Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Post on Livefist: F-35: Should India Really Ride The Lightning?

The recent statement by a United States Department of Defence official, that the US would be willing to discuss a possible sale of the F-35 Lightning II to India, or even consider bringing India into the ambitious programme as a partner, has generated a lot of attention in the Indian media. While this is not the first time the F-35 has been offered to India, the timing of this fresh pitch is interesting. Coming six months after the two American contenders vying for the lucrative Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract -- the F-16 and F/A-18 -- failed to make the Indian Air Force (IAF) shortlist, and just days before the bids by EADS Cassidian and Dassault were opened, many perceive this as an attempt by the US and Lockheed-Martin to work themselves back into the equation.
Sections of the Indian news media – both print and electronic – have called for the F-35's consideration in the MMRCA tender itself (and some have called for an outright purchase) resulting in a new round of teeth-gnashing over a topic that has stretched over a decade. In a column on LiveFist, my friend Aditya and I explain why we don't think the F-35 for India is a very good idea.

Friday, September 23, 2011

My Article in The Alpha Stories: Assessing Indian and Pakistani AEW&C Acquisitions

This is an updated draft of my analysis published in the May 2011 issue of The Alpha Stories, a magazine on the Indian Armed Forces. To read the original article, click on the image below.

The motive behind this essay is not to do a one-to-one comparison of Indian and Pakistani Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) options, but to understand the requirements that led to the decisions by both air forces on what aircraft to acquire as well as the operational scenario they will likely be used in.

It first needs to be understood that airborne radar is not the be-all and end-all of air warfare that it is thought to be. Rather, it is a system that overcomes several limitations of ground-based radar systems, by eliminating terrain shadows, increasing range (line of sight increases with altitude), and offering relative safety from attacks on account of its mobility and agility. The latter ability also permits rapid redeployment of the system at the most critical sector – but more on that later. Also, it is important to note that the radar itself is but one part of the system. Of equal importance are target interrogation and identification systems, electronic support measures, data processing computers, communications devices, command and control systems, and so on.

There are essentially two approaches to AEW&C – the first is to put everything into the aircraft, making it a stand-alone system capable of managing a large air battle by itself. This makes it very expensive, but it can be deployed anywhere on very short notice. This is why the E-3 Sentry and the A-50EI, with its Phalcon AEW&C system, cost so much. The other way is to merely put the radar on the aircraft, and use a dedicated datalink to transmit the information to a station on the ground that contains all the other facilities. This makes the package much cheaper, and in some cases more powerful – because ground-based data processing and battle management facilities are not restricted by the size and payload of the aircraft. However, the system is effectively undeployable, as it has to always operate in conjunction with a ground based system. The E-2 Hawkeye and Saab-2000 AEW are of the latter type.

