Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Big 'Make In India' Submarine Hunt 3.0

I was a rookie reporter nine years ago in October 2005 when, in the main ceremonial room of the Indian MoD, then Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt and then Ambassador of France, the tempestuous Dominique Girard, signed the Indian government's contract for six Scorpene submarines. I had spent just over a year on the defence beat at The Indian Express. The P75 submarine build programme was one of the biggest developing stories at the time. It would be the new UPA government's first defence deal, and the Indian Navy was desperate for an early conclusion. Only two weeks before the signing at the MoD, I and a small group of other reporters were huddled in a small conference room at Delhi's Hyatt Hotel receiving a briefing from Germany's HDW on the Class 214 submarine. We were only journalists, but it was a final effort to pitch the U-boat as a better product than the French offering that would defeat it less than 14 days later.


Nearly a decade later, the Germans are back in the race. Presumably. (No maker of submarines has officially declared interest in the P75I competition since it was cleared for a 'Make in India' route earlier this month.) Cleared of corruption allegations in the Shishumar-class build programme, the Germans still smart at how they lost the 2005 deal. And they'll be competing to make good. But, in every way -- every possible way -- the P75I programme is likely to be more complicated, contentious and competitive than its predecessor. The Class 214, which squared off against the Scorpene in the final race the last time, could face at least four worthy competitors this time. All come with their own technical, capability-centric and political pros and cons:

All six submarines will be built in India at an Indian shipyard. By December, the MoD has committed to identifying the public and private shipyards capable of taking on such work. Apart from Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) and L&T's shipyards (the only two currently engaged in submarine building work), the MoD will size up Cochin Shipyard Ltd, GRSE, GSL, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) and Pipavav, among prospective others. For nostalgia, here's the original P75I request for information from years ago, which originally envisaged two submarines built by the OEM and four in an Indian shipyard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Contest Opens: Airbus & Tata Team Up For IAF's Avro Replacement

This was in the works for a while, and it's now the first horse in what's going to be a big and unprecedented race. Full of implications for the future of airframing on Indian soil, Airbus today announced that it has teamed up with Indian private firm Tata Advanced Systems to bid for the ~$2 billion deal to replace 56 doddering Hawker Siddley HS748 Avro transports. As expected, the horse they'll be betting is the C295.

"The teaming follows a detailed industrial assessment and stringent evaluation of the Indian private aerospace sector by Airbus Defence and Space, which concluded with the selection of Tata Advanced Systems as the Indian Production Agency (IPA) exclusive partner for this prestigious programme," a statement from Airbus said today.

And they're not kidding. It's an industrial assessment unprecedented in many ways, given that the Avro replacement programme is the first serious effort to hedge risk and whittle down HAL's absolute military airframing monopoly in the country by finally giving private sector firms the chance to show that they can compete if only they have a level playing field bereft of stupefying and institutionalised advantages that HAL has enjoyed for decades.

Tata Advanced Systems chairman S. Ramadorai, said, “It is a landmark for the development of aircraft manufacturing capability in India, now that Tata Advanced Systems is poised to take this step toward building entire aircraft in India. The selection of Tata Advanced Systems by Airbus demonstrates the confidence that has been built in our ability to undertake this complex programme.”

Responding to the programme requirements, Airbus said today, "A total of 56 Avro aircraft are to be replaced. In the event of contract award, Airbus Defence and Space will supply the first 16 aircraft in ‘fly-away’ condition from its own final assembly line. The subsequent 40 aircraft will be manufactured and assembled by Tata Advanced Systems in India. This will include undertaking structural assembly, final aircraft assembly, systems integration and testing, and management of the indigenous supply chain."

Airbus D&S executive veep for military aircraft Domingo Ureña Raso said, “We firmly believe that, in the C295, we have clearly the best aircraft to replace the IAF Avro fleet and, in Tata Advanced Systems, we have secured the cream of the Indian private aerospace sector as our partner for this project."

This will hopefully be a good fight. Other airframers expected to announce their 'teamings' with Indian firms for the contest include Alenia Aermachhi with the C-27J Spartan, and Antonov with the An-148. HAL hates the idea of this fight, given that the process itself requires an industrial stamp of approval for competing facilities in the country -- factories that hopefully directly compete in the future with HAL. Apart from Tata, companies like Reliance, Larsen & Toubro and Mahindra could compete. Then again, these are early days yet.

