Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Herc deal for Lockheed, P-8 to Boeing?

As Lockheed-Martin pops open the champagne to celebrate the Super Hercules deal -- believe me, there were last minute hiccups which were roadrolled -- all indications are that Boeing will land the long-suffering maritime reconnaisance and anti-submarine warfare (MR-ASW) aircraft contract from the Indian Navy for its P-8I product. Negotiations are now on for a business model of how the DRDO, Navy and other government agencies may be part of the development process that will lead up to deliveries of the aircraft from 2012.

Field evaluations of the P-8 took place in June 2007 in Seattle, but of course there was no aircraft fielded because it hasn't been developed yet. Incidentally, production of the first P-8A for the US Navy began just over a month ago on 11 December 2007. For demonstrations etc, Boeing has leased a 737-800 for flight trials, a C-40 Clipper (military variant of the 737) for handling trials and a P-3 Orion for systems trials. The evaluation conducted was judged technically compliant by the Indian Navy.

Meanwhile, Lockheed-Martin which was eliminated from the sweepstakes has come up with a counter-proposition. Considering that the Boeing P-8 (or Airbus A319 MPA) will join service with the Indian Navy only in the next decade, Lockheed-Martin has offered to sell India a pair of P-3C Orions as a stopgap. However, going by the experience that the government had with the leasing of P-3s in the past, it's unlikely to look upon yet another sunset platform.

Insiders in the Navy say that the decision-makers are quite convinced about the convenience of operating a familiar 737 platform, and it would also involve huge savings in logistics costs. Boeing has apparently also provided a global supply chain map of how the aircraft could be used across the world, with the availability of spares and supplies assured. But I wouldn't discount Airbus just yet. They began throwing together the A319 MPA as a direct response to the P-8 proposal, and Airbus is no less familiar with the way India works. Well either way, we'll know before long who the winner is.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Not the first!

Just received two rejoinders to my blog post trumpeting the fact that I was the first one to touch see and touch the F-35 Lightning II. Received an SMS from NDTV's Vishnu Som and an e-mail from Unnikrishnan S of the Malaysia edition of Asia-Pacific Defence Review, saying that they "felt up" the F-35 last year. I therefore stand corrected! Darn!

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Hindu: Nag by year-end

Story in The Hindu today:

The advanced, third generation, hit-to-kill anti-tank Nag missile is expected to be inducted into the Army by the year-end after the completion of the user trials.

"We are ready to induct in large numbers by November-December as the user trials are planned to be completed by June," S.S.Mishra, project director (Nag), told The Hindu. During the user trials, seven missiles of the land version would be fired against static and moving targets.

The land version of the indigenously-developed tactical weapon system was superior in terms of range (four km) to the Javelin of the US and the Spike of Israel. With the army recently seeking an air-borne version, DRDO scientists have begun work on developing such a variant by extending the range to seven km. The air-borne version named 'Helina', to be mounted on an ALH helicopter, would be ready in two-and-a-half years, as the system had to be reworked.

Mr. Mishra said the third-generation missile was a 'truly fire-and-forget' system. Unlike the first-generation system, in which the operator had to track and guide manually, Nag was entirely autonomous from launch-to-impact to ensure 'zero-miss distance.'

Equipped with imaging infrared seeker (IIR), it has 'lock-on-before launch' (LOBL) capability with the seeker tracking the target even before firing.

The missile, which could be operated during day and night, has "top-attack" capability. Since all modern tanks are fitted with explosive reactive armour (ERA) to negate the effect of a missile's warhead, the lethal capability of Nag had been increased by enabling it to carry one of the most powerful tandem warheads 'to defeat futuristic battle tanks'. When the missile is fired, a pre-cursor charge would initially tackle ERA, followed by the main charge within 250 microseconds. "That way the effect of the ERA is nullified," he said.

Typically each 'Namica', a dedicated missile carrier, would have 12 Nag missiles, eight of them in ready-to-fire mode. The missile has 10-year, maintenance-free shelf life.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Supercruising F-16? Uh, No!

A few words from a "carried away" F-16 test pilot at Fort Worth to the media team from India, and we had our papers splashing reports of how the Fighting Falcon offered to India would be able to supercruise! A day later, Lockheed-Martin officials sheepishly confided that the incorrect report were the result of "over-enthusiasm" on the part of a test-pilot who presented the aircraft to the media team. After a tour of the Falcon Nest -- the F-16 production line in Texas -- we were taken to the flight line to see a tester F-16 in its hanger.

