Thursday, 21 September 2017

US Senate eyes $10 billion in arms sales, passes law strengthening US-India defence ties

Strong US push for sale of Sea Guardian drone (pictured here), F-16 and F/A-18 fighters

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Sept 17

American lawmakers, setting the stage for high-value defence sales to India, have drafted a law that strongly backs US-India defence ties. The Senate’s draft of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 (NDAA 2018), an annual law that allocates funding to America’s military, includes an amendment aimed at advancing defense cooperation between the US and India.

The amendment reiterates India’s recent designation as ‘‘Major Defense Partner’’ with the US – a status unique to India – and orders the US government to appoint an official to oversee the US-India relationship and report within six months to Congress on progress in defence ties.

The “Major Defence Partner” status, which found mention in the joint statement when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Donald Trump in June, “is intended to facilitate technology sharing between the United States and India, including license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies”, says the Senate amendment to NDAA 2018.

It further states: “The Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Commerce shall jointly produce a common definition of the term ‘‘Major Defense Partner’’ as it relates to India for joint use by the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Department of Commerce.”

This clarity is sought so that differing inter-agency interpretations in the US do not stall the sale of high-technology defence equipment to India.

Last year a similar amendment in NDAA 2017, titled “Enhancing Defense and Security Cooperation with India”, first enjoined the US administration to designate India a “major defense partner” and appoint an official to oversee the relationship and report to Congress.

While the Trump administration fulfilled the first requirement, no official has been designated so far. Now the NDAA 2018 amendment renews the instruction to the administration.

This legislation is driven by high strategic convergence between Washington and New Delhi, but also by the Congress’ wish to facilitate the next wave of major US defence sales to India.

Over the preceding decade, the US has become India’s biggest defence supplier with $15 billion in sales of C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules transporters, P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, CH-47F Chinook heavy lift choppers and AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. Now Washington is pushing the sale to India of 100-200 F-16 Block 70, at least 57 F/A-18E/F fighters and 22 Sea Guardian drone that it has offered. These new sales would add up to over $10 billion.

Acknowledging the arms sales motive, the Senate amendment notes: “The individual designated… shall promote United States defense trade with India for the benefit of job creation and commercial competitiveness in the United States.”

For the Trump administration, and for US lawmakers on Capitol Hill who represent constituencies that host defence industry, India’s decision on these platforms will be very consequential, either in a positive or a negative way.

US industry representatives are making it clear that an Indian refusal to buy the Sea Guardian drone, which figured in the meeting between Trump and Modi, would arouse serious ire in Washington. They say the US has okayed the sale despite the “presumption of denial” that the Missile Technology Control Regime mandates for the sale of long range unmanned systems; and despite objections from the non-proliferation lobby.

“An extraordinary amount of time has been put into the Sea Guardian offer in Washington DC. It’s become an emotional issue within the US government. Opponents of the offer will be empowered if it doesn’t go through. They will say: ‘We told you so. The offer created diplomatic problems for us, and got rejected anyway’”, says a senior US industry official, speaking anonymously.

New Delhi sources say the Indian government will not be swayed by this argument and will process the sale based on commercial considerations and the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016.

Senator Mark Warner, a long-time India friend, who sponsored the amendment states: “I'm pleased [the amendment] was included in the defense authorization bill that passed the Senate. I look forward to our language being included in the final defense authorization bill and being signed into law so that the administration has clear guidance in how to continue to foster this important relationship.”

The amendment would also require to be passed by the House of Representatives and then signed into law by the US president

Monday, 18 September 2017

First Scorpene ready, Modi to commission INS Kalvari next month

INS Kalvari, on its recent sea trials

By Ajai Shukla
Mazagon Dock, Mumbai
Business Standard, 18th Sept 17

It has been twelve years in the making but, before end-September, Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) will hand over INS Kalvari to the Indian Navy -- the first of six Scorpene submarines being built in India in collaboration with French shipbuilder, Naval Group.

On receiving its new boat (sailors traditionally refer to submarines as “boats”), the navy will invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to formally commission the vessel.

INS Kalvari is likely to be commissioned in October, Modi’s engagements permitting. After that the submarine will slip into the Arabian Sea on operational deployment.

