of avionics with enhanced, new-generation avionics. Realistically, the Mark II can be expected to enter service by 2023-24, until when HAL can build the 100 Mark IA fighters that the IAF has committed to buying.

Supporting ADA through this programme is essential. That agency is simultaneously working on an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which will be a fifth-generation fighter with stealth features, and incorporating an advanced engine that will allow it to supercruise (fly at supersonic speed without lighting the fuel-guzzling afterburner). To enable and empower this project, it is essential to quickly conclude the contract with Russia to co-develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) that has been mired in negotiations for a decade. The FGFA experience would provide Indian aeronautical engineers the knowhow and experience in working on fifth-generation technologies, which would be translated into the AMCA.

The area of concern, which the defence ministry needs to address on priority, is to ensure that HAL builds the Tejas Mark I and Mark IA at a rate of 12-16 fighters per year. That would allow the IAF to conduct operational planning, obtain buy-in from that service, and translate the Tejas from a debutante into a real combat asset.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Missile test an urgent step towards defending IAF bases

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st July 16

On September 6, 1965, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched its first major air attacks into India. Ranging freely across the border, PAF fighters attacked multiple Indian Air Force (IAF) bases, destroying (according to Indian accounts) ten Indian fighters on the ground in Pathankot, damaging another three, and downing two IAF fighters protecting Halwara air base. The next day, another 12 Indian fighters were destroyed on the ground in Kalaikunda air base, in West Bengal. The IAF remained on the back foot for the rest of the 1965 war.

The likelihood of another such debacle receded on Thursday, with the successful test firing of the eponymous medium range surface to air missile (MR-SAM) off the Odisha coast. Jointly developed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) of Israel, the MR-SAM detects incoming enemy aircraft while they are well over a hundred kilometres away and destroys them at ranges out to 70 kilometres.

Broadly, the DRDO has developed the propulsion systems of the MR-SAM, while IAI has developed the radar and guidance systems. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed that Indian and Israeli experts were present at the test today, in which the missile detected and destroyed a pilotless target aircraft.

This will be welcome news for the IAF, which still protects its air bases with vintage Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles that should have retired decades ago, and with the DRDO’s Akash missiles that have an inadequate range of 25 kilometres. In the modern concept of “layered air defence”, short range missiles like the Akash are responsible only for close-in defence, while longer range missiles like the MR-SAM engage hostile aircraft at longer ranges.

The MR-SAM project is a twin of the Indian Navy’s Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) project, also being developed by the DRDO-IAI combine. While the key missile and guidance technologies and the missile capabilities are identical, the MR-SAM is a ground-and-vehicle based missile, while the LR-SAM is being deployed in warships.

In tandem with the LR-SAM, the MR-SAM is late by years, partly because of the cutting-edge technologies they incorporate. In March 2009, the IAF signed the contract for 18 fire units (each equipped with 24 missiles), which were to be delivered by October 2016. But with just the first test having been concluded, it will take at least another two years for the first MR-SAM batteries to enter squadron service.

Each self-contained fire unit includes a radar, three missile launchers, and a sophisticated Combat Management System. Since the missiles themselves have a limited shelf life, orders for missiles will be placed incrementally, as they are consumed in training, testing and operations.

When Business Standard visited the DRDO’s missile complex in Hyderabad, officials stated that the IAF had funded 90 per cent of the MR-SAM’s development cost of Rs 10,075 crore. The DRDO funded the remaining 10 per cent.

In an unusual arrangement, the DRDO did not just carry out technology development of the MR-SAM, but effectively functioned as the project manager. Officials confirmed that that the DRDO was handed control of the development budget, and asked to develop private industry partners who would assist in the development of MR-SAM sub-systems, and also manufacture those when it entered commercial production.

Acknowledging their contribution, a defence ministry statement today said: “Many Indian industries like BEL (Bharat Electronics Ltd), L&T (Larsen & Toubro), BDL (Bharat Dynamics Ltd), Tata group of companies, besides other private industries have contributed to the development of a number of subsystems which have been put into use in this flight test.” 

After the test today, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar congratulated the DRDO and the industry partners, while the DRDO chief, Dr S Christopher, declared the test a major milestone for the IAF’s air defence.