Monday, March 28, 2011

REPORT: France Wants IAF Mirage Upgrade & Rafale Pitch Linked

This story appears in the latest edition of weekend newspaper The Sunday Guardian. Read the full story here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Whistleblower Episode A Death Blow To Rafale?

Could the Indian government use the Aero India 2011 bribery scandal to eliminate Dassault from the IAF medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) competition and cancel the near-concluded Mirage-2000 upgrade contract? Possibly not. However, despite two separate assertions by the MoD that the episode (see last two posts) would not affect or delay the competition, sources reveal that nothing is off the table just yet. It should be said, however, that while the IAF has formally conveyed to the MoD its intention to bar Dassault's Posina V Rao, it has made no recommendation about Dassault at large. Nevertheless, that remains a sliver of a lifeline, given how episodes like these can escalate into a full-scale blacklisting.

If you thought this was a minor episode with no potential repercussions, you couldn't be more wrong. The implications are huge. There are several theories doing the rounds already -- of a larger cover-up by the IAF, of competitors goading the IAF to eliminate the French, of wanton indiscretions, you know the drill. As of now, however, Dassault insists that its Indian pointsperson, Posina V Rao, merely filed a complaint, and was being penalised for following rules. Obviously the IAF doesn't see it that way. Mr Rao apparently sees himself as a whistleblower caught in the decidedly delicate crossfire of turf battles between the IAF and MoD, a place no one wants to ever be caught in, least of all the representative of a foreign arms company. Legal options could be afoot, I'm told. The IAF feels it has fool-proof reasons to blackball the Dassault man, and will stick to its guns. For a company that has remained compulsively off the scandal radar and deliberately low-profile to a fault, this new episode is a true nightmare. So what now?

There are several questions, as always. One, PV Rao couldn't have made the complaint without the authorisation of his superiors in France -- so was this a high-level faux pas by a company with possibly more experience in light-stepping around Indian government turfs than any of the other competitors? Two, if Dassault was merely a whistleblower on an act of corruption, why is the IAF cutting off the man who filed the complaint? Three, is there more to the Dassault complaint than meets the eye? Four, has Dassault come out with all the facts of the episode, or is there more that is not being revealed? Five, why wasn't the base commander of Yelahanka considered an appropriate person to file the complaint with? Six, why has the MoD not fleshed out its stand on the episode? Seven, how did the other vendors face the corrupt IAF officer -- did they bribe him, or were they not solicited at all -- and if they did bribe him, will that matter now?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

French Govt Firefights Blacklist Of Dassault Exec

The French Embassy in Delhi and Dassault Aviation's office in Paris are working to firefight a nightmarish development (reported in the Times of India today, see previous post) in which Dassault's face in India, Posina V Rao has reportedly been blacklisted by the Indian Air Force.

I did a little poking around with my sources in the MoD and here's what's turned up. Mr Rao raised a formal complaint during or shortly after the Aero India 2011 show with Satyajeet Rajan, joint secretary in charge of exports at the MoD's department of defence production, the nodal agency overseeing the air show. When the complaint was processed onward to the IAF, a response came back suggesting that the impropriety of the accused IAF officer -- Wg Cdr AK Thakur -- should have been flagged to IAF authorities at the show, and not to the MoD. Interestingly, the MoD doesn't appear to have taken any formal view on the Dassault executive, nor is it commenting on the IAF's decision.

I know Mr Rao professionally and I was in touch with him during Aero India 2011 (where I flew in a Dassault Rafale at the invitation of the French government). I haven't had a chance to speak with him for his version of events, but sources indicate that he has been asked to lie low while the French government addresses the issue with the IAF and MoD. Sources at Dassault indicate that no formal communication has reached Dassault Aviation regarding the development, though they did not confirm whether the French Embassy had been intimated. Am trying to get more information and will post.

