Friday, 17 November 2017

Defence minister issues 5-point rebuttal of Rafale accusations

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th Nov 17

Underlining the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) unease at Congress Party allegations of wrongdoing by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the Rs 58,000 crore purchase last year of 36 Rafale fighters from French company, Dassault, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman led a counterattack on Friday.

Flanked by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra and Indian Air Force (IAF) procurement chief, Air Vice Marshal Rathunath Nambiar, Sitharaman lashed out at the Congress on five counts.

First, she stated, the previous BJP government had, as early as 2000, “recognised the need to strengthen the IAF”, leading to procurement being initiated for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA). Yet, the Congress Party was unable to conclude the purchase of Rafale fighters “for an entire decade between 2004-2014”, she said.

That “act of omission” had led to severe fighter shortages in the IAF, Sitharaman charged. “This was the grim situation when this government came to power in 2014”, she said.

In fact, the MMRCA procurement was initiated only in 2007, with the issue of a Request for Proposals (RfP or tender). Over the next four years, the IAF evaluated six contending fighters --- Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; RAC MiG’s MiG-35; Saab’s Gripen C, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale --- in what was hailed worldwide as “the world’s most professionally run fighter competition.”

In April 2011, the IAF ruled out four fighters, leaving only the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale in the fray. In January 2012, the Rafale was identified as the winner of the contest and negotiations began with Dassault over the cost. Therefore, the UPA can, at worst, be accused of two years and three months of vacillation, until the BJP came to power in May 2014.

Sitharaman’s second rebuttal related to the Congress accusation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not followed due procedure, and not even consulted his defence minister before announcing during a state visit to France in April 2015 that India would buy 36 Rafale fighters in fly-away condition.

“When the prime minister went to Paris in 2015 and agreed [on the purchase of 36 Rafales], he followed the due process of getting it cleared through the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)”, said Sitharaman. “In September 2016, almost a year and a half later, the Inter-Governmental Agreement for buying 36 Rafales was signed in the presence of the defence ministers of France and India”, she said.

While it is true the CCS cleared the Rafale purchase after Modi returned from Paris, no CCS permission, or from any defence ministry procurement body, was obtained before Modi and French President Francois Hollande announced the Rafale buy in April 2015.

Thirdly, Sitharaman countered the Congress’ accusation that the NDA government had obtained the Rafale without transfer of technology, whilst the MMRCA contract the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was negotiating involved full transfer of technology (ToT) for building the Rafale in India.

“This is simple economics. When we are talking about building 126 aircraft [in India], ToT makes economic sense. But when you are buying 36 aircraft across-the-counter… it makes no economic sense for ToT to be added on”, she correctly stated.

Fourthly, Sitharaman rejected the Congress’ oblique allegation that Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Ltd (RDL) had benefited from his proximity to the PM to be unfairly picked as Dassault’s Indian partner for discharging the 50 per cent offset clause that came with the Rafale deal.

“If two private firms come together, that doesn’t require government’s permission”, said Sitharaman. She argued the PM does not control the composition of his business delegation and it does not matter if it includes “a certain individual”.

Finally, Sitharaman argued that “The price we have obtained [the Rafale for] is far less [than the UPA]”.

However, she was unable to address media queries about how must the government was paying for 36 Rafales, compared to what the UPA government had negotiated.

“We will give you the figures that you want”, said Sitharaman, directing the query to the defence secretary. However, he did not have the figures either.

In April 2015, the announcement in Paris by Modi and Hollande of their agreement over the Rafale took the defence ministry by surprise. This was evident from a series of uncoordinated statements from then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, who was left fielding questions in India.

The morning after the announcement, Parrikar erroneously told PTI in Goa that the 36 fighters would join IAF service within two years. Apparently distancing himself from the Rafale deal, Parrikar termed it “a great decision taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on better terms and conditions.”

Nor was Parrikar aware of how many Rafales would be bought. He told Doordarshan: “It may be worked out that we will buy another 90 Rafales… The ‘Make in India’ part will be decided only after government-to-government talks.”

With the Congress pressing home its attack over "insurmountable loss" of taxpayers' money, the BJP is marshalling its counter. On Thursday, IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa stated the NDA had pulled off “a cheaper deal”  than what the UPA was contemplating.