So why did India and Pakistan choose to buy the A-50EI and Saab-2000 AEW respectively? The answer lies in both, their strategic needs, as well as their evaluation of how an aerial war in the subcontinent would be fought. In the late nineties, the Indian Air Force (IAF) achieved a quantum leap in its capabilities with the induction of the Su-30MKI. For the first time, it found itself with not only a decisive advantage over Pakistan, but also with the ability to take on and defeat the PLAAF. Whether it came to air superiority or deep interdiction tactical bombing, neither the PAF nor the PLAAF has anything in their inventories that could compare with it. At some level, I believe even the IAF was taken aback by the fearsome capabilities it had acquired! Procurement of force multipliers like tankers and AEW&C systems was the next logical step. And as far as AEW&C went, a system like the A-50EI AWACS was the obvious choice. It was inherently better suited to the offensive war the IAF was preparing to fight against Pakistan, most of it inside Pakistani airspace. On account of its deployability, it would be able to move forward with the IAF as it systematically destroyed the Pakistani aerial assets and their air defence network. At the same time, existing interceptors (MiG-29/MiG-23/MiG-21) and the ground-based air defence network were considered sufficient to deal with Pakistani attacks. On the other hand, in a war against China, The AWACS could be quickly deployed to plug gaps that were bound to arise in ground-based radar coverage and communications owing to attacks by Chinese fighters and surface to surface missiles. Moreover, it would be able to better isolate Chinese axes of attack and effectively concentrate numerically inferior IAF assets to intercept them, thus making more efficient use of sparse fighter resources. And lastly, because of the elimination of terrain shadows (which is especially important in the Himalayas) and superior target discrimination, it would be able to detect cruise missile attacks early, enabling point-defence surface-to-air missiles to focus along specific threat axes, as well as allowing more time for personnel and systems on the ground to seek shelter and aircraft to scramble from their bases. The DRDO AEW&C, a smaller system mounted on an Embraer EMB-145 airframe was likely designed to augment the A-50EI. Flying far forward of the A-50EI “motherships”, they would form the forward nodes of an airborne battle-management network where the latter assumed the command and control function.
Now let’s look at the technical reasons behind the IAF’s choice of the radar and airframe. The service leased a Russian Beriev A-50 for trials in 2000, but its marked inferiority to its Western counterparts and the purportedly high price the Russians were asking for it seems to have led to its rejection. The hunt for a suitable AEW&C system came to an end when Israel offered the far more advanced and modern EL/M-2075 Phalcon, and the US State Department expressed willingness to allow the transfer. The choice of the airframe to mount the radar on, however, seems to be puzzling at first. Airframes designed for civilian use are inherently better suited to AEW&C duties than high-wing military transports like the Il-76. Their rugged design is ideal for the tactical and strategic transport role, but in the AEW&C role, all this does is make them heavy and “draggy”, reducing fuel efficiency and time on station. However, the Il-76 came with distinct advantages. The airframe, the radome, and the mounting for the radome on the airframe had already been developed and tested. Plus, the fact that the Il-76 was already in service with the IAF offered obvious logistical advantages. It is a little more difficult to figure out the reason why the EMB-145 airframe was chosen for the DRDO AEW&C. There is very little information available on the topic, but there are very few airframes that have been tested with a radar antenna similar to the one developed by the DRDO, and it is likely that the Brazilians, apart from offering the cheaper solution, were more open to integrating their airframe with the Indian radar.

In contrast, the PAF’s strategy in the face of the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority its opponent enjoys has been to fight a defensive air war. For this purpose, the Saab-2000 with the Erieye radar is a fine choice. The Pakistani short range defence system is highly sophisticated, and lends itself well to integration with such aircraft. As volume search and target acquisition radars start being put out of action by IAF attacks, the Erieye could quickly link up with Sector Operations Centres (there are four) and plug gaps in coverage while flying safely inside Pakistan airspace. For example, the Erieye can directly link up with the Giraffe radar’s C3 system, which itself is integrated with RBS-70, Mistral, Stinger and Anza missiles, and keep fighting even if the radar itself is put out of action. Coupled with the mobility of the air defences, this would give Pakistani defences a shot in the arm and the ability to inflict severe attrition on a low-level attacking force. Strategic redeployment is a problem, but is not considered a pressing need since the PAF expects to fight a war only along one front.

While Pakistan’s purchase of an AEW aircraft was obviously a response to the Indian acquisition of the A-50EI, it is far from being a knee-jerk reaction.  Rather, it is a well thought-out procurement that was done after a thorough appreciation of the vulnerabilities of the Pakistani Air Force and air defence network. It maximises the strengths of this network, and addresses exactly those weakness that the IAF hopes to exploit with the quantum jump in capabilities it has acquired after the Kargil War. And is affordable to boot

For more information about the magazine, subscriptions, and contributions, please contact the editor at thealphastories@gmail.com

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Terrorism and the Apathetic Mango Indian

A little background on this piece: I wrote a large portion of the post that follows a little more than three years ago, shortly after the blasts in Jaipur that claimed anywhere between sixty and eighty lives. Then, as you no doubt remember, India was being hit by terrorist bombings with alarming regularity, the attacks claiming civilian lives Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and other major cities. Naturally, this prompted scores of armchair experts (yours truly included) to unleash their outrage across blogs and social networking websites in India, and propose a whole range of solutions to solve the terrorist problem once and for all. I wrote this argument in response to some friends who, like many others, argued that the ‘common man’ simply didn’t care about terrorism unless it affected him directly, and this callous attitude only encouraged politicians to shy away from taking the ‘hard decisions’ (read defensive measures, targeted assassinations and reprisal raids) required to tackle terrorism. I didn’t quite agree with that sentiment, and contended that this callousness would actually work to our benefit in the long run. I still think that much of what I wrote then is still relevant today.