TIMES REPORT: Dassault Executive Barred In India

There's been no comment so far from Dassault. Will post as soon as I hear anything.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Indian Navy For New Heavy Machine Guns

The Indian Navy is looking to acquire new 12.7mm heavy machine guns for the ships/RHIBs it deploys for anti-piracy action. The RFI specifies that the weapon should have an effective range of about 1,800-meters, a cyclic rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute and a barrel life of 10,000 rounds. Both the Indian Army and Indian Coast Guard have active efforts on to acquire similar weapons.

IAF Wants Long-Range Standoff Strike Missile

The Indian Air Force's Directorate of Operations (Offensive) has formally called for information from global vendors to support the potential acquisition of lightweight all weather "standoff long-range missiles" for its fighter aircraft, with mid course guidance. The RFI does not specify range or any other parameters, though it indicates the likelihood of series modification for the integration of the missile once selected.

In a separate effort, the IAF has asked for proposals from infrastructure developers to build an integrated air to ground weapons range on 7,000 acres of land. This will be one of India's largest strike ranges when done.

RETROPHOTO: Indian Navy's INAS 310 Celebrates Golden Jubilee

Navy Statement: Two unit citations, over 80,000 hrs of flying, operations in – 1971 (East Pakistan), 1999 ('Op Vijay'), 2002 ('Op Parakram'); only Indian carrier borne Anti-Submarine Warfare Squadron, only Indian Information Warfare Squadron- Indian Naval Air Squadron (INAS) 310, COBRAs'- marked its Golden Jubilee today in a grand function in INS Hansa, Goa.

Over 100 odd veterans mingled with the squadron crew, greeted each other and reminisced of operations over fifty years, with two different aircraft types four different specialisations (Anti-Submarine Warfare, Maritime Reconnaisance, Information Warfare, Para Dropping) and an operational area that had spanned from Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific and from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and Rajasthan to Bangladesh. The celebrations started with the traditional Cake cutting and Bara Khana while INS Hansa put up an impressive air display on the occassion. The occassion was also marked with the IN sky diving team launching itself from the squadron's Para Dornier. Later in the evening a special cover and a coffee table book were released by Shri Digambar Kamat Chief Minister of Goa, in the presence of Admiral Nirmal Verma, the Chief of Naval Staff. The squadron is also hosting an International Seminar on 'Airborne Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance (ISR)" on 22 Mar 11.

INAS 310 was commissioned on 21 Mar 1961 in Heyres, France by Lt Cdr Mihir K Roy (later Vice Admiral). A unique privilege as the commissioning was on a French Aircraft carrier 'Arromanches', unusual as the squadron was ultimately to operate from INS Vikrant being acquired from the UK. The COBRAs proudly operated the Alizes from INS Vikrant for the next twenty six years ie till 10 May 1987. The Alizes saw action during the 1971 Indo-Pak war when the squadron's aircraft flew extensively, remarkably, even by night. The squadron earned six Vir Chakras, six Nao Sena Medals and three mention-in-Despatches for these operations. Most notable amongst those present today were Vice Adm M K Roy, the commissioning Commanding Officer and Cmde RAJ Anderson, the pilot who carried out the first landing of the Alize on INS Vikrant.

W
ith the induction of the Dornier 228, in 1991, the squadron transformed itself from a carrier borne ASW squadron to a shore based Maritime Reconnaisance and Electronic Warfare squadron . The squadron's exploitation of the Electronic Suite on board, and demonstrated domain expertise, earned it the distinction of being called the 'Information Warfare' squadron of the Indian Navy.

The Information Warfare reputation of the squadron was such that the squadron's services were requisitioned by the IAF and the Army for operations in the Western sector during the 1999 Kargil Operation. The squadron's aircraft operated far from any sea and from IAF airfields all along the Western border. The squadron earned the respect of the IAF and the Indian Army and its first unit citation from the Chief of Naval Staff. The 'Information Warfare' squadron had arrived.

