Tuesday, February 27, 2007

General Sham(e)

Imagine giving your whole adult life to one of the armed forces and then ending your career, not with the adulation of your men, but the suddenly unshakeable reputation of a common thief. If Lt Gen SK Sahni and three senior cohorts in the Army Services Corps (ASC) were found by an Army inquiry to have allegedly made lakhs by purchasing second-rate masoor dal instead of nutritious cereal for thousands of soldiers, another inquiry recently found "some lapses" by other senior officer in the purchase of frozen meat for soldiers in Ladakh. The latter operation, if proved by a court, would easily match the profound disgrace of Sahni’s alleged heist.

No matter what anyone says, especially from within the Army, a Major or a Captain skimming off the top from his Mess bill is a trifle, a mere flicker compared to a General cavorting his whole life in elite military finery and bringing those decades of trust, respect and faith placed in him by his troops to a crushingly humiliating end by trading off every last shred of integrity for a few lakh rupees. And how? By playing monstrously and unfeelingly with the basic needs of those very troops.

The kinds of thievery by senior Army officers in recent times are immediately repulsive. Maj Gen Gur Iqbal Singh and four Brigadier-rank accomplices sold subsidized defence liquor by the truckload at street prices with superb self-assurance. Maj Gen KTG Nambiar and Maj Gen Rana Goswami allegedly took to cooking formation books and pocketing the difference. It probably won’t be long before probes uncover Generals getting juicy fixes from contracts for milk, or kerosene, or vegetables or any of the thousands of other items that the million-strong service buys and stocks every day.

Is this, as Army chief Gen JJ Singh was asked at a press conference recently, a complete breakdown of respectability – or simply, honesty – at the highest levels of the Army? Probably not. For every Sahni or Nambiar, there’s a full phalanx of Generals and other senior ranks who serve out their time with quiet honour, their reputations more precious than pensions or retirement benefits. Furthermore, there can be little to criticize about the swiftness and nature of the Army’s brand of justice once it finds culpability among its own.

The tainted clique of Generals all face humiliating chastisement, ranging from general courts martial, which will likely see them plucked from their uniforms and sent packing, to administrative action, with its own attendant embarrassments, including loss of seniority or the cancellation of retirement benefits.

A few rotten apples then? Yes, but that doesn’t makes each individual case any less disturbing. Wizened and retired officers wonder why these Generals, with years of necessary toil behind them, would allow themselves such reckless folly when the finishing line, as it were, was in sight. With quaintly endearing defence elitism, the retired ones will tell you that the tainted Generals won’t just have to endure being civilians in retirement, but debased and sullied ones at that. What, they ask, could really be worse? The answer, anyone will tell you, is little.

The argument that systemic flaws encourage corruption is a necessarily complex one. Does the Army’s otherwise ingenious supply chain of contracts and services allow for a quick buck as a result of uniquely empowered formations with steeply unwieldy structures? Just as countermeasures to check fraud are plentiful, cracks exist for the crooked to work the system. The private contract mafia, it is commonly known, persistently pings the Army structure for dodgy characters willing to jointly defraud the service. It’s just a black day for everyone when that person happens to wear three stars.

Notwithstanding the irreparable damage this handful of officers and others have inflicted on its ethical fabric as a whole, the Army is thankfully far yet from being perceived as a refuge for scoundrels. But with a distinct shortage of officers and a generally tapering interest in the armed forces as a career, the huge and expensive Army machinery put to use to project an upright profession, where you’ll be a “winner for life”, is gradually undermined. And there can be no forgiving that. No matter what the motivations are to enroll, the fact that the Army is a noble career option is beyond doubt.

According to a Ministry bureaucrat, on November 29, when Defence Minister AK Antony was called upon in Parliament to provide a list of senior officers in the dock for corruption, he was deeply dismayed when he browsed through the pre-prepared Parliament answers. For a man who famously and admittedly puts probity pretty much above everything else, the dozen cases the Army compiled for him must have been a source of sharp consternation. And last heard, he’s not buying the Army’s affirmation that these are but a few spoilt drops in a veritable ocean of human relationships.

Rightly so.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Needless IJT Incident of February 8

If reports suggesting that the accident involving an indigenous Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) on February 8 at Yelahanka were caused by the pilot’s carelessness – he reportedly forgot to safely secure the aircraft’s canopy – are correct, then this has to stand as the most needless and unfortunate upset to budding aspirations of Indian defence export.

