Friday, March 30, 2007

Navy's Far East Deployment

Just got this press release from the Navy:

Ships of the Eastern Fleet, under the command of theFlag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet, Rear Admiral RK Dhowan, are presently on an ‘Overseas Deployment’(OSD) to the South-east and East-Asian regions. Thegroup consists of the guided-missile destroyers Mysore, Rana, and Ranjit, the guided-missile corvette Kuthar, and, the fleet tanker Jyoti. During the two-month deployment, from 18 March to 23 May 07, the ships are scheduled to effect port-callsat a number of ports, spreading the message ofgoodwill, presenting a microcosmic mosaic of India inevery facet — from the sociological to the technological, and, building bridges of friendshipacross the seas that make every littoral state aneighbour of India.

The scheduled ports of callinclude Singapore and Yokosuka (which is located atthe entrance of Tokyo Bay, in Japan). The port callat Yokosuka is particularly significant as it is amajor event in the ongoing celebrations of ‘2007’ asthe ‘India-Japan Friendship Year’). No less importantare the port-calls at Qingdao (which is located on thesouthern coast of the Shandong peninsula of China,bordering the Yellow Sea) and Vladivostok (located onthe Sea of Japan, some 100 km east of theRusso-Chinese border — the name itself means “Lord ofthe East”).

Also of significance are port-calls at HoChi Minh city (located near the Mekong river delta inVietnam and earlier known as Saigon), and, Manila(capital of the Philippines). The deployment as a whole is an intrinsic part of theongoing effort at ‘constructive engagement’ within themaritime field, being undertaken by the Indian Navy inconcert with other instruments and mechanisms of thenation’s diplomacy. The port-calls and theopportunities to engage and exercise with the naviesof the regions would enable the Indian Navy to gainand share operational and doctrinal expertise,transformational experiences, examine and imbibe‘best-practices’, promote interoperability, and,enhance ‘maritime domain awareness’, — all of whichare areas that the Indian Navy lays especial emphasisupon.

The first of the exercises to be undertaken during thecurrent deployment is the 2007 edition of thebilateral exercise ‘SIMBEX’, which are a regularfeature of the operational interaction between theIndian Navy and the Navy of the Republic of Singapore,and, which involves both, harbour and sea-goingsegments. This year, the first phase of exercise‘’SIMBEX’ was conducted in and off Port Blair, whilethe second phase has just concluded at and offSingapore, from 22 to 28 Mar 07. The next on the agenda is the 2007 edition of theannual exercise between the Indian and the US navies,which bears the generic name ‘MALABAR’.

‘MALABARCY-07’ (the acronym ‘CY’ stands for ‘calendar year’)will also be undertaken in two phases, with the firstphase being with units of the USA’s Pacific Commandand conducted off the Japanese island of Okinawa (—which is the largest in Japan’s Ryukyu chain ofislands that stretch well south of the four mainislands of that country), from 06 to 11 Apr 07. Whenand where the second phase of ‘Malabar-CY 07’ willtake place is still under examination. The Eastern Fleet commander will then split hisforces.

One group of two destroyers will proceed toQingdao from 12-16 Apr 07, where they will, on 17April, exercise with units of the navy of the People’sRepublic of China. The remaining ships will, on 17Apr 07 itself, undertake a daylong trilateralexercise, off Yokosuka, with units of the ‘JapaneseMaritime Self Defence Force’ (JMSDF) and the US navy.

The Indian naval force will consolidate itselfthereafter and proceed to Vladivostok, where they willengage in the harbour phase (22 to 24 Apr 07) and,later, the sea-going phase (24 to 26 Apr 07) of thebiennial exercise ‘Indra-2007’, involving units of theRussian Navy. During the return leg of thedeployment, once the fleet-units are off thePhilippines, they will once again split into twogroups, with one group engaging in ‘passage-exercises’with units of the navy of the Philippines, and theother, engaging units of the navy of the SocialistRepublic of Vietnam in similar passage exercises.

Two ships of the fleet will thereafter proceed toSingapore to participate in the 2007 edition of theprestigious ‘International Maritime DefenceExhibition’ (IMDEX) hosted every two years by thatcountry. INS Mysore and Kuthar would participate in‘IMDEX’ at Singapore from 15 to 19 May 07. This wouldprovide us with an opportunity to showcase our shipbuilding capability through these indigenouslydesigned and built ships, as also our ability to alignand keep pace with the rapid technologicaladvancements in the field of military hardware andsystems. The Chief of the Naval Staff will, himself bepresent for the event, as will his counterparts fromas many as twenty-two countries. IMDEX-2007 will befollowed by a passage-exercise involving allparticipating navies and our ships will berepresenting our country in this activity as well. The final operational engagement will be a bilateralpassage-exercise with ships of the ‘Royal New ZealandNavy’, before the deployment draws to a close at PortBlair, from where ships will resume their normalin-country activities.

The Indian Navy ships proceeding on the overseasdeployment are, as always, equipped to providehumanitarian assistance and disaster-relief at shortnotice, if required. This stems from our experienceof the past, wherein our ships, while on overseasdeployments, have had to be diverted to renderassistance. In 2006, for example, such short-noticeassistance was called-for and provided to Indonesia(in the aftermath of the Yogyakarta earthquake) andwas also in evidence during the non-combatantevacuation operations (Op Sukoon) undertaken inrespect of a number of nationals, who were safelymoved from the war-ravaged port of Beirut to Cyprus,during the Israeli action in Lebanon.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Losing the island, again

I've always been a little suspicious about the ostensible big-brother attitude that New Delhi always just stops short of espousing in the subcontinent. Sometimes, we're "prisoners of democracy", but most of the time, it's just straight-backed political weakheadedness. Yesterday, the Air Tigers of the LTTE pulled off a ridiculously audacious bombing of an airport near Colombo mission in a tin-can monoprop. This could actually have been funny if people hadn't been killed in the attack, nor a country shaken violently into reality mode. But that's a different matter altogether. Obviously, the only question is how a tiny little plane strayed so far out from Venni without being picked out by air defence batteries just south of the LTTE airstrip. Was it plain denial that the SLAF's only interceptors, the Kfirs were not scrambled to chase the damn thing back? But this has a lot to do with India. For starters (and probably less importantly), the pair of BEL INDRA radars that protect the airport were a gift from New Delhi last year. Both radars, reportedly, were down for repairs and maintenance at the time.

In the last few years, India has watched helplessly as Sri Lanka has stretched its hands out to Pakistan and China. In March last year, in a move that shocked our military planners, Sri Lanka sent a comprehensive arms wishlist fo Pakistan. The real sting was that a similar list has been sat upon by our South Block mandarins for years, with no action. That's the point -- our country has never had a concerted policy on Sri Lanka. Internal sensitivities, mostly those of the DMK, have systematically handed what should be an ally, on a platter to our more troublesome neighbours. The wishlist sent in March to Islamabad from Colombo included two UAVs, 100 cluster and fuel air bombs for SLAF Kfirs, 20 laser/precision guided bomb kits, 30 deep penetration bombs, 500 80mm rockets with fuel air explosive warheads, 10 Bakhtar Shiken anti-tank guided missile launchers, 300 tandem warhead missiles, 1,000 radio sets, 5,000 mortar bombs and 250 night vision goggles. In addition, it wanted Pakistan to send maintenance and repair teams to overhaul the T-55 tanks and C-130 transporters. Pakistan, as you could well imagine, has seized the opportunity already and processes are underway for the transfers to take place.

The last big transfer made by India to Sri Lanka was the INS Sarayu, an offshore patrol vessel gifted to the Lankan Navy in 2000 and since rechristened the SLNS Sayura. I had a chance to get onto this remarkably souped up ship in January 2006 at Port Blair during the multinational Milan 2006 exercise. An SLN Commodore on board told me at the time that Sri Lanka had aske for at least one more vessel for deep water patrolling in the Bay of Bengal -- possible a missile corvette. This, however, has not been addressed. This, of course, was just days after an LTTE Sea Tigers suicide dinghy killed 13 sailors aboard a Lankan Navy vessel. New Delhi was reminded that Sri Lanka needed more equipment. The wishlist to India included all of the items on the list sent to Pakistan, and in addition, overhaul and spares for MiG-27s and An-32s, AK-630 deck-based guns and ammunition, bomb guidance kits and infantry combat vehicles.