In fact, between 2013-14, UPA defence minister, AK Antony, had repeatedly made clear his deep reservations over the Rafale procurement, telling close associates that he was never going to sign it.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Boeing and HAL discuss building F/A-18 fighter in India

Boeing, HAL and Mahindras exploring public-private consortium

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th Nov 17

The Boeing Company (hereafter Boeing), which is a vying strongly to supply the Indian Navy with 57 “multi-role carrier borne fighters” (MRCBF), has entered talks with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to explore the co-manufacture of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter in India, say credible sources in the defence ministry.

Along with HAL, Boeing also intends to involve the Mahindra Group in building Super Hornets in India.

Boeing and HAL have already held exploratory discussions in Bengaluru in September and are scheduled to meet on Friday in Bengaluru for another round of talks. They will also finalise a “non-disclosure agreement” that binds all sides to keep their negotiations confidential.

Contacted for comments, a Boeing spokesperson responded: “HAL has been a key partner of Boeing for over two decades and today manufactures components for our commercial and defense platforms, including for the F/A-18 Super Hornet. We are continually exploring ways to expand that relationship.  Needless to say, we cannot comment on specific discussions with our partners.”

The defence ministry did not respond to a request for comments.

Boeing seeks to leverage HAL’s long experience in licence-producing aircraft in India, most recently the Hawk trainer, and Jaguar and Sukhoi-30MKI fighters; and to present the defence ministry with a clear plan for co-producing the Super Hornet in India with a high indigenous content.

This would provide the US aerospace giant valuable advantage over rival vendors who partner private sector firms that are novices in aerospace manufacture.

Furthermore, Boeing’s partnership with HAL – which already has an airfield and manufacturing hangars in Bengaluru – would significantly reduce the price of each Super Hornet. In contrast, a vendor that partners a private Indian firm would need to factor aerospace infrastructure into its pricing.

Boeing has already expressed public reservations about the private sector’s inexperience in aerospace. As Business Standard reported (September 8, Boeing flags inexperience of private sector ‘strategic partners’) Boeing India chief, Pratyush Kumar, stated in New Delhi that the Indian private sector is not yet capable of manufacturing complex military aircraft under transfer of technology (ToT).

Urging India to co-opt public and private enterprise, Kumar said he “could not find a single example [of successfully building an aircraft under ToT] where it was just the brand new private enterprise with limited aerospace experience. Look at Turkey, look at Japan, look at Brazil, look at multiple countries. In all cases there is a fine balancing act of co-opting the capabilities of both public and private enterprise.”

Now Boeing is doing exactly that, by seeking to co-opt HAL and the Mahindra Group into co-producing Super Hornets.

Boeing’s public-private strategy contrasts with the approach being followed by Lockheed Martin and Saab in a separate procurement of 114 single-engine fighters, which is expected to gather momentum shortly. Since the defence ministry requires the single-engine fighters to be built in India under the “strategic partner” (SP) policy, Lockheed Martin and Saab have both partnered private sector firms – Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) and the Adani Group respectively – to build in India.

In contrast, the “request for information” (RFI) for the MRCBF acquisition, which the navy issued in January, predates the SP Policy that was promulgated only in June. Unlike Lockheed Martin and Saab in the single-engine fighter procurement, Boeing is not restricted to partnering only a private sector company.

The RFI for the MRCBF specifies: “GoI (Government of India) is desirous of license production of the aircraft after acquiring ToT in the case (sic).” While this appears to place the procurement in the “Buy and Make” category, the “request for proposals” (RFP) is likely to clarify this issue. Industry experts say the RFP might conceivably shift the acquisition into the SP category.

The Super Hornet, which is the US Navy’s main carrier borne fighter, is likely to face competition in India’s MRCBF tender from French company Dassault’s Rafale-M fighter; Swedish company Saab’s Gripen Maritime, and the Russian MiG-29K/KUB that already flies off the navy’s lone carrier, INS Vikramaditya.

The India Navy has already bought 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters from Russia to equip its current aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and the second aircraft carrier, the indigenously built INS Vikrant, which is expected in service by 2021. A new, more capable MRCBF was envisaged for the second indigenous carrier, INS Vishal, which is expected in service by 2030 or so. However, unacceptably low serviceability rates of the MiG-29K/KUB are making the MRCBF vital for the navy in a much shorter time frame.

