Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Take-off Wait

So finally, the long-awaited (and definitely hyped) request for proposal for the IAF's medium multirole fighter aircraft (MMRCA) is out. For us defence correspondents, who willingly frothed in the mouth in anticipation of what was ultimately simply the kick-start of a definitely prolonged procurement process, the release of the tender document has assumed large proportions. The hype had its effect in a way – in a clean break from the past, the Defence Ministry actually announced the release of the tender document in a press release. But it's out, finally, and that's what matters – the ball is, hopefully, rolling.

The 211-page document has taken a good four years to author. It has bounced to and from the Defence Ministry no less than 25 times according to one Ministry guesstimate, and has been scrutinized by the CVC, the Law Ministry, the industry ministry and a few other agencies. It has the real bite of the Defence Procurement Procedure 2006 and calls for a 50 per cent offset commitment, one with few parallels for its ambitiousness. Of course, it's also deep awareness by South Block that the MMRCA deal is quite simply one of the largest military aviation contracts in recent procurement history.

If I remember correctly, it was an interview that former Vice Chief of the IAF Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani gave to FORCE magazine in late 2005 that set down the official and final list of aircraft that would receive the tender document. Up until that time, it had only been speculation. It was he who confirmed that the list would encompass the EADS Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, the RAC MiG-35 Fulcrum-F, the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 60.

There's been enormous debate (including in the comments section of LiveFist) about who should rightly win. There's still the incredulity over the single engine-twin engine ambiguity. Then there's the huge cost discrepancies of the contenders (the Rafale, which ironically needs this deal more than any of the other contenders) emerges as the costliest choice, while the Typhoon already has detractors within the IAF. The MiG-35 raises demons of Russian reliability and life-cycle support, while the two American contenders are so called "political blackholes". The Gripen, many believe, is the sort of plane the IAF set out to acquire when it overreached itself and demanded 100-odd more Mirage-2000s. It's the so called "independent choice" politically – moreover, the Swedes have agreed to slap in whatever radars and sensors the IAF wants, so, as a colleague of mine mentioned recently, if the Gripen can be acquired with an American AESA radar and weapons and Israeli avionics, it would meet everything the IAF wants and still be cheaper by at least $6 million a piece than the next cheapest fighter.

Obviously, there is overarching consensus – notwithstanding Defence Minister AK Antony's repeated allusions to objective transparency – that the purchase decision will be a political one, and resoundingly so. Almost certainly. The number of views out there are astounding. The Editor of a well-known defence magazine recently said said the Gripen will be the last on India's list because South Block it is not in the least interested in an independent choice, even though the Gripen might well be the perfect choice. As an emerging power, Sawhney pointed out, India knows very well that this will have to be a political purchase.

Journalists on the defence beat have had a ring-side view of the stunning aggressiveness of the American pitch. Boeing and Lockheed Martin, quite reasonably, view this contract as their ultimate battle for a market that promises dividends far into the future. A little shaken by the twin assault, Moscow has wisened up and started talking business, though it's ill-timed tantrums over cost-escalations definitely wont help an already bruised view of Russian reliability in South Block's corridors. The French bagged the Scorpene deal, so it's unlikely such a large cookie will be passed their way this soon, especially for a fighter with no previous export experience. It's a brilliant cat's cradle of intentions, possibilities, motives that boggles. Yet there are too many who are absolutely sure. Some believe the F/A-18 Super Hornet is a clear frontrunner. After Boeing conveyed it's revised per unit cost for the MMRCA deal, it's attractiveness has gone up a few notches. The APG-79 AESA radar is still, of course, the biggest draw for Boeing. The F-16I Soufa would be a superb draw, but what about the stigma (Pakistan)? Say what you like, but these things matter and matter hard.

Last week, The Hindu reported that the LCA Tejas failed to impress at sea-level during test-flights from Arakkonam, performance stats that could introduce yet another delay in initial and final operational clearance. Meanwhile, there's clamour that Rs 42,000 crore is a sin to be paid for what are ultimately fourth generation aircraft. What about the PAK-FA? What about the professedly fifth generation Medium Combat Aircraft? These will all be endless debated as far as anyone can see, while the government takes its time.

These are the odd spikes that we see in what is ultimately a laborious and mind-numbing system. It's going to be very slow moving from here on out. So I don't think anyone should hold their breath for too long.

My MiG-35 Flight - Thursday Evening on Headlines Today

My half-hour special on the flight I took in a MiG-35 at Zhukovsky, and coverage of some of the other aviation events at the show will be on Headlines Today on Thursday (August 30) at 8.00PM . I will write about the flight here on Friday.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

MoD Announces Release of MRCA RfP (Rs 42,000 crore!!)

