Saturday, 27 August 2016

Navy sticks its head in the sand while evaluating Scorpene “worst case scenario”

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Aug 16

An important section of the Indian Navy headquarters in New Delhi has changed its biorhythm to Melbourne time, monitoring The Australian newspaper as it publishes leaked documents containing the operational secrets of India’s new Scorpene submarines.

As The Australian incrementally publishes tranches from the 22,400 pages of sensitive documents that it indicates were leaked from French shipbuilder, DCNS, naval planners in Delhi scour them in real time for information that might make India’s Scorpene submarine fleet sitting ducks in combat.

The newspaper is redacting the documents it publishes, blacking out data it deems particularly sensitive. Indian officials, including Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on Friday, say they are catering for a “best case scenario”, and “worst case scenario”. The latter encompasses the possibility that the full version of the documents have fallen into hostile hands, and six Scorpene submarines that will join the navy’s fleet by 2019 have been operationally compromised.

A “high-level committee” has been established in the defence ministry to evaluate the extent of the damage.

Surprisingly, defence ministry sources say DCNS has not yet responded to an Indian query about how, when and to what extent Scorpene operational data has been compromised. With DCNS silent, the navy is comparing the leaked trove of documents, as they are published in The Australian, with the documents in India.

Yet, the defence ministry is displaying remarkable tolerance of the leaks from DCNS, despite those being apparent violations of non-disclosure clauses that form a part of the Scorpene contract.

“We cannot say for sure whether DCNS has violated a non-disclosure clause. What happens if the information was stolen, or hacked from DCNS networks?” argues a MoD official.

Nor is the defence ministry willing to comment on whether this leak will affect DCNS’s chances of bagging an order for additional Scorpenes, beyond the six already contracted under Project 75. Officials say DCNS even remains eligible for Project 75-I --- India’s proposed purchase of six conventional submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP).

“We are evaluating the situation as information is released”, says an official.

Ministry officials remain perplexingly sanguine about what analysts world-wide regard as an extremely worrying leak of data relating to operational capability --- including electromagnetic frequencies for intelligence gathering, details of the Scorpene’s sonar system, including the frequency of its various arrays and approximate acoustic signature, including that of its propeller. Much of the compromised data is not yet publicly known, since The Australian has published only a tiny portion of the documents it claims to have.

“A submarine is a highly customized weapon system. The navy has selected the equipment for the Indian Scorpene; in fact, some of the weapon systems have not yet been chosen. The 5-6 year-old data that has been leaked relates to a generic version of the Scorpene, perhaps the Chilean or Malaysian submarine, not to the customized Indian vessel”, explains one official.

The Indian Navy has arrived at this conclusion after reviewing just 13 published pages out of the 22,400 pages that The Australian claims it has reviewed.

Says another official, downplaying the leak: “Vendors like DCNS freely supply generic information to any prospective customer. It is like a Maruti car dealer, who will supply details of a car to any customer who requests it.”

Asked why the leaked documents bear the Indian Navy logo, are translated from French into English, and have each page stamped with the logo “Restricted Scorpene India”; defence ministry officials explain that could be because DCNS, and other French vendors like Thales, had customized the documents for India.

That, however, would indicate that the leaked documents related to the customized Indian version of the Scorpene.

On the plus side, New Delhi’s years of delay in choosing weapon systems for the Scorpene might have worked to the navy’s advantage. The long-range torpedo, a submarine’s primary weapon, has not yet been selected --- partly because the vendor chosen earlier was WASS, a subsidiary of the sanctioned Finmeccanica group.

Other systems, like electronic warfare equipment and sonar, may have been saved from exposure because they have been substantially indigenized. The French vendors, DCNS and Thales, are required to merely provide plug-in slots that will house the secret Indian equipment. 

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Navy downplays Scorpene leak, MoD asks Paris for details

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Aug 16

Faced with a potentially disastrous information leak that could blunt the operational edge of six Scorpene conventional submarines that India is building under licence from French shipyard, DCNS, the Indian Navy is carefully downplaying concerns.

On Thursday, a day after a reputed Melbourne daily, The Australian, reported the leak of 22,400 pages of technical information about India’s Scorpene submarines from DCNS, New Delhi stated: “The documents that have been posted on the website by an Australian news agency have been examined and do not pose any security compromise as the vital parameters have been blacked out.”

