Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The "Failure" That is DRDO

It’s official. The DRDO is a DODO. The Arjun tank is a no-show. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft still is nowhere near completion in spite of being in development since 1983. The Prithvi missile is already obsolete. The Agni-III fell into the sea during its very first test. The air-force wouldn’t touch the Akash with a ten foot pole. India would certainly be better off without the DRDO, which has done nothing except consume ridiculous amounts of money with no positive output. At least this is what the Indian English-language media would have you believe. I am, of course, referring to the Indian Express’ eight-part exposé on the DRDO, which is one of the most stunning examples of journalistic crap I’ve seen coming from the Indian media in a long time. As if obfuscation and baseless comparisons weren’t enough, the Express has resorted to printing outright lies under the garb of investigative journalism. Because of lack of time and space, I’ve trashed only three of these articles in this post.

1) 6,000 cr wasted, 10-yr delay & they want 150,000 cr more

Quite unsurprisingly, the first article of the series is the standard anti-DRDO rant. It seems to me that the Indian Express has a bone to pick with the DRDO. They have apparently missed the plethora of projects that the DRDO has successfully delivered. The Agni Missiles, the Akash SAM's 3D Central Acquisition Radar, the Rajendra Radar (shown right), the Battlefield Surveillance Radar, the MiG-27 and Jaguar upgrades and the Samyukta and Sangraha Electronic Warfare systems are just a few examples of the DRDO's successful endeavours. This article only focuses on the negative aspects of the LCA and the Arjun.

Moeover, the way Amitav Ranjan and Shiv Aroor have compared the DRDO to its Chinese counterparts just goes to show how little they know about defence research in India. It is not the DRDO’s fault that the government doesn’t pour millions of dollars into defence research, as the Chinese do. It is not the DRDO’s fault that the Air Force and Army want world-class products that are also inexpensive and able to keep up with their whimsical requirements.

2) Armed Forces wait as showpiece missiles are unguided, way off mark

Ranjan and Aroor claim that “former deputy director of the Prithvi project and now DRDO’s chief controller of missiles and strategic systems Dr. V. K. Saraswat’s report RCI/PGT/PGM/1 admits: “Accuracy of missiles like Prithvi is acceptable in surface-to-surface theatre role, but precision strike without collateral damage is not possible with this system.”” I simply cannot bring myself to believe that someone of Dr. Saraswat’s stature could make such a childish statement. Ballistic missiles aren’t designed for precision strike. Their precision is measured in terms of the Circular Error Probable (CEP), which is defined as the radius of a circle into which a missile will land at least half the time. And the CEP of the Prithvi-I (10-75 metres) and Prithvi-II are comparable to similar missiles. The job of precision strike is better left to the precision guided munitions fielded by the Air Force and cruise missiles.

Also notice the way they imply that the Agni-III is a failure, because it “plunged into the sea after just five minutes of flight in July”. What they don’t mention is that such high-tech missiles do fail on their first test flights, as the American MX-774, or Russia’s latest Bulava SLBM did. That is certainly not a reason to just give up on their development, because, last I knew, no country was ready to violate the Missile Technology Control Regime to provide India with a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Another ridiculous claim by the two journalists is about how “an exasperated IAF, which calls Phase-I user trials (of the Akash SAM) unsatisfactory, has decided to buy Israeli Spyder missile systems instead”. This, when it is known that the short-ranged Spyder is supposed to make up for the lack of the Trishul.

But this one takes the cake: “Saraswat’s report calls for integrating Nag’s seeker with Prithvi to make the latter a precision-guided munition (PGM) but that hasn’t worked either”. Anyone with basic knowledge of missile guidance would know that simply bolting an IIR seeker of an anti-tank missile onto a hulking big ballistic missile which flies many times faster and wishing it would turn it into a fantabulously cool PGM is nothing short of stupid.

