Monday, 25 September 2017

On Tuesday, Jim Mattis, an unusually influential US defense secretary meets preoccupied newbie, Nirmala Sitharaman

Talks on “major defence partnership”, Afghanistan, China, DTTI

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Sept 17

When US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets his Indian counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman, in New Delhi on Tuesday, it will be a first handshake between an unusually powerful American incumbent and a greenhorn Indian one.

Mattis is not just a vastly experienced combat soldier who has commanded an infantry battalion in Iraq in 1991, an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan after 9/11, a US Marine division in Iraq in 2003 and eventually the US Central Command, which covers the world’s most dangerous hotspots from Pakistan to West Asia and North Africa. He is also a member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet and of the National Security Council. Most significantly, with the US president embroiled in domestic political battles, Mattis calls the shots in defence more than any recent predecessor.

In contrast, Sitharaman will have served just 19 days as defence minister when she meets Mattis. Further, she is preoccupied with the Gujarat elections, for which the Bharatiya Janata Party has appointed her “sah-prabhari”. With the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) retaining control of important defence ministry issues, there is little expectation that Sitharaman will go beyond her talking points when she meets Mattis.

American and Indian officials agree there are few deliverables on the table. Instead, they are playing the Mattis-Sitharaman meeting as an opportunity to establish personal rapport – like that between previous US defence secretary Ashton Carter and Manohar Parrikar between 2014-16.

US officials privately admit to concern over Sitharaman’s reserved presence, which contrasts with Parrikar’s gregariousness. “As a commerce minister she came off as cold and haughty and her lack of confidence caused her to stick to her positions. That effectively stalled the trade dialogue”, opines a senior American industry leader.

Sources say Mattis will discuss with Sitharaman the implications of “Major Defence Partner”, a category that Washington placed India in last year; and how New Delhi proposes to enlarge Indian “economic assistance and development” in Afghanistan, which Trump called for last month. Mattis himself is a key driver of an expanded US presence and role in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan will be a big part of Mattis’ discussions in New Delhi. He will be going straight from Delhi to Kabul”, says a US official, speaking off the record.

Mattis will be raising the issue of China, with India having recently come off the Doklam confrontation.

The two sides will also discuss rejuvenating the sputtering Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), with progress stalled in cooperating on jet engine technology, and in building India’s next aircraft carrier.

During President Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi in 2015, two joint working groups (JWGs) had been set up to pursue these projects. With little progress on those, three more JWGs are on the agenda.

“We could see three new JWGs for cooperation in space, cybersphere and on ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance)”, says a US industry insider.

Finally, Mattis will urge New Delhi to push through a Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement (COMCASA), which would allow the US to supply India with advanced communications equipment for greater interoperability. This has been stuck for years, with drafts repeatedly exchanged, but little agreement on a final text.

Notwithstanding media reports about US pressure on India to transfer the F-16 production line to India; and to buy 22 Sea Guardian drones, US officials say Mattis will only flag these “opportunities”.

Meanwhile, US stakeholders, including General Atomics, which builds the Sea Guardian, are reminding New Delhi through various channels that much political capital has been invested in clearing that drone sale in Washington.

“There is worry that India might be using the Sea Guardian offer to create the impression of a multi-vendor procurement, but has already decided in favour of an Israeli drone”, says one US industry analyst.

“The heightened public focus on the F-16 is because the production line in Forth Worth, Texas, is shutting down soon and Washington needs to know quickly if India wants it”, he says.

Mattis’ visit comes in the backdrop of delay in scheduling the “two-plus-two” dialogue, which will have US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mattis meeting jointly with Sitharaman and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. This format replaced the earlier “strategic and commercial dialogue”, which involved the foreign and commerce ministers (then Sitharaman). 

Sunday, 24 September 2017

India Does Not Need Boots on Afghan Ground

By Ajai Shukla
First published in The New York Times
September 22, 2017

NEW DELHI — President Trump has pivoted toward India and away from Pakistan. Calling upon India to help in Afghanistan, “especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Mr. Trump was holding up the prospect of a major Indian presence to goad Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban and deny them sanctuary.

Indian policy makers were pleased with Mr. Trump’s blunt warning to Pakistan to stop “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” but Indian officials know the American president is neither measured nor consistent.

India could easily spare tens of thousands of soldiers for Afghanistan from its 1.4 million-strong military. Even as the Pentagon and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have scrabbled for troops to fight a resilient Taliban insurgency, the United States has discouraged India from sending troops or weaponry to Afghanistan.

It is because Pakistan insists that if the Taliban are to be persuaded to join peace talks over Afghanistan and the supply lines through Pakistan to the United States forces are not disrupted or stopped, the United States must not allow an Indian security presence in Afghanistan.

