Thursday, April 30, 2009

IAF loses first Su-30, one pilot killed

A black day. The Indian Air Force lost its first ever Sukhoi-30MKI this morning. According to a statement from the IAF, the aircraft was on a routine training mission south-east of Jaisalmer today. Both pilots Wing Commander Siddharth Munje and Wing Commander Pushpendra Singh Nara managed to eject, though the latter subsequently succumbed to injuries. It is not yet clear if the injuries were sustained during ejection or otherwise.

The flawless flying slate of the Indian Sukhoi fleet has now been blemished. But it's not like the fleet hasn't had problems in the past. In fact, the fleet has been far from perfect in terms of serviceability. The initial lot of 18 Su-30Ks and ten MKIs had to be briefly grounded as a result of engine issues, that were subsequently put down to design problems. According to reports, the initial batches also experienced a high rate of engine failure. This and a host of other issues made the initial years absolutely bristle with teething troubles. Still, through sheer professionalism -- and time-tested perserverence to deal with Russian obstinacy -- the IAF ensure an accident-free induction of the aircraft, and rapidly brought it up to the frontline air superiority profile.

There was always a lurking, but unspoken fear about when the first Flanker would go down, if at all. It was always considered the unthinkable. Not so unthinkable after all. A terrible, dark day. I met Wg Cdr Nara briefly once in 2007 during a visit to Air Force Station Sirsa, where he was flying MiG-21s. Rest in peace. Heartfelt condolences to his family. And my commisserations to the flying community for this shocking loss.

Mail Today: LTTE brass have six hidden boats

Copyright Mail Today

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ex-Indian SLNS Sagara misses the action

Colombo, 27 April: The Sri Lankan Navy has positioned a large number of its ships as part of a naval blockade off the North-Eastern part of the island, but one ship with a marked record for action against LTTE freight vessels and Sea Tiger craft is missing in action. The SLNS Sagara, an offshore patrol vessel leased to the Lankans by the Indian Coast Guard a few years ago, sits docked at Colombo harbour.

The Sagara is ostensibly missing in action as a result of routine maintenance, though at least one naval official hinted at an altogether more dramatic likelihood that the Indian government may have set down fresh restrictions on its use for offensive purposes during the current round of operations. Another former Indian-operated ship, the much larger SLNS Sayura, is very much a part of the current offshore blockade, though the fact that this particular vessel was sold to the Sri Lankans, rather than leased like the Sagara, precludes any operational restrictions from the Indian side. No official comment was forthcoming on this particular possibility.

As it happens, the Sagara is looked upon here as a vanguard for anti-LTTE operations at sea. The warship made its mark by sinking what the navy says was a 3000-ton LTTE arms freighter about 1,700-km south of the island in October 2007. The ship, formerly the Indian Coast Guard’s CGS Varaha, was leased as a goodwill gesture to the Sri Lankan Navy in February 2007. Just months later, the warship had its trial by fire – it was deployed as part of a three-vessel task force off Dondra Point, the island’s southernmost tip, to intercept and sink the suspected gun-running vessel identified as Matsushima. video

Commissioned in 1992, sources here said that the warship had a lot of opportunities to exercise its lethal 30-mm deck canon and 7.62-mm machine guns.

Although the Indian Navy is making no overt deployments in support of Sri Lanka’s maritime blockade, top officials confirmed that it is aiding the island nation’s forces with additional maritime surveillance from aircraft and helicopters, and warships – both offensive and humanitarian relief bearing – on standby. In addition, it is also understood that the Indian Navy has activated its squadron of unmanned surveillance drones in Kerala to aid the overall reconnaissance effort being undertaken by the Sri Lankan Air Force. Obviously as a result of political compulsions, no support from the Indian military at this stage is in any way explicit, though both the Indian Navy and IAF are part of direct humanitarian.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Video: Weapons recovered from LTTE strongholds

This video shared with us by the Sri Lankan Army shows the arms and ammunition recovered during clearing operations in former LTTE strongholds. The tank was captured by the Tigers from the Sri Lankan Army.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Colombo Diary: Day 2

1. As National Security Advisor MK Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon choppered it from the airport to the President’s Estate, I was speaking to Foreign Secretary Dr Palitha Kohona, an eloquent diplomat every bit the counterpart to our own. There’s a sharp aftertaste of irritation about the visit, it turns out, though they would never let you know it. On camera, they’ll tell you about the special relationship that Colombo shares with New Delhi, and how the visit is simply a perpetuation of that. Talk to officials off camera, and they’re pretty loquacious about how the visit is clearly an imperative enslaved to internal political pressures that the Indian government doesn’t quite know how to address. For what it’s worth, the NSA and FS are only in Colombo for a day. And officials only laugh at India’s recommendation for a cessation of hostilities. As a senior official put it, “It is like telling George Bush Sr. to intervene and save Saddam from the hangman.”