3) Arjun, Main Battle Tanked

This article is a perfect example of how, through selective reporting and obfuscation, one can trash a perfectly fine product, and make it look inferior to what can be bought in the Chor Bazaar for half the price. The two “journalists”, while glibly proclaiming how the T-90, a far superior tank, can kill the Arjun don’t elaborate on exactly how they arrived at this conclusion. I suppose they have access to the results of Arjun v/s T-90 tests in different scenarios, because, as a professional journalist, I would have balked at making such apparently baseless statements without solid proof. But then again, this is the Indian media we are talking about. They claim that the Arjun weighs much more than the T-90 without attempting to explain where all the extra weight comes from. My logic tells me that the Arjun has heavier and superior armour. So do many reputed publications. Maybe the American M1A1, the German Leopard-II, and the British Challenger-II are horrible tanks too. In fact, they are even heavier than the Arjun! But the Pakistani Al-Khalid, being the lighter tank, is obviously superior! Going by that logic, the answer to our troubles lies in (hold your breath) the venerable Maruti-800! It has everything the DDM claims the Arjun lacks. It is cheap, mobile, light, air-conditioned, and nimbler than the vaunted T-90. Plus, with our present railway infrastructure we can easily carry it to border areas. Sure, the Arjun trounces the Maruti-800 (and the T-90) when it comes to sheer firepower, armour, crew protection, crew comfort, and electronics. But since when have these things been important?

The Express also makes a big fuss about how the temperature inside the Arjun reaches an abnormal 55 degrees. But it fails to mention the reason why this happens. After all, the DRDO had offered an air-conditioned Arjun to the Army, but the latter rejected the idea. So, is the temperature problem the fault of the Army or the DRDO? And the T-90 has faced problems with high interior temperatures too - its thermal imagers packed up in the blistering heat of the Thar. It was unable to fire the Reflecks missile until quite recently. The engine had its own problems. So why was it accepted with such alacrity? Why was it not subject to rigorous testing the way the Arjun was? Why was the Arjun supposed to be a tank that was heavily armoured, comfortable, fast, small, light, and cheap at the same time? Why was it subjected to continuously changing goalposts? Why does everyone seem to suffer from memory loss when one mentions how the initial requirements, which called for a relatively simple 40-ton tank to replace the Vijayanta, were changed when Pakistan decided to acquire the formidable M1A1 Abrams? Maybe Ranjan and Aroor, in their infinite wisdom, would like to tell us how the DRDO (or anyone else for that matter) can design such a tank in a short span of time.

Generally speaking, the writers seem to have spent all their time coming up with creative titles for each part of the series, rather than doing what they are paid to do – report the facts as they are. Adding insult to injury is the fact the Indian Express has spoken of DRDO's apparently non-existent accountablity, while they themselves are accountable to no one. The DRDO will not sue them for libel. The goverment will make a few noises about how things have to be improved. The educated public, which knows squat about defence, will feel proud of our free and empowered media, which in reality, thrives on lies, half-truths, and sensationalism. All of which reminds me of the Michael Jackson number, “Tabloid Junkie

It’s slander
You say it's not a sword
But with your pen you torture men
You'd crucify the Lord

Recommended reading material on the DRDO:

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Book Review: The Writing on the Wall - India Checkmates America 2017

I'm currently reading "The Writing on the Wall - India Checkmates America 2017" by General Padmanabhan (Retd). It would be an understatement to call this book a disappointment. The grammar couldn't be worse, tenses are all wrong in half the paragraphs, spelling mistakes make their presence felt from time to time, there are too many "Given the right chance, Indians are second to none" cliches, and conversations (even the informal ones) between the characters are too dry and full of diplomat-ese to make them seem believable. Some parts of this book come across as political essays rather than chapters of a novel, and completely mess up the flow of the story. As if all this were not bad enough, the portrayal of politicians as resolute patriots who put the country before the party, the absence of inter-departmental rivalries, the development of a super-duper missile-defence shield by India which defends the country against a salvo of Tomahawk missiles launched by the USA, and the way in which things just fall into place for India make this book as believable as one of Karan Johar's movies. The shrill anti-American rhetoric only serves to make things worse.