Shortly after the President's Fleet Review in Vizag in February last year, a US Navy officer got onto INS Viraat and the battle group sailed South-West to rendezvous with the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, and the two battle groups carried out a complex exercise 60-miles off the South Coast of Sri Lanka. Lankan authorities were, apparently, not in the loop about the level of the exercise (the Indian Navy later said it was supposed to have been a simple pas-ex, but escalated into a full-fledged dissimilar air combat and over the horizon firing war game!). This ticked off the Lankans plenty, because the very next month, they had shot off their wishlist to Islamabad. Obviously the two may not be connected, but it's clear that the incident made something snap. India had to quickly get to grips with things, and rapidly transferred a long delayed pair of INDRA radars for air defence at the airport outside Colombo.

But things have moved ahead even more now. Last heard, Pakistan has offered to transfer a squadron Chendu F-7s or Mirage-Vs which will be excess assets once the JF-17s and new F-16s start delivery. More than anything else, the wishlist has instilled a huge feel-good factor in Pakistan's military and government. The sense of being asked for help has to be heady and it doesn't come often. Is it too late to do something?

A Pantheon of Holy Cows

A brilliant column by Harish Khare in The Hindu (quite certainly one of the most sober, eloquent and insightful columnists in the country today) is a must read. It's a reflection on the World Cup disaster and why an emotion-crazed nation cannot expect the world to lower its standards to cater to the Indian team's mediocrity. No one could possible accuse Mr Khare of half-baked views. Khare's true craft is his remarkable ability to use the metaphor of the immediate subject if his column to investigate the Indian condition at large. I have read Khare for years, and not once has this exercise ended without insight. Anyway, the reason I mention his column today is a chance reference he makes to DRDO (!). Make what you will of it. I already have:

"We are happy to create a pantheon of holy cows and then ensure that no questions are asked about them. For instance, it would be impermissible (if the brand manufacturers have their way) for anyone to propose that Sachin Tendulkar is too old to lead our 2011 World Cup campaign. Or, we would invite the charge of treason if we were to ask a few hard questions of our scientists in the Defence Research and Development Organisation. And, it would definitely be sedition if we were to ask the Atomic Energy Commission to explain the massive gap between its promises and its performance."

Excerpt ©The Hindu

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What else Pak is getting from Washington

Thought it was a good time to do an update on all the military booty that Pakistan is getting from Uncle Sam. Here's the full list of equipment either on order or in the pipeline or requested for by Pakistan from the US (all information official, and this is just the "declared" stuff!):
  1. Refurbishment and modification of three excess P-3 aircraft with the E-2C HAWKEYE 2000 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) Suite. The Government of Pakistan has requested a possible sale for refurbishment and modification of three excess P-3 aircraft with the E-2C HAWKEYE 2000 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) Suite, spare and repairs parts, simulators, support equipment, personnel training and training equipment, publications and technical data, system software development and installation, ground/flight testing of new systems and system modifications, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $855 million.
  2. 2,769 Radio Frequency (RF) TOW 2A Missiles, 7 RF TOW 2A Fly-to-buy Missiles, 415 RF Bunker Buster Missiles, 7 RF Fly-to-buy Bunker Buster Missiles, upgrade of 121 TOW Basic/TOW-I launchers to fire TOW II configuration for wireguided and wireless missiles, TOW Data Acquisition Systems, gunner aiming sight, testers, cameras, spare and repair parts, technical support, support equipment, personnel training and training equipment, technical data and publications, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $185 million.
  3. Harris High Frequency/Very High Frequency radio systems, which include 1,558 20-Watt High Frequency (HF) Man Packs, 2,188 20-Watt HF Vehicular Systems, 175 150-Watt HF Vehicular Systems, ancillary equipment, spare and repairs parts, support equipment, personnel training and training equipment, publications, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics services and other related elements of program support. The radios will enable Pakistan to improve on its capability to provide current and updated intelligence between patrols and higher headquarters. Also, the radios will increase interoperability between Pakistan and the U.S. and coalition forces assisting in the efforts to curtail and eliminate terrorist activities.
  4. 500 AIM-120C5 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM); 12 AMRAAM training missiles; 240 LAU-129/A Launchers; 200 AIM-9M-8/9 SIDEWINDER missiles; 500 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) Guidance Kits: GBU-31/38 Guided Bomb Unit (GBU) kits; 1,600 Enhanced-GBU-12/24 GBUs; 800 MK-82 500 pound General Purpose (GP) and MK-84 2,000 pound GP bombs; and 700 BLU-109 2,000 pound with FMU-143 Fuze.
  5. Modification/overhaul of 14 F100-PW-220E engines, 14 Falcon UP/STAR F-16 structural upgrade kits, de-modification and preparation of 26 aircraft, support equipment, software development/integration, modification kits, spares and repair parts, flight test instrumentation, publications and technical documentation, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor technical and logistics personnel services, and other related requirements to support the program. The estimated cost is $151 million.
  6. 60 F-16A/B Mid-Life Update (MLU) modification and Falcon Star Structural Service Life Enhancement kits consisting of: APG-68(V)9 with Synthetic Aperture Radar or APG-66(V)2 radar; Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems; AN/APX-113 Advanced Identification Friend or Foe Systems; AN/ALE-47 Advanced Countermeasures Dispenser Systems; Have Quick I/II Radios; Link-16 Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminals; SNIPER (formerly known as AN/AAQ-33 PANTERA) targeting pod capability; Reconnaissance pod capability; Advanced Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation Units; MDE included in the MLU modification and structural upgrade kits 21 ALQ-131 Block II Electronic Countermeasures Pods without the Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) or ALQ-184 Electronic Countermeasures Pods without DRFM; 60 ALQ-213 Electronic Warfare Management Systems; 1 Unit Level Trainer; and 10 APG-68(V)9 spare radar sets.
  7. 36 F-16C/D Block 50/52 aircraft with either the F100-PW-229 or F110-GE-129 Increased Performance Engines (IPEs) and APG-68(V)9 radars; 7 spare F100-PW-229 IPE or F110-GE-129 IPE engines; 7 spare APG-68(V)9 radar sets; 36 Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems; 36 AN/ARC-238 SINCGARS radios with HAVE QUICK I/II; 36 Conformal Fuel Tanks (pairs); 36 Link-16 Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminals; 36 Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Embedded GPS/Inertial Navigation Systems; 36 APX-113 Advanced Identification Friend or Foe Systems; 36 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suites without Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) or AN/ALQ-184 Electronic Counter Measures pod without DRFM or AN/ALQ-131 Electronic Counter Measures pod without DRFM or AN/ALQ-187 Advanced Self-Protection Integrated Suites without DRFM; or AN/ALQ-178 Self-Protection Electronic Warfare Suites without DRFM and 1 Unit Level Trainer;
  8. 50 UGM-84L (submarine-launched), 50 RGM-84L (surface-launched), and 30 AGM-84L (air-launched) Block II HARPOON missiles; 5 Encapsulated HARPOON Command Launch Systems; 115 containers; missile modifications; training devices; spare and repair parts; technical support; support equipment; personnel training and training equipment; technical data and publications; U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services; and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $370 million.
  9. 115 M109A5 155mm self-propelled howitzers, spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, publications and technical documentation, personnel training and training equipment, Quality Assurance Team, U. S. Government logistics personnel services, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $56 million.
  10. 300 AIM-9M-1/2 SIDEWINDER air-to-air missiles, missile containers, test sets and support equipment, spare and repair parts, publications and technical documentation, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $46 million.
  11. Eight P-3C aircraft with T-56 engines, communications equipment, training devices, medical services, support and test equipment, engineering technical services, supply support, operation and maintenance training, documentation, spare/repair parts, publications, documentation, personnel training, training equipment, contractor technical and logistics personnel services, and other related support elements. The estimated cost is $970 million.
  12. Six PHALANX Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS), upgrade of six PHALANX CIWS Block 0 to Block 1B, spare and repair parts, modification kits, supply and support equipment, personnel training and training equipment, publications and technical data, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics services and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $155 million.
  13. Six AN/TPS-77 Air Surveillance radars, support equipment, spare/repair parts, publications/technical data, personnel training/equipment, and U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics support services, and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $100 million.
  14. Six Aerostat L-88 Radar Systems, spare and repair parts, facility construction and support, publications and technical documentation, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics personnel services and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $155 million.
  15. Six used C-130E aircraft with engines, one C-130E operational capabilities upgrade aircraft for cannibalization with engines, upgrade of engines to Allison 56-A-15 engines, modification kits, spare and repair parts, devices, support equipment, publications and technical documentation, personnel training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor engineering and logistics personnel services and other related elements of logistics support. The estimated cost is $75 million.

