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New submarines for the Indian Navy

Where are the questions from the media?

The Times of India ran an article on July 11, 2010 indicating that the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister A.K. Antony approved the allocation of Rs. 50,000 crore ($11 billion) towards the construction of six “next generation” submarines for the Navy, via a project codenamed Project-75 India (P-75I):

[The DAC] has finally decided that three of the six submarines will be constructed at Mazagon Docks (MDL) in Mumbai and one at Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) in Visakhapatnam, with the help of a foreign collaborator. “The other two submarines will either be imported from the foreign vendor directly or constructed at a private shipyard in India. Fresh estimates show each of these six diesel-electric submarines will cost almost Rs 8,500 crore,” a source said. [The Times of India]

There are several issues relating to the new project that should be of concern, not the least of which should be the amount allocated, which appears excessive for six conventional submarines (maybe The Times of India can clarify what was so  “new generation” about the subs). If a decision was taken to allocate such a large sum of money towards a project,  it should have been directed towards augmenting the indigenous nuclear submarine program, with India’s mid- to long-term security interests in mind.

Further, if MoD’s past record in cost projection is any indicator, $11 billion will be a significant underestimation.  Initial estimates of about $950 million for the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier, escalated to almost $4 billion.  Going back further, the  SU-30MKI deal  was initially estimated at about Rs. 22,000 crore, as against actual final costs of about Rs. 40,000 crore.  Again, based on MoD’s past record, a six year time estimate for the roll-out of the first of these submarines (which seems excessive, in and of itself) is likely fairly optimistic.  If MoD’s primarily concern is about plugging potential gaps before the Scorpene submarines become available (beginning 2014), a more effective sourcing strategy would be through a short-term lease agreement with another country.

The MoD’s lethargic approach towards requirements projection and sourcing, coupled with this Defence Minister’s obsession with self-reliance in manufacturing and “squeaky-clean” defense deals (let’s face it, they don’t exist) have already negatively impacted India’s defense preparedness.  This is further compounded by the almost complete absence of probing questions from the press on such issues.

“Mother of all” defense deals are good attention grabbers, but requirements for several other basic, but un-sexy equipment — grenades, howitzers, assault riffles, helmets, bullet-proof jackets, night vision devices and others — have been documented, re-documented and distributed to their final resting place, where they gather dust in some old office in South Block.

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Control the narrative

GoI must arrest this trend of  surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals.

Someone once said that al-Qaeda was now essentially a media propaganda machine, with a terror wing.  The same argument could also be made of the Naxalites in India.  As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, has done a remarkable job in news content and propaganda delivery over the Internet — from the indiscretions of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, to disseminating audio and video propaganda from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to regional network stations.

The battle for the “hearts and minds” is a critical aspect of successful COIN campaigns and it is here that controlling the narrative becomes critical.  Propaganda campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab serve as morale boosters to followers and as effective recruitment tools, far beyond the epicenter of the insurgency.  They are also effective in turning public opinion against COIN forces — both in the “besieged” countries as well as in those leading the COIN effort.  U.S. and Western allies have found it significantly difficult to counter this unrelenting propaganda in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Although the differences between the Af-Pak and Naxal insurgencies are plenty, there are lessons for India to draw from the American experience.  Indeed, even in the Indian context, one of the many aspects that makes the Naxal insurgency different from either Kashmir or Punjab is that the government has been so far unable to control the narrative of the conflict.  The leadership structure of the Naxals — which includes among its ranks, suave, highly educated and very eloquent men and women very adept at information dissemination — plays a significant role in denying the government of India monopoly over the Naxal narrative.  Hence the demands ad nauseum from “root cause” advocates and deliberate attempts to obfuscate differences between the treacherous objectives of the Naxals and the legitimate demands of the tribals.

This counter-narrative has also been adopted by some for political expediency, by self-styled “activists” and human rights groups, further diluting the central government’s version on the issue.  Controlling the narrative is important in any unconventional war — more so in one being conducted in remotest and poorest corners of the hinterland.  Public perception during  such operations is important.  But the nature and area of the Naxal conflict has contributed to public sentiment largely indifferent on the issue.  Dantewada, after all, is not Mumbai.

The Indian government has thus far not been capable of countering this insidious propaganda war, and has been religated to fighting on the backfoot. Campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab and the Naxals aim to achieve one simple objective — demonstrate that the enemy (the U.S. and its allies, and India, respectively) is not morally infallible.  India has involuntarily assisted in partly achieving this objective, through instances of excessive use of police force on the tribals and through ill-conceived ventures such as the Salwa Judum.