Interestingly it was during this period that the COBRAs moulted from the blue and white skin to the steel grey skin. As recounted by a COBRA, "one day as we were returning to the (IAF) airfield from a sortie, the airfield being camouflaged was quite invisible but the Naval Dornier with its sparkling White wings shone like a torchlight. Immediately thereafter the Dorniers were recalled to Goa and repainted to a dull grey in two days and repositioned in the forward airfields". The squadron now operates only grey Dorniers.

The COBRAs earned another unit citation in 2002 for their stellar performance during Operation Parakram. The squadron later inducted the 'Para' version of the Dornier and has now expanded its repertoire to include para dropping of Marine Commandoes.

The COBRAs, currently commanded by Cdr Sanjay Chauhan, continue to remain the backbone of the Maritime Reconnaisance stream and the only Information Warfare squadron of the Indian Navy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Gaddafi's Forces In Crosshairs, Rafales Crank Up Op Experience

Armée de l'Air Rafale fighters began striking tanks, armoured carriers and convoys of Gaddafi's forces outside the port town of Benghazi. According to sources, two Rafales departed a French base in Corsica earlier on Saturday, and while one remained on combat patrol, the other engaged with ground targets outside the rebel stronghold town.

Hours after reports came in yesterday that Gaddafi had announced a cessation of all military operations against the rebels, I spoke to my Libyan contacts in Benghazi -- the people I've spent over two weeks with in Eastern Libya this month -- and all confirmed reports that military activity was far from over, and that Gaddafi's forces had laid siege just kilometers from the town. It is not clear yet what weapon the Rafale deployed against the Libyan armoured vehicle it destroyed. Am expecting photos of the attack tomorrow, so stay tuned.

The no fly zone and foreign air force intervention doesn't come a moment too soon. Benghazi, while regarded as the rebel heartland, is not as adequately defended as most people may imagine. I travelled extensively within and around the city, and it became pretty clear that ground and air defences were rudimentary at best, with most assets mobilised towards the west in places like Ras Lanuf and Ben Jawwad. And it is not like Gaddafi's jets haven't been within striking distance of Benghazi. On the night of March 5, we felt the tremor of an explosion in a building near Mediterranean esplanade -- it was the sound of an ammunition and anti-aircraft gun warehouse in a nearby town called Rajma being bombed to oblivion by a Libyan Air Force Su-24. We visited the site the next day. Two fire-engines had been bombed too. Nothing could have kept those Libyan jets from flying more missions except for a no-fly-zone. The Rafales have drawn blood. The rebels did manage to shoot down a fighter yesterday near Benghazi [AWESOME video here]. Not clear if this was a government or rebel controlled fighter.

On another note, some much needed time in the heat for the Rafale as the MMRCA competition winds down. F/A-18s and F-16s also standing by to pound Gaddafi's air defences.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Finally, No Fly Zone Over Libya

Not a moment too soon. I'll be posting shortly on the two air raids by Su-24 jets (photo) that Headlines Today deputy editor Gaurav C. Sawant and I reported on from the ground in Libya.

Tomorrow

Been terribly bogged down with post-Libya production work. Will be back to full-time blogging from tomorrow. Sorry for the false start :) Have a good weekend, all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back!

Back in India, and back to regular blogging on Livefist from tomorrow. Thanks for all the messages, folks.

Monday, March 14, 2011

LIBYA: The Day Ras Lanuf Fell


When I gave my jacket to the drycleaners in Cairo today, it still smelt of cordite. It had been three days and over 1,000-km of road travel since the fall of Ras Lanuf, but my jacket still smelt of rocket smoke. I reported on the fall of the town for Headlines Today, but I haven't had the time to write about it. I need to. It'll be much of what you've already seen in my report. But I need to write about this to get it out of my system. Anyone who's seen death smile will probably know what I mean. Anyway, here's what happened on March 10.