JF-17s At Last

Two JF-17 Thunders flew on Pakistan Day on March 23 in Islamabad. The two fighters were flown in from Chengdu on March 12 for further test and evaluation flights. Of course, President Musharraf had to stick it to everyone and say "Pakistan will be a fortress of democracy" in his speech at the Jinnah Stadium in Islamabad on Saturday. A video of the flypast is available here. An impressive display (note the turn rate!) if there ever was one, but there's still much more to be seen. Hopefully our counterparts in Pakistan will upload more videos soon. But overt jingoism (the likes of which we're so used to here) makes it easy to forget that neither the JF-17 nor the Indian LCA Tejas (for all practical purposes, the direct counterpart) will fly operationally this year, though it almost certain that the Thunders will be operationalised and commissioned sooner.

Obviously, however, there's the notion that the Thunder will have had a few years in the air when the LCA lumbers into service, hopefully by 2012-13, by which time the Sino-Pak fighter may even be at the beginnings of an Mark-II stage. Then again, the LCA versus JF-17 debate is one that can stretch indefinitely and laboriously, with no real conclusions. The Pakistanis don't know much about the Tejas, and we continue to speculate on the JF-17. We don't for example know (and nor does the average Pakistani defence enthusiast, it emerges!) what weapons, powerplant, avionics and countermeasures the final JF-17 will be integrated with.

No judgement calls here, but BR's Mihir Shah had this to say on a LCA/JF-17 comparison discussion: "We aren't trying to point put flaws in the JF. What we have *proved* is that the super-duper Pakistan-spec JF that you kids are having wet dreams about doesn't exist. And none of you have been able to prove us wrong." It's not surprising that all discussions begin nicely and then degenerate into bouts of rapid flaming!

This is how the "which is a better fighter jet" discussion ended: Shah said, "You don't see us denying justice to those affected. Unlike your lovely country, the so called fortress of Islam where Shias are ruthlessly butchered, nuke whore extraordinare, and a country which cannot give basic shelter after an earthquake to the Kashmiris it "freed". It took the pseudo-secularist nation with the world's largest chunk of below poverty line people to offer a helping hand - a hand of friendship which Pakistan brushed aside due to "military sensitivities." Ok, I've made my point. There's just no point in these discussions -- they hate our experts, we hate theirs, what's the point. I mean, seriously.

This is not, of course, to say that we're all smooth cheese here with the LCA, a project that has swallowed funds and remained almost permanently adrift. Notwithstanding the new optimism (which we all hope pays off), there's loads of work yet. The so called "spin-offs" that everyone talks about are well and good -- but we need the damn fighter, not some spin-offs, for crying out loud. There's an end to those. If HAL can dig the IJT out of bad-luck city, maybe the spin-offs will look and sound better than they are right now.

Since we're not going to see the LCA and JF going head to head anytime soon, we'll have to depend on these "sources" until both fighters are cleared for operational flight. And everyone hopes that's soon.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Astra BVRAAM Tests Continue

The Astra beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) will go through its a series of tests on March 26 and March 27 at Complex II of the Integrated Test Range off Orissa's coast. This is great news. News about the elusive programme, which pretty much fizzled out of public view after the initial three highly-publicised tests almost four years ago in May 2003, except for stalls at Def Expos and Aero Indias. Here's some tactical munition technology that DRDO really has a chance to prove itself with. As usual however, there are understood to be development roadblocks in the missile's guidance system, and it's almost certain that DRDL is exploring the possibility of a European or Israeli bailout as a leap-frog option that will see the missile operational by 2010-11 for weapons integration on the LCA (hopefully!), Su-30MKI, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 (the latter two of which will be souped up after great upgrades by that time).

On 25 July, 2001, then Defence Minister Jaswant Singh said, "A feasibility study for air-to-air missile Astra has been undertaken, after the completion of which a project for development of Astra missile is planned to be undertaken. Development of this missile is likely to take about seven to eight years."

On 9 May, 2003, the first ballistic flight of ASTRA air-to-air missile was undertaken successfully from Interim Test Range, Balasore in Orissa today at 1215 hrs. The Defence Ministry announced that all the mission objectives had been achieved. May 11 & 12 were the second and third tests at the Integrated Test Range, all three from fixed ground launchers. There were no more tests following the initial three, though there was no official word on why.

There were to have been field tests in 2004, but they didn't happen. In February 2006, DRDO chief M Natarajan told me at a press conference, "The Astra is a BVR air-to-air missile which is being developed indigenously. The development of the system has been going on for some time and we would be testing the missile in the next two months. The government’s nod for the Astra programme had come a year ago and we are planning to develop it into a missile capable of engaging targets 80-km away. The first field test of the missile will be taking place in another two months. This will be for a shorter range."

Defense News recently quoted DRDL sources as saying that "they will sign a pact with MBDA to develop a dedicated active seeker-head system for the indigenous Astra beyond-visual-range missile", because of problems in the inertial navigation/active radar homing guidance systems -- the reason that there have been no further tests since 2003. Don't know how true this is, though there's been frenetic activity between DRDL and MBDA otherwise as well. Pranab Mukherjee, who visited France and Germany last year almost signed a deal with France for missile cooperation (MBDA was obviously the main contributor), though it fell through at the 11th hour because the French refused to accede full technology transfer.

Well, that aside, 6,000 folks have been evacuated ahead of the tests from Chandipur and Balasore (which incidentally kicks off on Sunday with a test of the the naval TBM Dhanush from INS Rajput, which should be most interesting). After the ABM tests, let's hope good things come in packs for DRDO this year.

(Photo ©Arun Vishwakarma)

Update>Sunday, March 25: India on Sunday successfully tested the indigenously developed air-to-air missile Astra, a system with a range of up to 80 kilometers (50 miles). Great!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Sun Sets on the IAF's Rakshak

I was looking up some old stuff the other day and came upon the rare Sept-Oct 1984 edition of Air University Review journal. A particular piece about the IAF's then impending modernisation struck me. I quote from the article by First Lieutenant Jerrold F. Elkin, then a Political Science Instructor at the US Air Force Academy (Photo ©Rahul Devnath/

"The IAF is aware that, among air forces in the region, it enjoys an overwhelming superiority (both qualitative and quantitative) in virtually all categories of air weaponry and equipment. Indeed, this marked power asymmetry allowed the IAF to advocate conclusion of the Mirage-2000 agreement (while the aircraft still was under development) in the face of a late 1982-early 1983 F-16 delivery date. If F-16 deployment had been perceived as affecting Indo-Pakistani power relationships significantly in the near term, then the IAF probably would have supported one or more of the following policy alternatives: prompt off-the-shelf acquisition of an existing interceptor capable of carrying long-range AAMs and guns with a high rate of fire, significant expansion of the MiG-23MF procurement program, immediate purchase of advanced AAMS, and/or greatly accelerated upgrading of ground-based air defense systems."

It's always easy to forget that it was the Flogger-B (the just retired MFs) that was New Delhi's original counter to the Pakistani Gabbar Singh of the early 1980s -- Ronald Reagan's present, the F-16A/B Fighting Falcons -- the Mirages came later, and the Fulcrums even later.