The Australian has indeed redacted (blacked out) sections of the Scorpene documents that it deemed highly sensitive. However, the documents were made available to The Australian in full, without redaction. Whoever shared it with the newspaper remains in possession of reams of technical information about the Scorpene.

Admirals in New Delhi admit there is no way of knowing where that information has gone. The Australian noted that “the DCNS documents detail the most sensitive combat capabilities of India’s new $US3 bn ($3.9bn) submarine fleet and would provide an intelligence bonanza if obtained by India’s strategic rivals, such as Pakistan or China.”

New Delhi admits to this possibility only reluctantly, stating: “The Government of India, as a matter of abundant precaution, is also examining the impact if the information contained in the documents claimed to be available with the Australian sources is compromised.”

Business Standard learnt that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar passed orders on Wednesday evening to urgently pursue the matter with the French side. The defence ministry announced today: “The Indian Navy has taken up the matter with Director General of Armament of the French Government expressing concern over this incident and has requested the French Government to investigate this incident with urgency and share their findings with the Indian side.  The matter is being taken up with concerned foreign governments through diplomatic channels to verify the authenticity of the reports.”

Off-the-record, a senior Indian Navy official scoffs at The Australian’s claim of having accessed 22,400 pages of Scorpene data. “The newspaper’s webpage carries links to just 13 pages of documentation. How do we know they have actually seen 22,400 pages? As things stand today, it is only a claim”, he says.

Another well-informed navy officer avers that the documents leaked by The Australian do not tally with the Scorpene documentation DCNS provided to India. “Our analysis suggests the leaked documents relate to the Scorpenes in service with Malaysia and Chile. There is also data relating to the Mistral helicopter carrier vessel that Russia is buying. But the documents we hold are different”, he says.

If that is so, it remains unexplained why the leaked documents, which are available on The Australian’s website, bear a red stamp saying: “Restricted Scorpene India”.

Navy officials are also taking pains to argue --- without having seen all the leaked documents --- that the information put out consists only of broad technical specifications that are freely available in commercial documents. They argue that key submarine attributes like “audio signature”, which is unique to each vessel, remains secret. Furthermore, since the Scorpene weapons package, including torpedoes and surface attack missiles, have not yet been fitted, weaponry details could not have been leaked.

Even so, a wary Parrikar has tossed the ball into the hands of a committee. Said a ministry statement today: “The detailed assessment of potential impact is being undertaken by a high level committee constituted by the Ministry of Defence and the Indian Navy is taking all necessary steps to mitigate any probable security compromise.”

Given how vital the Scorpene is to the navy’s submarine capability, it is unsurprising the impact of the leak is being played down. To meet its operational needs, the navy assesses it requires 24-26 submarines. Currently, there are just 13 operational submarines, of which just 8-10 are functional at any given time. The six Scorpenes being built by Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) under Project 75 are, therefore, vital.

Equally vital is the long-delayed Project 75-I, which involves building another six submarines. Every major submarine builder, including Russia, Sweden, Germany and Japan is aspiring for this order, as is DCNS. This leak, however, coming on top of a four-year delay and major cost escalation in building the Scorpene, cannot but damage DCNS’ prospects in India.

Ironically, many are assessing that the document leak was not aimed at India, but at scuppering DCNS’ USD 38 billion contract to build the Shortfin Barracuda submarine for the Australian Navy, which it won in April. The French company said on Wednesday that it might be the victim of “economic warfare”.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Indian Navy probes leaked data of Scorpene subs

A page from the leaked document, with sensitive data redacted by The Australian

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Aug 16

At midnight on Tuesday, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was woken up by a phone call to tell him that an Australian newspaper had just reported the leakage of key operational details of India’s newest submarines, the Scorpene.

A short while earlier, The Australian, a reputed Melbourne based daily, had broken the news that 22,400 pages of detailed documents relating to India’s Scorpene submarines that been leaked, apparently from the French shipbuilder, DCNS, which is the vendor for India’s six Scorpenes.

The report in The Australian says: “the DCNS documents detail the most sensitive combat capabilities of India’s new $US3 bn ($3.9bn) submarine fleet and would provide an intelligence bonanza if obtained by India’s strategic rivals, such as Pakistan or China.”