INS Kalveri will be the fourteenth submarine in a navy that calculates it needs at least 24-26, given India’s two-front threat from China and Pakistan, a sprawling 7,500-kilometre coastline and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of over two million square kilometres. 

During wartime, India’s submarine fleet would be required to seal entrances to the Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden to the west, the Horn of Africa to the south and four crucial southeast Asian straits – Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar – that Chinese warships would use to enter the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea.

The current fleet is grossly inadequate for these tasks. There are currently four German HDW boats called the Shishumar class, after the lead vessel, INS Shishumar. These small, 1,850-tonne submarines were inducted in the 1980s and 1990s.

There are also nine larger, 3,076-tonne Russian submarines called the Sindhughosh-class, after the lead vessel, INS Sindhughosh. These were inducted between 1986 and 2000. Of the original ten, INS Sindhurakshak was lost in 2013 to a cataclysmic, on-board ammunition explosion in Mumbai dockyard.

To fill the submarine gap, the navy signed a Rs 18,798 crore contract in 2005 with French-Spanish consortium, Armaris to build six Scorpenes in MDL under what was termed Project 75. In 2007, Armaris was taken over by France’s Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), which changed its name to Naval Group this year.

All six Scorpenes were to be delivered between 2012 and 2015, but are running five years late. The second Scorpene, INS Khanderi, which is currently undergoing sea trials, is slated for delivery in March 2018, and the remaining four at nine-month intervals till end-2020.

The 1,565-tonne Scorpene will be the navy’s smallest submarines, but reputedly its deadliest. A submarine’s stealth is its greatest attribute and modern technologies make the Scorpene extremely difficult to detect. Its size is a major advantage in the shallow Arabian Sea, where the waters 25 kilometres seaward from Karachi are just 40 metres deep. Large submarines risk scraping the bottom in such shallow waters.

Larger submarines like the Kilo-class, or the six nuclear powered attack submarines that India plans to build, can operate more freely in the Bay of Bengal, where the continental shelf falls sharply and the ocean depth just 5 kilometres seaward from Visakhapatnam is over 3,000 metres.

The Kalvari-class Scorpenes are designed to carry a formidable weapons package – the tube-launched Exocet SM-39 anti-ship missile, and the 533-millimetre heavyweight torpedo.

However, the first Scorpene boats will be commissioned without state-of-the-art torpedoes, their primary weapon system. The defence ministry has suspended a Rs 2,000 crore contract for 98 Black Shark torpedoes signed with WASS, an Italian firm, WASS is a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, which the defence ministry proscribed after AgustaWestland -- another Finmeccanica subsidiary -- was accused of bribing Indian officials to win a helicopter contract.

To provide the Scorpene with basic torpedo capability, German firm Atlas Elektronik is upgrading and extending the life of the older SUT torpedoes that the navy acquired for its Shishumar-class submarines. Atlas also hopes to supply its sophisticated Seahake torpedoes for the Scorpenes.

Following Project 75, will be Project 75-I, which envisages building six more submarines under the Strategic Partner (SP) procurement model. This involves identifying an Indian private shipbuilder – Larsen & Toubro and Reliance Defence are the only two with suitable shipyards – that will enter into a technology partnership with a global Original Equipment Manufacturer and bid to build the boats in India.

Navy sources say the Project 75-I submarines are to be built with DRDO-developed Air Independent Propulsion for enhanced underwater endurance, and the capability to carry Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles.

Given that the tendering for Project 75-I could take another three-to-five years, MDL is pitching to build another three Scorpene submarines in the meanwhile. Shipyard executives argue this would keep alive submarine manufacturing skills, acquired during the Scorpene build.

The navy’s 30-year submarine building programme, which was cleared by the cabinet in 1999, caters for building 24 submarines by 2029. With Project 75 and Project 75-I accounting for 12, another 12 submarines are required to be indigenously built. With the aging Shishumar and Sindhughosh class submarines approaching obsolescence, naval planners say the Scorpene only begins to cover an impending shortfall.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Astra air-to-air missile is major indigenous success

India joins US, Europe, Russia and China in exclusive club of air-to-air missile developers

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 16th Sept 17

On Friday, the defence ministry announced the successful development of the most challenging missile India has developed so far – the Astra. Fired from a fighter aircraft travelling at over 1,000 kilometres per hour, the Astra destroys an enemy fighter 65-70 kilometres away.