In mid-2005, I spent a few days at AFS Halwara with the Valiants squadron (well nigh numberplated now) which at the time was operating a handful of ground-attack MiG-23BNs. The base also had a dilapidated Pechora flight or two. It was the first time I had seen blast pens close up. An interesting thing happened there -- airfield personnel were having a tough time evicting a huge colony of parakeets which had nested inside the blast pens, and were wreaking their "havoc" on the parked fighters every day. The base commander at the time was a kind-hearted man. It was a moral dilemma over which birds to protect. Finally of course the parakeets were asked politely to find other accomodation.

The IAF's official history makes no bones about describing the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-23MF's induction thus:

"Induction of the new generation F-16 fighter by the PAF in 1981-82 was a "deja vu" type situation for India and in order to counter such a challenge, the Government contracted for the MiG-23MF air superiority version of the swing-wing fighter, equipped with beyond-visual range missiles, and two new squadrons (Nos. 223 and 224) were formed on the type in 1982. However, these were considered only an interim solution and, in the absence of suitable, known, Soviet equivalents. Not too long afterwards, the Indian Air Force was, to be pleasantly surprised when its test pilots were invited to evaluate the Soviet Union's latest, still-under-wraps, air superiority fighter, vaguely known to the public as the Fulcrum. Officially designated the MiG-29, the IAF team was obviously delighted by the new generation fighter's performance and handling qualities, described as "truly outstanding". (Photo on right shows two Flogger-Bs and a MiG-21 at Uttarlai).

The deja vu is easy to understand. Like the Gnat purchase as a ditch effort against Pakistan's shining F-104s and F86s in 1965 -- something documented excellently in the history of the 1965 air war by PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra.

From the early-mid 90s -- long after superb service at high altitudes during Op Meghdoot and the securing of Saltoro -- until their retirement on March 20 this year, the Flogger-Bs at Adampur first, then Halwara (from 1996-97, actively participating in providing air defence cover of Punjab sector in peace time and the northern area since its inception) and then bases under SWAC, including Jamnagar served critically in beyond visual range (BVR) combat training to pilots.

Sadly, it's spares again that's put paid to any future for the Flogger-Bs. It may be remembered that the Foxbats at Bareilly could also have been used for longer, though the Russians plainly claimed that they had mothballed all blue prints and spares manuals and no longer stocked any for the fleet. Ditto for the MFs. Requests for a total transfer of spares know-how for the MiGs has always been received with a sense of contempt and resignation -- don't obsess with the MiGs, look at our other aircraft now, we have stopped making these, the Russians seemed to be saying.

Air Chief SP Tyagi put it nicely. At the phase-out ceremony, he said, "This is a very emotional moment for us as these aircraft, in which our men have worked for several years, will now become a part of aviation history. It is not easy to say goodbye. It is too costly to maintain them because of non-availability of spare parts."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Farewell MiG-23MF of Warlords!

Just got this press release from the IAF. Reproducing it as is:

Having soared the Indian skies for nearly 24 years and logging nearly 32,581 flying hours, 224 Squadron of the IAF, christened the ‘Warlords’ will on March 20, end their tryst with the veritable ‘air superiority fighter’ (ASF) of its times, the MiG-23 MF fighters (see photo, ©Copyright Bharat Rakshak) belonging to the squadron will take to the sky for one last time on Tuesday next. The historic flights will take place at the frontline Air Force Station (AFS) Jamnagar under the South Western Air Command (SWAC) heralding their transition into the annals of military aviation history while also marking the end of an era with the IAF. The Air Chief, AOC-in-C, SWAC and the Commodore Commandant of the Squadron will be among those present bidding adieu to this venerable flying machine that is set to transcend into the aviation folklore.

The last flight of the MiG-23 MF, NATO codenamed Flogger-B and also known by her Indian nomenclature – Rakshak, brings to an end temporarily on March 31, the ‘Warlords’ operations as it gets ‘number-plated’, an euphemism that in IAF parlance signifies the temporary ceasing of a flying squadrons, 223 and 224, raised to counter the F-16 threat from across the border, ever operated this swing-wing variant of the MiG-23s that were inducted in the early 80s. While the former switched over to the MiG-29 ASF in May 89, only 224 squadron continued operating this aircraft till date. This variant, many assert, is perhaps one of the most powerful single-engine fighter aircraft in the world till date.

After the last symbolic flight by the squadron, the ‘Warlords’ also take a brief hiatus until Air HQ allots them a new role and restores them back in their new avatar. No. 224 Squadron was raised on July 4, 1983 at AFS Adampur in Punjab. The first Commanding Officer (CO) of the Squadron was Wing Commander RA Massey Vr C. The Squdron is presently commanded by Wg Cdr K Khajuria and between them altogether 13 COs have commanded the Squadron till date.

MiG-23 MF is a swing-wing interceptor capable of delivering an array of missiles, bombs and guided weapons. The Squadron became operational with its primary role as Air Defence (AD) and the secondary role as Ground Attack (GA). The ‘Warlords’ moved from Adampur to nearby Halwara, also in Punjab in April ’96 and then to Jamnagar, in Western Gujrat in September ’97. The Squadron was actively involved in providing AD cover over the western sector since its inception till shifting location to Jamnagar, where it continued to do the same. In the latters years, the Squadron was assigned both AD and GA roles in addition to the peace time secondary role of Banner Target Towing (BTT).

The MiG-23 MF was one of the first IAF fighters to be equipped with R-23 R and R-23T BVR (Beyond Visual Range) Air-to-Air missiles. It can also carry 96 Rockets or 1.5 tonnes of bombs of 100, 250 or 500 Kg calibers. The fighter aircraft has a top speed of 2.35 Mach i.e. approximately 2,500 Kmph.

Click here for Bharat Rakshak's MiG-23MF photo gallery.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hasimara and Third Degree in 1998

Here is an amazing account I received from a retired Air Marshal recently about some of the things that happened in 1997-98 when the government cleared apparently skewed pay structures favouring fighter pilots. Deep insights into the fall-out of one of the IAF's darkest chapters. I have not yet made up my mind about whether the whole move to provide more pay was prudent or not, but this makes for a fascinating account full of first-hand nuggets by a man who was there -- any modern history of the IAF would do well to study the lessons of this regrettable episode. It's even more relevant today, especially, with another Pay Commission around the corner, and the country's first non-fighter pilot chief about to take over the throne at Vayu Bhawan. The dramatis personae are largely the men you see around at top positions in the IAF today, or recently retired. Here it is on LiveFist. Trust me, it's worth a read, even if a little vicious in parts. Make what you will of it:

"I had heard that almost every telephone in HQ EAC was tapped. There was some furious reworking of a room near Air-II’s office. A few days what appeared to be conversations of some agitated male and female voices were heard – most abusing the SASO Air Mshl DS “Mac” Basra and PS "Ben" Brar and telling each other in choice epithets, what the family illegitimacies of both were.

This was the consequence of a team led by Air Mshl Janakiraman (with Air Commodore FH Major as a member!) being confronted by AVM Mritunjay Singh, then SMSO, in the AOC-in-C’s office over the anomalies in the technical pay, which led to harsh words and the SMSO being ordered out of the AOC-in-C’s office. The team later faced a near riot in Jamnagar and also other problems elsewhere over the disparity of the flying and technical pay. It was also common knowledge that many transport aircraft and helicopter pilots had refused their flying pay because Air HQ asked each pilot to render a certificate that he was accepting the new scales and they refused.

Agra was one such large base and there were smaller bases like Mohanbari and elsewhere that the protests took place. The flights into Hasimara increased and the flow of information on ‘third degree methods’ being used by some team of officers did too.

Sareen, in his bid to stem the unrest, had ordered another team comprising AVM PK Mukherjee, Air Cmdes PCS Rautela (a technical officer), SK Jain and G Capt V Pradhan, a law qualified officer, to interrogate all suspected technical officers to find out who the ring leaders were. The team was to gather evidence by any means. This became evident when Air Cmde Jain, in one of his periodic visits to HQ EAC, told me that he ‘had kicked’ a couple of technical officers as they were “traitors”.