To be sure, India’s success in defeating the Naxals depends on a number of factors, including availability and reliability of local intelligence, quality and capabilities of COIN forces, development and rehabilitation of tribals, better local governance, and a government (central and state) willing to see the operations through.  But the government will remain weak, and its objectives, discombobulated and confused, so long as public perception remains apathetic or cluttered.

The  full extent of the state’s resources must therefore be used to both counter existing propaganda and launch counter-offensives to regain control of the narrative.  No doubt, the Indian government will not be able to end the insurgency merely  though the use of media guile, but further losses of life and territory are almost assured if it is unable to arrest this trend of surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals and their sympathizers.

http://pragmatic.nationalinterest.in/2010/05/12/confusing-considerations/
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In Pragati: Where is the national disaster management authority?

In the May 2010 edition of Pragati, I call to attention India’s disaster management system and outline the steps necessary to ensure efficiency in all aspects of disaster management — prevention, mitigation, capacity-building, preparedness, assessment and rehabilitation.

While a command-and-control structure is crucial to administer and manage disaster management programs, the efficacy of the program itself cannot be assured without tackling the rot in India’s “last mile” institutions — the police and emergency services.  Establishing an overall governance structure and issuing policy guidelines are no doubt critical, but the test of any policy ultimately lies in its execution, and this is where India faces its biggest challenge.

While the [National Disaster Management Authority — NDMA]  may have made headway in developing an over-arching framework and best practices for disaster management, the success or failure of the system depends heavily on “last-mile” institutions, which are often under-resourced, incapable and insufficient for the task. To this end,institutional capacity building must become a critical area of focus for the NDMA. The country’s fire and emergency services remain woefully inadequate and incapable of dealing with large-scale accidents. The state of local law enforcement services, which are first responders to most incidents, suffers from years of neglect in the absence of police reforms. Last mile institutions are in an unsatisfactory state in urban centres.

India’s civil defence force infrastructure is decrepit, with constraints in budget, training and resources. India’s civil defence organisations are illequipped to respond to NBC incidents; indeed, even the four National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) battalions specially designated to respond to NBC incidents face a paucity of equipment and expertise.

Read more about it on Pragati ( PDF; 2.4 MB).

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India’s do-nothing culture

What is the Defense Minister defending?

Defense Minister AK Antony presented the following in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha about abandoned IAF airfields:

There are 29 abandoned airfields of the Indian Air Force (IAF) spread across eleven states in the country. Review of abandoned airfields for revival is a continuous, ongoing process and is based on the operational assessment / requirement of the IAF.

No funds have been allocated nor utilized during 2008-09 and 2009-10 for maintenance and revival of abandoned airfields. [PIB]

Twenty-nine abandoned airfields is a telling statistic and is a reflection of the deeper malaise affecting the armed forces.  But what more could be expected when the IAF is operating 8.5 squadrons below its sanctioned strength of 39 squadrons? And what good are aircraft anyway, when there is a shortage of about 400 pilots in the IAF.  Such staggering levels of non-performance would have led to summary dismissals in the corporate world; but not in government.  Because, after all, AK Antony is an honorable man.

Two weeks before 26/11, MoD announced ambitious plans to modernize 39 IAF airfields across the country.  Two years on, that project has been stalled by MoD’s Vigilance Department. On grounds of “unfair practices” in the bidding process.  After all, the raksha mantri is an honorable man.

To address the need to replace aging aircraft and plug shortages, IAF projected a requirement for 126 multi-role combat aircraft in 2001 — which eventually led to the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender — worth $10 billion, attracting tenders from six international aerospace corporations.  Nine years on, and a year and a half into conducting trials of the combat aircraft, MoD failed to arrive at a decision by the deadline that it stipulated and has since asked manufacturers to resubmit offers for an additional year.  Because the Defense Minister is trying to assure a “squeaky clean” image in the decision making process.

This begs the question: what is the Defense Minister defending? India’s territorial integrity or his image in the history books?  UPA 2.0 has bred a noxious culture that punishes errors of commission but not errors of omission.  Indeed, not doing anything at all if there is the slightest possibility of questions being raised is keenly encouraged.

Meanwhile, IAF still operates 400 MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft that were obsolete two decades ago, a significant number of its airfields lie in rot, it is several squadron short of the minimum number of front-line combat aircraft required to secure the country, and in any case, hasn’t recruited or trained enough pilots, even if those 126 combat aircraft were hypothetically ready to be inducted tomorrow. Is there a Defense Minister who would do his country’s bidding?

UPA 2.0 is replete with honorable men.  So are they all; all honorable men.

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