Each page of the leaked documents, which are available on The Australian’s website, is annotated in red with the stamp: “Restricted Scorpene India”.

Parrikar says, upon learning of the leak at midnight, he ordered the navy chief personally to inquire into what this meant for the security of the Scorpene fleet.

Asked whether a formal inquiry was under way, Parrikar replied: “Let him (the navy chief) first find out all the details. That is a sort of inquiry ---directly asking a navy chief to find out… and identify what is (the problem).”

“The available information is being examined at Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy) and an analysis is being carried out by the concerned specialists”, said a defence ministry release on Wednesday morning.

Asked by Business Standard whether DCNS was in breach of confidentiality clauses with the Indian Navy, Parrikar stated: “What I understand is that there is a hacking (from DCNS). We will find out all those things… maybe in a couple of days we will be able to tell you”.

“It appears that the source of the leak is from overseas and not in India”, says the defence ministry release.

Warship industry sources say the timing of the leak is significant, with DCNS having won a $50 billion tender in April to design a new submarine fleet for Australia --- beating out German and Japanese rivals. There is speculation that rivals might be scuttling DCNS’s bid by painting it as unreliable and insecure.

Even so, the Indian Navy is seriously concerned about the leak. The Australian says the leaked data includes details of the Indian Scorpenes’ stealth capabilities, frequencies for intelligence gathering, the noise levels of the submarines at various speeds, the diving depths, range and endurance, magnetic, electro-magnetic and infra-red data, specifications of the torpedo system, propeller noise specifications and radiated noise levels when the submarine surfaces. This includes sensitive capabilities that an enemy would find useful in formulating tactics to combat the Scorpene.

The first of India’s six Scorpene submarines, a diesel-electric vessel named INS Kalvari, is currently undergoing sea trials off Mumbai. Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL), which is building six vessels with technology transferred from DCNS, expects the Kalvari will be commissioning into the navy by the year-end. Over the next three years, the remaining five Scorpenes will be commissioned and enter active service.

Parrikar says he hopes key Scorpene information might have been firewalled from the DCNS leaks by being confined to MDL, which is building the vessels in Mumbai.

Vice Admiral (Retired) Arun Kumar Singh, an Indian Navy submarine veteran, explains that much of the information in the 22,400 leaked pages would be commercial information relating to the Scorpene’s operating characteristics, that DCNS would legitimately share with any navy that expressed interest in buying the Scorpene.

“An operational disaster, however, would be the leakage of information relating to the sound that the Scorpene radiates into the water; or revealing the maximum depth to which the vessel can dive and fire weapons from”, says Singh.

A submarine’s “audio signature” is like a fingerprint. It is unique, and allows sensors like those in maritime reconnaissance aircraft to identify individual submarines, from a bank of “signatures” that navies maintain.

INS Kalvari has not yet done its “noise ranging trials”, which would pinpoint its audio fingerprint. Until these trials are completed, there is little possibility of it falling into the wrong hands.

Scorpene submarines are operated by Malaysia and Chile, while Brazil will also operate them from 2018. The Indian Scorpene is slightly longer, which would make its audio and magnetic signatures marginally different.

Interesting, the leak would also be carefully scrutinized by Pakistan, which has bought three submarines from DCNS --- the Agosta 90B class. There are several commonalities between the Scorpene and the Agosta 90B, although the latter incorporates the more sophisticated “air independent propulsion”.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Modi meets J&K politicians, reaches out to Kashmiris

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23rd Aug 16

On Monday, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi made it clear that the road from New Delhi to Srinagar will not run through Islamabad.

After 42 days of public violence and separatist demonstrations across the Kashmir Valley, the PM has reached out to the Kashmiri people, directly, but conditionally.

After meeting Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) opposition party leaders in New Delhi today, a statement from the PM’s office said he “emphasized that there has to be dialogue and we need to find a permanent and lasting solution to the [Kashmir] problem within the framework of the Constitution.”

Those six words --- “within the framework of the Constitution” --- rule out territorial give-and-take with Pakistan, or any settlement that changes the boundary, e.g. one based on recognising the Line of Control (LoC) --- the current, de facto border.

Even the J&K Constitution, which came into effect on January 26, 1957, accepts accession to India. Article 3 of that document states: “Relationship of the State with the Union of India:- The State of Jammu and Kashmir is and shall be an integral part of the Union of India.”

