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The ties that bind (2)

Transforming the nature of the India-UK relationship.

In my previous blogpost, I argued that for India and the U.K. to enter into what Prime Minister David Cameron calls an “enhanced partnership,” would require both countries to engage each other on issues impacting their strategic interests.  I had argued that security was one such area, and the extent to which the U.K. can play a meaningful role in addressing India’s security needs could go a long way in determining how successful this “enhanced partnership” will be.  Today’s TIME online has an interesting piece on the on-going battle between U.K.’s MoD and the Exchequer over replacement costs for the Royal Navy’s V-Class nuclear submarines (h/t @pragmatic_d):

As part of Britain’s austerity cuts, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has been asked to find savings of between 10 and 20% by 2014, and then work off of steady-level funding until 2020. Britain’s V-class subs, known as Trident after the U.S.-made ballistic missiles they carry, are aging and need to be replaced by 2024. A replacement system as sophisticated as the V-class submarine will cost around $30 billion, with the first contracts to be inked by 2016.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox has said the MoD could not spend that much on nuclear subs while simultaneously cutting its budget without jeopardizing the purchasing of other big-ticket weapons such as armored vehicles, aircraft carriers, and fighter jets. He insisted the money should come not from the MoD but from the Treasury, which has traditionally paid for Britain’s subs. However, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who heads the Treasury, said that wasn’t going to happen. “The [nuclear submarine] costs … are part of the defense budget. All budgets have pressure. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about the Ministry of Defense,” he said.

Malcolm Chalmers, a former nuclear adviser to two British foreign secretaries, says V-class submarines are relics of the Cold War. While Britain’s conventional forces are no longer organized to defend against a military attack from the Soviet Union, its nuclear policy has “remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, when a surprise attack on Western Europe was a central driver for U.K. force planning,” he wrote. The [RUSI] report concludes that the government should save money by either halving the number of new V-class-type boats it builds, building a new submarine fleet capable of both conventional and nuclear roles, or scrapping the submarine-based system altogether and maintaining a non-deployed arsenal to be delivered either by airplane or special forces. [TIME]

Some of this current monetary pressure can be alleviated by a U.K. offer to lease its V-class submarines to India on a short-term basis. This will be well received in New Delhi and will help in broadening the scope of bilateral engagement. India today is seeking to diversify its delivery systems — essential for maintaining a credible secondary-strike capability.  Its sea-based deterrence system, however, is nascent, with a small fleet of aging diesel-powered submarines. The induction of the nuclear-powered Arihant-class submarines — products of India’s indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project — is still few years away.

U.K. has made significant contributions to the Indian Navy in the past — lest we forget, the only aircraft carriers India has had — Vikrant and Viraat — were both purchased from the Royal Navy; HMS Hermes (Viraat) played a pivotal role in the South Atlantic during the Falklands War.

Given the sensitivity of the technology, India and the U.K. will need to conclude a more over-arching dual-use agreement before any transfer takes place, which could pave the way for future high-technology trade.  And while the sale of Advanced Jet Trainers to  HAL is an important step, more potential on defense and security collaboration between India and the U.K. exists and can be realized.  This will require both India and the U.K. to determine commonalities in each others’ long-term strategic interests, re-visit mechanisms that can make such collaboration possible, and commit to exploring the full potential of an Indo-U.K. strategic partnership.

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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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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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