Indian Navy To Get 2 Swimmer Delivery Subs

In the latest in a long and tantalisingly unclear saga, the Indian Navy was cleared last week to procure two mini submersibles -- swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs) -- for special operations in shallow water. Naval documents on the programme that I've had a chance to see list the mission profiles as "(a) insertion and extraction of combat teams for multipurpose special operations, (b) reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, (c) special battle rescue operations and (d) multipurpose inspection." The documents also suggest the SDV will carry a combat team of 4-6 in addition to the two-man pilot crew.

The picture above is of an SDV being developed in-house by L&T that the company told me would be offered to the Indian Navy. It isn't clear at what stage of development the submersible is. Scant reports over the years have suggested that the SDVs the navy gets will be built at the troubled Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) in Visakhapatnam, though it isn't fully clear which SDVs these are, and whether they've been developed yet. More information soon.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

India 'Spikes' U.S. Hopes, Rejects Javelin

To me the only story from among the bunch of programmes cleared by the Indian MoD yesterday was the government's decision to reject the U.S. Raytheon-Lockheed Martin JAVELIN anti-tank guided missile and choose Israel's Rafael ADS SPIKE. Decks stand cleared now for a $522 million deal for over 300 launchers and 8,000 missiles from Rafael. The decision brings to a close a particularly confounding procurement flightpath.

India's decision, only a few weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned from a high profile visit to the U.S., hits where it hurts. While Washington definitely can't complain about its slice of the Indian arms deal pie, the JAVELIN deal had seen a particularly strenuous political push, with the JAVELIN becoming pretty much the proposed manna to revive the Defence Trade & Technology Initiative (DTTI). U.S. Sec Def Hagel provided the biggest possible push when he was in Delhi in August. The deal got another push when the Prime Minister was in Washington just weeks ago. The U.S. offer was to sell India the JAVELIN, transfer technology to manufacture it in India, and then co-develop a new version for the armies of both countries. India didn't bite.

Questions over U.S. reliability and commitment to giving India what it wanted landed in 2012 with reports suggesting that the Pentagon had scaled down the number of JAVELIN systems that could be exported to India. It took then Sec Def Leon Panetta to calm things down, though there was definitely damage done. Over the following two years, the U.S. mounted the JAVELIN campaign aggressively, even as other deals worked out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Freak Ejection: Big Twist To IAF Su-30 Crash

Big twist to the October 14 Su-30 crash story, and it's straight from the IAF itself. A statement put out by the IAF a moment ago, presumably in response to reports today that the Su-30 MKI fleet has been grounded following the crash, has actually put out a bigger story: It has hinted at a problem that caused the ejection seats unexpectedly to fire during final approach (not just after take-off as had been previously believed). Here's the full statement:

One Su-30 fighter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was involved in an accident on October 14, 2014 in which both ejection seats had fired whilst the aircraft was coming in to land.  The pilots were safe but the aircraft crashed about 20 Kms short of the runway.  No loss of life or damage to property was reported.  A Court of Inquiry (CoI)  had immediately been constituted to investigate the cause of accident. Meanwhile, as is the procedure in such cases, the flying of the Su-30 fleet has been temporarily suspended.  The CoI is in progress and certain specific checks are being conducted on the aircraft.  As and when the checks are complete and the Court is satisfied, the Su-30s will be put back into flying.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In All Its Glory: Nirbhay In Launcher


'Time To Go, Ram': When An Indian Air Marshal Punched Out Of A Mirage 2000

On Saturday, 25 Feb 2012, I was driving to a work lunch when I got a phone call about a Mirage 2000H crash in central India. My source at the Gwalior Air Force Station, from where the fighter had taken off, told me the two pilots had ejected. When I heard who was in the front seat on the flight, I remember stopping my car on the side of the road, switching off my engine. It was Air Marshal Anil Chopra, then Air Officer (Personnel) at IAF HQ. As Commodore Commandant of the 1 Squadron 'Tigers', Air Marshal Chopra was on a general flying mission with the squadron commander, Wg Cdr Ram Kumar. Earlier published internally by the IAF in a flight safety journal, Air Marshal Chopra has been kind enough to allow me to reproduce his amazing first-hand account of the incident that made him, as he mentions in what follows, the world's oldest person to eject from a fighter jet:

A Fighter Aircraft Ejection Over Chambal
By Air Marshal (Retd.) Anil Chopra

[There] was a big explosive thud behind the aircraft cockpit. Followed by a grinding churn of the turbine blades. Lights on the failure warning panel all of a sudden lit up. A variety of warning horns started blaring.The aircraft speed started washing off till we put her into a glide. We knew the time of reckoning had arrived. We were 11,000 feet over the Chambal ravines. The altitude was good enough to make a few attempts to re-crank the engine.

