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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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Salaam, Washington

Navigating the nuances of the Indo-US relationship.

Much has been written about the impetus being given to the Indo-US partnership in the context of the strategic dialog between Secretary Clinton and Mr. Krishna in Washington, D.C.  For her part, Mrs. Clinton has tried to stay on message, terming Indo-US relations an “affair of the heart, not just of the head.”

As a precursor to the SM Krishna–Clinton moot, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns spoke at the Council for Foreign Relations on Indo-US relations, attempting to dispel the notion that the Obama administration had “downgraded” ties with India or that the U.S. was attempting to “re-hyphenate” its relations with India and Pakistan.  Truth be told, while U.S. articulations are perhaps needed to temper the noise being generated by sections of the media, they may not have been altogether necessary for those studying Indo-US relations in the context of a rapidly changing world.  And despite the statements made by Secretary Clinton and Mr. Burns, a few points need elaboration.

First, while there is broad, bipartisan consensus on expanding Indo-US ties in the United States (a rarity in and of itself), there are differences on the specifics of what this should entail and how they should be operationalized. The Obama administration defines this partnership within the constructs of leveraging India’s growing global economic profile to tackle regional and global issues — climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, energy and trade security and ensuring checks and balances to China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean.  In this respect, Mr. Burns’ comments on dialog between India and the U.S. on East- and Southeast Asia is important.

Second, it is important for India to understand the limits to this engagement, at least as far as the Obama administration is concerned.  Some of these limits are imposed by ideology and some by compulsion.  While sharing India’s concerns on jihadi terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the U.S., however, is constrained by its own involvement in the region and on how much it can prod Pakistan into taking any meaningful action on terror originating from its soil. The Obama administration is similarly unable to engage with India in a manner that would appear provocative to China.  And many will argue that given China’s importance to India’s own economy, neither would India.

What this means for India is that it cannot expect the U.S. alone to fully address its security concerns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the larger region.  The folly of throwing your lot in with a singular power should be more apparent to India now than ever before. Affairs of the heart notwithstanding, securing India’s strategic interests in the region must be driven through multilateral engagement with like-minded regional actors, and not by blind faith in any one power.  In this regard, working with the Russians and Iranians on balancing power equations in Afghanistan is imperative.  It remains to be seen if Mr. Krishna’s recent visit to Iran helped in arresting New Delhi’s diminishing goodwill in Tehran.

Next, on defense procurement, India must be clear about where its defense gaps are best addressed by technical expertise possessed by U.S. companies and must resist the temptation to be over-enthusiastic in trying to please Washington.  Across the services, our weapons are primarily of Russian origin and there isn’t an immediate need to drastically alter this.  Russia is able to offer Indian defense companies opportunities that perhaps the U.S. is unable to — from Technology Transfer Agreements (TTAs) to joint production.  However, U.S. technology and systems can play a pivotal role in the development of India’s power projection capabilities –  from refuellers to transport and surveillance aircraft — and it is here that a meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership can be forged.

That the Obama administration appears to be redoubling efforts to engage with India is encouraging (providing access to David Headley is an important first step); but this is no different from either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations in their initial years, where preoccupation with the economy and the war on terror allowed for limited bandwidth on Indo-US relations.  This has, in the past, resulted in the necessity to “re-boot” (to borrow an IT expression) Indo-US relations each time a new president took the oath of office in the White House.

Even today, U.S.’s India policy is being driven by people who are not India-experts; indeed, officials in the Obama administration charged with policy formulation and operational aspects relating to Indo-US relations are mostly either experts on East Asian affairs or on Af-Pak.  As India and the U.S. aim to significantly upgrade co-operation on regional and global issues, U.S. administrations must ensure that their India policy teams are appropriately staffed.  Neither India nor the U.S. can afford the extended learning curve each time a new administration comes into office.

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The “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai

When the solid matter hits the air circulating equipment, everyone looks out for their own interests. Are we?

“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself…

Seneca the Younger, On The Happy Life

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. And while they may disagree about everything else under the sun, Washington-types have unanimously directed their ire at Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  An apparent quote from an unattributable source about Mr. Karzai threatening to join the Taliban, if international pressure on him did not cease, made the rounds in international media.  Ex-UN envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith questioned Mr. Karzai’s mental condition and suggested that the president may have a drug use problem.

Steve Coll’s blogpost followed suit, with a detailed account of the pervasive corruption that the Karzai administration had fostered.  Fred Kaplan on The Slate asked whether a successful COIN operation could in fact be carried out in Afghanistan, given the manner in which Mr. Karzai is running things in Afghanistan.  Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Bing West, rather plainly called Mr. Karzai an “obstacle to progress” in his op-ed in The New York Times.

Washington’s foremost thinkers and analysts, singing together in perfect harmony. Mr. Kaplan sums up the groupthink perfectly — the US is of the opinion that Mr. Karzai believes he (and by extension, Afghanistan) is too big to fail, and with the stakes being as high as they are, the US is left with no option but to continue to pour resources — monetary and military, to sustain the Karzai government.

