Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Maldives’ unprecedented snub to navy invitation

Meanwhile Maldives navy cadets join training with Indian navy squadron

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 28th Feb 18

In a rebuff that the Indian Navy is downplaying, the Maldives Islands have turned down an invitation to a gathering of Indian Ocean navies that the navy organises every other year in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

The event, called MILAN 2018, will be held in Port Blair from March 6-13. It will be attended by at least 16 navy delegations from Indo-Pacific littoral countries, including Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand Myanmar and Mauritius.

Maldives, one of the navy’s close maritime partners, has been a regular participant at MILAN, a week-long festival of discussions, band and cultural displays, sports events and cocktail parties, all to assert regional camaraderie.

But not this year, revealed navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, in New Delhi today. Asked why Male had declined to send a delegation, Lanba replied tersely: “Maldives has not given any reason for the decision.”

While there is concern in New Delhi about Male drifting deeper into Beijing’s orbit, a senior admiral ascribes Male’s absence to political uncertainty caused by an on-going power tussle in that country, where pro-China president, Abdulla Yameen, has imposed emergency and imprisoned top opposition leaders, who are largely pro-India.

Yameen’s constitutional coup could be running out of steam. On Tuesday, his own health minister, Dunya Maumoon, resigned – the second minister to do so since the crisis began on February 1.

But close naval ties with Male continue, say top navy sources, pointing out that a number of Maldivian navy cadets began training this month with the Indian Navy.

The Maldivian cadets joined the navy’s 1st Training Squadron, which trains Indian and foreign cadets on six ships – Indian Naval Ships Tir, Sujata and Shardul; Indian Coast Guard Ship Varuna, and two Sail Training Ships -- Sudarshini and Tarangini.

Over the last four decades, the 1st Training Squadron has trained more than 13,000 cadets from over 40 countries, including many from the Maldives.

In its 24 week-long training course, navy and coast guard cadets learn how to operate warships and are exposed to the rigours of life at sea – “earning their sea legs”, in naval parlance.

Sri Lanka reassures India

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Sri Lanka’s chief of defence staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, allayed Indian concerns about the Chinese presence in Hambantota, a port in southern Sri Lanka. “I can assure this forum that no action whatsoever will be taken in our harbours or in our waters which jeopardise India’s security concerns”, he said.

“Our honourable prime minister has very clearly said that the government will not enter into any military alliance with any country for making our bases available to foreign countries. Only Sri Lankan armed forces, and mainly Sri Lankan navy, will be responsible for security of Hambantota harbour and all other ports in our country,” he stated.

Addressing the Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue organised by the Indian Navy in New Delhi on Tuesday, Wijegunaratne also downplayed the visits by Chinese naval warships to Colombo port: “We had more than 65 foreign warships visiting Colombo harbour during last year from 14 different countries. Of course, the largest number is from India – 22 coast guard and Indian naval warships.”

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

China deploys J-20 stealth fighter, names India as threat

Has China been rattled by the F-35's growing presence in the Asia-Pacific?

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Feb 18

With China’s air force deploying its “latest stealth jet fighter” – the J-20 Chengdu – one of the provocations could be the Indian Air Force (IAF) deployment of its top-of-the-line Sukhoi-30MKI fighter in Assam, near the disputed Sino-India border.

The English language website “China Military Online” – an official People’s Liberation Army (PLA) news outlet – quoted an expert to state on Monday that the J-20 has been urgently operationalised because of the threat posed by the US, Japan, South Korea and India.

This is perhaps the most authoritative portrayal so far of Indian air power as a threat to China.

China Military Online states it is “Authorized by the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and sponsored by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily.”

The J-20, which is China's first stealth fighter, made its maiden flight in 2011. It was first inveiled at China’s Zhuhai Air Show in 2016 and began delivery to the PLAAF in March 2017. Assuming it has no major flaws, this is an incredibly fast development trajectory, especially compared to the American F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter.

On February 9, an official statement on the Weibo account of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) had revealed that the J-20 had been deployed with combat units.

Meanwhile, China is developing a second stealth fighter, the FC-31, which will fly off PLA Navy aircraft carriers. Beijing also hopes to target the international market with the FC-31.

The J-20 is a twin-engine, multi-role fighter that has exceptionally long range and can fly faster than 2,000 kilometers per hour. Its radar-scattering airframe, constructed from advanced, radar-absorbing materials makes it hard to detect at long ranges.

In wartime, experts assess that the PLAAF would use the J-20 to strike enemy “force multiplier” aircraft like refuelling tankers, reconnaissance aircraft and airborne command posts. Alternatively, it could be used for “stealth strikes”, slipping past enemy radars to attack high-value targets, warships or communication facilities.

While the J-20 is unquestionably the PLAAF’s most advanced fighter, aerospace experts also point to significant weaknesses.

The South China Morning Post, a reputed Hong Kong newspaper, has reported that China is still struggling to develop the Xian WS-15 engines (codenamed Emei) that the J-20 was built to fly with. As a stop-gap, the J-20 is flying with the less powerful WS-10B Taihang engine, compromising its performance.