According to the ministry, the latest round of trials conducted off the Odisha coast on September 11-14 saw seven Astra missiles fired from a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter at pilotless aircraft that were designated as targets. All seven Astras hit their targets.

This round of tests “has completed the development phase of the [Astra] weapon system successfully”, stated a defence ministry release on Friday.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman congratulated the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), which developed the Astra; Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which integrated the Astra onto the Su-30MKI fighter; and over 50 private firms that participated in building the missile.

The Astra – designated a “beyond visual range air-to-air missile”, or BVRAAM – involves radically different technology challenges compared to ballistic and tactical missiles. For one, a typical Astra engagement has both the launcher and the target moving at speeds in excess of 1,000 kilometres per hour.

Fired from a pylon on the wing of a Su-30MKI fighter, the Astra’s smokeless propellant quickly accelerates it to about 4,000 kilometres per hour, as it screams towards its target. The Su-30MKI tracks the target continuously on its radar, and steers the missile towards it over a data link. About 15 kilometres from the target, the Astra’s on-board radio seeker locks onto the target; now, it no longer needs guidance from the Su-30MKI. When it reaches a few metres from the enemy fighter, the Astra warhead is detonated by a “radio proximity fuze”, spraying the target with shrapnel and shooting it down.

Only a handful of missile builders – in the USA, Russia, Europe, China, Israel, South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Taiwan – have mastered the technologies that go into air-to-air missiles. India is now joining that elite group.

Ultimately, a fighter aircraft is only as good in combat as the missiles it carries. An aircraft can close in with an enemy fighter and position itself dominatingly. But, eventually, an air-to-air missile must shoot the enemy down.

The Astra is fired from the Russian Vympel launcher – a rail under a fighter aircraft’s wing from which the missile hangs, and is launched. The Vympel launcher is integrated with all four of India’s current generation fighters --- the Su-30MKI, MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and the Tejas – allowing the Astra to be fired from all of them.

Astra components that have been developed indigenously include the missile’s propulsion system, its on-board computer, inertial navigation system, the radio proximity fuze, and data link between aircraft and missile.

Even so, the missile’s seeker head – a key component of most tactical missiles – is still imported. This is a key development thrust for the DRDO.

On the drawing board is a longer-range Astra Mark II, intended to shoot down enemy fighters up to 100 kilometres away.

According to the defence ministry, the latest Astra tests included engagement of long-range targets, high-manoeuvring target at medium range and launches of missiles in salvo to engage multiple targets. Two missiles were also launched in the combat configuration with warheads.

With the Indian Air Force operating 600-700 fighter aircraft, there will be a need for several thousand Astra missiles. With air-to-air missiles costing in the region of $2 million each, the Astra will provide major business opportunities to Indian firms.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Build that carrier, quick!

All of this year, the navy’s INS Vishal proposal has gone back and forth between defence secretary and navy

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th Sept 17

The Duke of Wellington’s description of the Battle of Waterloo – “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life, by God!” also describes the Sino-Indian stand-off at Doklam that ended last month in a mutual pullback. But we must also consider what might have happened had it come to hostilities, and the frank answer would be: Besides China’s infrastructure and equipment advantages on the land border, India would have been caught short even in the theatre where it enjoys strategic advantage over China – the maritime domain in the Indian Ocean.

All of this year, the navy’s proposal for building a second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, has gone back and forth between the defence secretary and the navy. The ministry lets it be known that a hurried decision would be unwise, since an aircraft carrier is such a high-value platform that it would block badly needed procurements for the army and air force. Meanwhile, on March 31, underlining how much concern it really has for equipment procurement, the ministry surrendered Rs 7,000 crore of unspent capital funds – more than what it would have paid out last year had a contract been signed for building the carrier.

INS Vishal is set to be one of the military’s most long-drawn procurements, with the navy itself having taken years to identify its precise requirements. After extensive consultations with the US Navy, India’s admirals concluded they required a nuclear powered aircraft carrier of at least 65,000 tonnes, embarking at least 50-55 aircraft and a high-tech electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft quicker and with greater payloads than the ski-jump that currently equips Indian carriers. At the heart of a carrier battle group, which would include multi-role destroyers and frigates, the Vishal would be able to control swathes of the Indian Ocean or project power across the Indo-Pacific.