The PM’s offer keeps the window open for New Delhi to engage with separatist leaders, but only within the four corners of the constitution. However, the basic separatist demand is “azaadi”, or freedom from India.

It remains unclear what form New Delhi’s outreach towards Kashmir might take, or what its political components might be. However, former J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah, stated after the meeting that the PM accepted that an economic outreach alone “may not resolve the crisis.”

In contrast to the softening stance towards Kashmiris, the approach towards Pakistan remains unprecedentedly tough. There has been no backtracking from the PM’s speech, made a week ago on Independence Day, which indicated that New Delhi would pin down Pakistan on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Gilgit-Baltistan and Baluchistan.

The PMO’s statement today pointedly excluded Pakistan, noting that “those who lost their lives during recent disturbances are part of us, our nation; whether the lives lost are of our youth, security personnel or police, it distresses us.”

Meanwhile, India-Pakistan relations, already vitiated by Islamabad’s sustained criticism of India’s handling of demonstrations in the Valley, are set to plunge further. Islamabad has declared that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would forcefully condemn “state terrorism” by India at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 20-26 in New York.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who will head India’s delegation to the UNGA, is preparing to trenchantly criticise Islamabad’s human rights violations in Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. She will also highlight Pakistan’s record as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The PM’s national security and foreign policy managers make it clear that, in raising these issues on August 15, the PM has signalled a major Indian policy shift towards Pakistan. “Years of accommodating Pakistan and promoting the dialogue process has gained India nothing. Now New Delhi will play on the front foot”, says one insider.

Over the coming days, it will become clear whether the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has shifted from its position --- repeatedly voiced since July 9, when violence erupted a day after popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani, was killed by the J&K Police in an encounter in South Kashmir --- that only a handful of Kashmiris were protesting, and that too at Pakistan’s behest.

In fact, numerous media reports have indicated that Kashmiri protesters appear to be acting largely on their own, with no clear leadership discernible.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh first blamed Pakistan on his visit to Srinagar the week after violence broke out; by Modi in his first public pronouncement after a month of rioting; during an all-party meeting a fortnight ago; and, most recently on Sunday, when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley declared at a rally near Jammu that public protests were a “new phase of Pakistan-sponsored war being fought by its stooges.” 

Friday, 19 August 2016

VK Singh-Dalbir Singh slugfest: Top generals set poor example of petitions, court cases

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Aug 16

An army officer corps already factionalised along the lines of regiments and arms, is now embarrassed by infighting amongst their chiefs. General Dalbir Singh, the current chief of army staff (COAS), has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court accusing a predecessor, General VK Singh, of attempting to scuttle his promotion with "mysterious design, mala fide intent and to arbitrarily punish" him for professionally invalid reasons. Making this allegation sensational is the fact that VK Singh is currently a union minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government.

The confrontation between Generals Singh and Singh is not new. Its roots lie in VK Singh’s tenure as army chief, when he battled the defence ministry, even dragging it to the Supreme Court in an attempt to have his date of birth amended by one year, thereby gaining an additional year as army chief. In an elaborate conspiracy theory created at that time, and filed as a separate writ petition in the apex court by a group suspected of links to VK Singh, it was alleged that a previous army chief, General JJ Singh, had “fixed” VK Singh’s date of birth incorrectly to have him retire a year early, so that he would be succeeded as army chief by an alleged JJ Singh protégé, General Bikram Singh.

Adding a communal dimension to this unsavoury wrangling, the writ petition painted this as a Sikh conspiracy, alleging the involvement of the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, other Sikh luminaries and even the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Both JJ Singh and Bikram Singh are Sikhs.

This battle to change his date of birth went badly for VK Singh. The Supreme Court dismissed his petition, as also the linked petition alleging a Sikh conspiracy to fashion a Sikh “line of succession”. However, VK Singh struck back. Before handing over the top job to Bikram Singh on June 1, 2012, VK Singh issued a “show cause notice” to Dalbir Singh, who he considered close to Bikram Singh, blaming him for a rogue intelligence operation by a unit under his command.