I was driven to dig it up post it here owing to the blasts that rocked Mumbai yesterday, and the kind of response they generated amongst Indians who post regularly on the web. I do not intend to offer a ‘silver bullet’ to solve the terrorist problem, or make the presumptuous claim that I understand the problem in its entirety. The most I expect to achieve is to spur another lively discussion on the issue. Indeed, I’m not even sure my analysis is entirely correct, and look forward to reading what others have to say about it.

India has been at the receiving end of jihadi terrorism for at least three decades, if not more. Yet many still tend to think of terrorist strikes in conventional military terms. Their ideas on fighting the problem, then, are a product of this thinking. Imagine the classic case of a general war between two countries. A military attack by ‘Country A’ to sabotage a communications centre, bomb a dam, or destroy a logistics hub will have palpable physical and material effects which will adversely affect the ability of ‘Country B’ to fight. If this continues, ‘Country B’ will stand a good change of facing strategic defeat. However, ‘Country B’ will respond in two ways: it will take measures to defend itself against such attacks, and launch similar attacks on targets inside ‘Country A’. This is a textbook case of fighting fire with fire.

On the other hand, a terrorist attack is intended to be an attack on the *mind* – on the very psyche of a large population. The Islamic terrorist expects the attacked country to retaliate by attacking training camps, going on a witch-hunt against all Muslims (including its own citizens), and spending ridiculous sums on defensive measures that seldom work, even if an attack they were supposed to defend against actually happens. If the terrorists fail to achieve that, the attack has little tactical or strategic value. What’s more, they generally don’t have a backup plan do deal any other reaction (or lack of one). Suddenly, their elaborately constructed schemes come crashing down.

When Israel was attacked by Hezbollah in 2006, it went to war in Lebanon and achieved precious little. Today, that country has borne the brunt of so many terrorist attacks, that the entire population lives on edge. Of course, there is no denying that the way the Israeli leadership displays serious pluck by taking the battle to the enemy and retaliating against attacks. And no doubt, if you are an Israeli citizen, this is a tremendous morale booster. Yet, it bears pointing out that these Israeli achievements were only tactical victories; their long-term impact on its security is probably negligible.

When the United States was attacked on September 11, it went into a minor recession. Because 3,000 people died! Don’t get me wrong, 3,000 dead in a single strike is a massive number, but is it big enough to physically affect the economy of a whole nation, leave alone one that is as big, powerful, and decentralised as the USA? The country lost thirty-five times more people due to “unintentional injuries” in the same year, and that had no effect on the economy and psyche of Americans. But 9/11 made America rush headlong into two wars it had little chance of winning. Not just that, but ridiculous amounts of money were spent fighting these wars. The cost of the Iraq war alone has exceeded $500 billion. Global oil prices have spiked from $20-ish a barrel to $135 as I write this. The cost of petrol is severely affecting Americans. On the horizon looms an economic crisis that has the potential to throw the entire global economic system out of whack, yet it gets scant attention. And for all this effort, it is not as if the terrorists have gotten any weaker! They’ve just lost a few mud huts and a few foot-soldiers to a $1,000,000 cruise missile. They haven’t lost much ground, they aren’t facing a shortage of fresh recruits, and the certainly aren’t low on morale. So who do you think is winning here?

Visit any American airport today and observe the security system there – it is absolutely top-notch stuff. But it is a drain on the economy, it is a nuisance to passengers, and will never be used as intended, because terrorists will refine their tactics faster than the TSA can react. What's more, these measures only tell the terrorist that he is succeeding. It tells him that the population, for all their defiance, is afraid of him.

