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On Indo-US ties

India needs to do its share of heavy-lifting too.

News trickled in yesterday that New Delhi shorlisted two European fighter aircraft — Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon as prospective candidates for the highly publicized $10 billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRA) competition.  My Takshashila colleagues Nitin Pai and Dhruva Jaishankar have two excellent posts on India’s MMCRA decision.  Significantly, this decision meant the downlisting of two American firms competing for the MMRCA contract — Boeing’s F/A-18 and Lockheed’s F-16.

It is not everyday that countries sign $10 billion contracts for fighter aircraft.  The sheer scale, value and nature of the MMRCA competition meant that geo-strategic considerations ought to have outweighed purely technical determinants.  And while very valid concerns about U.S. fine-print have been raised, India has faced similar difficulties with less transparent suppliers, and that too, after signing substantial contracts (lest we forget the small matter about us having to pay $3 billion for an antiquated ship that we were initially supposed to receive for free).  The truth is that India’s severely shackled defense industry necessitates entering into contracts for arms and equipment with foreign suppliers under conditions not entirely ideal.  But deriving benefits from domestic defense industry liberalization — if and when this happens — will take several years.  How does India fulfill its defense requirements in the interim?

U.S. ambassador to India Timothy Roemer was quoted as saying that he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome.   The downlisting of Boeing and Lockheed is but the latest evidence of ties between the world’s two largest democracies being somewhat adrift after Mr. Obama’s visit to India last year.

The civil nuclear deal between India and the U.S. was meant to be the cornerstone of a new age of Indo-U.S. ties, leaving behind decades of mutual mistrust, lecturing and moral posturing.  The deal offered benefits to both India and the U.S. — for India, it meant international recognition as a de facto nuclear power, and for the U.S. it meant nuclear commerce with an emerging economy. It took the U.S. exercising its political clout to see that a waver based on Indian exceptionalism was granted at the NSG, which also required a last-minute call by George W. Bush to Hu Jintao to prevent China from stonewalling the vote.

However, today, U.S. firms are effectively non-participants in nuclear trade with India because of supplier liability imposed by India’s Nuclear Liability Bill.  Globally, suppliers are unable to obtain insurance coverage for nuclear trade.  Both Russian and French firms compete in India’ s nuclear market because they are essentially underwritten by their respective governments.  And even then, the Russians have apparently made it clear to New Delhi that nuclear commerce with India is unsustainable in the long run under such circumstances.

Today India aspires for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council; but reforming the UNSC remains a distant dream. Even so, during Mr. Obama’s visit last year, India joined a select group of nations whose candidature the U.S. endorses.  In its current stint as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, India must make its voice heard and break from a tradition that encourages prevarication and moral posturing.  As I pointed out in a previous blogpost, it’s no use saying India deserves a permanent seat at the UNSC because it represents 1/6th of humanity, if that 1/6th of humanity seldom expresses an opinion.

Undoubtedly, there are bound to be differences in opinion between India and the U.S.  Indeed, it is easy to focus on contentious areas (and there are several) — David Headley, climate change, Pakistan, Iran,  Burma, to name a few.  We need not agree on every aspect of global affairs, but as two large and pluralistic democracies, we share common values and interests, and ought to build our relationship on these shared ideals.  And while it is important not to put undue focus on transactional aspects of our strategic partnership with the U.S., the MMRCA deal will have an impact on the trajectory of this relationship.  And this we knew well before a decision on the shortlist was made.  Indeed, Ambassador Roemer’s resignation hours after India’s announcement of the MMRCA shortlist is probably not a coincidence.

It is certainly conceivable that some of the momentum towards expanding this partnership will be tempered.  Worse, when considered alongside the Nuclear Liability Bill, U.S. companies might soon conclude that the attractiveness of the Indian market is significantly less than the bandwidth they dedicate to it.  After all, interest in India cannot be sustained merely by the “promise” of the Indian market, if none of those promises are materialized.  We have always been eager to deliver our litany of demands to the U.S. — from Afghanistan, to pressuring Pakistan on terror.  But how much are we willing to give in return?  We need to ask ourselves if India is doing its share of the heavy-lifting in  this bilateral relationship.

 

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Phasing out India’s MiGs

Who’s in charge of holding the Defense Minister accountable?