Furthermore, Boeing is looking beyond the supply of 57 Super Hornets to the navy, at the supply of “Made in India” fighters to the Indian Air Force (IAF) too. The IAF, which is down to 32 squadrons of fighters against its requirement of 42 squadrons, had hoped to procure six-to-nine squadrons of medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) over the last decade. The Rafale was eventually selected, but then only two squadrons were procured, leaving a void that Boeing hopes to fill by establishing a Super Hornet manufacturing line in India. 

Army generals describe biggest-ever arms deal: $25-30 billion tank and ICV buy

1,770 tanks under “strategic partner” policy by 2025-27; 2,600 ICVs under “Make” procedure

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Nov 17

In New Delhi on Wednesday, army chief General Bipin Rawat and a battery of senior generals explained details of India’s biggest-ever weapons acquisition – the on-going twin procurements of futuristic tanks and infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), which they estimated to be worth $12.5-15 billion (Rs 80,000-100,000 crore) each.

Pakistan already feels threatened by India’s vast tank strength. This includes three strike corps, each with hundreds of tanks and ICVs. In addition, eight-to-ten tank-heavy “battle groups”, drawn from defensive corps, are poised to scythe through Pakistan in a “Cold Start” offensive.

While tanks, with their heavy armour protection and huge guns spearhead an advance into enemy territory, tracked ICVs move close behind them, carrying infantrymen to occupy the captured area.

The procurements explained by Rawat, which include new tanks and ICVs, would significantly enhance Pakistan’s insecurity.

Justifying the build up, Rawat stated: “Tanks are expected to operate on western front as well as the northern borders [with China].”

The generals told a defence industry gathering that the mechanised forces would be boosted on three parallel tracks. The first is the manufacture of 1,770 advanced, 50-tonne tanks – termed Future Ready Combat Vehicles (FRCVs) – under the “strategic partner” (SP) policy to replace the ageing T-72 fleet. For this, private Indian firms will bid in partnership with global “original equipment manufacturers” (OEMs) to set up a production line in India by 2025-27.

Last Wednesday, the army floated a global “request for information” (RFI) inviting global OEMs to outline what they would offer India. Simultaneously, the ministry is shortlisting Indian SPs that will bid in partnership with the chosen OEMs.

“This process involves identifying a mature, in-service tank in the world, which can be tweaked to meet our requirements”, stated Lieutenant General MJS Kahlon, the army’s planning chief.

While the FRCV will be a derivative of an in-service tank, the “future infantry combat vehicle” (FICV) will be a brand new, futuristic system. It will be pursued under the “Make” procedure, with the defence ministry funding 90 per cent of the development cost, and the private firm paying 10 per cent. Six firms/consortia have submitted proposals for the FICV, and the MoD must select two. These will design competing FICV prototypes and build an estimated 2,600 of the winning design.

“The FICV and FRCV will be game changers for indigenous defence industry”, said the mechanised forces chief, Lieutenant General Ashok Shivane.

Kahlon pointed out that this would be the first time indigenous production would take care of our armoured requirements. “So far, we bought all our armour on a government-to-government basis -- from the west till late 1960s and from the Soviet Union and Russia since then.”

That dependence forced the army to adapt its warfighting doctrines to platforms that had never been designed with India’s tactical needs, geography and manpower in mind. “We bought what was available and adapted our doctrines onto that”, rued Kahlon.

Since the FRCV and FICV projects are time-consuming projects, the army will simultaneously upgrade the existing T-72 tank fleet to remain battle-worthy till the new platforms are inducted. Shivane said T-72s would get more powerful engines, day and night vision thermal sights, and improved guns and ammunition.

“The chosen vendors would also take care of life cycle management of his equipment, with indigenous solutions coming from him. This would make good operational sense for us and good business sense for the vendors”, said Shivane.

The FRCV is intended to carry out roles other than that of a tank. The RFI states it will be the base platform for a range of additional armoured vehicles, including self-propelled artillery and air defence guns, mine trawls, bridge-layer tanks (BLTS), armoured engineering vehicles, etc.

Looking beyond the heavy, tracked FICV, both Rawat and Kahlon raised the need for a wheeled infantry carrier that could move on roads, and in towns and cities, without damaging infrastructure. “Imagine infantry being able to travel in its own transport, with ballistic protection, wherever it needs to go… say all the way up to Leh”, said Kahlon.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Trump to press Modi on F-16 fighter contract in Manila

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Nov 17

On Monday, when they meet in Manila, President Donald Trump plans to urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi to move quickly on finalising the selection of a single-engine fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF), say US defence industry sources.