While the defence ministry goes back-and-forth over the Vishal, the navy makes do with a single carrier, INS Vikramaditya, which carries just 26 unreliable MiG-29 fighters and 10 helicopters – an insufficient capability to battle a serious foe. The first indigenous carrier, INS Vikrant, which Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) is building with agonizing slowness, will be ready for displays and galas by 2019, but for battle only by 2022-23. Given the eight-year time overrun in building the Vikrant, CSL would surely take more than a decade to build INS Vishal, once the order is placed. And that seems nowhere in sight.

In contrast, China – latecomers to aircraft carriers – is vaulting ahead. Having learnt the ropes on a rebuilt Ukrainian carrier that it renamed Liaoning, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), launched a second carrier in April, called the Shandong. Going by the speed with which China churns out warships, the Shandong should enter PLA(N) service in 2020. Chinese analysts say this will be followed by a state-of-the-art carrier, with capabilities similar to INS Vishal. Eventually the PLA(N) would operate 5-6 carriers, while the Indian Navy operates three.

The power balance is shifting not just in platforms but also skills. An aircraft carrier is only as good as the experience and skill of its crewmembers, particularly those that operate its aviation complex. A large number of operating procedures – including space management, split-second launch procedures, deck discipline – make the difference between launching an aircraft every 30 seconds, and a launch interval of three minutes.

This is especially true of “catapult launches”, in which an aircraft is accelerated to take-off speed by a steam catapult under the carrier’s deck. In the 1960s and 1970s, the navy operated the Sea Hawk fighter off the original INS Vikrant – developing catapult-launch skill sets similar to the US Navy today. In 1983, when the “vertical take off and landing” Sea Harrier replaced the Sea Hawk, the navy’s skills at catapult launches began attenuating. The decisions to buy HMS Hermes (later INS Virat) and the Gorshkov (now INS Vikramaditya), both in the ski-jump launch tradition, and the decision to build the new INS Vikrant with a ski-jump, has killed India’s catapult launch tradition altogether. The new INS Vishal will return to the catapult launch tradition, but navy skill sets would have to be built afresh.

Also dogging the INS Vishal is a tired old debate over whether aircraft carriers are an asset or liability in modern warfare. Like most military arguments, its roots lie in the battle for resources. Air forces the world over view the aircraft carrier as a navy intrusion into the aerospace domain. Air forces simplistically describe carriers as enormously expensive, floating airfields that could be sunk by a single torpedo or anti-ship missile. Air forces claim that shore-based fighters, with their ranges extended by mid-air refuelling, can strike maritime targets hundreds of kilometres away. Finally, opponents argue that aircraft carriers require an entire flotilla of warships to escort them, tying up destroyers, frigates, corvettes, submarines and minesweepers in essentially protective duties.

Then, there is submariners’ opposition to aircraft carriers – an internal navy contest for resources, framed as a strategic debate between “sea control” and “sea denial”. The aircraft carrier battle group is the prime instrument of sea control, dominating an area that could be thousands of kilometres away – e.g. shipping lanes in the southern Indian Ocean from/to the Horn of Africa – with its aircraft-based surveillance and strike capability, and the surface and sub-surface strike capability of its accompanying warships. The option of shore-based air support starts becoming less persuasive as the carrier’s operating area moves further into the ocean, but the “sea denial” option – predicated on submarines ambushing surface vessels on predicted routes – retains validity. Proponents of sea denial argue that a submarine fleet costs less than a carrier, spreads risk across a large number of platforms, while still denying the enemy the use of the sea lanes, choke points and harbours that the submarines interdict. What they seldom mention is that submarines cannot hope to achieve three-dimensional control over a large expanse of ocean, far from one’s shores, which is the basic task of a carrier battle group. There is also the question of vulnerability of submarines when they surface to charge batteries or communicate with their controllers.

In any case, the navy is not choosing between aircraft carriers and submarines – it needs significant capabilities in both. It has an expansive, internationalist mandate of protecting the global commons, responding to natural disasters and being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. This is over and above the national wartime objectives of protecting two coastlines, projecting power across the Indian Ocean, and supporting the land battle through the maritime domain. The debate has been settled in the navy’s long-term maritime capability perspective plan, which specifies three aircraft carriers and a fleet of 24 submarines. It is time to start building these quickly, before the navy is embarrassed in war. Perhaps we should remind ourselves of another Wellington aphorism: “Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must”. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

Boeing flags inexperience of private sector “strategic partners”

Boeing says global experience demands public-private partnership to leverage experience of public sector

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Sept 17

In New Delhi on Thursday, the world’s largest aerospace corporation, The Boeing Company, openly expressed what many global arms vendors have complained about in private: The Indian private sector is not yet capable of manufacturing complex military aircraft under transfer of technology (ToT).