Here's what we were told by a test-pilot as we walked around the aircraft: "We routinely supercruise with this fighter on test-flights". The next day, over dinner, the people who actually run the Indian F-16 campaign (including a veteran Falcon pilot) said that the pilot in question had maybe got "carried away" by the moment. What he really meant to say, apparently, was that the Falcon routinely went supersonic in dives for a few seconds. Ok, even Hawker Hunters could break the sound barrier in dives, so this isn't such a big deal. And anyway, the definition of supercruise is the capability of an aircraft to cruise at supersonic speeds without engine reheat during sustained level flight. The General Electric F110-GE-132 turbofan that powers the Block 60 cannot push the Falcon into level supersonic flight without wet power. It's that simple.

As it turns out, the concept and reality of supercruise technology are not as simple as they appear. The F119-PW-100 which powers the Raptor and the Typhoon's Eurojet EJ200 are considered the only rate production turbofans that can push the airplanes they were designed for into the realm of supercruise. The F-35's F135 and F136 turbofans are not designed for supercruise -- there are those who feel that this alone is enough to erode the aircraft's fifth generation status. Either way, the MMRCA RfP doesn't ask for a supercruising aircraft. The advantages of supercruise are still not sharply defined. The pros aren't all black and white -- supercruising still chews jet fuel like pop corn compared to subsonic flight for the same distance. And engine wear and tear in supersonic flight is not lower enough than that caused by reheat to carve out for itself any unique advantage. Like the people here said, making supercruise capabilities second nature to modern turbofans is one of the most funded parts of jet engine and integration research today.

Well, to end on a lighter note, here's something that should tell us all a good deal about the IAF's legendary woes with Russia: the RfP for the MMRCA says that all spares for the chosen fighter should be "brand new".

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The F-35 for India?

Hey everyone. I'll be doing some special reports on the C-130J, F-35 and F-16 as soon as I'm back to India on Headlines Today, and will post the schedule here for anyone who cares to tune in. But for now, I just thought I'd put down some thoughts about my encounter with the F-35. We were driven down to the F-16 test hanger first, where we got a tour of what was on offer for the MRCA. Then we were asked to put all our cameras away for a tour -- the first for an Indian media group -- of the F-35 CTOL. I was lucky enough to be the first one to turn that corner. Yeah I know, stupid. But too cool.

First off, the Lightning II is a work of art. For anyone who loves airplanes, believe me when I tell you those pixellated videos and glossy Lockheed photo-releases are a criminal injustice to the real Lightning-II. A perfect bite-sized fighter, with a finish that made me gasp when I turned the corner on it the first time. Everything about the F-35's design is tight. The hidden hardpoints, the under-cockpit chamber for a minaturised Sniper pod, the subtly rounded planform, the soft-focus cockpit (we weren't allowed to see the cockpit, first hand, but saw some footage of it later). Either way, we also had an extended briefing on the F-35, which Lockheed-Martin and the US government have so far been only touting as a the pot of gold at the end of the F-16 rainbow. Somehow, that's a hardsell I don't quite buy, though the prospect of acquiring F-35s at all is quite attractive in itself. It's a seriously tight fighter. The F-35 obviously can't meet the MRCA RfP because its delivery schedule would never meet what the IAF has demanded.

On the other hand, Lockheed-Martin sees a far greater chance of doing business with the Indian Navy before the IAF, if at all. As I've written here before, the Navy sent an RfI (request for information) to Lockheed-Martin and has received two briefings so far on the F-35. The level of detail of these briefings is pretty deep -- the guys at Lockheed-Martin have apparently drawn out a full-fledged carrier aviation acquisition plan for the Navy, which includes the MH-60R multimission maritime helicopter as a replacement for the Sea King, and a fleet of Marine-Corps F-35 STOVLs as a replacement for the nearly extinct Sea Harrier. They'll be talking more to the Navy in the coming days, and we'll possibly know more during Def Expo next month.

Lockheed Martin photo/Tom Harvey

Thursday, January 17, 2008

DRDO Looks Abroad To Mature ABM System

DRDO's Dr VK Saraswat has held a few rounds of preliminary discussions with officials from Lockheed-Martin about rapidly bringing the indigenous anti-ballistic missile system to maturity. Funny how he forgot to mention this at the chest-thumping press conferences he's been holding about the home-grown ABM programme. The Lockheed-Martin Missiles & Fire Control Division based at Dallas, TX has been asked to come forward with a roadmap on how to quickly mature the AAD programme.

The folks here are impressed, but they still have that sometimes irritatingly patronising air about assessing anything that they haven't made themselves from the ground up. So Lt Gen Dennis Cavin, a retired US Army man who now holds a key post in Lockheed's air defence technology division, laughs off Saraswat's somewhat ill-advised sobriquet for the AAD -- that it's 30 per cent better than the Patriot-3 system. Now the Patriot-3 is itself a fairly dubious system -- the 99 per cent kill probability that Lockheed-Martin trumpets is definitely not accurate -- or at least true under very restricted and benevolent test conditions. On the other hand, Lt Gen Cavin is of the view that the AAD's hit-to-kill capability is at best suspect, and it's kill probability is unproven. I told him that you obviously had to wait a few more tests to take a call on that.

