Monday, September 13, 2010

Mega defence buys lined up for Prez visits

NEW DELHI: There is nothing like mega arms deals to sweeten presidential visits. With Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev slated to visit India in quick succession in November-December; India is fast-tracking major defence contracts with US, France and Russia.

The high-profile visits will, of course, see bilateral talks and agreements on a host of non-military issues. But with India being one of the world's largest importers of military hardware and software, inking contracts worth more than $50 billion since the 1999 Kargil conflict, visits here are often used to push or clinch defence deals to serve larger geo-strategic interests.

So, if France is all set to get the over $2.1 billion Mirage-2000 fighter upgrade contract, India is likely to shell out over $6 billion to join the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA fifth-generation fighter aircraft project.

The Indian and US governments, in turn, are on course to finalize their biggest-ever defence contract for 10 C-17 Globemaster-III giant strategic airlift aircraft, which will come for upwards of $3 billion, under the American Foreign Military Sales programme.

"The Mirage and FGFA contracts will probably be inked during the visits of Sarkozy and Medvedev in December. The ongoing C-17 negotiations, however, might not be concluded by the time Obama comes visiting early November," said a senior official.

India and France have been negotiating the upgrade of 56 multi-role Mirage-2000s, which were first inducted into IAF combat fleet in the mid-1980s, for over three years now.

But the bone of contention till now was the upgrade price being demanded by French companies Dassault Aviation (aircraft manufacturer), Thales (weapons systems integrator) and MBDA (missile supplier), which was around 30% more than what India was ready to pay. "But the project has been finalized now, with only a few contractual issues left to be ironed out," said another official.

Similarly, New Delhi and Moscow have for long been negotiating the detailed commercial and design contract for the FGFA, with India keen on inducting 250 of these fighters from cash-strapped Russia from 2017-2018 onwards, as reported by TOI earlier.

Billed as superior to the American F/A-22 'Raptor', the world's only operational FGFA as of now, the Sukhoi PAK-FA for India will now be tailored to IAF's requirements, with Hindustan Aeronautics as a co-developer.

"Our FGFA will be much cheaper than Raptor or the F-35 (being developed jointly by US, UK and seven other countries). Phase-I of the FGFA contract with Russia has been finalized, which will now go to the Cabinet Committee on Security for approval. Later, Phase-II will be finalized," the official said.

The US, on its part, is now increasingly cornering a major chunk of the lucrative Indian defence market. After the $2.1 billion for eight P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft inked in 2009, all eyes are now on the C-17 contract. India, in fact, may even go for another six C-17s after the first 10.

Strategic Command to acquire 40 nuclear capable fighters

With an aim of increasing its lethal power, India's tri-services strike force is planning to acquire 40 fighter planes capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The Strategic Forces Command (SFC) has submitted a proposal to the Defence Ministry for setting up two dedicated squadrons of fighter aircraft which will act as "mini-Air Force", ministry sources said.

This will be the first time that SFC, which at present depends on the Indian Air Force for delivering nuclear weapons under its command, will have its own aerial assets, they said.

The SFC does not want untested fighters but the ones which are battle proven and have capabilities to deliver nuclear-tipped missiles, the sources said.

The aircraft planned to be procured are part of efforts to strengthen the nuclear delivery system which right now is based on land-based ballistic missiles such as the Agni and Prithvi and nuclear-capable fighters such as the Mirage 2000, Su-30 MKI and Jaguars.

Created in January 2003, the SFC is part of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) and is responsible for the management and administration of the country's tactical and strategic nuclear weapons stockpile.

Attempts are underway to complete the nuclear triad by developing the indigenous Arihant class nuclear submarine and under-sea launched versions of the existing ballistic missile systems.

India's nuclear doctrine envisages building a credible minimum deterrent for maintaining a 'second strike capability' which will be massive and designed to induce unacceptable damage on the enemy.

The SFC is headed by a three-star officer from any of the three services and is responsible for implementing directives of the NCA. At present, the force is headed by Lieutenant General B S Nagal.