2. Reports emerging today that surrendered LTTE media coordinator Daya Master has begun to sing to his interrogators have introduced an inevitable Clancy-style dimension to the Prabhakaran masterplan. Daya apparently said that the Tiger-in-Chief planned to sink into the depths of the Indian Ocean off Mullaitivu in a submarine, and hope his periscope clears the keels of about eighteen Sri Lankan Navy patrol vessels quietly watching. A Navy officer who I bumped into during lunch in Colombo’s high-security zone joked that if Prabhakaran did indeed choose to make his escape in a sub, he’d better have copies of the new hydrographic charts which were released a few months ago. Reason: post-tsunami 2004, the depth changes on Sri Lanka’s east coast have been the most dramatic of any other country affected by the superwave. In some parts, it is understood that depths have increased – or more dangerously, decreased – by as much as four metres. Doesn’t seem like much. Except, as the officer explained, when you’re in a sub that probably isn’t armed with an accurate depth indicator, four metres too shallow could give the word “Sea Tiger” a whole new meaning. Somehow, that doesn’t really seem the way Prabhakaran would want to go.

3. For anyone who hasn’t been to Colombo before, the level of security in the city is the most I have ever encountered. It’s more than Srinagar. More than any town you could care to name in the North East. You can't move without bumping into an AK-toting guard. In the short drive from my hotel to the commercial centres on Galle Road this morning, our vehicle was stopped seven times. Three times out of those seven, our vehicle was checked. I mean really checked. I’ve had camera equipment checked before in a lot of high-security zones, but nothing comes even close to the way TV paraphernalia is scrutinized here. Not even close. Outside the splendid building that houses the President’s Secretariat, I observed, half in admiration, at the way the rubber nubs on all three legs of my camera tripod were unscrewed, so that the security people could insert a probing wire into the recesses of the three metal tubes. This is after they X-rayed all the equipment. They made us open our camera and play the tape inside it for three full minutes. Not a few seconds as is customary. And three minutes is a helluva long time when your stuffed into a tiny cabin with three men hell bent on recovering even the tiniest sliver of explosive from about 80 kilograms of broadcast gear. My worst fear was that they would ask us to dismantle the camera itself, and that we would have to potentially wreck something that we’d hired for a good sum of money. Thankfully the good chaps didn't. Best part -- after they've confirmed you're clean, they clear you through with a big smile.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Colombo Diary: Day 1

About three miles short of the tarmac on Bandranaike International Airport, the aircraft ploughed through a tiny air pocket, and I think almost everyone on board thought we were descending way too fast. The coconut palms that flank the descent tunnel were a blur. The Boeing bounced onto the ground, lifted a few feet and then began to roll. About 15 minutes earlier, I tried to look down upon the northern part of the island and thought – is Prabhakaran seriously still there?

While the aircraft taxied, I heard the roar of something that was obviously not an airliner. From the aerobridge, I saw two MiG-27s blast off, flame and all. Over to the right, I saw a courseline of black Army Huey choppers, glinting in some seriously marauding heat. As the sound of the two fighters dopplered away, I realized that the only thing I’ve read about Sri Lanka has been Anita Pratap’s book on the conflict. And despite the fact that the politics of Sri Lanka have been persistently central to the politics of the state that was my home for 18 years, I don’t have a nuanced view on the Sri Lankan civil war. Actually, let me correct that. I don’t have a view on the Sri Lankan civil war. I certainly don’t know enough about it, but in the next few days hopefully that will change.