Either way, Saraswat and Lockheed seem to concur on one point -- that a few successful tests of a complex technology is only the beginning. The real work actually starts now. Therefore Lt Gen Cavin's team is heading down to hold technical level dialogue with Saraswat and his team to chart out a possible partnership that, if successful, will see an infusion of PAC-3 type technology into the AAD to catalyse its progress to operational clearance. By now, the Americans are pretty clear that they're not going to be able to push the PAC-3 pitch to India with any credibility anymore, what with the successful AAD tests looked at as deep Indian milestones in missile research.

Lockheed-Martin's gameplan was to offer the endo-atmospheric PAC-3 and the exo-atmospheric THAADS (terminal high altitude air defence system) as a layered BMD system, though the MoD is of the view (as far as back as Pranab Mukherjee's time, actually), that if the US is really interested in seeing India well-protected against a missile threat, it should help India's own programme. Somehow, I find that much more gratifying than being forced to cough up billions for a bunch of PAC-3 systems.

F-35!

I think I became the first Indian journalist to see and touch an F-35 Lightning II. Yesterday at Fort Worth, TX. I'm away and haven't been able to blog, so apologies for the limbo. Back soon.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

DRDO turns Fifty

Here's the "backgrounder" that the government released today to ring in the Golden Jubilee event of DRDO. Incidentally, I happened to see the souvenir brochure that was released today at DRDO Bhavan in front of all the ministers and stuff. For all the admitted good work it's done in the last couple of years, I don't know why DRDO continues to print barefaced lies in its brochures thinking that they'll go unnoticed. They just slip these things into documents, into literature, into brochures, even Parliament answers, and think that nobody's going to notice. For example, under the header "Systems that have been productionised", they had the gall to list Nag, Tejas and the AAD along with others that actually were productionised. In this drive toward transparency, I'm hoping this was a genuine error, though it was most likely a typical effort to please everyone in the organisation in the darn brochure. Juvenile, and more importantly, dishonest. Anyway, here's what the government had to say about today:

The year 2008 marks the 50th year of the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) service to the nation. Since its inception in 1958, DRDO has grown multi-dimensionally from a humble beginning and is today a major technology generator for the nation effectively meeting the requirement of developing and fielding defence systems to the Services and paramilitary forces. DRDO, today has a proven competence to produce a wide range of highly strategic defence equipment and technologies for our armed forces.

DRDO has not only attained self-reliance in strategic defence weapons and delivery systems which no country is willing to part with, but has also provide the country with an array of tactical battlefield systems like Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas), Main Battle Tank (Arjun), family of missile such as Agni, Prithvi, Akash, Nag and BrahMos with capability of delivery of different payloads to varying ranges. The recent successful launch of Agni III and Interceptor missile technologies developed by DRDO has taken India to an elite club of developed nations having similar capability. [Notice the absolute nonsense in this paragraph -- exactly what I mean]

DRDO's other success story has been the development of a series of radars, electronic warfare systems, secured communication, sonars, torpedoes and armaments. Most of them have been inducted into the Armed Forces. Specialized materials relevant to defence applications have also been indigenously developed including composites, armor for battle tanks, titanium sponge and special steel for naval weapon platforms. The life support technologies developed by DRDO have helped to improve the operational efficiency of our troops in extremes of environmental and operational conditions.

In the current global political scenario, Nuclear Biological Chemical defence also has assumed a great significance. DRDO has achieved a significant level of self-reliance in this area. The defence spin-offs in civil sector and the DRDO societal missions have immensely benefited the society at large. After 50 years of commitment towards self-reliance in defence, the DRDO community feels that it should consolidate all that have been achieved and also present how it will organize itself for the coming decades by organizing a Year-long Golden Jubilee Programme.

This endeavor will provide a unique opportunity to showcase its achievements and core competencies. It will create greater awareness of DRDOs tangible and intangible contributions to nation building among the scientific and technological organizations, academia, industry, foreign partners, as well as educate the general public and media and attract talent into DRDO fraternity. This will involve a series of events including conferences, workshops, exhibitions, short films / documentaries, compendiums etc. This Year long Programme will help break all existing barriers and generate goodwill and better understanding with partners. The all important rapport with the armed forces has to increase manifold as also the collaboration among the DRDO labs and production centers.

The Year 2008 will herald a new chapter in the history of DRDO to reflect its rich heritage and look back with pride on the past achievements. It is also time to plan for challenges ahead and highlight future aspirations. A new spirit and a sense of optimism is evident in the DRDO family today. DRDO will put in whole-hearted efforts to match the new global ecosystem. The organization pledges to transform into a highly cohesive, responsive and adaptive business house. In this era, DRDO is on its way towards expanding avenues in International activities including joint ventures and exports.