In the early years after the fall of the Taliban, Indian policy makers were miffed at being prevented from putting a security presence on the ground. In 2011, India signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, which enabled India to provide direct military support — initially trainers but potentially combat troops if the need arose.

Pakistani generals fear a Kabul-New Delhi axis would lead to Pakistan’s “strategic encirclement,” with the Indian military along a contested eastern border and hostile Afghans on its western border.

Indians are conscious of the limited leverage the United States has over Pakistan. Mr. Trump, like his predecessors, is likely to ease the squeeze after Pakistan sacrifices some jihadi pawns to save the king and queen.

Since the Taliban was evicted in 2001, India has confined itself to managing a $2 billion humanitarian aid program that is only Afghanistan’s fifth largest but reputedly the most focused and effective dollar for dollar.

But the Indian presence in Afghanistan rests on deeper cultural foundations than United States support. Any evaluation of India’s options requires an understanding of the close, even inexplicable, friendship between the two peoples who seldom meet. The irrational friendship toward India among Afghans of every stripe — Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Communists, Islamists, everyone — stems from the soft power that India projects in Afghanistan.

Afghans avidly consume Hindi language soap operas and Bollywood films, which create a perception of India as a utopian idyll of noble friendships and relatively chaste romances where the good folks always win. Paradoxically, the physical distance between India and Afghanistan brings their people even closer in their common dislike of Pakistan, which separates them geographically.

A common South Asian cultural kinship insulates relations from controversies like the burning of “waste” Qurans by the United States forces in 2012 in Bagram, or propaganda leaflets dropped last week depicting a lion (the American military) chasing a dog (the Taliban), wrapped in a flag inscribed with Islam’s holiest verse.

On several occasions, on learning that I am Indian, Afghan airport security officers insisted that I pull my bags off the scanning machine since checking them would be insulting a friend. Over years of travel in Afghanistan, I encountered surliness just once, while interviewing an Afghan currency dealer for a television network. After the interview, it emerged he had mistaken me for a Pakistani. The Afghan apologized profusely and insisted on a retake.

The Taliban field commanders and fighters I have met, who many assume would be hostile to India owing to the support they receive from Pakistan, display the same disdain for Pakistan and affection for India as the average Afghan. One senior Taliban official reproached me for India’s failure in 1979 to condemn the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But he returned quickly to criticizing the domineering control of “Punjabis,” as Afghans disparagingly call Pakistanis.
Sustaining this priceless Afghan affection for India is the fact that Indian troops have never spilled Afghan blood — not in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, nor the civil war in the 1990s, nor through the insurgency after 2002.

The combat-weary Afghans associate India’s presence with Kabul’s biggest children’s hospital and medical missions in their major cities that treated hundreds of thousands until some Indian doctors who manned them were killed in Kabul in 2010.

India has financed and built Afghanistan’s Parliament, Kabul’s most prestigious high school, the transmission lines that light up Kabul and the buses that ferry commuters in the capital. India funded and helped rebuild the hydroelectric Salma Dam in western Herat province. India also built a 133-mile highway linking Afghanistan to Iran. Hundreds of Afghan diplomats, administrators and soldiers are sent to India for professional training.

While public impact was a key consideration in selecting these aid initiatives, the most striking examples of good-will creation are the approximately 300 “small development projects” (S.D.P.s) that India has financed, dovetailing them closely with Kabul’s own development priorities. Those projects benefit remote border villages that large aid donors seldom target because of the prevailing insecurity.
Each project allocates up to a million dollars for a health, education or rural development project — such as building an irrigation channel for a village to bring water from a mountain stream to its fields.

India merely selects and finances the project and provides technical oversight; the local community takes ownership of the project and executes the work on the ground. The wave of good will for India generated by the S.D.P.s has encouraged New Delhi to allocate a larger share of Indian development aid to these projects.

Mr. Trump’s call for a greater Indian developmental role in Afghanistan hardly constitutes a dilemma for New Delhi. India could oblige Mr. Trump, while simultaneously furthering its own interests, by doubling down on an aid-based strategy in Afghanistan.

In 2017, India has allocated almost six times as much aid to tiny Bhutan as it has to Afghanistan. Even Nepal will get more than Afghanistan. India has its own developmental needs and priorities, but for the world’s seventh-largest economy, there is scope for stepping up its game in Afghanistan. India does not need boots on Afghan ground.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

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

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

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Sept 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 September 2017

First Scorpene ready, Modi to commission INS Kalvari next month

INS Kalvari, on its recent sea trials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Astra air-to-air missile is major indigenous success

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

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 16th Sept 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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