Addressing members of the Rajya Sabha, AK Antony claimed that the process to phase out India’s MiGs would begin in 2014 and would be complete by 2017:

“We have got a clear-cut plan to replace them. By 2017, the entire MiG series will be replaced in a phased manner, that is from 2014 onwards,” said defence minister A K Antony in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

In the years ahead, India’s frontline combat fighters will have 270 Russian Sukhoi-30MKIs already being inducted for around $12 billion, the 126 new medium multi-role combat aircraft to be acquired in the $10.4 billion MMRCA project and the 250 to 300 fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be built with Russia in the gigantic $35 billion project.

Antony, on his part, assured Parliament that large-scale induction of Sukhoi-30MKIs, LCA and MMRCA would take place within the next few years, while acknowledging such an exercise could not take place in the past due to “historical reasons”. [The Times of India]

The perceptive among us no doubt realize that 2014 is three years — or 36 months — away.  Mr. Antony is claiming that within the next 36 months, he will begin phasing-out IAF’s aging MiG’s with 126 combat aircraft from an as-yet-undetermined vendor.  Even if we are to believe that the MMRCA deal will be concluded this year, there is no reason to suggest that the process from agreement-to-induction can be accomplished within the span of 3 years.

Mr. Antony also expects the IAF to begin replacing MiG-21s with Tejas LCAs (conceptualized 30 years ago) by the end of 2013. The fact that the indigenously developed Kaveri engine expected to power Tejas has been a disaster, and is, by his own admission, still “under development” (after 20 years) hasn’t damned his spirits apparently.

Even if we are to go by Mr. Antony’s word, the most optimistic assessments put an FGFA induction to the latter-half of 2017.  It is far from clear what HAL’s role will be in the development of the Indian version of the FGFA (and indeed, whether or not this will actually be the joint-development project with Sukhoi that India seems to portraying it to be), suffice to say that discussions are at a very early stage and inordinate delays are only to be expected, given our history of defense acquisitions from Russia. (Indeed, delivery and cost overruns of our previous big-ticket deal with Sukhoi were the subject of comment in a CAG audit report issued in 2000).

Given these facts, the answers provided by the Defense Minister did not strike anyone — not our MPs, and certainly not Mr. Antony himself — as odd and unrealistic.  Not one question on the answers provided by Mr. Antony was raised.  After all, in accordance with tradition in India, we do not interrogate our leaders.

So much for accountability.

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Sensationalistan

Where the mind is without fear and the head is buried in the sand.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its report on China’s nuclear forces ( pdf).  This is an annual report, and part of a series that the Bulletin publishes on the nuclear forces of other powers.  Nothing particularly earth-shattering for those that have been following China’s nuclear program, but I bring this up because of this little extract, pertaining to India:

In a section describing Chinese-Indian relations, the 2010 Pentagon report stated that China is using the more advanced and survivable DF-21s to replace DF-4s to improve regional deterrence. This was picked up by the Press Trust of India, which mistakenly reported that according to the Pentagon, China has moved advanced longer range CSS-5 [the DF-21 NATO designation] missiles close to the border with India. Not surprisingly, the report triggered dramatic news articles in India, including rumors that the Indian Strategic Forces Command was considering or had already moved nuclear-capable missile units north toward the Chinese border.

The Pentagon report, however, said nothing about moving DF-21 missiles close to the Indian border.  Instead,it described the apparent near-completion of China’s replacement of DF-4 missiles with DF-21 missiles at two army base areas in Hunan and Qinghai provinces,a transition that has been under way for two decades. The two deployment areas are each more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the Indian border. [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]

The Press Trust of India got wind of this “story” on August 17, and without anyone validating the statements in the article to the source,  announced:

China has moved new advanced longer range CSS-5 missiles close to the borders with India and developed contingency plans to shift airborne forces at short notice to the region, according to Pentagon.

Not to be outdone, Asian Age added in its own masala, about Agni-II being moved to the border to counter these imagined Chinese moves.

In the wake of a recent Pentagon report that China is moving advanced CSS-5 ballistic missiles to areas close to the Sino-Indian border, New Delhi is clearly taking no chances.

The government is also reportedly moving the strategic Agni-II missile inducted earlier to areas near the Chinese border. These have a range of around 2,000 km.

Asian Age ran its story despite the fact that it received official denial from the Army that missile units had not been moved to Eastern Command.  “News makers” indeed, quite literally.  The folks at the Bulletin were probably being kind by describing Indian media reaction as a “mistake.”  This is borderline warmongering.