Colombo is a startling appealing city. Seaside esplanade, gently gradiented roads, green as hell almost everywhere you look. We’re staying at a hotel called the Grand Orient in the high security zone, right next to the Colombo Port. The hotel is flanked by government offices on one side, a couple of services headquarters, the business district and a nice down-town with tall twin towers, and a big stretch of Galle Face beach (I initially thought it was "Golf Ace") on the other. Everything – and I do mean everything – is of course punctuated by lean troops with berets and black AKs.

First stop, the Foreign Ministry for a letter of recommendation, which I then ferried to the Department of Information some 10-km away to get the all-important foreign journalist press accreditation. It’s a musty little office where nobody does very much. In other words, it’s like the countless little-visited alcoves in South Block. There’s a woman teacher her son Tamil in one corner. A couple eating in another. There’s an absolute ton of bureaucracy everywhere you look, but everyone’s (at least so far) really nice about it. This is the system, they seem to be telling you. Might as well be cheerful about it, if there’s nothing else you can do. Nifty piece of luck was getting my press accreditation despite reaching a whole hour after the office was to shut. I’m told if you’re caught doing any “journalism” in Sri Lanka without the press-ID they issue, it’s a night in a slammer and then a one way flight back home, and in the bargain, you’re stripped of the possibility of ever setting foot on the country’s soil again without a Presidential pardon. Or something to that effect.

Provided an evening live chat to my station on the Prabhakaran endgame. They say he’s pinned down in a few square kilometers. In all land directions, Sri Lankan special forces advance slowly but confidently towards the spot he is understood to be holding out from. These include motorcycle-borne forces and infantrymen. The SL Navy has blockaded the sea route with fast attack craft and patrol vessels. UAVs buzz over the zone in shifts. Not for a minute is there no optronic payload gazing down at the fuzzy patch of jungle where the Tiger and his final few hold out.

Tomorrow, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and NSA MK Narayanan arrive. I’ve got a seriously early start. Will post again tomorrow.

Island Endgame

Leaving for Sri Lanka today. Will be there for about ten days. Hopefully I'll get to blog and post pictures from there. Do stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

EXCLUSIVE Photos: Indian troops at Siachen (Part 2)

Photos Courtesy Indian Army

EXCLUSIVE Photos: Indian troops at Siachen

Got these awesome photos from the Army quite some time ago, but had lost them. Putting these up because I got them from the Army, but they were taken by a pair of filmmakers who (presumably) were doing some shooting on the history of Operation Meghdhoot, except I don't know their names! Please mail me so I can put in a full photo credit here, or until I get the names of the photographers! Meanwhile enjoy the pictures.

Photos Courtesy Indian Army

Photos: IAF Commanders Conference

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An update on the War Room Leak Case

Wing Commander Sambhajee Lal Surve, the officer who was dismissed by the air force for his alleged involvement in the 2005 Naval war room leak case, has been released on bail. The officer is back in Pune, where he is originally from. Those familiar with the sensational case will remember that on the basis of of the findings of the court of inquiry and the subsequent board of inquiry, Wing Commander Surve from the IAF, and Captain Kashyap Kumar, Commander Vijender Rana and Commander Vinod Kumar Jha from the Indian Navy were dismissed using the President's Pleasure clause. According to those familiar with this update, the judge apparently found no evidence to link Surve with the charges that were slapped on him. It's been almost four years since the case broke. And even now, nothing is any clearer. Like someone I was talking to was saying, every new development in the case contradicts just about everything else. I wonder if the truth will ever really be known. And where is Mr Red Corner Ravi Shankaran?

Up Ahead on LiveFist

Coming soon... Exclusive photographs of Indian Army soldiers in Siachen. Absolute beauties. Stay tuned.

The Rafale's swansong in India

They didn't bring a Rafale to Aero India 2009. Maybe they already had a hunch. This was the Rafale's (presumably) final presence in the country.

Photos by Shiv Aroor (Aero India 2009)

Friday, April 17, 2009

LiveFist Column: Why the Rafale goes down

Rafale shot down for real or victim of the Gripen syndrome?

by Edouard Billet
in Paris

If we believe in recent press reports (Dow Jones, Reuters, etc.), Dassault would be about to make its Rafale fighter remain a true “French exception”. The news is still not confirmed but an anonymous MoD official is said to have announced to the media that the French combat aircraft has been rejected from the IAF MMRCA contest.

