US Defence Bait is Potent But Impractical Symbolism

Published: 29th May 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th May 2015 11:23 PM   |  A+A-

The American defence secretary Ashton Carter drops into Delhi next week bearing ideas for joint military projects and things to sell in government-to-government (G2G) deals—Foreign Military Sales (FMS) in Pentagonese. The apparent absence of middlemen and corruption makes G2G/FMS the politically safe method of purchasing arms.

Seeking to enlarge its scope as defence supplier, the US has apparently settled on a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it is offering the manifestly cutting-edge electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) to equip the new generation indigenous aircraft carriers. This offer is impractical but symbolically potent, meant to still Indian criticism about the US not parting with advanced technologies. FMS of traditional hardware constitute the other prong, and the M-777 ultra-light howitzer (ULH) tops the list. Let’s briefly examine these two offers.

At one level EMALS is irresistible. A sort of electromagnetic rail gun to launch aircraft, EMALS is a clean, high initial cost-low maintenance system that takes up less space than steam catapults, can be recharged quickly, and is easy on aircraft frames because the tow-force can be instantly adjusted to the weight of the plane being launched. In the three seconds it takes to get an aircraft airborne, EMALS generates as much as 60MW of power—enough, as it is noted, to light up 12,000 homes. And that’s the problem.

On US nuclear-powered super carriers it is not an issue. With EMALS in the picture, the Indian Navy, however, faces a dilemma about the energy pack. Washington hopes the 65,000-tonne Vishal-class carrier, now at the conception stage, will be nuclear-powered, fly the Lockheed F-35C, and India will accept technical advice and assistance from the US in designing and constructing the ship. Ashley Tellis persuasively makes this case in a Carnegie Endowment monograph. Tellis, however, made it clear at a recent event that, despite the proven incapacity of the Arihant submarine reactor to drive Vishal, the US will render no help in producing a more powerful and efficient highly enriched uranium-fuelled nuclear power plant. Naval stalwarts, however, see eight General Electric LM2500 gas turbine engines on-board as an alternative solution. But these engines will fill a lot of the ship’s innards, need vast oil tanks that will jostle for space with aviation fuel storage bins, making for severe design compromises and tradeoffs.

The navy’s aircraft carrier designing competence and the industry’s complex shipbuilding skills will undoubtedly be enhanced by collaborating with the US Naval Systems Command and American companies. The Narendra Modi government has to make a risky, step-up, decision. It has to consider, other than the nuclear reactor, two other critical factors. One is the $10billion-$13 billion cost of a nuclear carrier (CVN), compared to the $3 billion for the Kochi-built Vikrant. It will leave little money for everything else. Secondly, a CVN with 6-7 ship and submarine escort will substantially reduce the “maritime density” the 50-capital ship-strong Indian Navy (by 2030) will be able to muster. This will diminish the country’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean at a time when the fast-expanding Chinese Navy is increasing its maritime footprint. So, more of the smaller, conventionally-powered flat-tops, with compact steam catapult systems secured from the US, would seem the sensible option.

Carter’s pitching the ULH involves the usual skulduggery, questionable practices and procedures. The M-777 gun is produced by the Bofors Company, which was bought out by British Aerospace Systems (BAeS), thereby ostensibly converting this gun into a British product. London believes Washington (for a 3.8% commission) can more effectively sell it to India.

But ULH is prime candidate for the cleaver as defence minister Manohar Parrikar has promised to trim the “fat” from the military spend. Here’s why. Based on reports by the theatre Commands concerned about the border (roads) infrastructure and the artillery requirements, the General Staff, Artillery Branch, a decade ago recommended the standardisation of the fine, locally-produced, Dhanush 155mm/45 calibre howitzer across categories—towed, self-propelled, wheeled, tracked, and truck-mounted. This recommendation was endorsed by the army’s Northern, Eastern, Central, and Western Commands who vouched for this gun’s employability in the remotest areas.

However, the different howitzer categories permitted wily vested interests to seek, under the rubric of artillery modernisation, different guns possibly from different sources, each with different stocking and maintenance regimes, and differing “make” programmes—an imaginative way of multiplying gainful opportunities! This budding scam is reflected in the army’s obtaining only 114 Dhanush systems. Besides bad economics and compounding of an already difficult logistics problem, this approach paints a wrong picture of the artillery arm. The obsolete 120mm gun (8 regiments) apart, the 97-odd artillery regiments are pretty up-to-date featuring, besides the sensor-fused Dhanush, the Grad, Pinaka, and Smerch multi-barrel rocket launchers, the Brahmos (Block II) cruise missile, and the extraordinarily destructive point and area weapon—the Prahar missile. If ULH is deemed a dire need the answer is not the pricey M-777 but the locally-made, accurate, 105mm light field gun with range of 20km available at a third of the cost.

ULH entered the picture because the army chief General J J Singh in August 2005 conceived this spurious need, forced it on the artillery directorate, and manipulated the qualitative requirements (QRs) to fit M-777, which move got traction because the competing gun from ST Kinetics of Singapore that had beaten the BAeS item in every performance parameter, was sidelined by “corruption” allegations. The fact is the M-777 does not meet seven operational requirements, and an apprehensive BAeS refused permission for its field testing in India, and even the use of Indian-made ammunition. To bypass Indian QRs, this gun was routed by London in 2008 into the FMS channel. India even paid for transporting two M-777 units from the US for user trials, which confirmed its shortfalls.

Many revealing details are left out of this unavoidably shortened account. Parrikar can verify the entire tale by calling for the relevant files. He will see how military requirements are tailored and eased through the flawed procurement system to benefit foreign suppliers. The ULH deal is a minefield the Modi government best avoid stepping into. For Carter the M-777 is simply the wrong thing to peddle.

The writer is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author of the forthcoming ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’

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