And for Sqn Ldr (retd) Baldev “Baldy” Singh, HAL’s chief fixed wing test pilot and the man who was behind the stick on the IJT’s first flight on March 7, 2003, it’s a little worse. But to understand just how inopportune February 8 was for HAL, things have to be wound back just a little bit.

In 1999, six years after the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) got its first programme extension, HAL made an inspired proposition to the air force. It said it could build a fine stage-two trainer to replace the HJT-16 Kiran. And those lessons from the LCA programme had emboldened HAL into suggesting that it could deliver results rapidly. From project sanction in July 1999 to a first flight in March 2003, the IJT made all promises a lush reality, much to the credit of HAL’s Aircraft Research & Design Center (ARDC).

In August 2005, HAL signed on Russia’s NPO Saturn to license build Al-551 jet engines for the IJT that will be commissioned into the IAF. These would give the IJT a markedly higher thrust to weight ratio than the French Lazarc engines that power the two prototypes. Reports suggest HAL intends to build at least 1,000 of the Russian powerplants at its Koraput, Orissa factory. HAL chairman Ashok Baweja wants to sell the IJT in West Asia, South East Asia and East Africa as a far cheaper proposition than European, American and Brazilian products.

Since the certainly worthy first-flight, the two IJT prototypes (PT-1 and PT-2) have logged about 300 flights so far and are gunning toward inductions into the IAF by early 2008. That’s an intended induction target of less than ten years from project sanction, and it cannot be ignored. And if one were to momentarily – fleetingly – set aside the initial consultations with Snecma and Smiths Aerospace, the IJT can be safely described as a true-blue Indian machine.

And that’s precisely why February 8 will go down as one of the most unneeded, redundant accidents in the history of HAL. The IJT’s canopy flew open, and pushed the jet careening to one side, exploding the starboard tyre and coming to a stop on its side, in front of thousands of spectators, potential foreign buyers and, probably most immediately importantly, our very armed forces.

How difficult will it be for HAL to convince them that the accident was caused by human oversight rather than any technological flaw? Very. Remember how the near-closed deal to sell ALH Dhruv helicopters to Chile dive-bombed after the November 2005 crash in Andhra Pradesh?

This is no elegy to shoddy technology. If there’s one thing that’s marked the IJT out, it is the aircraft’s incongruously clean development trajectory. And to destroy that by forgetting to close the canopy, while finally only human, is as near unforgivable as it can possibly get.

Photo © Vijay Simha Reddy / Bharat Rakshak

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Not just high-altitude chikki

Will an empowered and independent committee mandated with dissecting the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) be able to cure half a century’s legacy of mismanagement and stagnation? That’s a tough call, but considering that the DRDO has adroitly drawn the national flag to protect its inner recesses from outside eyes since its birth in 1958, this could finally be the government shaking itself out of a stubborn and extraordinarily wasteful slumber.

The DRDO needs a shake-up. That’s an indisputable fact. The terms of reference of the newly formed monitoring Committee (IE, January 18) show that the government has made an unprecedented acknowledgement of what ails DRDO and how it has made an art-form of making inspired promises and then reneging on them with impunity. When this means Leh Berry juice or high-altitude chikki or rabbit fur, it hardly matters. But when this means decisive air defence missiles, battle tanks or backbone fighter aircraft, you’re making national security an unforgivable ambiguity.

As reported by The Indian Express in an investigative series published between November 13-20 last year — for which DRDO voices predictably announced that the two reporters were agents for foreign arms firms — the organisation’s multifarious maladies boil down to execrable transparency standards, financial mismanagement and a disturbing human resources mess. The committee will be empowered to send its investigators into the hallowed alcoves of DRDO and report on the organisation’s administrative, financial and personnel procedure goof ups. This will be no easy task especially since these procedures have been virtually legitimised simply by staying unquestioned for nearly five decades.

The independent committee, headed by ISRO’s distinguished professor P. Rama Rao and encompassing members from universities, the armed forces, private and public sectors and civil services, yokes together minds that will draw up hopefully not an oblique document full of escape routes, but an immediately watertight and actionable roadmap that the government will find simple to put to work.

But another important question: Will this be just another list of recommendations the government can ignore a year from now? With Parliament, the private sector and the new defence minister involved, probably — and with some luck — not.