The Request for Proposal (RFP) for the procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) at an estimated cost of Rs. 42, 000 crores for the Indian Air Force  was issued today to six vendors – Russia's MIG-35(RAC MiG); Swedish JAS-39 (Gripen); Rafale (France); American F-16 Falcon (Lockheed Martin); Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon (Made by a consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian firms).   The 211-page document deals with various issues relating to initial purchase, transfer of technology, licensed production and life-time maintenance support for the aircraft.   The RFP contains the selection model that would involve an exhaustive evaluation process as detailed in the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP) – 2006. 

The proposals from the likely contenders would first be technically evaluated by a professional team to check for compliance with IAF's operational requirements and other RFP conditions. Extensive field trials would be carried out to evaluate the performance. Finally, the commercial proposal of the vendors, short-listed after technical and field evaluations, would be examined and compared.   The aircraft are likely to be in service for over 40 years.  Great care has been taken to ensure that only determinable factors, which do not lend themselves to any subjectivity, are included in the commercial selection model.   The selection would be transparent and fair.

Under the terms of purchase, the first 18 aircraft will come in a 'fly away' condition while the remaining 108 will be manufactured under Transfer of Technology.  The vendor finally selected would also be required to undertake 50% offset obligations in India.   The ToT and offset contracts would provide a great technological and economic boost to the indigenous defence industries which would include Defence Public Sector Undertakings, Raksha Udyog Ratnas and other eligible private sector industries.   Foreign vendors would be provided great flexibility in effecting tie up with Indian partners for this purpose. 

t may be recalled that the Defence Minister Shri A K Antony while chairing the Defence Acquisition Council Meeting on June 29, 2007   had outlined three guiding principles  for this procurement scheme. 

First, the operational requirements of IAF should be fully met. Second, the selection process should be competitive, fair and transparent, so that best value for money is realized. Lastly, Indian defence industries should get an opportunity to grow to global scales.

MRCA RfP Issued!

The Request for Proposal for the Multirole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) tender has finally been issued today. More later.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Flight in the MiG-35!!!

Monday was a big day. I took a sortie in a MiG-35 fighter from Zhukovskiy air base outside Moscow a day before the MAKS 2007 air show began. Short of time, so this is just a note. I've received all your comments and suggestions for questions to ask the Russians while I'm here. Will do for sure. The photo shown here wasn't taken by us here, but this aircraft (the 154) was the one I took my 33-minute sortie in with pilot Stanislav V. Gorbunov.

One thing I'll tell you right away -- it was one thing watching the show-stealing set put up by the MiG-35 at Yelahanka in February. It's completely another being in the cockpit when all those things are happening. My flight will shortly be a special report on Headlines Today, and will post the schedule here as soon as I'm back in the country. As a parting note for today, one of the things to do before you die -- the tail slide manoeuver in one of these babies.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

LiveFist in Zhukovsky!

I will be at the MAKS 2007 air show in Zhukovsky, Russia from August 20-25. Will keep the blog updated with photos and anything else interesting there. It's an enormous show, so there's going to be lots to post. Have also got myself a flight in a MiG-35. And the Su-35 will be unveiled for the first time. So, stay tuned.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

INS Delhi enters Doha

Navy destroyer INS Delhi entering Doha harbour (Qatar) with the tricolour fluttering on August 15. Navy ships are on a 40-day deployment to the countries of West Asia.

Shakti-propelled Attack Dhruv takes flight!

HAL's press release today: The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv took a flight today for the first time with the more powerful Shakti engine and in weaponised role.The inaugural flights of Dhruv powered by Shakti engine and loaded with weapons took place at HAL's Helicopter Division in Bangalore this morning.

After the maiden flight, HAL Chairman Mr Ashok K. Baweja said that a simulator school will be set up by next September along with CAE, Canada with common modules of training, though primarily for ALH. The ALH has the utility and weaponised variants, and while conceptualizing the latter, there was a need for a more powerful engine for the additional payload of weapons, especially while operating at high altitude.

"The Shakti engine, developed jointly by Turbomeca (French) and HAL, develops almost 30 per cent more power compared to the TM 333-2B2 engine, with 19 per cent content of Indian development," Mr Baweja said.
The new engine is likely to get the certification by January next year, after carriage trials, butt firing and air firing besides various other trials. ``The weapons are being integrated on the variant. We are doing everything to make it (weaponised Dhruv) a lethal platform for the military services,'' he said, adding that the ALH would provide the right solution for the forces' strategy.

After introducing the ALH in 2002, phenomenal improvements have been made after incorporating feedback from the users – Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, who have operationalised the aircraft and flown it over the desert, sea and high mountains. ``The ALH today is different from when it was introduced in 2002,'' the Chairman added. Improvements include the glass cockpit, weapons and new engine.