As army chief, Bikram Singh wasted no time clearing Dalbir Singh of that charge, making him eligible to take over one of the six field armies --- essential for becoming army chief. On June 15, 2012, fifteen days after Bikram Singh took over as chief, Dalbir Singh was appointed to command the eastern army.

This, however, was challenged by another senior general. Lieutenant General Ravi Dastane petitioned that, on May 31, 2012 --- the day VK Singh, and another army commander, Lt Gen Shankar Ghosh, retired, the top two eligible lieutenant generals --- Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra and Dastane himself --- should have been appointed army commanders. Dalbir Singh, while senior to both Chachra and Dastane, was ineligible because of his “show cause notice” issued by VK Singh.

However, while elevating Chachra to command the western army, the defence ministry left the second vacancy unfilled, pending a decision on Dalbir Singh’s “show cause notice”, which was dismissed on June 8. Dastane’s petition before the Supreme Court argues that it was improper to effectively “reserve” an army commander’s vacancy for Dalbir Singh till his case had been decided.

Dalbir Singh’s controversial affidavit to the Supreme Court this week relates to Dastane’s petition. He had submitted a similar petition in 2012 to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), which rejected Dastane’s plea. Now, as earlier, Dalbir Singh argues that VK Singh unfairly targeted him, with “a motivated, biased, arbitrary and malicious intent”.

Amongst defence watchers, as also amongst the veteran community, there is consternation at the growing tendency of senior military officers to wash dirty linen in public and to litigate over adverse promotion decisions. The military’s steep promotion pyramid, in which only one officer out of a hundred makes it to the rank of lieutenant generals, ensures that many good officers are superseded simply because of a lack of vacancies in higher ranks. This was always the case; what has now changed dramatically is the readiness of superseded officers to represent against adverse promotion decisions, and even approach court.

This tendency is exacerbated by the example set by top generals. In 2010, when VK Singh took over as army chief, he announced that his foremost priority was to rebuild the army’s “internal health”. Ironically, he ended up deeply dividing the army. The fallout is being observed even today.

Fortunately, the political leadership, including the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, has remained above the fray. After the United Progressive Alliance named Dalbir Singh as the next army chief in early 2014, the BJP accused it of “undue haste”. Yet, the BJP upheld his appointment after it formed the government, even though VK Singh, now a minister, exercised influence in the new power structure.        

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Gripen, F-16, compete in MMRCA re-run

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Aug 16

Since April 2011, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) shortlisted the Eurofighter and Rafale for purchase, Swedish company Saab has believed its JAS-39 Gripen fighter was unfairly eliminated from that globally watched tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Similarly, US aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin, which had offered an F-16 Block 50/52 variant called the Super Viper, feels hard done by. Yet, one of these companies might still have the last laugh after the eventual MMRCA winner, Dassault of France, failed to conclude a contract for the Rafale.

The Gripen NG and the F-16 Block 70 --- improved variants of the fighters Saab and Lockheed Martin had earlier offered --- are frontrunners in a truncated replay of the MMRCA contest. Boeing, meanwhile, has repeated its offer of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. All three offers are couched in the rubric of “Make in India”.

Of the original six vendors in the MMRCA race, only Russia’s RAC MiG has faded away. Dassault continues negotiating with New Delhi, albeit only for 36 Rafales under a government-to-government sale. Eurofighter remains poised on the sidelines; offering to step in should negotiations with Dassault collapse.

A call to battle

In April 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended three years of tortuous negotiations with Dassault, compensating the French vendor with an order for 36 fighters, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar realised a light fighter would still be needed to replace the IAF’s retiring MiGs and bolster plummeting fighter numbers.

On April 13, 2015, Parrikar stated on Doordarshan TV: “Rafale is not a replacement for MiG-21. LCA [Light Combat Aircraft] Tejas is a replacement for MiG-21. Or, if we build some other fighter under “Make in India”… another single engine [fighter] in India, which is possible, that could be a replacement for the MiG-21.”

For Saab and Lockheed Martin, which both had single-engine, light fighters to offer, this was a call to battle. And the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which runs the LCA programme, realised the Tejas had to come good quickly.

The IAF and ADA wasted no time in accelerating Tejas’ induction. Since the Tejas Mark II requires the time-consuming integration of a new engine, it was agreed to induct a stopgap Tejas Mark IA. This would have four improvements over the Mark I: active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to boost air combat capability; an externally-carried self-protection jammer (SPJ) to blind enemy radar; mid-air refuelling to extend its range, and tidied-up internals for easier maintenance. The IAF undertook to order at least 80 Tejas Mark IA fighters.