The promise of this new committee — the very first that won’t be headed by the DRDO chief himself — is in its powers. It can now prevail upon the government to stop making a mockery of salaries and talent retention capabilities in DRDO that see expensively trained graduates fly off at the first whiff of dollar salaries. It can slap out the red tape that binds every single procedure inside DRDO Bhavan and its 50 laboratories. It can expose programme directors who insist on steaming on with almost criminally optimistic and expensive projects because it gives their laboratories the semblance of occupation. It can say, sorry, the armed forces don’t think this stuff is very good, so please pull up your socks. It will even have the power to recommend how and where new foreign money will be used, or which programmes are best left to the private sector. They sound broad here, but these tasks will be fragmented down to the littlest methods that have collectively pushed DRDO into notoriety.

The DRDO has grudgingly now accepted external scrutiny, though it wasn’t without a fight. What the organisation needs to accept outright, however, is that the future of building weapons for a country as large as India cannot be the preserve of a Cold War era state industrial complex. At the same time, it needs to reassure itself that notwithstanding crooked generals and government officials who prefer a dependence on imports so that they can sluice away kickbacks, the country is undeniably better placed if it can make and buy its own homemade military equipment. DRDO, therefore, has to step away from its obtuse and arcane insecurities, and trust, at least in a small measure, that the system is not out to shortchange its laboratories. The committee is empowered to play judge between the government, armed forces and DRDO to keep tabs on that too.

The government’s willingness to diagnose DRDO’s disease couldn’t have come at a more decisive juncture. Hovering as the country is over a deep and expensive precipice of necessary foreign arms imports, it has become excruciatingly imperative that, say, a decade from now, the country can look within with confidence and conviction for its military needs instead of continuing to pad foreign economies. With the committee’s assistance, DRDO has the chance to at least start moving toward making that possible.

Copyright The Indian Express

Enter chopper pilot as air chief

God is not a fighter pilot. That is the punch line to an old joke in the Indian Air Force. That one line is today superbly ironic. The new chief of air staff designate, Air Marshal Fali Major, does not fly fighters. He is the senior-most air marshal in service and eligible in every way for the top job, but the decorated officer is a chopper pilot. Ground-breaking stuff.

Each of the 20 men who have served as chief of air staff since 1947 has been a fighter pilot. No government rule mandates that the IAF's top post be manned by a fighter pilot; yet right from Air Marshal Thomas Walker Elmhirst, independent India's first air chief, down to the current man in office, Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi, they have been fighter pilots all. It has been the done thing and the promotion system has ensured that fighter pilots are lined up for the top spot, time and time again. Until now.

The succession question in the IAF has simmered for more than a year now, with the battle lines between fighter pilots and 'other' streams clearly drawn for what was, one way or the other, going to be a controversial decision by the government. The fighter mob, as we defence correspondents like to call them, lobbied carefully, ingratiating itself nimbly with an establishment that doesn't know its front from its back. The 'other' streams were too scattered for any organised lobbying, so they stood back and held their breaths. And in the end that seemed to work.

The three officers who stood to gain from Air Marshal Major's seniority being overlooked by the government are fighter pilots. Air Marshals P.K. 'Polly' Mehra, B.N. 'Bingo' Gokhale and P.S. 'Pudding' Ahluwalia all have fine careers behind them. And with rumours that the government would bend to the fighter lobby, each one of these officers had a shot at becoming chief. Yet, somewhere in the massive promotions machinery that propels our huge and unwieldy armed services onwards, someone either goofed up and deep-selected a helicopter pilot for the top job, or simply - and I like to think this is the truth - consciously questioned an old tradition.

In one sense, the government's decision is not surprising. It was always unlikely that the establishment was going to tinker too much with seniority, even though it has done so before. Defence Minister A.K. Antony himself, when called upon for his opinion, is known to have said that rules were rules. The IAF remembers, and always with a shudder, the all-out revolt that was sparked in 1997 when pay scales were altered to steeply favour fighter pilots as compared to the other streams. It was a time when Mulayam Singh Yadav, then defence minister, had to hold a press conference to offset the damage caused by anguished non-fighter pilots who leaked negative stories about the service with aplomb when they were not hurling rocks at establishment buildings.

In an interview to The Indian Express in July 2006, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi put it this way, "If the government were to ask me my opinion on the matter, I would be deeply embarrassed." This was a genuine sentiment, even though Tyagi has been known to wonder how a man who cannot, as per the rules, command the Western or South Western Command by virtue of not being a fighter pilot, can be eligible for the position of chief of air staff.

Obviously the government's decision has ruffled feathers among fighter pilots and, ironically, a decision that is just and fair and by the rules may only serve to deepen the schism. There are those who have suggested that it is preposterous that a helicopter pilot can command an air force, especially when choppers are mostly used in the IAF in logistics and support roles. Others assert that fighter pilots have a tunnel vision of operations and are therefore unfit to sit on the throne at Vayu Bhawan.