But then again, there are some parts of the book that are so insightful and well-crafted, that they could only be penned by the hands of a seasoned soldier like General Padmanabhan. He illustrates very well what a determined India with a resolute and focused leadership and workforce is capable of achieving. His description of a "National Agenda" and a "National Defence Plan", research under military science & technology establishments free of corruption and bureaucratic hassles, the handling of internal unrest which results in peace in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, and the Indian retaliation against Pakistani attacks hold many lessons for the country. But these scenarios are few and far in between, and given the current state of our politics, hardly realistic.

All in all, this is the kind of book one would expect Tarun Tejpal (of Bunker 13 "fame") to write. Coming from an ex Army Chief, and a very good Chief, I must say, this book is a huge let-down.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I am utterly disgusted at the way everyone, including the government and the media, has gone overboard labelling the terrorists responsible for the Mumbai blasts as “cowardly”. I really wonder as to how entering a hostile foreign country, planting bombs in the lifeline of the economic capital, murdering close to two hundred people, and escaping without hardly a trace is a cowardly act. Rather, it is the Government of India that has set new standards in cowardice by using the standard weak-kneed response of “condemning the blasts”, “appealing for calm”, and “not letting this incident derail the peace process”. All this becomes doubly frustrating when one reads about a tiny country like Israel going on an all-out offensive against Hamas to rescue one of its kidnapped soldiers.

Also appalling is the all-round praise of the common Mumbaikar’s “spirit”, and “resilience” in getting life back on line, which in reality is a manifestation of our notorious “don’t care attitude”. While the alacrity with which the citizens of Mumbai came out to help the injured deserves nothing but the highest level of tribute, the reaction of these very citizens to the killings is hardly anything to be proud of. After the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers stood united and demanded retribution. I wonder when Mumbaikars will do the same.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Women in the Armed Forces - Random Thoughts

Lt. Sushmita Chakraborty’s tragic suicide a few days ago has raised many questions about the status and treatment of women in the Indian Army. Add to that the Army Vice Chief Lt General Pattabhiraman’s remark which was totally taken out of context and blown out of proportion by the Desi Dork Media, and one has all the ingredients of a full-blown controversy just waiting to explode. My thoughts on the issue:
  1. The Indian Army has been a male-only institution for a long time. There are bound to be problems with the integration of women, more so in combat units. These problems are not insurmountable, but they won't go away immediately. The US Navy, especially Naval Aviation, had similar problems with women. There was dissent and opposition, which ultimately culminated into the infamous “Tailhook Incident”. If the US – a country where women are treated at par with men in almost all walks of life – has faced such problems, India is bound to face more.
  2. Being Army officers, women are expected to be tough. They are supposed to be given training equivalent to what the men receive, because once the bullets start flying, the enemy won't give a hoot about the gender of a soldier before killing him or her. Being brought up in an environment where they are taught to be “weak”, many of these women obviously face a tough time in the Army and burn out. Insufficient training doesn’t exactly help matters. At the Officer’s Training Academy, Chennai the training duration for women is 24 weeks while for the men it is 44 weeks. During other training activities such as cross-country runs, route marches etc., women cover less than half the distance with half the weight as compared to men.
  3. The enemy we face is hardly gentlemanly when it comes to combat and treatment of POWs. For them, the Rules of War and the Geneva Conventions are mere pieces of toilet paper. Therefore the top brass believes, and rightly so, that women serving in combat units is a bad idea. The enemy mutilated the bodies of six Indian soldiers in Kargil. I shudder to think what would have happened to these soldiers had they been women.
  4. Imagine that a woman soldier has been held hostage by a terrorist group. What kind of political/media pressure would be exerted on the government/Army to get her out? Wouldn't it severely limit their options for negotiations? Would there be a big hullabaloo if she were killed or tortured? The shit would really hit the fan then, wouldn't it?

That said, I firmly believe that given the given the right chance, Indian women will no doubt prove their worth in the armed forces. One cannot forget the exemplary courage shown by Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena, who had flown her Cheetah helicopter in extremely hostile terrain to retrieve injured soldiers in the Kargil War. But the country's outlook towards women as a whole has to change too to enable better participation and performance of women in the armed forces. Moreover, one should remember that one suicide by a lady officer cannot be the basis on which the Army’s attitude towards women can be judged. There could be several reasons that led to the suicide – reasons that could be personal or professional. That does not give anyone the right to make armchair judgements about either the Army, or Lt. Chakraborty. Comments by self-serving politicians and mediawallahs are highly unwelcome.