Saab makes its play

Meanwhile, Saab prepared a three-point plan that piggybacks on the Tejas. This has not been formally proposed, but its strategy is evident from the informal offers made.

First, Saab has offered to manufacture and assemble the Gripen NG in India, partnering an Indian firm. Ministry insiders say Saab hopes to roll out the first fighter in 36 months; ramping up quickly to 18 fighters per year. The Gripen NG’s cost will depend upon how much indigenisation India demands. Building more components and sub-systems indigenously would naturally raise the cost.

Second, Saab has offered to partner ADA in developing the Tejas Mark IA, focusing on the four improvements needed. The Gripen NG’s vaunted Selex Galileo Raven ES-05 AESA radar would be manufactured in India for the Tejas Mark IA and the Gripen NG. With a 100-degree sweep, this scans a wider cone than any other current radar.

Third, Saab would help ADA develop its planned fifth-generation (Gen-5) fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). In this, Saab’s capability is untested, since Europe has no Gen-5 fighter programme. Instead, Saab is part of a European consortium working on an unmanned stealth aircraft, called the nEUROn.

Significantly, Saab is silent on the Tejas Mark II --- which would directly compete with the Gripen NG. Saab’s vision clearly involves bypassing the Tejas Mark II --- and moving from the Mark IA, to the Gripen NG, to the AMCA.

Jan Widerstrom, Saab India chief, says on the Saab website: “The offer includes setting up of a full manufacturing facility; transfer of state-of-the-art technology; setting up of an aerospace eco-system in India; creation of a local supplier base of ancillary systems; employment of a well-trained Indian workforce. We would train engineers in Sweden, as we’re doing with Brazilian engineers right now for the Brazilian Gripen program. We see ourselves as a catalyst. We will provide India with cutting-edge technology which will energise India’s aerospace ecosystem.”

A usually reticent Stockholm has thrown its weight behind Saab. Sweden-India discussions centre on a joint working group (JWG) that meets annually, in accordance with a 2009 Indo-Swedish defence cooperation agreement. After the last JWG meeting in Delhi on September 29-30, the two national security advisors met in October in the first Indo-Swedish “strategic dialogue”. Ramming home the message, Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, travelled to India in February for the “Make in India” exhibition in Mumbai.

According to a joint release after his meeting with Modi: “The two prime ministers… agreed that under the rubric of Make in India, cooperation possibilities between their respective defence industries could be identified and taken forward appropriately, including in the field of aviation.”

On June 10, IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, travelled to Saab’s production facility in Linkoping, Sweden, and test flew the Gripen NG at a Swedish air base. There is talk of IAF test pilots travelling to Sweden to check out the fighter.

While the IAF apparently likes the Gripen NG, it does not want to disturb the Rafale negotiations, which it considers top priority. While not a Gen-5 fighter, the Gripen NG’s data link --- a key element in modern air combat --- is reputedly the world’s most advanced. Its avionics are built of Gallium Nitride, which delivers superior performance over conventional Gallium Arsenide avionics. The Gripen NG carries diverse weaponry from various countries, including the French Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), reputedly the world’s most advanced, with an estimated range of about 150 kilometres. Independent researcher IHS Jane’s, finds the Gripen the cheapest contemporary fighter to operate.

F-16 Block 70 offer

Going toe-to-toe with Saab, a characteristically aggressive Lockheed Martin is pushing hard on its offer, made through the Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), to shift its F-16 production line from Fort Worth, Texas to India.

Over the preceding four decades, 4,588 F-16s have been built, in 138 versions, for 27 user countries, the sheer size of that production run making it a cheap and affordable fighter. But now F-16 orders have dried up, and Lockheed Martin wants Forth Worth fully turned over to building the thousands of F-35 Lightening II joint strike fighters (JSFs) on order.

“An Indian F-16 order clearly serves multiple US interests. It would revitalise the F-16 production chain, which is about to shut down; sell India the 1970s production line instead of just junking it; allow Fort Worth to focus on building F-35s; and strengthen defence ties with New Delhi”, notes a senior IAF officer.