While the Modi-Trump meeting has not yet been announced, India’s foreign ministry said on Friday that it is “in the process of being finalized”. However, Trump’s talking points for the meeting include following up on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to New Delhi last month, when he announced Washington would support transferring F-16 and F/A-18 technology to India.

The US has high stakes in this purchase of 100-200 single-engine fighters that could be worth $15 billion. The frontrunners are: Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70; and Swedish company Saab’s Gripen E. Washington has thrown its weight behind Lockheed Martin’s proposal to shift the F-16 production line (which is closing down due to lack of orders) from Fort Worth, Texas, to India.

The F-16 line will be shifted only if the IAF opts for that fighter. Lockheed Martin says that, after the F-16 line is re-established in India in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), it will be the world’s sole source of F-16 fighters and major spares.

Trump is using his on-going 11-day Asia visit to hard-sell US weaponry to friendly Indo-Pacific nations. In Japan last week, he urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to buy “a lot of military equipment from the United States”.

But while Japan has been a traditional buyer of US weaponry, India’s defence ministry has not yet plumped in favour of a foreign fighter. The IAF is under pressure to buy more indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) instead of a more expensive (if more capable) foreign fighter.

As India Today reported on Friday, the defence ministry “asked the IAF to scrap its plans of acquiring single-engine fighters from global [vendors]”. The IAF top brass was asked to explain to the ministry why the Tejas could not do the job instead.

This is unsettling for Lockheed Martin and Saab, both of whom have responded to the IAF’s “request for information” (RFI) issued in October 2016.

However, it is of a pattern for India’s military procurement organisation. A tender that the IAF issued in 2007 for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) dragged on for six years, eventually culminating, in September 2016, in the procurement of just 36 Rafale fighters from French vendor, Dassault.

After the collapse of that tender, and with the IAF facing a shortfall of 10 fighter squadrons – it currently has just 32 squadrons against a requirement of 42 – the RFI for the single-engine fighter was issued.

While the previous two US administrations, headed by Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, pursued their relationships with India more on the basis of strategic convergence than weapons sales, Trump makes no bones about expecting New Delhi (like Tokyo) to buy American weapons.

Over the last decade, Washington has run up $15-18 billion in defence sales to India, including the C-130J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and CH-47F Chinook and AH-64E Apache helicopters. It is now eyeing a second wave of defence sales, worth $18-25 billion, including F-16 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters, naval helicopters, and the Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicle.

Modi and Trump are in the Philippine capital to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

On Monday, Trump will be marking the 40th anniversary of US-Asean relations, and meeting world leaders, probably including Modi, on the side-lines. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Alang ship-breakers, once reviled for pollution, see dollars in green image

By Ajai Shukla
Alang-Sosiya, Gujarat
Business Standard, 12th Nov 17

Even in the superstitious world of seamen, few things are as eerie and phantasmal as sitting on the beach at Alang in the darkness, watching a ship that has finished its life, sailing in for breaking – effectively its burial.

This happens on full moon and no-moon nights, when the tide rises an astonishing 35 feet above the low tide mark in Alang. Guided by pilots with lanterns and walkie-talkies, the ship sails in until its keel is wedged solidly into the sand. When the tide goes out, the “beached” vessel is left more than a kilometre inland – a unique tidal phenomenon that has made Alang the world’s largest shipbreaking yard, providing employment to 40,000 workers, according to government figures.

At any time, the 180 beachfront yards at the Alang-Sosiya Ship Recycling Facility – named after two neighbouring villages on the coast near Bhavnagar, Gujarat – are engaged in breaking about 100 ships of various types. Armies of workers swarm over each vessel, ripping out wood, furniture, cabinets, engines, pumps and pipes. All these are bought up by specialist brokers, who then retail them in a four-kilometre-long line of shops that line the road to Bhavnagar.

After the vessel’s insides are stripped, steel cutting begins. Workers with blowtorches and cranes cut ships weighing tens of thousand tonnes into hundreds of metal plates that find their way to western India’s foundries and pig iron plants. An average yard with 450 workers takes up to five months to reduce a 15,000-tonne vessel to nothing.