There were many flights of aircraft and helicopters, even one or two of EAC flying without clearance from HQ EAC, from many Air Force Stations to Hasimara. The Operations Room (Ops Room) stated they have been cleared on the direct instructions of the SASO (Air Mshl DS “Mac” Basra).

Soon after, Air Mshl Manjit Singh Sekhon was posted in as SASO. He was keen to get going (often on a tangent!) and it took many a lot of effort to keep up with him. He took it as a personal affront when the CO of the Mi-8 helicopter unit at Guwahati stated that flying from Guwahati to Shillong by night was not only dangerous but also against the Manual of Helicopter Operations. So Sekhon took on the task of personally educating the CO.

The madness over the protests in disparity of allowances continued unabated. Soon, some AE branch officers in HQ EAC were also removed at the pleasure of the President. One Air Cmde (Misra) was marched into the office of the AOC-in-C and told that the President was pleased to remove him from service. A few weeks later it was the turn of a Gp Capt Verma. The SO (a Sqn Ldr Rao) of AVM M Singh was isolated and then hounded to confess that he knew about all the ‘shenanigans’ of his boss.

A Logistics Officer was proceeded against whereas his boss (then CLMO) who kowtowed to his superiors went unscathed. A Gp Capt of the fighter stream and in the inner circle of the powers that be got away with his (chronic) romancing because he blamed the Logistics Officer, who despite wining and dining the powers that be, was punished. Another Logistics Officer (Gp Capt Rajkumar) of a nearby depot known as Brar’s blue-eyed boy, cried on his farewell. Rajkumar was subsequently caught by the Forest department smuggling (cheap) teak wood on his transfer to Delhi. He was court-martialled but his benefactor (Brar) got away scot-free despite all the wood that Rajkumar sent to Chandigarh for Brar’s house.

Soon the announcement of the next CAS was made and Air Marshal AY Tipnis was appointed to take over as the CAS on 31st December 1998. The IAF was heartened to see that the CAS selected a Aeronautical Engineering (AE) officer, a transport aircraft pilot and a helicopter pilot as SOs. Air Cmde Bhavnani had earlier replaced Air Cmde ‘Pudding’ Ahluwalia (reportedly because of differences of opinion with the retiring CAS’s wife), not before Pudding got the prized post of AOC, Gwalior. There was relief that Air Chief Marshal SK Sareen and more his wife were retiring but also some talk that the MoD ‘fixed’ the wrong Chief (Admiral Bhagwat). The fissures created by Sareen’s policy of differential flying and technical pay (with advice from his AA, Pudding) must have delighted the PAF!

The entire furore about the disparity in allowances started to dissipate in EAC when Air Mshl Brar was posted out and Air Mshl KN Nair was posted in as AOC-in-C."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

First LCA Tejas Squadron at Sulur?

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi said on March 12 that the Air Force station at Sulur (Western Tamil Nadu) was being developed into what will be the HAL Light Combat Aircraft's first user base. The Kangayampalayam village-based station has been persistently of military use by the Navy and IAF from British times, though full-on use has continued only the 1960s. It played a stellar role during tsunami relief operations along with detachments from Yelahanka and Agra. It's been an open secret that the IAF was building a military airfield at Thanjavur for a while now, though it is only now that the IAF has revealed its plans for Sulur. A home to the first delivered squadron of LCA Tejas fighters no less! Two new airfields will come up at the town, work already in progress.

Down south on a farewell visit recently, ACM Tyagi said, "The Indian Air force (IAF) is playing a major role in protecting the country's interests outside its borders and the Southern Air Command (SAC) would be in the forefront in achieving this task. The Sulur and Thanjavur bases (in Tamil Nadu) under Southern Air Command would be expanded soon and Sulur would be developed to make it as a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) base."

I've spoken to a string of former SAC commanders and they all hold that the Trivandrum-headquartered formation has always been looked upon with condescension by Vayu Bhawan. All the action is far away. Things are obviously changing now, with the proposed Aerospace Command (no optimism here!) and now, this fresh new announcement of Southern fighter bases. But look what one former SAC commander says:

"There isn't a single fighter squadron in SAC and there isn't any plan except for the occasional platitude by CAS that the SAC will have more importance because 70% of the world's oil sails in the sea to the South etc. There is no thought process as, you know, the IAF is fixated with Pakistan," he complains, then goes on to add, "The world except Air HQ knows that USA has imposed so many airspace restrictions on the PAF - all flying to be filed/intimated 48 hours in advance; all flying in Pakistan's airspace will obtain prior clearance and adhere to assigned altitudes and routes; all flying will be with Air Defence Clearance of the NATO (read USAF) etc. Soon after the Taliban fell in December 2001, our Il-76 flew to Kabul with Satish Lamba our MEA representative, Mr Abdullah Abdullah the future Foreign Minister and Mr Yunoos Quanooni, the future Interior Minister, from Delhi overflying Pakistan. All controllers on the assigned UHF frequency inside Pakistan were Americans."

That may not matter here for now. The fact is the we now have concrete plans of a base coming up -- infrastructure and all -- to receive the first consignments of the much-anticipated Tejas. Look at the Google Earth grab here of the Sulur base (home to 5 BRD). Visible for now, only a flight of Mi-8 medium lift choppers and a scattering of Clines/Avros.

All of this sounds a bit sudden. Just before, there were plans to send a detachment of six Jaguars IMs or Sukhoi-30s to AFS Car Nicobar, though these were rapidly disbanded after the killer wave. Just three months after the tsunami, however, some of us defence journalists were taken in a Comm Squadron Boeing-737 to Car Nic to see the extent of damage. For good measure, three Jaguars were flown in to show that the strip was fighter worthy again (and the Jaguars make the greatest length demands on airstrips, remember).

Anyway, in the past, whenever air chiefs have been asked if they've had plans to place fighters at peninsular bases, they've always scoffed and said with mid-air refuelling, there's no need at all. Fulcrums or Mirages or Sukhois can tear into the Southern theatre at short notice after a brief contingency (not really needed) thirst-quencher over central-south India. Simple, they said. Then why this? And more imporantly, why the Tejas?

It all seems very telling, to be honest. WAC, SWAC and CAC have squadron depletions and need fighters pronto -- the 126 fighters will go towards that of course, but still won't make up for depleted numbers by that time. If HAL is on a deadline to deliver by 2011, then it makes sense to give the new fighters a taste of the Western and Northern sectors first off, right? Why Sulur, of all the places? Even the North East would be more respectable, in terms of a good place to cut teeth. So does basing the Tejas well away from India's conventional air conflict theatres undermine faith in the machine? Is the IAF nervous about an aircraft it believes is already obsolete, and will be even more so when it's delivered? Sounds like it. On record of course they'll tell you it's all just a test process -- which would be acceptable if it wasn't so disingenuous. Testing is precisely what has happened for the last god-knows-how-many years.

A nice robust argument is on in our comments section about the take-off weight of the Tejas. Either way, the question remains, as commenter Abhiman puts it, "If an RFP can be sent to the under-development Typhoon, and if an RFP can be sent to the Gripen, then why is an RFP not being sent to the Tejas?"

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Tale of the Indian Navy and the E-2 Hawkeye 2000

Just over two years ago, HAL signed an agreement with Northrop Grumman Corp. to “work together on projects of mutual benefit”. This, their press release at the time said, would result in getting HAL on board the E-2C Hawkeye aircraft carrier-based airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) program by way of sourcing aircraft assemblies and components, digitization and other related services.

At the time, Northrop’s VP for the Hawkeye programme, Tim Farell said, “The capabilities and reliability of the Hawkeye are also well known to our allies and adversaries. HAL will help make this remarkable aircraft an even more capable tool for its operators: the U.S. Navy and, so far, six allied nations.” A lot has happened since, but let’s rewind and see what happened in sequence.