At a media briefing in New Delhi last Friday, Lockheed Martin’s Randy Howard made it clear that production would be shifted to India only if the IAF buys the F-16.

Howard talked up the “next generation avionics” of the Block 70 version of the F-16, but IAF officials are sceptical. Its APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), while a reputed AESA radar, has been built by Northrop Grumman since 2014 for the US and Taiwanese air forces. Nor is the “high speed data network” and the “upgraded core computer” that Howard advertised noticeably superior to what is on the older Block 50/52. Analysts wonder what changes justify a new block number.

Within the IAF, which has for the last four decades, focused its training and tactics on fighting Pakistan F-16s, there is entrenched resistance to buying that fighter. Further, the air marshals are certain Washington would never allow Lockheed Martin to offer the kind of holistic proposal and technology transfer that Saab has offered.

Assuaging these concerns, Ben Schwartz, who heads aerospace and defence for the US-India Business Council says: “The F-16 offers would come in as FMS deals with unprecedented technology transfer and Make-in-India characteristics.  A lot of work has gone into evaluating the level of indigenization – more so than in any other case that people can recall.” Backing him up, a senior Pentagon official says: “In US-India negotiations today, you have to throw away all the assumptions of the past about what Washington will allow and what it will deny. Don’t assume anything is off the table.”

Boeing officials, who have separately offered to build the heavy, twin-engine F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in India, say their “Make in India” beats Lockheed Martin’s. “If India wants an indigenous aerospace eco-system, it makes no sense to buy an old production line, with all its inefficiencies. Boeing is offering a fighter that will remain in service through the 2040s, and possibly the 2050s, far longer than the F-16, and offering to build it on a brand new Indian production line”, says one official.

Boeing’s most powerful argument for the Super Hornet is perhaps its utility for the Indian Navy. After worrying questions from the Comptroller and Auditor General over the Russian MiG-29K’s ability to operate off a carrier, there is talk of the need to hedge India’s bets for the second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal.

With three offers in hand, the defence ministry has not yet taken the initiative, nor issued a single “request for information” (RFI) or “request for proposals” (RFP). New Delhi has not divulged whether it wants competitive tendering, or a government-to-government strategic acquisition. The long-promised policy for nominating Indian “strategic partners (SP) remains in limbo, leaving foreign vendors with little idea about who could be their Indian partner.

Says a senior executive from one of the vendor companies: “It may well emerge that New Delhi is using discussions with Saab, Lockheed and Boeing as a stalking horse for the Rafale negotiation, putting pressure on Dassault with the range of options that India has. Until there is clarity, we can only continue groping in the dark.”


Gripen NG
F-16 Block 70

Estimated to be about 25 per cent costlier than F-16
Large numbers already built make F-16 highly affordable

Combat experience
New fighter, not yet combat tested
Extensively flown in combat, proven worldwide over decades

Design maturity
New aircraft, at early stage of design life
1970s design, reaching end of design life

Aerodynamic performance
Highly agile fighter, with new F-414 engine
Early model F-16s were superbly agile, but Block 70 fighters, with conformal fuel tanks, are less aerodynamic

Combat performance
State-of-the-art cockpit, cutting-edge Gallium Nitride (GaN) avionics, superbly networked through two-way data links, fused combat picture reduces pilot workload
Older cockpit design, less integrated network environment, older one-way data links, older Gallium Arsenide avionics

Combat availability
Low turn-around time, low flying cost, generates more sorties per day
Fewer sorties, but each one carries heavier weapons package

Will set up brand new manufacturing plant in India, but no experience in transferring production
Will transfer old F-16 plant from Fort Worth, Texas; but has experience of building 4,500 F-16s, and of transferring production abroad

Weapons suite
Integrated with weaponry from multiple countries, including US missiles and Meteor long-range missile
Integrated with mainly US weaponry and missiles. Will require source codes for integrating other missiles

Short take-off and landing capability allows mission turnaround even on highways. Can be modified easily into Sea Gripen for aircraft carrier operations
Cannot operate from highways, requires ground support kit, no scope for aircraft carrier operations

Technology transfer
Likely to be easier, not governed by restricting export control regime. Committed to transfer AESA radar technology
Will be at discretion of US government, complex US export control laws. Unlikely to transfer AESA radar technology