Pratyush Kumar, Boeing’s India chief, proposed that highly experience defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) – like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) – be coopted, since that is where aerospace expertise and experience lies in India.

Speaking “from the vantage point of a company that has been in aerospace industry for 100 years, across the world”, Kumar in effect proposed a major reorientation of the defence ministry’s new Strategic Partner (SP) policy.

The SP policy aims at creating capable defence manufacturers in the private sector, to compete with the DPSUs and Ordnance Factories (OFs) that have historically dominated defence manufacture in India. The SP policy requires private firms chosen as SPs to enter technology partnerships with nominated global “original equipment manufacturers” (OEMs), and jointly bid for contracts to build aircraft, helicopters, submarines and armoured vehicles for the Indian military.

But Kumar, speaking at a seminar organized by the Centre for Air Power Studies, the air force’s think tank, pointed out that successful examples of ToT-based manufacture all involved “co-opting of public enterprise and private enterprise in a way that leveraged the investment made in the public enterprise for multiple decades”.

The Boeing chief says he “tried hard, and could not find a single example [of successfully building an aircraft under ToT] where it was just the brand new private enterprise with limited aerospace experience. Look at Turkey, look at Japan, look at Brazil - look at multiple countries. In all cases there is a fine balancing act of co-opting the capabilities of both public and private enterprise.”

Other foreign companies are less forthright than Boeing. With two multi-billion dollar aircraft acquisitions already launched via the SP route – for single-engine fighter aircraft and helicopters – foreign OEMs have begun partnering Indian private firms. Lockheed Martin has partnered Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL); and Saab has partnered the Adani Group anticipating a tender for the single-engine fighter.

This although TASL has never assembled an aircraft, while the Adanis have never built a single aerospace component. Foreign OEMs resent having to partner novices, but comply quietly so as not to rock the boat, says a foreign executive based in India.

Boeing is more forthright, bolstered by the confidence of being the most successful arms vendor in India over the last decade. Since 2009, Boeing has sold India aircraft worth $12 billion. These include eight P-8I maritime aircraft in 2009, and then four in a follow-up order; ten C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft in 2011; and 15 Chinook CH-47F and 22 Apache AH-64E helicopters in 2015.

While these were all sales of ready-built aircraft, Boeing is perhaps anticipating having to “Make in India” with an SP in another forthcoming contract– the navy’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of 57 ship-borne fighters for its aircraft carriers. In that acquisition, for which a tender is awaited, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet would possibly compete with Dassault’s Rafale-Marine; Saab’s Sea Gripen and an upgraded version of the Russian MiG-29K/KUB.

Aspiring Indian SPs, like TASL, admit that their role in an SP contract would remain “build to print”, i.e. manufacturing sub-assemblies and assemblies to blueprints provided by the OEM. Yet, it would provide a lucrative growth opportunity.

“The need of the hour is for the ministry of defence to go forward with the two very large aerospace orders [for] single engine fighter and helicopters. Frankly, in my mind, there is nothing else to it”, said TASL chief, Sukaran Singh, at the same seminar.

In contrast, HAL chief T Suvarna Raju talked up his engineers’ design skills and experience. Pointing to the range of helicopters HAL has designed ground-up – the Dhruv advanced light helicopter, Rudra armed helicopter, and the eponymous Light Combat Helicopter and Light Utility Helicopter – Raju declared: “Each component of our helicopters demonstrates the skill sets of HAL designers, of their capabilities and innovation efforts. Look at the carbon composite blades and the transmission system, composite body structure, glass cockpit and many more…”

The air force, however, continues to back the SP policy. “The only way to sustain the momentum in the aerospace manufacturing space is to start manufacturing here and strategic partnership model is a step in [that] direction”, said Air Marshal Shirish Deo, the air force’s vice chief.

The SP policy has been in the making since 2014-15. It remains contested and a work in progress.