It was afternoon on March 9 and our car was doing 140-km/h on the highway between Aj Dabiyah and Ras Lanuf, an oil town roughly halfway between rebel stronghold Benghazi and Libya's capital, Tripoli. As we drove -- Headlines Today's Gaurav Sawant and I and British photojournalist James Wardell -- Libyan air force jets bombed an oil containment vessel on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, sending two huge plumes of smoke skyward. When we pulled into the town, there was chaos in the main square. Guns were being fired everywhere. Hopped up rebels emptied their Kalashnikov magazines uselessly into the air, while air-defence positions fired blankly into a purple firmament. I'd gotten used to seeing this sort of thing.

Agreeing that it was probably a bad idea to hang around gun positions at twilight, we headed to the Ras Lanuf hospital. The names of the dead were scrawled on pieces of paper and taped to a side-window at the main foyer. Doctors and nurses in their greens mixed with rebels holding their weapons -- assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 9mm pistols tucked into belts. A lot of the rebels were smoking inside the hospital, but nobody told them not to. A back of fresh dates sat at the reception ("Reception" was written, slightly disturbingly, in a children's party font). Doctors were running around attending to the wounded. We were asked to wait, and the ushered into the intensive care room, where a soldier was being resuscitated. Half of his head was blown away, now bandaged with blood-soaked cloth. His body shuddered with siezures, a piece of cloth jammed in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. His head had been shattered by shrapnel. It didn't look like he would make it. But as soon as his vitals were set, he was gurneyed off into an ambulance and zipped away to Aj Dabiyah, where a more equipped hospital would do everything it could to keep him alive. We don't know what happened to him, but he probably didn't make it. You should have seen his head.

Dr Suheil Altarash, the director of the hospital, asked us to stay the night at the hospital, since any other part of Ras Lanuf was liable to either be bombed or ambushed. We decided to drive through the main square before turning in. Outside, we were approached by a rebel soldier Rawad, who gave us fizzy apple juice and got his friends to show us their weapons. One of them was stoned and kept dropping his 9mm in front of us. When we told Rawad that we were sleeping at the hospital, he would hear none of it. He said the rebel army had captured Ras Lanuf's only luxury hotel, the Fadeel, and that he would arrange for us to stay there. Without a good excuse not to, we took Rawad and headed to the hotel, a seriously fancy place bang on the Mediterranean.

Inside the Fadeel, there were rebel soldiers everywhere, all of them with guns. One had a machete. The hotel's staff had long been packed off. The rebels had the whole hotel to themselves. Rawad set about finding us a room. As we walked the corridors of this weird, smashed up deluxe hotel, we noticed that every room had been slept in, sheets ripped up, furniture tossed around, trash everywhere, cigarette butts stubbed into walls and carpets and curtains. Every room had become a dump. A soldier with a light machine gun took us to a room, and before entering, he ordered another (he had two 9mms in his belt) to spray the room with air freshener. We entered. It was a good room. More rebel soldiers entered the room to find out what was going on. Every single television had been removed from the hotel. Gaurav, James and I decided this was probably the most dangerous place to spend the night at. We decided to leave, but needed to do so without offending Rawad and at least a dozen stoned, boisterous, volatile rebel soldiers, who'd just spent the last few days being bombed senseless by Gaddafi's air force. We told them we'd go to the hospital and come back later in the night. Luckily, they didn't seem to care. A vat of pene pasta rotted in one corner of the lobby. The reception was stripped of everything. Every single room key was gone. Everything in the hotel that was worth anything had been removed and probably sent off to be sold. Our driver, Imraja, helped himself to a package of A4 paper and a Swedish thriller lying on the counter.

On the way back, our driver stopped at the make-shift rebel canteen to get us food. He came back with a large bag full of assorted things. Flat bread, tins of tuna, date bars, biscuits and grape juice. We parked outside the hospital and ate gratefully.