But a closer inspection at events unfolding in the region presents a clearer picture of Mr. Karzai’s intentions and US angst. Hamid Karzai began his second  term in office by stepping up engagement with China.  Mr. Karzai then invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who proceeded to chastise the Americans in the presence of his host.

Therein lies the US’s angst — Hamid Karzai appears eager to consolidate power and dilute US influence in Afghanistan.  To accomplish this, he needs the assistance of other regional powers — hence, the dialog with China, the invitation to Iran and the visit to Islamabad. He sees the benefits in ensuring an extended US stay in Afghanistan (the Americans are, after all, his primary financiers), but no longer desires to see the US as  the absolute dominant power in the country.

This is effectively the source of frustration in Washington.

As China, Pakistan and Iran prepare to step up engagement with Afghanistan, there are question marks about where the recent developments leave India.  While the Karzai government has in the past pressed New Delhi to play a larger role in the country, India has restricted its involvement in Afghanistan to providing humanitarian and  economic assistance. Frustrated, the Karzai regime now looks to hedge its bets elsewhere.

This puts India in a precarious position.  The prospects of a reemergence of a Russia-India-Iran order in Afghanistan aren’t great, given that Indo-Iranian relations are at a low.  But we’re still very far away from throwing in the towel.  There are significant caveats and complications in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran relationship for it to become an order.

Both India and Iran share mutual interests in Afghanistan, and it is therefore imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government make amends for its folly at the IAEA. India’s attempts at revitalizing its relationship with Russia is a positive step — it is important that this relationship extend itself to securing both nations’ mutual interests in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, it is in India’s best interests that no one order — be it the US and its Western allies, or the Pakistan-Saudi-China triumvirate — dominate Afghanistan’s landscape.  This landscape will include the “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai, and increasingly, warlords (affiliated as well as adversarial) and Taliban remnants.  India must therefore work with regional powers and political players to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected, at a time when power equations in the war-torn nation are rapidly changing.

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US-Russian START Treaty

Find a lofty ideal; use creative accounting to make it work.

Non-proliferation hawks in the Democratic Party will be happy — the United States and Russia sealed the deal on a “new” START treaty on taking steps towards nuclear disarmament.  US President Barack Obama feels strongly about the issue and wants to work towards a multilateral framework for eliminating nuclear weapons and controlling nuclear material.  In this respect, START III sounds like a great idea; except, as they say, the devil is in the details.

According to the treaty, the United States and Russia will reduce their “deployed weapons” to 1,550 over a seven-year timeframe.  Deployed weapons only, not weapons held in reserve.  In addition to deployed weapons (~ 2,200), the US also has 2,500 weapons in active and inactive stock, which are not within the treaty’s purview.   So right off the bat, the scope of START eliminates about 50% of the US’s total possible inventory.  Second, upon Russia’s insistence, each heavy bomber deployed with weapons counts as “one weapon” towards that magic number of 1,550 (although each bomber will likely possess multiple weapons).  Pretty fancy stuff.

Some very clever people help us out with the arithmetic:

The United States currently deploys approximately 2,126 strategic nuclear warheads, with a comparable number of warheads in reserve. Russia is believed to deploy approximately 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads. However, since each deployed heavy bomber will now count as only one warhead, under New START the U.S. currently deploys far fewer than 2,126 warheads (according to the best estimates we currently have 500 warheads on 60 or 113 bombers – depending on how you count; if you do the math, that already puts us at 1700-1800 warheads)! [Nukes of Hazard]

In addition to only addressing “deployed” weapons, the cap is specific to deployed strategic weapons only — ICBMs and SLBMs.  This very neatly takes the US’s 500 deployed tactical nuclear weapons (and the 600 tactical weapons in stockpile) out of the the treaty’s purview ( link).  There is also some ambiguity over whether the treaty caps US’s ambitious ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS) project — speculation is abound that it does.  However, the White House has already tried to preempt the battle it will have on its hands with this little fact-sheet.

What does START III mean to the rest of the world? Even with 1,550 nuclear weapons each, the US and Russia will be so far ahead of the third largest nuclear weapons state (France, with 300 weapons) that it is unlikely to have a direct impact on disarmament.  Of course, some countries might choose to “right size” their arsenal (as indeed France is doing), but these are not decisions inspired by START.

START III may be just the sort of thing to parade around New Delhi, coaxing it to ratify the alphabet soup of non-proliferation treaties.  This is a non-starter.  We live in a neighborhood where one power willfully flaunts the terms of the non-proliferation treaties that it is signatory to, and is increasingly belligerent in its dealings with India.  And the lesser said about our other nuclear neighbor’s non-proliferation record, the better.   Treaties such as START III can only be conceivable to lesser nuclear powers like India once minimum credible deterrence is achieved (for which there is no magic number).  Until such time, let such treaties be part of the lofty ideals of countries with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over.

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