The force manages and administers all strategic forces by exercising complete command and control over nuclear assets, and producing all contingency plans as needed to fulfil the required tasks.

The operational missile groups of the Army are armed with the 150-250 km short-range Prithvi missiles and the others with the Agni missiles of ranges above 1,5000 km form the nucleus of SFC.

India, Russia to Ink gen-5 fighter pact

Each side to pledge $6 bn to co-develop plane.

Late on Thursday evening, in a triumph for the Russia-India defence relationship, the two countries signed off on a joint venture to co-develop a 15-20-tonne payload, 2,500-km range multi-role transport aircraft (MTA), which will replace the Indian Air Force’s venerable AN-32 at the end of the next decade.

But this path-breaking $600-million co-development of the MTA is likely to be dwarfed soon, when India and Russia each pledge $6 billion to co-develop the world’s premier fighter, a step ahead of the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, which currently rules the skies.

Senior defence ministry sources have confirmed to Business Standard that years of tortuous negotiations have been successfully concluded in time for Russian President Dimitry Medvedev’s visit to India in December. Russian and Indian negotiators have finalised a preliminary design contract (PDC), a key document that will allow designers from both sides to actually begin work on the fighter.

“The negotiators have done their job, and the Cabinet Committee for Security will consider the PDC, probably this month,” says the ministry official. “If the CCS gives the green signal, as is likely, the contract will be signed during Medvedev’s visit.”

HAL Chairman Ashok Nayak had indicated to Business Standard on a recent visit to HAL, Bangalore, that the deal was done. “It is in the system for approval,” said Nayak. “The respective work shares have been agreed to by both sides and once we sign the preliminary design contract, we will finish the design in about 18 months. Developing and building the fighter could take 8-10 years, and each side will pay $6 billion as its share.”

The Russian and Indian Air Forces each plan to build around 250 fighters, at an estimated cost of $100 million each. That adds up to $25 billion, over and above the development cost.

These astronomical figures prompted Russia into co-development with India. The inescapability of cost sharing was reinforced last year when the Pentagon was forced to shut down its F-22 Raptor programme. Since the technologies in the F-22 were deemed crucial to America’s technological superiority, the fighter was developed and built entirely within the US. As a result, its prohibitive cost — $340 million per fighter — forced the Pentagon to cap the programme at 187 fighters, just half what it planned to buy in 2006.

“If the US could not afford to go it alone on a fifth-generation fighter, Russia clearly cannot,” points out a senior Indian Air Force officer. “There was no choice but to co-opt India as a partner.”

Russia initially offered India partnership in the fighter programme around eight years ago, but there was little clarity then on crucial issues like work-share, ie, what systems and components each side would develop. From 2005-07, India’s growing closeness with the US slowed down the project. Progress received a boost from the Russia-India inter-government agreement in November 07.

But HAL sources recount that, even after the agreement, Russian negotiators’ concerns about sharing top-secret technologies meant that a green signal from Moscow was needed for every step of the negotiations.

“This is the first time that Russia is co-developing a cutting-edge military platform with another country. Therefore, they were unclear about how to share work in a top-secret project like this,” says a senior HAL official. “Before each step, the Russian officials wanted clearances from the highest level in Moscow. Those ‘presidential decrees’, as they call them, took their time.”

Consequently, says the HAL chairman, it has taken almost three years from the inter-government agreement to negotiate a general contract and non-disclosure agreement. In March 2010, a tactical technical assignment was signed, in which the work-shares were agreed upon.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau has built a basic fifth-generation fighter, which Russia terms the PAK-FA, an acronym for Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy (literally Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation). A prototype, tailored to Russian Air Force requirements, made its first flight in January 2010.

India’s work-share for the joint fighter programme, according to HAL officials, will amount to about 30% of the overall design effort. This will centre on composite components and high-end electronics like the mission computer, avionics, cockpit displays and the electronic warfare systems. Additionally, India will have to redesign the single-seat PAK-FA into the two-seater fighter that the IAF prefers. Like the Sukhoi-30MKI, IAF prefers one pilot flying and the other handling sensors, networks and weaponry.