Alang-Sosiya is enjoying a rebirth after extended controversy over alleged disregard for environmental norms. The turning point came in 2006-07, after environmental activists approached the Supreme Court against the breaking of a French vessel, Blue Lady, which they charged was packed with toxic materials like asbestos boards and printed circuit boards (PCBs). Alang, the activists argued, was ill equipped to handle hazardous materials.

An activist Supreme Court ordered the Union Government to “formulate a comprehensive code” to govern shipbreaking. The government set up the High Powered Committee on Management of Hazardous Waste, which led to the creation of the Ship Recycling Code, 2013 (SRC 2013) – stringent procedures that make shipbreaking safer and prevents pollution by waste materials from ships.

Alang-Sosiya’s recycling yards have a powerful business incentive to “go green”. The International Maritime Organisation pressures ship-owners – through a system of environmental credits, similar to carbon credits – to get their retired vessels broken in yards that adhere to safety and environmental norms.

The Ship Recycling Industries Association (SRIA) told Business Standard that 40 per cent of recycling yards have already obtained ISO 30,000, which certifies conformity to best practices in ship recycling. The remaining yards are working towards meeting these standards and obtaining certification.

Not content with meeting Indian standards, several yards are working to meet the norms of the even more stringent Hong Kong Convention (HKC) of 2009.

“Alang-Sosiya is more expensive than recycling yards in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which blatantly flout environmental norms. But we are regarded as environmentally conscious, so international ship-owners increasingly choose to send their vessels here”, says a yard owner, who requests that his identity not be disclosed.

Last year, a fact-finding mission from the European Community Ship-owners’ Association (ECSA) visited Alang-Sosiya and applauded the improvements.

Its visit report stated: “Members of the ECSA delegation with previous experience of Alang recycling facilities, identified a clear shift in mentality and willingness to be transparent on the part of the Alang recyclers. Furthermore, the most progressive yard owners clearly see a business case for offering sustainable ship recycling conditions to shipowners. Remarkably, the HKC has already a profound impact on the ground.”

Haresh Parmar, Joint Secretary of SRIA, flatly dismisses criticism of Alang-Sosiya on environmental grounds. “Alang recycles 3.5 million tonnes of steel every year. Producing that in steel mills would consume 10-12 million metric tonnes of iron ore, and 6-7 tonnes of coal. We save all this, and recycle the steel without using a single litre of water or a single unit of electricity.”

Parmar also points out Alang recycles 36,000 tonnes of wood without cutting a single tree. Further, recycling yards pay over Rs 1,500 crore in taxes to the government.

The SRIA expects business to rise further after a Japan-funded environment management plan is implemented. During Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in September, the Japan International Cooperation Agency provided a $76 million (Rs 500 crore) loan to upgrade Alang. “The Japanese do not want to send their ships to China for breaking”, says Parmar.

From Russia with love? Or The French Connection?

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Nov 17

The visit by US navy officials last week to INS Vikramaditya, an aircraft carrier built by Russia for the Indian Navy, has turned into an unexpectedly hot potato in Russia-India military ties.

As Business Standard first reported (October 30, “US Navy aircraft carrier team to check out Russian-built INS Vikramaditya”), a team of American naval officers that was visiting India to discuss US assistance in constructing an indigenous aircraft carrier, was invited on board INS Vikramaditya on October 31.

On Thursday, Russian news portal, Kommersant, sprung a bombshell, reporting that Russia-India military relations were in a crisis, with Moscow furious because the Indian Navy had also permitted the US officials on board INS Chakra – the nuclear attack submarine that Russia has leased to India for a decade, starting from 2012.

Indian Navy officials categorically deny allowing Russian officials on board the Chakra. “We have absolutely no cooperation with America on submarines. On the other hand, we cooperate closely with Russia, and the Chakra is evidence of that. We would never endanger that valuable relationship with Russia”, says a senior navy official, speaking off the record because Moscow has not protested officially.

The report comes at a time when New Delhi and Moscow are negotiating the lease of a second Russian nuclear submarine. It is believed this will arrive in 2022, to replace Chakra when its lease expires. While this arrangement is still being discussed, the lease of a second Russian submarine is important for continuing cooperation in this field.

Adding an intriguing twist to the controversy, another Russian news portal,, reported on Friday that the Kommersant report is a motivated plant. It said “French lobbyists” had planted the Kommersant report in order to scuttle the second submarine lease, and forcing the Indian Navy to lease a French nuclear submarine instead.