In early 2004, the Navy sent out a request for information (RFI) on carrier-based AEW&C systems to Northrop Grumman Corp., with an outline for a total of six aircraft to operate off the INS Vikramaaditya and Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC). Naval Headquarters received Northrop’s reply, with information on the aircraft, capabilities and programme, in October 2004. But, as was abundantly clear, the Hawkeye was configured for launch off a steam-catapult and not a ski-jump of the kinds that exist on India’s two future carriers. This posed the biggest problem yet, and the Navy pretty much dropped plans of looking at the Hawkeye.

But four months later, Northrop Grumman sent senior executives to Delhi to meet Vice Admiral JS Bedi, then Controller, Warship Production & Acquisition, to convince him otherwise.

The team that finally met Bedi, told me on February 11, 2005, three days before their meeting, “We did an assessment with the US Navy, and now believe that it is possible to launch the Hawkeye, with appropriate modifications, from the Gorshkov’s angle deck in the absence of a catapult jump. We will present our findings to the Navy next week, constituting a second order level of detail of the assessment we have made.”

It was a radical suggestion at the time. But how would they work out configuring a Hawkeye for a ski-jump when all American carriers were steam-cat equipped? “For now, we will use existing US Navy performance charts, engineering models, open source information on Gorshkov’s dimensions and meteorological conditions in the Indian Ocean — since we know the dimensions and statistics of MiG-29 fighters used off the Gorshkov, we will use that data as well in our study,” they told me.

But on March 23, 2005, I spoke to Vice Admiral Bedi. He indicated that after weighing the pros and cons of the Hawkeye, the Navy had decided not to pursue its interest in the aircraft. He said, “First of all, the Hawkeye is too big. In light conditions, the endurance of the aircraft goes down from five to just one hour. And for an early warning aircraft to have the capability of staying for only one hour makes no sense. We have decided not to consider the Hawkeye. There are other reasons for not taking up the Hawkeye offer. In a full take-off, a single engine failure could be disastrous,” Bedi said.

In February 2006, Northrop Grumman came back to India – this time, to tell the Navy that souped up Hawkeyes could be provided to operate with enhanced range from three shore-bases at Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Porbandar. This is where things still stand -- the Navy is still studying the shore-based Hawkeye proposal. In the interim, the Boeing-Northrop combine has additionally pitched the 737-AEW&C Wedgetail as a more robust shore-based early warning platform.

What the Navy worries about is that its warships are now plump Harpoon targets on the Western seaboard. The nine Kamov-31 Helix-B AEW choppers with the Navy are grossly inadequate and need chopper-chopper refueling for any meaningful time in the air. With limited range and endurance, the Navy is positive that they cannot be a permanent or long-term solution for fleet defence.

What about the transports?

For all the build-up and anticipation about the medium multi role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract for 126 fighters, the IAF’s other backbone is conveniently shuffled to the end of the queue. It’s definitely worth spending a little time focusing on that other backbone – the transport fleet. Let’s be clear about one thing – all purchases are stepmothered down the priority queue when the country needs fighter aircraft, and this is despite being armed with red-hot production lines that will give the nation a staggering 190 Sukhoi-30 MKIs by 2014, among miscellaneous orders for Jaguars.

Get this: In the last five years, Vayu Bhawan has not authored a single perspective plan for transport aircraft acquisitions. A senior Air Marshal, a transport pilot, recently told me, “In the last five years I have not heard or been able to discuss anything about a perspective plan for the transport aircraft (tpt ac) fleet at Air HQ. All discussions have centered on how the Qataris 'did us in' by showing the Indian delegation the door for the price we quoted for their second-hand Mirage 2000-5.”

“The last time any tpt ac induction was probably discussed was when the Dakota, Caribous and C-119 Packets were to be phased out some time in the late 1970s and some aircraft were flight tested by ASTE,” he adds.

The need is obvious, he indicates: A perspective plan for the IAF’s s transport aircraft fleet should meet the needs of strategic and tactical airlift not only of the Army and IAF but also an ability to convey troops, goods, relief material anywhere in Asia and Europe. It needs to have an assured line of spares supplies and overhaul facilities to make them last 50 years, with periodic upgrades. The plan should be based on the military plans of the three services and will need to be cognisant of what the national aim is.

Here’s the ideal requirement: we need to be able to fly heavy (read tanks and howitzers) and troops of Para Brigade strength (1,200 men) to distances of 2,000 nautical miles (or 4,000 km) or more with their support weaponry in one wave. This would entail about 24 fully serviceable aircraft of the Ilyushin-76 class (now the Americans want to sell us the C-17 Globemaster). Later on the troops will have to be re-supplied for which we need medium load- ong range aircraft like the An-12/74/C-130 class. We would need about 60 of these to take over from the An-32, Avros and Dorniers.

As of now, all we’re doing is purchasing 12 C-130J Super Hercules planes, all configured for Special Forces injection operations with a side profile of medium transport – wholly inadequate. The Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) co-development protocol signed with Russia recently envisages an Ilyushin-214 based twin-engine jet, but that could take ten more years. In 2000, HAL and Antonov design bureau were to collaborate on producing the Antonov-74. The hitch was that the Uzbeks wanted to produce it in Tashkent because they had a factory not doing much. They tried getting then chief Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy to commit to the An-74 on his visit in 2002, though it didn’t finally work out.

According to available estimates, we have about 254 transport aircraft (24 Ilyushin-76, 112 An-32, 64 Avros and 40 Dorniers). These are not unimpressive numbers by themselves, but serviceability and capability ultimately underscore and determine adequacy. If only 3 out of 21 (3 are with the RAW’s Aviation Research Cell permanently) Il-76 and 35 per cent of the An-32 are serviceable then the IAF’s airlift capability is only that much.

The Il-76 is over-taxed and under-utilised because every load above 5 tonnes weight or larger dimensions than the cargo hold of the An-32 meant tasking an Il-76. Flying an Il-76 with less than 35 tonnes of load is not only waste of resources but also of precious engine and airframe hours. Upgrades include: on the Il-76 upgrade of the engines by trying to fit high-bypass engines; on An-32 it is to replace hand-held GPS with integral GPS; on Avro it is to integrate TACAS and VORDME.

The Avro is essentially a communications/passenger conveying aircraft of 1966 vintage. Its production was been stopped many years ago and now it is in the ‘reduce to produce’ stage (where components are steadily stripped off an aircraft to keep others serviceable) and there are many ‘Christmas tree’ aircraft. It has an average serviceability of 40 per sent. The Dorniers are worthy assets, but they hardly count in the broader picture unless you have them in their thousands, which we don't.

A real, concerted transport aircraft perspective plan is evidently the order of the day. For now, miscellaneous transport aircraft acquisitions include 80 medium-lift Mi-171V helicopters from Russia, a development plan to build a Mi-17-class helicopter by HAL and a foreign partner, at least 12 heavy-lift helicopters (the Ch-47F Chinook is a contender) to augment the Mi-26 Halos at Chandigarh and more Do-228s from HAL.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

INS Viraat Till 2013?

On January 5, Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta told me that aircraft carrier INS Viraat would steam on for another seven years. And the warship’s skipper Captain Girish Luthra said, “The ship is in excellent condition. It is up to the Naval Headquarters to decide how long we use her, but I can say she is in top form. Even the British officers who have served on her previously have visited and said she is in better condition now than she was 40 years ago.” That says a lot about the vessel itself, but it says more about the Indian military’s predilection – and, indeed, proficiency – in keeping an ageing ship operational for so long after it was to have been decommissioned. The photo to the right shows the Viraat from Google Earth, docked at the Colaba base along with INS Shakti/Aditya, a destroyer, a few frigates, Tarantul corvettes, and five submarines.

In the last one year, I’ve had the opportunity to be on board Viraat on two separate occasions, both times for over 24 hours. I spoke to people from all departments and duties on board, and they have no problems saying that Viraat has never been in better shape. An extensive refit between 1999-2001 gave the ship, among other things, a new propulsion system, better sensors, a tightened up communications ensemble, a long-range surveillance radar, and included making living conditions better for its complement of 150 officers and 1,500 sailors, replacing large areas of the ship's body with structural welded steel. All of this made Viraat extremely sea-worthy. In June 2005, she was sailed into South East Asia for a subtle "presence" exercise.