Just five minutes before, Wg Cdr Ram Kumar and I had taken off in a Mirage 2000 two-seater for a routine general flying mission. It was a blue sky and the weather was picture perfect. We were still in a climb towards the sector when that ‘it will never happen with me' happened. We immediately attempted a ‘hot’ and two ‘cold’ engine restarts (relights). The turbofan had slowed down and then seized. Years of training were under test. It would be the first ejection for both me and Wg Cdr Ram. We were both unnaturally cool, something later confirmed by cockpit recordings. There was time for us to quickly recollect and revise all checks before ejection, most importantly to tighten seat and helmet straps and lower our visors. While Ram was trying to get the engine going, I was monitoring our height loss. As we crossed below 4,000 ft above sea level, I gave the final call: “Ram, time to go, pull the handle”.

To pull the ejection handle is a difficult decision. The comfort and safety of the cockpit have taken many a crew into the ground. To eject at a very ripe age of 59 years plus has its own dynamics. The spine and the neck are most vulnerable. My full attention was on taking a posture to save these two very vital parts of an ageing man's body.

Ram pulled the handle. The final event happened. Front canopy, rear canopy, rear pilot and front pilot is the sequence in which they go. The entire sequence from the pull of the handle to opening of the main parachute took exactly 2.6 seconds. In physical reality it is a timeline that appears never to end. I last remember having seen the front canopy cartridge fire to crack open the glass. Thereafter a rocket went off under my seat,instantly blacking me out. As the seat came out of the aircraft, a blast of air hit me. In this blacked out state, I could feel a tossing motion with considerable forces acting on my body. I could hear the sequential firing of a large number of cartridges/rockets. I could see stars flashing in the dark of my eyes. Then all of a sudden it was all quiet.

I guessed those dreaded 2.6 seconds were over. My eyes opened. The beautiful Chambal Ghatti with millions of earth mud mounds were below me. There was general peace. I had noted the location of a small patch of green which looked like a village for future use. Downward parachute motion appeared very slow. There was a severe pain in my right shoulder and I could not move that arm. Apparently it was injured. A few sheets of paper and a map were also floating down along with me. These were part of the check list and the map the pilots carry in their anti g-suit pockets for each sortie. Soon I saw Rams parachute nearby and I waved at him with a thumb up confirming all was okay, in actual signaling Thank God we are alive.

All of sudden Ram's parachute came charging at me with his boots heading straight for my parachute canopy. It scared the hell out of me. I shouted to him to get away, not realizing I had a mask on and he couldn't hear me. Then we pulled ourselves away by tugging at the rigging lines.

Finally the earth rushed towards me very quickly. With one hand not available, I could not have cushioned my landing by tugging at the chute straps. The parachute had a sideways motion because of the wind. I hit a mud mound with large force. These mounds are weather beaten and rock solid. But for my helmet and visor, my head would have been in pieces. In spite of the helmet there was profuse bleeding from my nose. There was acute pain in my shin. Still I was relieved that I was alive. In pain, I disconnected my parachute and the anti-G suit. I also tried to climb the mound to get a bird’s eye view of the surroundings and to look for Ram, but was in too much pain. I than shouted to see if Ram would hear me but later found he had landed nearly 450 meters away.

With an injured leg, the rule is don't walk. But I was so keen to make human contact that I could not resist looking for a way out of the ravine. Luckily for me, after about 15 mins, which appeared to stretch on for eternity, some villagers appeared. My first question was to find out if someone had a mobile phone. For once I was most grateful for the mobile revolution. I borrowed a mobile which had lost all letters on its keys from overuse. That is also the first time I realized that I did not remember any phone numbers because all were stored in my own mobile which was lying at my take-off base. Memory can fail you at such a time. As luck would have it, I fluked to get the correct number of my son-in-law. He happened to be a die-hard civilian. It took me a few seconds to explain to him what an ejection was and what actually had happened and asked him to convey it to Air Force authorities. He did not have any of our Air Force numbers, but managed to get through to my staff officer. Three minutes later, the Gwalior Base Commander was in touch with me. A few minutes later I spoke to my wife who was also in Gwalior. Meanwhile a village elder tore his dhoti to make a shoulder sling to support my injured arm.

The search and rescue helicopter arrived within 20 minutes of the ejection. With the help of villagers, I had got my parachute opened up on top of the mound. In Chambal, you can see a colored object from miles. So the rescue crew homed in on me quickly. Only, it was difficult to find a landing ground near the ravines. Finally the SAR helicopter landed 300 meters away. Soon I was stretchered on. The pain was becoming unbearable while we waited for Ram to be brought in.