Mirroring India’s struggles with the Kaveri engine, Chinese scientists have failed to to crack the challenge of developing “single crystal” turbine blades that can withstand the extreme temperatures in the combustion chamber of a high-performance fighter.

The Post concluded that the J-20 would only enter mass production when the WS-15 is performing suitably, which could take as long as eight years.

Meanwhile, the US Air Force has begun deploying the F-35 in Japan’s Kadena air base. Japan, which has a F-35 production plant in-country, has 42 F-35s on order. South Korea will get its first F-35s this year, with 40 due to be delivered by 2021. Singapore too seems likely to opt for the F-35. Experts believe this rising threat might have rushed Beijing into prematurely introducing the J-20 into service.

As this newspaper first reported (February 15, IAF looks to buy fifth-generation F-35 fighter) the IAF too has begun weighing the advantages of buying the US fifth-generation stealth fighter. 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Navy agrees to buy four Russian frigates for $3 billion

This will be the first capital warship contract since Project 17A was signed in early 2015 (above: INS Teg)

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Feb 18

New Delhi and Moscow have finalised contractual terms for four new stealth frigates that Russia will supply the Indian Navy for slightly over Rs 20,000 crore ($3 billion), or about Rs 5,000 crore ($775 million) per vessel.

Designated the “Upgraded Krivak III-class”, the first two frigates will be built in Yantar Shipyard, in Kaliningrad, Russia. The following two will be built in Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL) with technology and designs transferred by Yantar. Delivery will begin within four years of signing the contract.

With a defence ministry “cost negotiation committee” having hammered out terms, it remains for the finance ministry and the cabinet to clear what will be the first capital warship contract signed since Project 17A was contracted in early-2015.

The navy already operates six Krivak III frigates. The first three joined the fleet between June 2003 and April 2004, followed by another three between April 2012 and June 2013. With the current contract, the navy will operate ten Krivak III frigates – the fleet’s largest single type.

The Krivak III costs marginally less than the Rs 5,750 crore ($888 million) that the navy will pay for each of seven indigenous frigates that Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) have been contracted to build under Project 17A.

However, tonne-for-tonne, the indigenous frigates are cheaper. Each displaces about 5,600 tonnes fully loaded, significantly more muscular than the 4,000-tonne Krivak III. Further, each Project 17A frigate has space for two multi-role helicopters, while the smaller Krivak III embarks just a single Kamov-31 chopper. An extra helicopter provides major advantages in anti-submarine operations and airborne early warning.

Even so, with MDL, GRSE and GSL already stretched to capacity, navy planners are satisfied that Yantar is meeting India’s urgent need for more capital warships. The navy is also pleased with how the Krivak III fleet has performed over time.

New Delhi wanted to build all four Krivak III frigates in GSL under “Make in India”. However, Yantar had already part-built two frigates for the Russian Navy, which then backed away for lack of funds. New Delhi has obliged Moscow by buying them.

The part-built frigates at Yantar are also stalled by a defence embargo that Ukraine imposed on Russia after the latter annexed the Crimea. New Delhi, which has close defence relations with Ukraine, has undertaken to procure and provide Yantar the Zorya turbines that will power them.

The agreed terms stipulate a certain level of Indian-isation for the first two vessels that Yantar will deliver, and a significantly higher level for the next two vessels that are to be built in Goa.

For GSL, building a vessel as complex as a frigate will require upgrading its facilities and skills. However, naval planners say GSL should not take long to learn, having recently undergone the experience of building missile corvettes that are similarly dense in weapons and sensors.

These new Krivak III frigates will have the same engines and armament configuration as Yantar’s last three frigates – INS Teg, Tarkash and Trikand. These include the vaunted BrahMos anti-ship and land attack missile.

Senior naval planners underline the advantages of negotiating a “follow-on” contract, i.e. for vessels similar to those procured earlier. While it took six months to negotiate the contract for the Teg, Tarkash and Trikand, negotiations for the current contract took just 45 days to negotiate and finalise.

The navy’s medium term plans envisage increasing warship strength from the current 140-odd, to 198 warships by 2027. This will require adding 5-6 warships annually.

While some 75 vessels of various types are in the navy’s procurement pipeline, there remains a worrying shortfall of frigates, which are the navy’s workhorses. “We need to have at least 24 frigates. Currently we are ten short”, says a senior admiral.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

British defence industry body downs shutters in India

British Chief of General Staff, Nick Carter, in Delhi last week

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Feb 18

Even as New Delhi and London talk up the importance of their “strategic partnership” and exchange top-level political visits, the UK defence industry is thinning out from India.

Business Standard learns that the UK defence industry body ADS Group (the acronym encompasses “aerospace, defence, security and space”), which represents over a thousand defence firms, is shutting down its India office from March 31.

Since 2002, when ADS Group opened an office in New Delhi, it has been only its second foreign station after Toulouse, France. In 2009, ADS Group opened another office in Bangalore. “With its massive defence budget, a booming civil and military aviation market, and ambitious homeland security plans, India is a country one cannot afford to miss”, says the company websight even today.