And there are still others who find both of these views ludicrous. It is the vice chief, they say, who really runs the show - the chief of air staff simply takes policy decisions and is an umbrella power over a complex network of roles performed by those under him. Unfortunately, all of these opinions are only half true.

And the government, to its credit, has recognised that none of these views is completely true. It also remembers 1997, and has decided to go with the safer option. Nobody wants another controversy of this kind in the air force.

Original source & The Indian Express

Test-flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet

As I crouched, foetus-like, on a sustained 7.5-G loop in a fighter at 9,000 feet, I knew the best was yet to come. My US Navy pilot commander Lt Matthew “Bloody” Stoll tore our F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter into a screaming dive at the spectators from right above Yelahanka, and I could only watch from the cockpit behind him, with an awe I’m not sure I’ve felt before, the ground lurching up to us before we leveled out and flipped over to back away from civilisation. We needed to get away from built-up areas if Bloody was going to show me what this machine could really do.

The Indian Express was invited to test-fly the Boeing Super Hornet at the Aero India 2007 defence fair here on Tuesday. The Super Hornet is one of six fighters that competes for India’s largest single military purchase — 126 multirole fighters. And considering that fighters overwhelmed pretty much everything else here, this correspondent went up for 58 minutes to find out what all the fuss was about.

Bloody is only three years older than me, has 1,500 hours on these fighters, and as my pilot, took me through on hour of pre-flight instructions and preparations for a 58 minute sortie that would change everything. As I strode out onto the tarmac in my overalls, G-suit and safety harness, there was an immediate sense that comfort obviously mattered little to guys in the air. Forget about G-forces, I felt twice as heavy as I actually did weigh already. Twenty-minutes later, none of this would matter.

“We’re not going to crash. But if you think we’re going to, don’t punch out until I say ‘Eject, Eject, Eject’. Three times. There’s a 99.99 per cent chance that we won’t crash, buddy, but just so you know,” Stoll told me before he lowered the glass fighter canopy and made me arm my zero-zero ejection seat before taxiing out.

I’d imagined our fighter would be call-signed ‘Nemesis’ or ‘Judgement Day’, but had to settle for Hornet 2. As Bloody positioned the fighter at the airstrip’s mouth and effected a maximum power take-off, both engines had flaming fuel dumped into them sending the fighter after-burn down the runway and curl upward after just 1,800 feet — one of the shortest take-off length requirements.

The controllers at Air Force Station Yelahanka gave us only little wedges of safe airspace to play around in. So for starters, Bloody gunned us up to our 15,000-feet ceiling and told me take over the stick. In seconds we were careening over a veritable ocean of shrubbery somewhere in Andhra Pradesh. Bloody told me to ignore the strangely seductive cockpit warning voice of a young woman, that kept asking me to “pull-up”. In those seconds, I managed to get us into two fine 360-degree rolls before breaking into a hard left, carefully increasing throttle. I think Bloody was impressed — all those years of shooting down Libyan fighters over the Mediterranean on my computer seemed to be paying off. When you turn, boost up, or you’re going to fall.

But 7.5 Gs for 24 seconds was still not enough. Bloody asked me if I was sure I could take some more beating. I thought about this for three seconds. If I blacked out in here, it was going to be worth it. So I told him to show me what he’s got. Take her all the way, my friend.

We did the immelman posture, the barrel roll, the gut-wrenching high-G barrel roll and the slow yaw turn which had me bump my helmet twice against the glass shell that saved us from being vapour, I guess.

We couldn’t fly supersonic because Bloody would get a rap on the knuckles from his superiors watching us from the ground, but he helpfully pushed our machine out to 0.98 Mach. A little more and we’d have heard a nice little sonic thump, but not the crinkling shatter of windows thousands of feet below.

On our return pass, as we broke altitude and zoomed back towards base, I saw the troubled Cauvery, thought briefly about how its silver ribboned stillness saw nothing of the savagery in poor Bangalore, before Bloody broke into a steep loop which saw us both stomach 8.1-G. Now, that was painful. Beautiful sure, but I’m certain I would have heard something snap if Bloody hadn’t used the turbo nose-down capability to level us out. This was adrenaline city like nobody’s ever known it.

After two magical “touch and go” manoeuvres on the Yelahanka base, one of which Bloody made me manage — the Super Hornet is built to land on a rocking and rolling aircraft carrier, it must be remembered — we tore off again for one last glorious high-velocity pass before lowering it to the tarmac for the last time.

8.1-G. I’m going to remember that number.