The vessel had another brief refit in 2003-04, at which time she was integrated with at least two more radars, and the Barak surface-to-air and point defence missile system.

As I have written before, with a new lease of operational life, the Navy may just about realise its long-standing dream of operating three aircraft carriers, albeit for a short period. Next year, it will add the carrier INS Vikramaaditya (the rechristened Admiral Gorshkov) to its fleet, and the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) in 2011-2012. With three carriers, the Navy will be able to project power off both seaboards, a massive force multiplier. Former chief Admiral Arun Prakash has written one of the tightest and informative
essays on India's quest for carriers.

Following a report on May 11, 2005 in The Indian Express about a team of young IIT-Kanpur graduates making a mark in the country’s guided missile programme, Naval Headquarters hired the services of the same group to fix a fundamental flaw in how warships “talk” to helicopters.

The team recently went on board aircraft carrier INS Viraat and proved equal to the challenge.
The Navy’s fleet of Kamov-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters, one of its prime force multipliers, cannot effectively operate off all Naval warships — apart from the three Talwar-class stealth frigates — because of the absence of a crucial but expensive Russian navigational computer called the Elman system.

The IIT graduates, part of an incubation outfit at IIT-Kanpur called Whirlybird Electronics, were invited on board INS Viraat during the Indo-French Naval exercise Varuna in March. The team then put to the test its equipment, called NELM (an inside joke for “Not-Elman”), or technically as shipborne inertial aligment & transfer unit.

Of 15 communication tests conducted between the aircraft carrier and a Kamov-31 helicopter, NELM passed 14. The error was described as a “planned error of limits.” Now the Naval project manager, Cdr C Raghuram, has asked the IIT team led by aerospace engineering graduate Bhrah Dutt Awasthi to fine-tune their device and bring it back in four months.

“The project was initiated by the Navy chief’s scientific advisor B Lalmohan in coordination with the Weapons & Electronic System Engineering Establishment (WESEE), and is now in progress,” a Naval spokesperson said. A helicopter on a ship does not have independent means to read the ship’s own course and other parameters and requires this vital link at all times, in order to perform as a sophisticated early warning system.

“We have created a clone of the Elman through 100 per cent back-computing and reverse engineering. In four months, we will take back a fully operational product for further testing,” Awasthi told The Indian Express from Kanpur. The Navy soon wants to use early-warning helicopters to be used across the fleet.

UPDATE March 15: Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament today, "A study group has been constituted to explore the feasibility of extending the service life of Indian Naval ship Viraat till 2012. The study group has recommended that extension of the service life of the ship up to 2012 is possible subject to certain repairs being undertaken in addition to routine periodic maintenance. Warships are inducted in the Navy for replacement and augmentation of Naval Fleet. This is a continuous process based on the threat perception and international security environment. It will not be in the interest of National Security to divulge the details of the replacement and augmentation of Naval Fleet."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

India from Google Earth (Part 1)

The government is trying to get Google Earth to go easy on sensitive Indian installations. The government's latent irritation with Google Earth was legitimised when President APJ Abdul Kalam, in his wisdom, questioned the safety of having such high-rez photos available for free.

When former Deputy National Security Advisor Vijay Nambiar cried himself hoarse in March last year about the resolution of Google Earth (no pun intended), I did a story in The Indian Express on the universality of technology -- Google Earth doesn't discriminate. The story was replete with photos of military sites in Pakistan and China. Bot the argument, in hindsight, is a little more complicated than that. I find it very easy to be a proponent of technology like Google Earth's. Here's the follow-up story I did the following day -- the Navy chief and Air chief said they had no issues with Google Earth, but Gen JJ Singh did.

Here's what then Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash had told me: "We have always been occupied with how to conceal our bases and ships better, but this is information that has always been available for payment, so it is no real worry for the Navy. It’s also a question of resolution and the fact that the images are dated.’’

Anyway, I spent an hour the other day (and will spend more in the future) using the tool to capture India's military bases. And here they are, for posterity, in case Google does buckle and censor its eyes over India. That would be such a tragedy. Anyway, here's Part I on IAF/Navy air bases. Enjoy the photos and, of course, you need to click to enlarge them. All photos are, of course, ©Google Earth.

Mirage-2000s at Gwalior.

Two Mi-26s (one with rotors on!) at Chandigarh.

Superb clarity. Il-76s and Il-78s at Agra.

Il-78 and an Avro at Leh.

Jaguars and MiG-29s at Gwalior.

MiG-25 Foxbats (since gone) at Bareilly. My eyes go misty when I see this.

Su-30Ks at Bareilly (old photo, these babies are gone now)

Floggers at Hasimara. Love this photo for some reason.

MiG-21s at Srinagar.

MiG-21s lined up at MOFTU, Tezpur.

MiG-21s at Jamnagar.

MiG-21s at Bagdogra.

This is a beauty. MiG-21s at MOFTU, Tezpur, one on take-off roll.

Choppers at Thoise. Little fuzzy.

MiG-21 blast pens at Nal

Mi-17s at Car Nicobar. What's that white plane below?

Canberras at Bareilly.

One of my favourites. Tu-142s at INS Rajali, Arakkonam

A Navair Tu-142 and Il-38 at Dabolim. Common sight.

Coming soon, Army and Navy bases. Contributions are welcome. Mail them to

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Expert Panel on DRDO

I'd reported on January 19 in The Indian Express on the new "independent and external" panel of experts that has been ordered by the government to revamp and keep tabs on DRDO. The terms of reference hadn't been properly set out at the time. They are now. Here they are, as part of Defence Minister AK Antony's answer in Parliament today (this is an FYI post!) :

"In the light of recommendations of the "Report of the Committee on Review of Defence Procurement Procedure to integrate Users, Ministry of Defence and the Industry", (April 2005, Kelkar Committee Report), a Committee has been constituted under the Chairmanship of Dr. P Rama Rao with seven members - four superannuated officers and one each from the three Services and from defence finance, and one each from industry, Public Sector Units (PSUs) and Academic institutions.

The terms of reference of the committee are to:
  • Mordernize administrative, personnel and financial systems to achieve speedier implementation of projects.
  • Develop synergistic cooperation with sister R&D agencies, such as DAE/DOS/DOD/CSIR and academia to keep pace with advances in science and technology and to ensure immunity against denial regimes.
  • Attract and retain high quality manpower by various measures including offering incentives and providing opportunities for DRDO scientists to acquire higher degrees in India and military R&D experience abroad.
  • Ensure that technical specification of Staff requirements are consistent with the national scientific and technical knowledge base, and experience with fielded imported systems.
  • Maximize technological appreciation and knowledge - acquisition from user trials, test & evaluation and in service use of imported equipment and stores.
  • Maximise utilization of private industry (particularly technocrat-entrepreneur owned) not only for system / sub - system development but also for development of enabling technology, design and proof - of - concept research.
  • Utilize the expertise of selected NRIs and foreign consultants, particularly those with experience in military - related R&D; explore opportunities of collaborative efforts with foreign academic and R&D institutions and military industries in the environment of liberalized economy.
  • Recommend measures to ensure that a certain percentage in value of acquisition is directed towards ongoing and futuristic efforts to indigenously build industrial capability in the country.

Sounds broad. Oh well!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

PGM (Purpose Gone Missing)

In the context of Programme Air Defence (PAD) and Advanced Air Defence (AAD), and all the chatter about Prithvi (most of it incorrect!), I thought I'd reproduce Dr VK Saraswat's PGM report from 2003. At the very least, it makes for interesting reading:

Missile Lanched Precision Guided Munitions Report No. RCI/PGT/PGM/1, dated July 7, 2003 and authored by Dr VK Saraswat, then Director RCI, Hyderabad, Main Missile laboratory and now Chief Controller at DRDO Headquarters:

"Non-availability of appropriate technologies has not allowed PGM system's development in India. Though the accuracy levels of some of the missile systems like Prithvi are acceptable in surface-to-surface theater weapons role, but precision strike capability in sub-meter level and precision neutralisation of mutiple targets without collateral damage is not possible with this system. Intelligence to each sub-munition aided by mother missile (e.g. Prithvi supported by high level of navigation accuracy with INS/GPS) is a possible candidate to fulfill precision strike weapon's requirements. Already developed Nag IIR seeker capable of giving sub-meter accuracy can be used for TGSMs (terminally guided submunition).