That enthusiasm has dramatically waned. While no public announcement has yet been made, ADS Group member companies have been informed about the closure of the India office. So have Indian defence companies that joined the British industry body, hoping that would help them connect with small, UK-based, high technology companies, which they could potentially ally with or even buy out.

One of those Indian members was the Pune-based Kalyani Group, which confirms its membership lapsed as it became evident that ADS Group was pulling down the shutters in India.

After March 31, only a handful of large British manufacturers will retain a presence in India – large firms like BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Cobham, which do enough business in India to justify maintaining company offices.

The UK government will continue its support, though, with defence products ranking amongst Britain’s top three exports. This would be done through the UK Department of International Trade, which operates from the British High Commission in Delhi.

Even though India remains the world’s largest arms importer, much of New Delhi’s capital spending goes on government to government buys, or single vendor procurements from global defence giants. “Make in India”, which is what small British defence technology firms would gain business from, has always lagged the rhetoric, even after 2014, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government portrayed defence manufacture as a key driver of its “Make in India” initiative.

It is understood that Paul Everitt, who heads ADS Group, has concluded that India is a difficult market that does not warrant the expense of a full-time office and staff.

Asked why it was closing its India office, ADS Group did not furnish a response.

Defence industry analyst, Major Karun Khanna (Retired), points out that most of UK defence industry consists of two big primes – BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce – which have their own India offices. With large US and French defence corporations buying into British defence firms in recent years, there is simply not enough UK defence industry left to justify industry body representation in India.

Other industry analysts argue that the high cost of British defence products is forcing its industry towards the exits. In contrast, US, Israeli and French defence firms are enlarging their presence in India, having developed low-cost production models that operate on wafer-thin margins.

In contrast to the bleak industry picture, India-UK political engagement is vibrant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK in November 2015, which was reciprocated by his counterpart, Theresa May, a year later. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was to visit the UK this week, which was postponed after the terrorist attack in Jammu last week.

The British and Indian militaries do joint training together. Officers train at each others’ establishments. A “Defence Consultative Group Meeting” is held each year at the defence secretary level. Intelligence exchanges are robust.

The next opportunity for defence interaction would be the Defexpo India 2018 in Chennai in April, which the UK minister for defence production is likely to attend.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Chinese warships return to South China Sea, as Indian Navy continues heavy deployment around Maldives

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Feb 18

A Chinese warship flotilla that had entered the Indian Ocean, reportedly heading for the Maldives Islands, has turned around and returned to the South China Sea, say highly credible Indian Navy sources.

On Tuesday, Reuters quoted Chinese website to report that eleven Chinese warships had entered the Indian Ocean “amid a constitutional crisis in the tiny tropical island chain of the Maldives now under a state of emergency”, clearly suggesting gunboat diplomacy at work.

However, Indian Navy sources say that, while a Chinese flotilla, including a destroyer and a frigate, had indeed crossed into the Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait, it turned around and returned to the South China Sea through the Lombok Strait.

The four straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai Wetar are used by China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), to cross between their bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That leaves the PLA(N) with three warships in the Gulf of Aden, a routine deployment for anti-piracy escort duties. Besides this “28th Anti-Piracy Escort Force” (APEF), as the three-vessel task force is called, three PLA(N) warships of the 27th APEF are doing port visits in Africa.

The Indian Navy, meanwhile, continues maintaining a heavy presence of battle-ready warships in the Arabian Sea, including many close to the Maldives.

According to a navy announcement last Wednesday, “A tri-service maritime exercise, code named ‘Paschim Lehar’, commenced on the Western seaboard on 12 Feb[ruary 20]18. This exercise includes participation of a large number of ships, submarines and aircraft from the Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy.”

The announcement also revealed the presence of “Eastern Naval Command, Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Coast Guard [units that are] also participating to build inter-operability.”

In all, India has over 40 ships and submarines deployed in Exercise Paschim Lehar, and a similar number of combat aircraft.

If further signalling were needed of the ready availability of Indian military power, the navy also announced that army amphibious forces – specialist units used to assault and capture island targets – were also participating in the on-going exercise.

Contacted for comments, an Indian Navy spokesperson stated: “This is a routine training exercise that is taking place. It will last for a month.”

In simple strategic terms, India’s proximity to the Maldives lets it project far greater force around the archipelago than the PLA(N), for significantly longer durations.

The on-going constitutional crisis in the Maldives is a contest for influence between the pro-China President Abdulla Yameen, and his pro-India predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, who is currently in exile in Sri Lanka.

New Delhi is concerned that the Maldives is gravitating into Beijing’s orbit, with Yameen signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative. There is worry that China could eventually build a naval base here.

Yameen has allowed Beijing to invest in a major port project in the Maldives. That prompted Nasheed to state that China was “buying up the Maldives”.

Yameen has responded with a political crackdown. After the Supreme Court ordered the release of jailed opposition members earlier this month, Yameen declared a 10-day state of emergency on February 5.

On Monday, Yameen sought parliamentary approval to extend the emergency for 30 days. However, in a press release on Tuesday, the Ministry of External Affairs tweeted: “It is our expectation that the Government of Maldives will not be seeking the extension of the State of Emergency and resume the political process with immediate effect.”