Pity,  no one stopped to read what was written in the U.S. Department of Defense’s publication, or sought any clarification on what China was doing.  Had they done so, it would have become apparent that all the Chinese were doing was replacing their old liquid-fueled DF-4s with solid-fueled DF-21s in Hunan and Qinghai provinces (about 1,500 km from the Indian border).  The only reason the DoD mentioned India in this context was the upgrade was partly motivated by China’s desire to “improve regional deterrence.”  How this translates to “China moves its missiles closer to the Indian border,” only PTI can tell us.

But this is just symptomatic of a larger malaise plaguing large sections of our media: a flippant regard for facts, for corroboration, a desperate quest for sensational news items (even when none exist), for “dumbing-down,” and for drama above all else.

Were that not the case, stories such as this extraordinary piece about Mr. Obama’s visit to India would have never been published. Folks, 34 warships including one aircraft carrier is not a “presidential entourage.” It is an invasion. 

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How to say nothing (in 2,000 words)

If Mr. Antony is in the vicinity, a pretty speech can’t be far behind.

Defence Minister AK Antony was the Chief Guest during the presentation of the the Field Marshal Cariappa Annual Memorial Lecture (themed “National Security and Military Modernization”), marking Infantry Day celebrations.  Excerpts of his address follow:

Our strategic, geopolitical situation and the compulsions of history pose unique challenges for our country. Some nations are keen to incite threats to our unity and integrity. The prevalent security environment necessitates securing our land, air and sea borders to effectively guard against traditional threats to our land borders, defending our airspace and protection of our maritime energy supply routes. Our neighbours are building their military capabilities at a feverish pace. Thus, to successfully meet such challenges, the need for us to be vigilant and prepared at all times goes without saying and is unquestionable.

Our Government is alive to the urgent need to quicken the pace of modernization of our Armed Forces. We have initiated a number of measures to provide an impetus to defence procurement. Defence Ministry is in the process of implementing a new procurement policy, which would be even more effective and quicker than the current DPP-2008.

We should leverage the strengths of both – the Defence PSUs and the private sector to achieve our objectives in the realm of defence.

Last but not the least, I would like to flag one issue of real concern. Even with a large industrial infrastructure, we are still importing about 70 per cent of our defence requirements. We are still far off from establishing ourselves as a major defence equipment manufacturing nation. Our efforts to reduce the import content of our defence requirements are not yielding the desired results. Given our economic status, this is not a very desirable state of affairs. If modernization is to be more meaningful, it must go hand-in-hand with indigenization. [Press Information Bureau]

So really, what is our Defence Minister of half a decade telling us here?  From “[t]he prevalent security environment necessitates securing our land, air and sea borders…” (thank you, by the way, Mr. Minister, this is a real eye-opener) to “the need for us to be vigilant and prepared at all times goes without saying and is unquestionable”  (I prostrate myself before you for so divine a revelation), there is nothing that Mr. Antony has said that will give hope to those who despair over the state of India’s defense preparedness.

Beware the man who says he is “in the process” of doing something, for not only has he not started doing what he should, he also has no intention of completing it.  India’s defense procurement is broken.  Not only do the services regularly underspend their allocated budgetary capital,  procurement is shackled by provisions capping FDI in defense at 26 per cent.  And nothing the Defense Minister has said or done in the recent past indicates that this will be changed.  Yet, he says that the new procurement procedure would allow “more effective and quicker” transactions than DPP-2008. Indeed.

Further, we continue to assign priority to indigenization in defense.  But this is misplaced thinking.  Indigenization is only relevant if domestic industries possess the expertise, capacity, incentivization and backing needed to thrive, be profitable, and address the needs of the services.  The private sector has slowly started making its presence felt  — the Arihant project is a good example — in an industry that it was effectively shut out of, for decades, but it is still curtailed by systemic inefficiencies.  And innovation and profitability are not even incentivized in DPSUs.  Yet, India’s Defence Minister suggests that India leverage the strengths of DPSUs (which have, by his own admission, not met the requirements of the armed forces) and a very shackled private sector to meet our defense needs. Given the current state of affairs, how does he expect this to yield effective results?

And when Mr. Antony stands up and says that there is a need for us to be “vigilant and prepared at all times,” is this a mere philosophical statement, or does he actually plan to do something at the lamentable state of India’s defense preparedness?  It is just as well that Mr. Antony works in government.  With this sort of track record and reputation, he might have been summarily dismissed a week before reporting to duty in the private sector.

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