Quoting “a source”, writes: “There is complete confidence that the throw-in is organised by the lobbyists of France, and it's pretty high quality.” 

The US Navy is the widely acknowledged world leader in nuclear submarine technology. However, despite its closeness with India, Washington has made it clear the US Navy regards American submarine technology as a “no go” realm. The US has never shared submarine technology, which it regards as “strategic”.

Kommersant also reported that Moscow was angry over the visit of US officials to INS Vikramaditya, but defence ministry sources in New Delhi flatly deny that. “The US officials only witnessed flying operations on the Vikramaditya, which are often witnessed by foreign officials and media reporters. They are no secret”, he said.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Nirbhay cruise missile passes crucial test, but reliability still a question

The Nirbhay blasts off from Chandipur for its successful Tuesday test, which carried it about 650 kilometres

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Nov 17

The Nirbhay cruise missile that the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) successfully test fired on Tuesday, is a version of America’s iconic Tomahawk cruise missile, made famous by CNN videos of the 1991 Gulf War, showing Tomahawks flying along Baghdad streets and entering target buildings through doors and windows.

Yet, despite Tuesday’s success, Nirbhay remains an inconsistent performer. It has not yet demonstrated the reliability needed for launching nuclear weapons, which require a delivery platform that is both reliable and accurate.

Three of the four earlier Nirbhaya tests ended in failure, making the outcome of this test crucial for the continuation of the troubled DRDO project. Its test record contrasts unfavourably with that of the successful Indo-Russian BrahMos cruise missile, which has been in operational service since 2007 and will soon be carried by Indian Air Force Sukhoi-30MKIs.

The BrahMos has a range of 295 kilometres (being upgraded to 600 km) and flies at supersonic speeds (Mach 3, or 3,700 km per hour). The Nirbhay’s reach is longer (over 1,000 kilometres), but it flies slower, at a subsonic speed of 865 km per hour. While that makes it vulnerable to enemy air defence guns and aircraft, its survivability rests on flying low – just 100 metres above the ground – making it difficult to detect with radar.

While Russian propulsion technology has powered the BrahMos missile, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) continues to grapple with developing an adequate engine and pinpoint navigation systems for the Nirbhay.

So far, Pakistan leads India in subsonic cruise missile development, having tested and operationally deployed the Babur (Hatf VII) cruise missile that has a range of 700 kilometres, significantly less than the Nirbhay’s. Analysts speculate that the Babur’s engine is Chinese, supplied by Beijing in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The Nirbhay can carry a payload of 300 kilograms, the weight of a well-designed nuclear bomb. It is 7.5 metres long, which would allow it to be carried inside a submarine. However, India has not claimed nuclear capability for the Nirbhay. In contrast, Pakistan portrays the Babur as a nuclear delivery platform.

“Perhaps India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence that the DRDO is developing makes Pakistan present the Babur as a nuclear delivery platform to add credibility to its deterrent. Besides, Pakistan has no submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, therefore, plays up the Babur as a vehicle for assured submarine-launched, second-strike capability”, says a well-known deterrence specialist with an Indian think tank.

Second-strike refers to a country’s capability for assured nuclear retaliation after absorbing the full weight of nuclear attack from an adversary.

India’s assured second-strike capability is based on the 750-km range K-15 SLBMs carried by INS Arihant, the navy’s first sub-surface ballistic nuclear (SSBN) submarine. Arihant-class SSBNs (the second, INS Aridhaman, is nearing completion) are now being configured to carry the more capable K-4 SLBM, which has an estimated range of 3,500-4,000 km. It is doubtful whether the Nirbhay will ever form part of a SSBN’s arsenal.

The Nirbhay’s first test on 12 March 2013 was a failure. About 15 minutes into the test, the DRDO had to activate an on-board, “self-destruct” system after the missile deviated from its planned path and headed towards inhabited areas.

The Nirbhay’s second test, on October 17, 2014 was an unalloyed success. In a 70-minute flight, the missile’s inertial navigation system, assisted by the GPS satellite network, took the missile accurately to 15 pre-designated “way points. After 1,050 kilometres, the missile splashed, as planned, into the Bay of Bengal.

But two successive failures followed this, one in 2015 and the preceding test last December. Perhaps, for that reason, the defence ministry release on Tuesday stated: “The flight test achieved all the mission objectives completely from lift-off till the final splash, boosting the confidence of all scientists associated with the trial.”