We are lucky that most military hospitals have helipads. On landing, the doctors took charge to prepare for my shoulder operation later that evening. Meanwhile the squadron boys and ladies accompanied by Ram’s wife and my wife arrived at the hospital. They carried flowers, cakes and champagne. It is very traditional to celebrate a new birthday at the earliest after an ejection. So still lying in bed in the ICU, they made us cut a cake and then went out to pop the bubbly. While we were being fed antibiotics through drips, we could hear the youngsters celebrating outside in the typical flier’s way.

Next morning, we were transported by air to the Army Research & Referral hospital in Delhi. The immediate medical procedures were over in next 3-4 days and I was ready to go home on long sick leave. I told them Air Marshals do not take such leave. Meanwhile someone informed me that I had set a record by being the first ever Air Marshal in the world to eject from a fighter plane. Not that one wants to set such records. The Guinness people also confirmed the same but obviously they wouldn't create such a category lest someone try to break it.

The 'Air Marshal’s ejection' made headlines in all forms of media. Questions were raised by a few as to whether a pilot should be flying at my age. It was like questioning the logic of a leader leading from the front. These were the inherently meek guys. Much larger numbers in media supported the brave.

There are lessons to be learned from all incidents. In life, something can happen any day to anyone. Preparing emergency drills is critical. My advice to fighter crews: Always share work load between yourselves. One guy takes actions, the other calls out critical parameters like height and speed and other important information. Preparation for ejection can save a few bones. That may not always be possible. The helmet and boots are critical items. They also help during landing. Take a timely decision to eject if you have to. Let there be no doubt. Better safe than buried. Many injuries occur during landing and therefore one needs to prepare for it. Having a mobile phone helps and knowing a few numbers even more. Don’t lose your spirit of life after an ejection. Fulfill your dreams as you go along. Live a wholesome life. Lead from the front. Senior officers must fly.

P.S. Nearly a year after the incident, the Court of Inquiry confirmed that it was a material failure of two engine turbine blades. Who was responsible never did get clearly established. As a result of the injuries I sustained, I never flew again in the air force. I still don't have the full use of my shoulder. And there's still pain.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Grit, Rocket Science & God: Nirbhay's Day Out

Official Images & Statement On Today's Nirbhay Missile Test

OFFICIAL DRDO STATEMENT: India's first indigenously designed and developed long range sub-sonic cruise missile Nirbhay was successfully flight tested today the 17th October 2014 at 1005 hrs from the Integrated Test Range (ITR), Balasore,  Odisha. The entire mission, from lift-off till the final splash down was a perfect flight achieving all the mission objectives.
The cruise missile Nirbhay, powered by a solid rocket motor booster developed by the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) took off majestically from a mobile launcher specifically designed for Nirbhay by the Vehicles R&D Establishment.. As it achieved designated altitude and velocity,  the booster motor separated, the turbofan engine automatically switched on taking over the further propulsion and the wings opened up by the commands generated by the onboard computer (OBC) stabilising the flight. Guided by a highly advanced inertial navigation system indigenously developed by Research Centre Imarat (RCI) the Nirbhay continued it's flight that lasted a little over 1hr and 10 minutes. Throughout it's path, the missile was tracked with the help of ground based radars and its health parameters were monitored by indigenous telemetry stations by team of professionals from DRDO's ITR and LRDE (Electronics & Radar Development Establishment). Additionally, the performance of Nirbhay was closely watched by an Indian Air Force aircraft.

"The missile maintained an accuracy better than 10 meters throughout it's path and covered a distance of more than 1000 km," SAID Dr Avinash Chander speaking after the completion of the mission. "The successful indigenous development of Nirbhay cruise missile will fill a vital gap in the war fighting capabilities of our armed forces."

The 1,000 kilometer range cruise missile with the capability to strike deep into enemy territory has been designed and developed by the ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment) based in Bengaluru, Karnataka. The missile is yet another giant step forward in India's technological capabilities for design development and leading to production state of the art weapons platforms and equipment for country's armed forces.

This was the second launch of Nirbhay cruise missile.  The maiden launch last year on 12 March 2013 was a partial success achieving most of its mission objectives. The maiden flight had to be terminated for safety reasons due to malfunction of a component, after a deviation from the intended path was observed.

Earlier, the launch preparations and plans were authorised after thorough review by experts led by Dr Avinash Chander, under whose guidance the launch process was executed.