09 Jan 2008 will mark the launch of the DRDO Golden Jubilee Year-2008. The Defence Minister Shri AK Antony will flag-off the chain of events. The main event will be organized in the DRDO Bhawan, New Delhi. The DRDO-Golden Jubilee Brochure-2008 will also be released on this occasion. The brochure will especially highlight the achievements of DRDO d uring 2007 and will dwell on the major systems delivered, systems that are in pipeline and some vital future programs. It will also bring out the intangible outputs of DRDO such as its efforts in fostering fundamental research, manpower training and development, enhancing its interaction with private industry and developing a special relationship with the user services.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

India's missile programme ends!

That's a happy Dr Prahlada you see in the photo to the right -- DRDO held a press conference this afternoon at the Press Information Bureau to talk, ostensibly, about the recently concluded Akash tests and their induction into the IAF. Instead, journalists walked back with a better nugget -- the somewhat dubiously exhalted Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) has finally been closed. As of December 2007, investments into the gargantuan missile programme finally petered out. News agency PTI had an interesting take -- the programme's been scrapped, yelled the agency's strategic affairs editor in his copy. I think that's a bit of a stretch.

So apart from the Nag, which has time till summer to prove itself to the Army/IAF during Thar desert trials, the Trishul will be bailed with Israeli/French help, the Astra BVR air-to-air missile will involve help from the Russians and possibly the French. Everything else from now on, Dr Prahlada said, would have a tight five-year development schedule with a foreign partner. Smart.

Now the Army has apparently said it doesn't want the Akash because it'll take the chaps at DRDO too long to create credible mobile launchers to carry the Army variant. Secondly, have our people managed to miniaturise the Nag seeker? We'll have to wait and see how the summer trials go. They've got the air-launched version as well to prove -- the one that'll arm the Dhruv and Light Combat Helicopter.

Not sure whether the closure of the programme should be rung out with an requiem or an proud elegy. Either way it was easily one of India's most crucial, expensive, prestigious, protracted and complex weapons programmes. It's led to good things like the BrahMos and AAD-PAD programmes. Hopefully, it's all up from here.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Panag ka Panga

Don't know if you people have been following the clash between Army chief Gen Deepak Kapoor and Northern Commander Lt Gen HS Panag. Well, if you haven't, here's the gist. The Army has recommended that Gen Panag, currently a year into his tenure at Command HQ in Udhampur, be transferred to the far less operationally prestigious Central Command HQ in Lucknow. There have been some pretty hard reports in the media about why this is. The other fact is that Gen Panag is a stickler for the rules and has engendered a raj in the Northern Command that comes down harder than ever on fraud and corruption. Speculation is rife that Gen Panag may have rubbed the Army chief (his predecessor in Udhampur) the wrong way by sending his scam-sniffer dogs a little too deep into the paperwork. Either way, as has been pointed out so succintly by my colleague Sujan Datta in his front page report in today's Telegraph, the Army is steeply divided into two camps -- the Panag camp, and the Kapoor camp. This is a dangerous game, but with a year to go before he takes off his lanyard, Gen Panag has decided to firebomb. He's meeting Defence Minister AK Antony today to see if he can spike Gen Kapoor's transfer recommendation.

Those close to Panag confide that the officer is positively heady from the public image that he has managed to obtain for himself over a year (sounds like a certain Defence Minister we all know so well now!). But it must be said that a chief's prerogative to transfer is just that -- his prerogative. However, it must also be said that it just doesn't look right that a Northern Commander who, for once, is actually devoting a substantial fraction of his energies in cleaning up dirt, stands to be shunted off mid-narrative to an area where he'll probably have to quietly bide his time before retiring at the end of the year. But that again, is not the point. What if the Army chief has real reasons? Well if he does, how come Gen Panag still wants to meet Antony? Incidentally, according to a report in Mail Today, Panag spoke out quite a bit about corruption in Northern Command at the October Commanders Conference in Delhi -- that wasn't taken lightly apparently.

The Army publicity machinery has, of course, shouted itself hoarse about how these are "misleading plants" and "absolutely wrong" stories. The fact is, this isn't a story that's come from the media. Every single Lieutenant General is talking about it. Now I'll admit there are a large number of Lt Gens who's tattle should be taken with some chat masala, but when you've got all of them talking about it, you know there's something. It just doesn't look right. It doesn't fit. Which is why on the channel I worked for, we said, "We'd like to put a simple question to the Army chief. When he has talked so highly of cracking down on corruption, why interrupt the work of a brother officer?"

The real truth is still hidden in the unusual quantity of propaganda emerging from all and sundry about what is, funnily enough, purportedly a "routine transfer". It's messy. And it could get worse.