Compare this to how good ol’ Bharat Mata reacted to the Mumbai train blasts. The government made some politically correct noises, a few yahoos on the internet (Moi being a prominent the rabble-rouser) huffed and puffed and demanded retaliation, and soon enough, everyone pretty much forgot about the whole thing. Mumbai’s economy was not affected one bit, leave alone the economy of the country. The average Indian did not become a paranoid wreck who teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown and lost his marbles every time a motorcycle tyre blew up on the road. The Mumbai local trains were still full of people rushing to get to work, NOT worrying whether the next bomb would rip them apart. Now, we lost “only” 300 people in Mumbai, but do you think the reaction of the populace would have been different had 3,000 died? Each time we are attacked, we respond with the usual indifferent “ho-hum”. So what exactly did the jihadis gain? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

I might sound like a horrible person when I say this, but it is this callous and insensitive chalta-hai attitude that is the best weapon we have against the jihadis. Pakistan doesn’t have unlimited resources to continue sponsoring terrorism against India forever. Every young man who wastes his life having wet dreams about destroying “those evil yindoos” is a drain on the economy (actually, he is twice a drain, given that he could have been productive, yet is a drain; the e-con-omists call this ‘opportunity cost’, if I’m not mistaken). We don’t have to fight them, we only have to outlast them. And given our superiority in population and resources, we WILL outlast them by simply ignoring them. (Aha! We are now playing to our strengths!) We aren’t losing money, we aren’t losing people at a rate that is even close to significant, and we aren’t losing territory - you need tanks, soldiers, and artillery and other such expensive thingamajigs to capture territory.
We can, of course, retaliate. But only if the attacks make us gain more than we lose. We needn’t go after the leadership – you kill one terrorist leader, there is another just itching to get into his boots. It isn’t a job that requires rare brilliance or intelligence. It requires a half-decent brain and loads of bloodthirstiness. These attributes, as you can imagine, are by no means rare. And if there are no leaders, the group splinters into cells that either join another group or act independently (which makes them tougher to eliminate). If we are to hit back, we will have to take a bottom-up approach. It is simpler, cleaner, and is good for our morale. Eliminate their supply chain, take out their foot soldiers, and slowly, you will see the results. If we have to hit the people at the top, target the real puppet-masters – general officers in the Pakistani military and their assets. If that doesn’t put lead in their boots, nothing else will! But this is just a stray thought. As I said, I’m not in the silver bullet business. Anymore.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

My Column on Livefist: A Response to Ashley J Tellis’ Assessment of the MMRCA Down-Select

Dr. Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written a commentary for FORCE Magazine, in an attempt to explain in some detail the reasons why two American aircraft – the Lockheed-Martin F-16IN Super Viper and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – vying for the Indian Air Force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract worth an estimated Rs. 42,000 crore, failed to make the down-select. While the piece is a must-read, owing to the plethora of facts, figures, and new information presented, the analysis itself falls short on several counts. In a column on Livefist, I attempt to refute some of his arguments.

Read the entire post on Livefist...

Dr. Tellis has also responded to the piece, in which he seeks to "set the record straight."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Demise of Osama bin Laden – Some Observations from an Indian Perspective

On the face of it, it would appear that the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces is a very important milestone in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, perhaps signaling a reversal in the deteriorating American fortunes in the region. The reasons are not hard to understand. For one, it serves to boost the flagging morale of a population and military frustrated by their inability to conclusively win the war. Also, the way the operation was planned and conducted was an unambiguous show of decisiveness and strength by the United States. For a country that over the last few years seemed to have been put on the back foot in Af-Pak, hampered by directionless leadership and clumsily stumbling from one strategic setback to another (the latest being the Raymond Davis episode), the news could not have come at a better time. And lastly, it provides at least a semblance of justice to the families of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks. However, the long-term strategic implications of this event are almost zero, and may even exacerbate the security situation in Afghanistan. It is worth remembering that in the last five years, bin Laden had been reduced to a nobody, his presence inconsequential to the events unfolding in the region. While bagging him now does present the United States with a small victory, it is of little solace when the country has already lost the real prize – a stable and pliable Af-Pak with the United States shaping policy and events to further its long-term security interests. The tide of the war now seems to have shifted decisively in favour of Pakistan’s military-jehadi complex, and this event provides the Obama administration with just the excuse it needed to make a face-saving exit from the theatre. At the same time, Pakistan, and by extension, China, are perfectly positioned to fill the power vacuum this would create – putting them to control of the most important real estate in the continent and the gateway to Central Asian energy and mineral deposits.