It was bitterly cold that night. While rebel ack-acks continued to fire sporadically through the night, the whipping Mediterranean wind would make it one of our more uncomfortable nights. We drove back to the hospital, and asked Dr Altarash if he was sure he could accommodate us, since we didn't want to stay at the hotel. "Don't even think of staying at the hotel. That's the most dangerous place around here. Stay the night here with us. You can eat what we eat, sleep where we sleep. If we have to die, we die together. We are family," he said. And he really meant it. In Dr Altarash's tone, there was exhaustion, fear, anger, pride and despair all at once. His assistants gave us a room with two matresses and two stretchers, and offered us packs of juice. The only other food available was that bag of dates at the reception. None of us had any idea what would happen the next day.

At 9.30am on March 10, Gaurav, James and I drove down to the main square. We had arrived right in the middle of an air-raid. It was no drill. Looking up, I quickly scoped a swing-wing fighter -- probably a MiG-23 -- with its wings in mid-position, banking sharply right over where we were. Two separate anti-aircraft gun positions opened fire, slamming shells into the sky with their little puffs of black smoke. The jet pulled up and disappeared into a wisp of cloud, levelled out and shot off in the direction of the sun. I cannot adequately describe the noise levels at the square. Three gun positions, located in a triangle, continued to fire after the jet was well out of range, while a rebel soldier perched on a compound wall screamed "Allahu Akbar" continuously through a megaphone, a phrase that the rebels would chant in rising screams during air attacks. As the chants subsided, the Libyan fighter jet returned, this time at higher altitude, its wings still in mid-position. There was a sudden scramble for cover. We dove behind a concrete wall, waiting for an explosion that didn't come. The rebels continued to fire, while others prepared more chains of ammunition. Then, in the distance, we heard what sounded like the rapid dull detonation report of a cluster bomb, and sure enough saw the plumes. As we stood in the middle of that square, recording the event and reporting what we saw, we heard more thuds, this time much nearer. The bombing had begun.

Rebels at the square told us that the fighters were now circuiting over Ben Jawwad, a town not far from Ras Lanuf, and that was where the real fighting was happening. Eager to see the actual frontline, the real border between the rebels and Gaddafi's advancing forces, we decided to follow a rebel convoy. Rawad, the young rebel soldier we had met the previous evening, was with us in our vehicle. One soldier told us a couple of journalists had been passed through an hour before, and therefore we could go through. We drove, and all along the way in the distance, we could see the bombing. Big blasts of smoke popped intermittently from behind dunes, trees and rocks. On the way, we picked up a French journalist who had been pulled out of a rebel vehicle and sent back walking. The four of us and our driver stopped about a kilometer from the frontline, where a congregation of air-defence positions continued to fire into the sky. There was a light breeze blowing, and we were in the middle of a shrubby desert area, with the Mediterranean sea off to our right. On our left was a large clump of trees. We got out of the car and waited. We were told we couldn't go any further. The journalists who had been passed through until that point were there too, an Italian journalist, Lucia, and her cameraman.

We got out of our vehicle and stood by the side of the road, squinting into the distance at the fighting that was on a kilometer down the road. Three rebel soldiers stood near our vehicle, one of them with a machine gun and the other two with AKs. Our driver took the machine gun and posed for photographs. Rawad was with us. He had gone silent, because like us, he had noticed that the convoy we had followed to the frontline, had turned around and zoomed back to Ras Lanuf in a cloud of brown dust. And we didn't know why. Five minutes later, it began.