At present, two types of PGMs are being considered by the Indian Armed Forces. It has been suggested to explore reverse engineering after identifying suitable PGMs, available in the world market. In this contect, sensor fuzed munitions (SFMs) launched from Smerch and laser guided artillery projectiles like Krasnopol, which will be available in India, may be used for bridging the technology gaps. Although, the trend world over is towards precision strike weapons, there is no national programme on PGMs in India. Recently, SA to RM [Dr VK Aatre] has formed this task force for initiation of PGM development programme. Meetings of task force have helped in exchange of technological ideas on PGMs and involvement of many young scientists of various DRDO laboratories. Miniaturization of seeker systems, inertial navigation systems including MEMS [Micro Electro Mechanical Sensor] based sensors, actuators, etc are gaining importance for meeting the challenging requirements of PGMs."

Saraswat's report also has an interesting timeline slide on systems and technologies essential to improve the precision of missiles. There were and are DRDO's milestones and where it wants to end up:

2003: interface with mother missile, modelling and simulation, harware in loop simulation (HILS), control and guidance.

2007: TGSM with Nag IIR seeker, SFM with Strap Down millimeter wave. (Automatic Target Recognition, Lock-on After Launch, Target Library, Lattice Tail Fin)

2012: Miniaturised TGSM/SFM (miniaturised IR/IIR/MMW, acoustic sensors)

2017: MEMS based TGSM/SFM single/dual/seekerless (MEMS; seekers/sensors/SOC)

Hmm! So after a couple of decades of PGM development (albeit not under a national programme), the Army wants DRDO to seriously consider reverse-engineering the Krasnopol (click here for the Express report on how the Krasnopol has turned out a virtual dud too).

Sources in the Army also tell me that the Prithvis deployed on our borders have problems with their battery packs and fuel leaks. A liaison group has recently been set up to sort out the matter quietly without having the haul the systems back to Hyderabad.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Why isn't the HAL Tejas part of the MRCA push?

A pertinent question if ever there was one. But like almost everything else in our country -- especially when it has to do with impossible sums of money -- divergent interests come together violently in a spectacular explosion of possible recourses and eventualities. In the end, it's always the taxpayer on the street who has to wonder why stuff gets more expensive all the time while his taxes fly off to fund uneconomic and ill-advised purchases. I am not suggesting for minute here that spending upto $9 billion on new fighter planes is a wholly dispensable idea. Surely it isn't (and no, I am not referring to the Indian Air Force's only partially ingenuous squadron crisis rhetoric). But for something that's gonna shackle the nation to seven-figure instalments as far into the future as we could care to imagine, it's definitely wondering why the HAL Light Combat Aircraft won't be a contender for India's largest single fighter (or defence) purchase in a very long time.

A commenter on blog, Abhiman, makes an accurate and largely overlooked observation. He says one of the "hardened" positions we, and most defence journalists, take is that the LCA Tejas is strictly a replacement platform to the IAF's still huge MiG-21 fleet. Another hardened position, though one that's truer than the first one, is that India wouldn't have needed 126 new fighters from abroad if the LCA Tejas was delivered on time.

And now, the realities: Former air chief S Krishnaswamy, in an interview to me last year, said, " How long can you keep on developing a product?" In case you're wondering, that is not a loaded question. It is fairly well-known that Krishnaswamy pushed hard for inductions of at least limited series production (LSP) LCAs into the air force as a "sample" squadron to give pilots a sense of what they were in for -- after all, the IAF has in principle agreed to field at least 220 of the fighters in the medium term. This did not happen. The horror stories that gravitate around the development of the F-22 Raptor and other fighters in the West are frequently bandied about as testimony to why HAL and DRDO should not be lambasted for the LCA's singular delays. Here are the facts. Sidestepping engineering phases (not in the least to mitigate their importance), the LCA project began in 1983. So officially, it's been a quarter century of development for a fighter that's nowhere near ready. Sure the programme's made stars of our men at DARE, the creditable IJT programme and a handful of other laboratories, but here's the thing: N-o F-i-g-h-t-e-r. And we're running toward a deadline of a fully cleared batch of 20 LCAs handed over by 2011 to the IAF.

But where exactly are we with the Tejas? I have to admit, at Aero India 2007 last month, as the third LCA prototype vehicle (PV3) roared across the skies along with the Gripens and Super Hornets and Fulcrums, there was a proud poignance that missed nobody. There it was, the country's very own fighter aircraft, tearing across hot Bangalore along with all the purported big boys of modern military aviation. Yet, beneath the hood, there is still work to be done. "Dummy" weapons trials will take place only at the end of this year because in January 2004, DRDO learnt that it had to redesign the aircraft's composite wings for "weapons definition" -- the IAF almost did a back-flip when this was communicated to them. The multi-mode radar (MMR) under development by HAL, with assistance from LRDE, still has deep signal-processing glitches that will shortly warrant a foreign technology bailout. Let's not even begin on the Kaveri turbofan, a wasteful blackhole of a programme that will shortly have France's Safran laugh itself silly while signing on the dotted line of an Indo-French JV jet engine with the well-notorious GTRE in Bangalore.

The reason I don't go here into technical details furnished by DRDO and HAL is that beyond a certain point, they appear as an amorphous and blurred blob of an excuse for decades of real mismanagement. Of course the LCA is still prestigious, but it's now come to a point where that just isn't enough to keep things going.

Anyway, we have a new deadline for the Indian fighter. Clearance by 2010 and deliveries of the first 20 by 2011. It isn't an easy deadline to meet, but HAL has worked things well before, so if one could for a moment ignore the matrix of activity over the last quarter century, there may be be no reason to doubt HAL's ability to stick to this crucial deadline. Just this once.

When the IAF first put forth its requirement for 100-odd fighters in the 1990s, it had unequivocally and candidly said it wanted 100-odd Mirage-2000-5s. Extrapolating this to form what was the IAF's unhindered initial requirement, the IAF clearly wanted a good chunky number of light multirole fighters. The Mirage's performance at Kargil gave the IAF the much needed ammo to fuel recommendations of a single vendor buyout from Dassault. Fairly in the event, the government asked the IAF to draft requirements, not recommend aircraft, and this was duly, if a little reluctantly done. Flash forward a few years and here's what the scenario is: the requirements have been "engineered" to include fighters that fit nowhere in what the IAF initially wanted. Detractors of the MRCA contract as a whole say, and not without an element of truth, that the supremely incomplete and heavy Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale (Dassault prudently withdrew the Mirage after it weighed its options) and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet now vie for a contract that was initially to have suited aircraft much lighter. In the sweepstakes, the only fighters that fit the original bill, they say, are Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen and the American F-16. And that brings us back to the Tejas. In terms of overall characteristics and stats, the LCA will ultimately be a Gripen-like aircraft.

One last point -- IAF chief Shashi Tyagi (he retires this month) said in an interview to me that the IAF would buy "outright" 40 Sukhoi-30MKIs soon because the MRCA would take 15 years to finish deliveries. Now, that may not be an entirely pessimistic view, but considering 40 fighters aren't going to cut depletion rates in the near term, it brings us all the way back to why the Tejas isn't a contender for the MRCA deal.

If giving RFPs only to completed fighter programmes is a yardstick, then the government cannot defend sending one to EADS for the Typhoon. But imagine what the dangling carrot of $6 billion in orders could do for HAL and DRDO. Send HAL an RFP, but tell them that no good will come of it if they can't stick to their new deadline. By 2011, HAL should deliver a tight, robust and capable little fighter to the IAF, or else. Give them the semblance of spectacular orders in one go. Tell them, it's time they stopped trudging and started moving into the slipstream of global arms manufacture. Who knows what could happen.