"The current order book for the ALH is large and the number of helicopters required is clearly indicative of its excellent performance," Mr Baweja added. On the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), Mr Baweja said that the copter will be of tandem seating and capable of operating at very high altitudes. The LCH is likely to make its inaugural flight sometime in August next year. On the LCA Tejas project, Mr Baweja said that the LSP began in March and HAL was committed to deliver the aircraft on time.

The Hawk production would start shortly and the first batch of the Advanced Jet Trainers would be handed over to the customer early April 2008. "Existing infrastructure will be used for Hawk production after winding up Jaguar operations and the LCA manufacture too will pick up full steam. There will also be new hangars for the Hawks and LCA. The order book is firm and the Company is moving ahead with a clear vision for the next 5 to 10 years," the Chairman said.

New programmes like the heavy cargo lift and new generation fighter coming up, HAL too has changed its strategy of business, keeping in mind the multiplicity of tasks involved. Four divisions will be dedicated to helicopters. Replying to a query on Dhruv's export potential, Mr Baweja said that the primary focus would be to set up maintenance facilities and cater to the domestic market first, taking into account the huge requirements.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Tejas MMR Disaster

It's with a sigh that we're all forced to accept that now, even the radar of the Light Combat Aircraft, will be a joint-venture product. So let's see now. The engine will be a foreign engine until the Kaveri lands on us (hopefully) in 2014 with Snecma's help, and the primary sensor of the Light Combat Aircraft will be co-developed by HAL's Hyderabad-based Avionics Division with Israel's ELTA. Note that the radar will be developed for both limited series and series production aircraft that should see squadron service by 2012.

ELTA's successful EL/M-2032 multimode pulse doppler airborne intercept and fire control radar will be the template for development over what HAL has already produced with a little help from DRDO's Electronics Research & Development Establishment (LRDE). The unmodified 2032 will in fact be integrated onto some of the limited series production fighters. In fact, some of the PVs may fly with 2032 radars as early as February 2008 for integration evaluations. The 2032, incidentally, is already being bought off the shelf by the Navy to replace the outdated Ferranti Blue Fox radar on its remaining fleet of Sea Harriers (this is a package deal coupled with Rafael Python BVR missiles signed in early 2005). For its part, the 2032 is a tried and tested sensor, having proven itself on the F-16, MiG-21 and F-4s. Incidentally, there was a recent report in the Israeli press that the Israeli air force is not too happy with the Northrop AN/APG-68(V)9 AESA radar and is pushing for a replacement that builds on the tried and tested 2032.

Even though frustrations over the delays in the MMR project (and therefore, delays in weaponisation of the LCA) were first expressed last year, it was decided only in May this year by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) that foreign help (read Israeli) would be sought (this piece in The Hindu says it all). Without the MMR, the Tejas has undergone hilarious weapons trials using a targeting pod, which anyone will tell you can't replace a primary airborne sensor for nuts. Therefore, critical weapons tests still languish. The problems that HAL has had with the MMR (photo on left) came to a head in 2002. But it took five years to decide that it couldn't surmount those problems. But here's the really rich part -- when HAL/DRDO bite the bullet and seek foreign help, they say it's in the interest of efficiency and timely delivery. I almost fell off my chair when I read the note that ADA had sent to the Defence Ministry last year admitting that foreign help would have to be looked at as an option in the interests of "prudent meeting of project deadlines".

To be sure, it would obviously have been infinitely more satisfying if HAL and LRDE had in fact been able to build a radar without any help from outside. Notwithstanding the cushioning that Defence Minister AK Antony gave HAL in Parliament by alluding to the painfully obvious ("The technology of airborne radars is very complex" -- duh! yes, that's why it's been entrusted to our scientific establishment!), this should come as a wake-up call to an establishment that counts radars and sensors as one of its core strengths.

Monday, August 13, 2007

It's Official: ELTA to bail out HAL's Multimode Radar for LCA

This has of course been known for a while now, but now it's official. Israeli firm ELTA, the radar and electronics subsidiary of IAI, will co-develop a multimode radar for the Light Combat Aircraft programme's limited series and series production aircraft. Here's what I wrote in The Indian Express on November 15, 2006:

"The HAL-DRDO multi-mode radar, the very brain that will guide the LCA's weapons, is not ready. After spending Rs 166.8 crore since 1997, HAL has decided to bring in a foreign technical partner to bail it out."