Monday, May 01, 2006

21st Century... No Fox!

On May1, 2006, the Indian Air Force bid farewell to one of its most coveted and hush-hush assets – the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25RB “Foxbat”, known in the Air Force as “Garuda”. With the departure of the Foxbat, the Indian Air Force will not only lose its fastest aircraft, but also its premier spyplane – an aircraft that served it very well for over twenty-five years. Indeed, it would be very difficult to find an Air Force officer who disagrees with Wing Commander Sanjeev Taliyan, who once commanded the MiG-25 squadron, when he says, “No aircraft has ever been able to achieve for us what the Foxbat has. We will miss flying them.” Shiv Aroor of the Indian Express has written an excellent article on the topic.

In the 1950s, the United States began development of the North American XB-70 “Valkyrie” high-altitude bomber with a top speed of Mach 3. The Valkyrie never saw service, but the fighter that was intended to intercept it did. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 “Foxbat” first flew in 1964, and entered service with the Voenno-Vozdushniye Sily (Soviet Air Force) in 1969. With a top speed of Mach 3, a ceiling of more than 90,000ft, and an astonishing climb rate (According to think tank, a MiG-25 can take off and climb to an altitude of 114,000ft in a little over four minutes), the VVS had an interceptor the West simply couldn’t match. To put these figures into perspective, let me state that some of the best fighter aircraft of its era, like the F-4 Phantom II, the MiG-23 "Flogger" and even later aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Mirage-2000, and the MiG-29 "Fulcrum" struggle to reach Mach 2.5 and cannot fly above 60,000 feet. It remained an enigmatic and much-feared aircraft in the West, until a Soviet pilot, Lt. Viktor Balenko defected with one to Japan in 1976. The detailed examination it was subjected to dispelled much of the aura of invincibility surrounding the Foxbat. It was found that in spite of the speed and altitude at which it flew, the MiG-25 was mostly constructed out of steel, with titanium and aircraft aluminium being used only in some heat-critical areas. Welding was done by hand, and rivet heads were exposed in places they did not affect aerodynamic drag. Most of the on-board electronics, including the radar, consisted of vacuum tubes. The radar itself was not as sophisticated as Western radars and lacked the “look-down shoot-down” capability essential for tracking and shooting down low-flying targets. Though a speed of Mach 3.2 was achievable, the engines would burn up and require replacement if pushed beyond Mach 2.8.

However, the MiG-25 also had some clear virtues from the outset. It was quintessentially a Soviet aircraft, being relatively inexpensive, rugged, reliable, easy to maintain, and straightforward to operate. It was representative of MiG’s philosophy of building world-class fighter aircraft using decade-old technology. The RP-25 “Smerch” 500kW radar could burn through heavy jamming, and had a detection range of 100 kilometres. In fact, pilots were not allowed to engage it on the ground, and it is said that this radar was powerful enough to kill rabbits near the runway. Also, many engineers claim that the much-ridiculed vacuum tube electronics are perfectly practical and cost-effective for high-power microwave applications, and are less susceptible to radiation in case of a nuclear attack.

India acquired twelve MiG-25 aircraft from the USSR in 1980 for “strategic reconnaissance” over Pakistan, China, and some other very interesting countries. At that time, India did not have the capability to penetrate deep into Pakistani and Chinese airspace and take pictures of their military installations. Of these twelve Foxbats, ten were reconnaissance/bomber versions, (MiG-25RB), while two were conversion trainers with two separate cockpits (MiG-25U). These aircraft formed the No. 102 “Trisonics” squadron, based at Bareilly. However, more recently, only four of these have remained in service, with No. 35 “Rapiers” squadron. According to the Indian Air Force website, “the aircraft is equipped with a number of electromagnetic-spectrum sensors along with a larger and more capable Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) than the older MiG-25”. It also comes with “two left-to-right rotating cameras with a focal length of 650mm and/or 1300mm, which can be fitted in the three interchangeable camera bays located in the nose cone of the aircraft. The two cameras shoot through two port and two starboard windows, and a vertical camera with a shorter focal length is located under the cockpit to take horizon-to-horizon shots.” While interceptor versions of the MiG-25 carried four air-to-air missiles, the MiG-25R has no defensive armament of its own, nor is it equipped with advanced countermeasures against air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles. Instead, it relies on its high cruising altitude and blinding speed to escape enemy air-defences. Indeed, there are few things in the world that can bring down a Foxbat doing Mach 2.8 at an altitude of 90,000 feet.