Shri P. Srikumar Director ADE, as the mission director led the launch operations. The launch preparations were planned and supervised by Shri Vasanth Sastri Project Director 'Nirbhay' project. The launch was witnessed by Dr K Tamilmani,  DS & DG Aeronautical systems, Dr V G Sekran DS & DG Missiles and strategic systems, Vice Admiral Dinesh Prabhakar (retd.) AVSM,  NSM,  VSM. DG ATVP, Dr Satish Reddy,  DS and Director RCI, Dr Tessy Thomas,  OS and Director ASL, Shri MVKV Prasad OS and Director ITR and senior DRDO scientists. [STATEMENT ENDS]

FIRST VIDEO: Today's Nirbhay Cruise Missile Launch

Here's the official video of today's test of India's Nirbhay ground-launched cruise missile. Details still awaited on all parameters off the test, but it was a strong one. Can confirm that today's test saw very impressive performance on the guidance system (that bedeviled the first test with a gyro glitch), robust navigation through 10 waypoints and performance at maximum range of more than 1,000 km. Better still, the missile is understood to have also been pushed into loiter mode after the seventh waypoint, demonstrating the capability satisfactorily. Great day for the project team and the Advanced Systems Laboratory. More details later.

Video / DRDO

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Flanker Trouble: Did Fly-By-Wire Glitch Crash IAF Su-30?

It was unlikely an engine failure or flame-out that doomed the IAF Su-30 MKI that crashed on Tuesday near the Lohegaon air force station in Pune as had been conjectured over the last two days. An officer in Pune I spoke to today says it was highly likely a technical glitch in the fly-by-wire control. Two reports today (in the Indian Express and Pune Mirror) suggest the same thing, quoting IAF officials as saying the flight data recorder recovered from the aircraft appeared to render engine failure and pilot error unlikely.

A full-fledged crash inquiry is underway, and nothing is reasonably conclusive at this time. But prima facie indicators could be troubling if they are correct in identifying the principle trigger for the incident as an FBW breakdown.

In August 2012, then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne had said, "We have identified a ‘fly-by-wire’ problem with the aircraft. It is a design issue and we have taken it up with the design agency." He was talking about type's third crash in Indian service in December 2011. This report quotes him more specifically as saying, "There was a problem with the aircraft's FBW controls and there is also an issue of design," indicating a problem with the FBW control system itself as well as the position of the switches.

In this report, former AOC-in-C Air Marshal (Retd.) Vinod Bhatia says two of the first three MKI crashes were put down by courts of inquiries (COI) to malfunctions in the the FBW system.

Bhatia explains, "The Su-30 MKI’s aerodynamic construction is an unstable longitudinal tri-plane that confers its unprecedented agility. Like most modern jet fighters, this highly unstable platform is manoeuvred by computer-controlled FBW system. Multi-layered backup systems are necessary as without the FBW, the aircraft cannot be manually controlled by the pilots. To ensure near-ultimate safety, the Su-30 MKI’s FBW system is endowed with quadruple redundancy. If one of the FBW channels becomes faulty, it automatically gets disconnected from the system, suitably warning the crew to take appropriate actions. A level-1 failure does not jeopardise the mission, while a level-2 failure would demand a diversion to the nearest suitable airfield. With so much in-built redundancy, a level-3 failure would normally be rarer than one in a million possibility which unless quickly rectified could lead to the loss of aircraft."

I'll say it again. Near nothing conclusive can ever be known about a crash just 48 hours later. But these are prima facie indicators that investigators are working with.

Crucial 2nd Test Of Nirbhay Cruise Missile Tomorrow

With Cyclone Hudhud out of the way, the Advanced Systems Laboratory will conduct the second test firing of the Nirbhay long range (800-1,000 km  range) subsonic cruise missile off the Indian east coast tomorrow morning. The first flight of the system in March last year wasn't a success, with a ring laser gyro (RLG) in the inertial navigation system malfunctioning minutes into the flight, throwing the missile off course, and triggering an emergency abort from the ground. The program team spent seven months studying the glitch and fixing it in the guidance system on the second prototype that flies tomorrow.

Earlier this year, DRDO chief Dr Avinash Chander had told Vayu Aerospace "The system had actually performed flawlessly, from take of to cruise, carrying out manoeuvers and meeting all parameters except towards the end when a gyro malfunctioned and the missile dropped into the shallow waters of the coast. The problem was identified after its recovery and suitable modifacations made."

Stay tuned for photographs and video.