From the side of the road, we felt an impact and a large plume of smoke rise from behind the clump of trees off to our left. The impact was near, and our vehicle shook. The next salvo of rockets landed perhaps 70-feet from our vehicle. The big thud of the rockets threw us, as we ducked for cover. James ran to our right, over the desert sand towards the sea, reaching about 40 feet from where we were, he continued to scream to us to move away. On my knees, I peeped behind our vehicle to see three more rockets slam onto a patch of grass on the side of the road. I felt my hair fly, and the vehicle rocked. As I took cover quickly, I heard pieces of shrapnel whack the side of our vehicle and another parked a few meters behind us. A third salvo was fired, this one slightly behind and to the left of our vehicle, closer still. The Italian crew, not knowing where their vehicle was rushed to ours, as we all spread out flat on the ground, hoping that the slight depression in the side of the road would save us from what we knew by then would be a rocket that landed closer still. Our vehicle absorbed the thudding vibrations of the next rocket that landed. And since the rockets were impacting behind us -- flying over our heads, effectively -- we were perfectly situated both, within range, and within the kill-zones of the weapons that were being launched in our direction. I was flat on the ground, Gaurav and Lucia in front of me, everyone yelling. Off to our right, I saw James in the distance, and for a moment thought I would move off to the left to put more distance between us and the rocket salvos. In a few seconds, we decided to clamber into the car, and James sprinted towards us to pile in last. We U-turned through a haze of smoke and zoomed back towards Ras Lanuf. All the while, we hoped that there wasn't a fifth rocket, corrected perfectly to smash into our mini-van. There wasn't. But as we breathed in the rocket smoke, and emerged into clearer desert air, our van fish-tailed back to Ras Lanuf, where rebel positions were still emptying their magazines into the sky. The air raid wasn't over. We quickly found our bearings, caught our breaths, and left.

Three hours later, Ras Lanuf fell to Gaddafi's advancing forces. And the hospital was overrun.

Video by James Wardell

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

WARZONE LIBYA: Closest Call Yet

Headlines Today deputy editor Gaurav Sawant, me and British photojournalist James Wardell had our narrowest escape yet on March 10, after Ben Jawwad -- the frontier of the battle between Gaddafi's forces and Libyan rebels -- came under the fiercest attack yet by government units. After being cleared from Ras Lanuf towards Ben Jawwad, we had gotten out to shoot. In six minutes, we saw four rockets about 70 feet to our left and impact with a thud behind our vehicle. We were flat on the floor, as government positions opened up their rockets and mortars, raining ordnance down virtually all around us. Our cameras rolled for a bit, and then it was us trying our best to get the hell out. An Italian TV crew lost its vehicle in the haze of rocket smoke, and ran towards our vehicle. As we pressed ourselves into a ditch to evade shrapnel, we heard some of it impact the side of our van. The bombardment continued for a few minutes, with the swish-thud continuing to our left. Finally, the driver found his nerves, and we climbed back into the vehicle to zoom back to Ras Lanuf. As we drove, more rockets landed. A few minutes after we left, Ben Jawwad was overrun completely. Two hours later, Ras Lanuf -- the township where Gaurav and I had spent the previous night (at the hospital) -- was shelled and overrun by Gaddafi's forces. We're back in Benghazi now, and will be exiting Libya soon. We captured most of the close call on camera, so look out for it on Headlines Today.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Road To Gaddafi's Hometown

The road from Ras Lanuf to Sirte, Gaddafi's "hometown" in Libya. Ran into this anti-aircraft position, where we shot for a while. The buzz of a Libyan fighter prompted a heavy and extended bout of firing. More soon.

Photos by Issam Khaleel

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Communication Breakdown

As you guys have no doubt guessed, there's a complete blackout of communications services here in Eastern Libya. Am travelling between towns to report, so little or no access to the internet. Will blog soon with photos etc. Have a good week!

That's me with a soldier of the revolution on the road between Benghazi and Ras Lanuf, Eastern Libya. More photos, and maybe a post soon.

PHOTOS: Indian Ballistic Missile Defence System Successfully Tested


Still in Libya, but posting this quickly!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Off to Egypt/Libya/Tunisia


Am off today to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia for a week at least to cover the evacuation of Indians and the situation in Libya itself. Will blog when I can.

Photo by Shiv Aroor (took this photo during an earlier visit to Alexandria in December 2006)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Yet Another Impression Of India's Stealth UCAV Concept


This image, of India's Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA), featured in a recent presentation by ADA director PS Subramanyam. This one appears to be a top-shot of the impression here. Design concepts are being generated by ADA's stealth workshop.