After entering service, the Foxbats have been said to routinely intrude into hostile airspace to spy on enemy facilities. They were used in Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka), Operation Brass Tacks (Rajasthan desert – 1987), and Operation Safed Sagar (Kargil – 1999). During Brass Tacks, the Air Chief Marshal, Dennis La Fontaine, proposed that the Foxbat be used to spy on Pakistani armoured movements – an idea shot down by Rajeev Gandhi. During the Kargil War, MiG-25s were extensively used for aerial reconnaissance after a relatively low-flying Canberra suffered damage after being hit by a hand-held surface-to-air missile while photographing Pakistani positions. And while most of the Foxbat’s exploits remain shrouded in secrecy, one incident did manage to make headlines. In 1997, an Indian Air Force MiG-25 broke the sound barrier over Islamabad while returning from a reconnaissance mission, causing a huge sonic boom. Resembling a series of explosions, the sound caused the residents of Islamabad to panic, and alerted Pakistani air defences into action. A few F-16s were scrambled from Sargodha, but they could do little to intercept an aeroplane flying well above 65,000 feet at a speed greater than Mach 2. The Pakistani foreign minister stated that the Pakistani Air Force did not have anything in their inventory to intercept aircraft flying at that height. Some in the PAF also said that their F-16s had an operational ceiling of 55,000 feet, which was insufficient to intercept the Foxbat. Many in the Pakistani establishment considered the breaking of the sound barrier to be deliberate – to prove that the PAF did not have the capability to intercept the Foxbat.

However, there is a limit to which an airframe can be flogged, and as Wing Commander Ashok Chauhan of the Rapiers Squadron puts it, “we can push our Foxbats for another 2-3 years, but after three life extensions, it’s prudent to retire them now”. There is little doubt that the retirement of the MiG-25RB has left a gaping hole in India’s capability to spy on Pakistan and China with impunity. There are many who claim that Indian intelligence needs are being catered to by spy satellites like the Technology Experiment Satellite (with one metre resolution), which is why the acquisition of high-altitude spy planes is not on the top of the list of priorities for the Defence Ministry. However, spy satellites have certain limitations – limitations which can be overcome only by spy planes like the MiG-25RB or the SR-71 “Blackbird”. Spy satellites follow a predictable path which permits limited deviation, and there is only a small window of time to gather data. This makes them easy to "fool", something India managed to do to US satellites while preparing for its nuclear tests in Pokhran. The US, clearly the top dog when it comes to such satellites, was found groping in the dark when India finally detonated the devices. Moreover, the utility of satellite photographs is affected by the time of the day – photographs taken at noon are preferred to those taken late in the evening, when long shadows might hide important details. Spy planes, on the other hand, can overfly enemy territory whenever and wherever required, making it difficult for the enemy to hide stuff from them. Also, spy planes can collect air samples from the test sites of nuclear and other weapons - something satellites may never be able to do. There are reports that Russia had offered the MiG-31 “Foxhound” (shown right), a heavily modernised MiG-25 to India in a buy back offer. With better engines, an insanely powerful look-down shoot-down radar, better reliability, and vastly improved low altitude performance, the MiG-31 seems to be just what the doctor ordered for the Air Force. Fitted with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and sensors, the yet non-existent reconnaissance version of the MiG-31 is sure to meet India’s strategic reconnaissance needs for at least the next twenty years. While purchase and maintenance costs will be very high, the information obtained would surely justify the expenses. Moreover, with India’s economy going great guns, acquisition of these birds won’t put a major strain on our resources, the Multi Role Combat Aircraft, Scorpene, and Gorshkov deals notwithstanding.