What happened? Is it really true? Is the Rafale a victim of the Gripen syndrome? Remember January when rumors popped up suggesting that Saab's JAS-39 Gripen might be left out of the field trials following the IAF's Technical Evaluation Committee report.

The news (if confirmed) sounds very. The aircraft, among the six contenders, is maybe one of the most pertinent for the IAF in terms of technical and operational aspects given the wide range of capabilities but let's try to put some distance between us and the aircraft first.

I think it is useless here to make yet another technical description of the aircraft itself. Every reader of this blog knows now the different features of each contender and their strengths/weaknesses. But maybe we should do the right assessment, instead. This recent announcement (if true) was released just after Air Chief Marshal FH Major, the Chief of Air Staff, said the first technical evaluation made by the militaries is over. Field trials have not begun yet and will probably be launched just after the elections in mid-May, and Dassault’s offer has already been rejected. In other words, it looks like the offer has been rejected instead of the Rafale.

But what really happened? The debate seems now to have jumped from the technical/technological sphere into the commercial/strategic sphere. The Rafale is a really good plane and shows its potential almost each day in Afghanistan or simply during its test campaigns in the hands of the French flight test center (CEV) teams. Its potential and its present capabilities are really great, no doubt about that. But let’s question ourselves about the way the Indian commercial campaign has been led by its maker and the French authorities. The problem might be here.

Some Indian observers believe that Dassault does not really believe the fact that the RfP process will survive the coming elections. Except this hypothesis, nothing can really explain the lack of communication from the French side that many observers have highlighted compared to the commercial show orchestrated by Boeing, Lockheed Martin (even the flames on the runway… the Americans always bring some special FX with them!) or even EADS.

Many things are not clear at all because of a lack of official communications from the MoD. But would it be reasonable to put into perspective the MMRCA deal and the future contract to upgrade the IAF’s Mirage 2000? Did Indian authorities make Dassault understand that Mirage + Rafale is an impossible equation given their will to reinforce their ties with the US? Because if we remember the words that Indian officials said few months ago that clearly signified “We won't sign any other strategic partnership apart from those with the US and Russia” Therefore, is the die cast?

Another element that should be taken into account in the ‘unconfirmed’ statement made by the anonymous MoD official is the price of Dassault’s offer. This argument seems to be recurrent concerning French offers in general, and was notably heard concerning the Mirage 2000 upgrade program. If some observers and militaries sometimes reproach French programs to be expensive, the most part of them also admit in the same time that French products have very good records in terms of serviceability, and are not linked to any constraining end-use monitoring agreements. Maybe quality and sovereignty have a cost. That's a thought.

Let’s try to stay careful for now since the “rejection” has not been formalized yet. Dassault itself, according to one of its spokespersons, still has not been informed of anything by the Indian government.

Even if we try to get out of technical discussions, many readers here would probably agree with that: it is quite frustrating to totally ignore technological aspects to only focus on commercial reflections. Because, indeed, one question remains. What makes possible the fact that the Rafale is excluded for technical reasons and not the Gripen, for instance? Neither the Gripen IN/NG nor the MiG-35 are operational and field trials expected to start next month, which could become a strange mix of prototypes and operational aircrafts test flights. The Rafale in its F3 standard is today a very competitive aircraft. Neither the cheapest nor the most expensive solution, its abilities have a strong point: they are proven (Red Flag, Afghanistan) and, a minima, at the same level of the five other contenders.

What can we have against it? Maybe its good “omnirole” nature. So good that it is not the “best” in a particular mission, except maybe deep penetration missions in air-to-ground attack mode given its small EM/IR signature and its important survivability with its SPECTRA self-protection system.

What is censurable in its configuration? Mainly two points:

1) Its thrust -- an engine able to deliver 90kN would have been better, notably for high-altitude take-off and landings, but technically the solution already exists with the M88 ECO. Even if this engine is not yet in production, an agreement seems to be possible (and is thought) between the DRDO (and more specifically the GTRE) and Snecma as a possible way to boost the Kaveri program (but here again the IAF expressed its reluctance due to the level of proposed ToTs).