The Defence Minister's quote in Parliament today says the total expenditure incurred on the project so far is Rs 105 crore till 2004, though the MoD's testimony to the House Panel on Defence says it is Rs 166.8 crore total upto July 2006. Anyway, here's what the Defence Minister said in Lok Sabha today:

"There has been a delay in developing Multi-Mode Radar. The project for development of Multi Mode Radar (MMR) was started in June 1991 with Probable Date of Completion of 6½ years. The technology of airborne radars is very complex. The MMR development is being done for the first time in the country. No prior expertise exists in the country in this field with any organization. There has been a time and cost overrun in the said project. The project to develop two MMR systems for ground testing was sanctioned at a cost of Rs.62.27 crore. This activity was completed in 2004 at a cost of Rs.105 crore. A co-development activity of MMR has been initiated for Limited Series Production and Series Production with M/s ELTA Systems Ltd, Israel, which has experience in developing similar types of radars. To expedite the project, close monitoring of activity at the highest level of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) management has been put in place."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

More on Nirbhay

Prasun K Sengupta has this article with lots of info on the Nirbhay cruise missile programme in the latest issue of FORCE. Here it is in full:

The Defence Research & Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) is developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that will form an integral part of India’s efforts to develop a credible cruise missile defence system. The UAV called Nirbhay (fearless) will be both air-launched and ship-launched. The fast track project, believed to have been launched in late 2005, calls for the UAV to be developed as both a high-speed target drone capable of simulating the flight profiles of land-attack/anti-ship cruise missiles like China’s DH-10A and Pakistan’s Babur, as well as sea-skimming anti-ship missiles like the AGM-84A Harpoon and C-802A, both of which are operational with the Pakistan Navy.

In addition, a ground-launched conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant of the Nirbhay is also envisaged. This would be a high-speed, medium-altitude vehicle equipped with a 130-kg payload for standoff and theatre-level reconnaissance. It is in response to a specific air staff requirement of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

To be powered by a NPO Saturn-supplied 36MT turbofan rated at 400 kg thrust, the UAV’s target drone variant will be capable of cruising at a speed of Mach 0.92 at medium altitudes (10,000 feet) and 1,100 kph at sea level. The UAV will have a flight endurance of two hours, sea-skim at 10 metres above sea level and be able to pull up to 6.5 G. It would be equipped with a 130 kg payload (of up to 24 different types such as towed radar/infra-red reflector/augmentation devices, EW jammers and hit-scorer avionics). It will have a digital flight management system that will enable the drone to undertake various flight manoeuvres like snaking, pop-up and a 40-degree dive.

The ship-launched variant of Nirbhay will be equipped with twin solid-propellant boosters that will be ejected once the drone is airborne. For the IAF, it will be configured for launch from an IL-76MD transport aircraft. For recovery purposes, both variants of the drone will be equipped with parachutes and inflatable air-bags. The drone will have a maximum takeoff weight of 650 kg (minus the twin boosters), overall length of 5.5 metres, wingspan of 2.5 metres, and a fuselage diameter of 0.40 metres. The UAV’s theatre reconnaissance CTOL-UAV variant for the IAF will be equipped with a tricycle undercarriage, and its mission sensor suite will include an X-band inverse synthetic aperture radar (most likely the EL/M-20600 from ELTA Systems of Israel), a wideband two-way data link, and a ring laser gyro-based inertial navigation system coupled to a GPS receiver.

Maiden flight of the drone’s first prototype is scheduled for early 2009, while its CTOL-UAV variant is expected to fly later the same year. Present plans call for procuring up to 80 drones and 30 UAVs. Series production of the Nirbhay will be undertaken by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, while the 36MT turbofans will be procured off-the-shelf from NPO Saturn. Last October, NPO Saturn had inked a USD100 million contract with the DRDO, under which it will deliver, starting this December, a total of 200 36MT turbofans through to 2010.

Copyright 2007 FORCE.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Boeing Counters JSF Pitch With Super Hornet

Boeing Integrated Defence Systems briefed journalists on July 31 in New Delhi, where Boeing India President Dr Ian QR Thomas and Vice President and General Manager Integrated Defence Systems Chris Chadwick both said that the F/A-18 Super Hornet was "cheaper than the F-35 Lightning-II and that the USN has no intention of phasing the Super Hornet out". This is presumably what they'll be telling the government and IAF as well. It was also revealed at the briefing that Boeing had made modifications to the Super Hornet to drag down the unit cost of the aircraft from $82 million to $49.9 million.

This actually illustrates how hard the MRCA deal is being fought. Boeing is a partner on the JSF programme and manufactures the wings, aft fuselage, integrates the avionics and all of the pilot and maintenance training systems, so why, in it's right mind, would it not think LM's pitch of the JSF was beneficial to both companies? The F-35C variant is admittedly a replacement to the legacy Hornet and more advanced Super Hornet. Well I guess it would just look lame agreeing with your biggest rival. If you ask me, it looks sort of silly either way. Why in hell would we need the JSF when we've apparently jumping head-long into our own fifth generation fighter programme, either independently or with the Russians (PAK-FA). And on the other hand, from which angle does the Super Hornet fit a fifth generation requirement? I ask you.