In the short term, this event is sure to have repercussions for India, none of them positive. The brazenness with which the US military penetrated Pakistan’s well-defended air-space, that too by launching a successful intrusion near the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment, is sure to massively demoralize the junior and middle ranks of the Pakistani military. Additionally, having cast themselves as the sole defenders of the Islamic Republic from the designs of the crafty Americans and Indians, this very public failure of the Pakistani military is bound to affect the Pakistani population’s confidence in it. Indeed, just a few months back, it would have been unheard of for a junior officer to caustically utter “I am ashamed of what happened in Abbottabad” before the all-powerful Army chief, with the latter struggling to come up with a reply better than “So am I”, leave alone the ISI chief having to undergo a humiliating excoriation at the hands of the country’s parliament. At a time of such weakness, it would make perfect sense for the military leadership to make a play to regain its prestige and power, by seeking a definitive and public victory against a universally accepted enemy. And unsurprisingly, India stands out as a unique and enticingly soft target, the hatred for which runs deep in the Pakistani psyche – perhaps to the extent that it transcends the internal fissures in Pakistani society. One therefore hopes that the Indian leadership is taking measures to prevent a devastating terrorist strike in India, and is making preparations to deal with one when it occurs.

Speaking of terrorism, there is no reason for Indians to go overboard in rejoicing at the death of bin Laden. Indeed, he was a terrorist, but at no time was he an enemy of India except in the broadest ideological sense, and never really a particularly dangerous one. His support for the jihadi terrorism in Kashmir amounted to little more than lip service, and Al Qaida hasn’t been known to operate in Kashmir in any substantial capacity. At this time, it would do Indians well to remember that figures like Masood Azhar (a convicted terrorist, unlike bin Laden), Hafiz Sayeed, and hundreds of others walk free in Pakistan, spew hatred at India at every opportunity, and are not exactly averse to backing it up with action. The threat that Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed represent to India and Indian citizens is multiple orders of magnitude greater than what Al Qaida ever did. When these gentlemen are dispatched to meet their maker, we would have a real reason to celebrate. In the meanwhile, we are only doing a disservice to our country by acting oblivious to the fact that these people are safe under the protection of an enemy state, while celebrating the death of someone who was little more than an icon of Islamic terrorism for the West.

On a related note, it is worth noting we are, and not for the first time, seeing certain quarters (including some in Pakistan) refer to the ISI’s so-called perfidy in hiding Osama and sheltering terrorism. I think it is high time we stopped swallowing as truth the tosh about a “rogue ISI” or “rogue elements within the ISI” as independent entities. It casts the Pakistani state as an innocent body and allows it to pursue terrorism as a state policy with impunity, while all the blame is conveniently shifted onto a non-existent chimera. The ISI is made up of officers on deputation from the Pakistani military, it is no more "independent" than the Pakistani Military Engineering Service. To claim otherwise is just plain absurd.

As a final point, I feel it is high time the government revisited India’s approach in Afghanistan, and came up with a viable long-term strategy to secure her interests in the region independent of American designs and future actions. Until now, India’s strategy Afghanistan has been dependent on a significant US/NATO presence in the country, and her activities have been decidedly cautious, low-profile, and limited to providing aid and assistance with the country's rebuilding. While this may have been a plausible approach in the formative years of Afghanistan’s reconstruction, it makes little sense in the long-term, especially if India has to play a larger role in the region. This dependence has allowed Pakistan to play havoc with India’s plans, and also enabled the US to pressurise India to make compromises in Afghanistan. Ideally, this should not happen; if there is any geo-economic issue on which Indian and American interests align completely, at least for the foreseeable future, it is the question of who controls the Af-Pak region. However, it would be na├»ve for the Indian government to discount the United States propensity to sell its partners short for the sake of questionable short-term gains. A case in point is the suggestion in some circles in the US government that Pakistan’s concerns about Indian presence in Afghanistan are justified – implicit in which is the assumption that India’s activities in the region are far from benign, and that terrorism against NATO forces emanating from Pakistan would decline if India decreased her presence in the region. If the government of India wishes to truly secure Indian interests in the subcontinent, it will have to take positions and pursue lines of action that are not necessarily in line with America’s objectives in the region, and it will have to do so in the face of severe pressure from America and her allies. Further, it is important to understand that these actions and positions need not be held hostage to notions of righteousness or commitment to what was earlier said in public.

And finally, yes, I finally seem to have rid myself of that damned writer’s block, and hope to write more often!