2) Its radar: an AESA is said to be required in the IAF's ASQR. Thales has been finalizing the development of its new RBE2 AESA for months, which is now ready for low rate production. This system has been flight tested many times in France and was recently evaluated by Swiss pilots in the frame of Switzerland AF own contest to replace its old F-5. According to local sources, pilots are really enthusiastic and enjoyed its performances (range, precision) in various tactical environments (mountains, jammed areas, etc.). Those sources also said most pilots who have flown the Rafale and the other proposed aircrafts (i.e. Gripen and EF) expressed their preference for the French fighter. Furthermore, ToTs proposed to India by Thales for the RBE2 AESA seemed to be very interesting.

So where is the logic? Probably Dassault's offer would have been rejected in the last part of the MMRCA evaluation process at the political/economical level, given the strategic interest to opt for an American solution. But such a rejection now is quite hardly understandable. So wait and see, for two reasons: 1) to see if the announcement is true and 2) to gain more distance with all these parameters.

If ever the announcement is validated by Indian officials, maybe French authorities will have to take in turn some distance with their way to support the French industry abroad. Here again, let's do a flashback two months ago during Aero India 09 and let's remember the words of Nicolas Sarkozy’s adisor on International Affairs Jean-David Levitte. According to him the Rafale was under damageable political pressure in India. He said he asked the Indian government to consider the Rafale the same way it does with the five other contenders. These words, carefully listened by any polemist, would have been read as: "If you do not select the Rafale that means you are corrupt".

So maybe we should imagine that the French government didn't really help Dassault's efforts. Such a hypothesis could be read in the light of the recent Rafale defeat in Morocco, partially caused by a lack of coordination of the French Administration with Dassault's commercial stance.
But all these are only suppositions and ideas to deepen, of course the discourse. Let's wait, savoring a good French red wine. I'm sure you know that wine possesses neuroleptic effects, i.e. it blunts the peak of emotions and reduces anxiety and stress, providing a mild euphoria and some moral appeasement?

(Billet is a Paris-based freelance aviation industry watcher and journalist. He was formerly with the French flight test center, and has tracked the evolution of the French aircraft industry for many years. This column is exclusive to LiveFist)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

First Blood! Rafale ejected from MMRCA!

It's first blood in the Indian Air Force's Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. And the first to bite the dust (also the one who probably needed the contract more than any of the other six contenders) is the French Rafale, developed and built by Dassault Aviation. The never-before-exported fighter has been counting immeasurably on the long and deep ties that its maker, Dassault, has shared with the Indian Air Force and government, especially the warm, fuzzy relationship it has made possible with the Mirage-2000s. But it's official now. Dassault's technical bid did not make the IAF's cut -- the reasons will come out in detail over the next few days. Dassault hasn't made an official comment on the news just yet (don't know if they've been officially intimated yet by the MoD about the down-select). That's got to hurt. I've shot off a few questions to the Dassault people in Saint Cloud. Let's see what they say. Watch this space.

The French media, which has (obviously) pounced onto the story is talking about how the elimination is just another sign of just what a cursed programme the Rafale is and how a possible Arab contract is its only hope. Well, that's what they said about the MMRCA contract, so.

For good measure, I've commissioned a column on "Rafale: First Blood" from an aviation watcher in Paris who has worked previously with the Rafale programme. That should be up here tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ex-Servicemen to vote BJP en masse

Following their fourth protest rally in Delhi today, a large body of ex-military servicemen has decided to vote and support the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. It would be unreasonable to imagine that every last servicemen in the 24-lakh-strong community can possibly be rallied to vote one way, but that's the intention that's been put forth. The Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), a body that took birth during the 6th Pay Commission angst, announced today that it would work night and day to persuade all ex-servicemen, including those who owe allegiance to other ex-servicemen organisations, to vote BJP.

In a statement, the IESM said today, "After lengthy confabulations at the rally, particularly on aspects related to manifestos of various political parties, it was decided by majority that ESM across the country will vote and support the BJP. Exceptions will be in constituencies where ex-servicemen are being fielded by ex-servicemen parties supported by IESM."

Their prolonged ire has boiled down to this decision based on two factors. One, the perceived apathy of the UPA government in agreeing to introduce pension parity despite an on-record promise by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. And two, a promise by the BJP in its manifesto -- and bolstered by LK Advani personally visiting the veterans during their last protest -- that the One-Rank-One-Pension (OROP) standard will be introduced should they return to power in the Centre.