The Modi Years – Modernising The Armed Forces (Part 1)

This election, the legislative and election hotspot agenda was the news of Bharat’s border skirmishes, national security, war games, high voltage tension in the diplomacy and fight against pernicious terrorist proxy forces. Nationalism was on the top of all the subjects of discussion. Our Armed Forces’ conscientious effort to quash and exterminate baleful terror proxies in different parts of the nation was the talk of the town.

In addition to that, Bharat recently had tensions with China resulting in one of the hostile and aggressive stand off between two of the great military powers of the world. We were nearly on the brink of war with adjacent giant China two years back. These conflicting stand offs and fight against terrorism has alarmed the bell for the possibility of a war in near future and hence it is exceedingly important for Bharat to upgrade and modernise its military forces.

Nirmala Sitharaman, in her address to the Lok Sabha recently, presented some facts about pattern of our defence preparedness and that of our neighbours. China, during 2004-15, added 400 new aircrafts, including 5th generation stealth aircraft Chengdu J-20. Pakistan also increased its capacity by adding chunks of F-16s from US and 43 JF-17 aircrafts from China. While the enemy around us were increasing their military capacity, Bharat’s squadron’s strength went down from 42 in 2002 to 33 in 2015 and will get down to even less in next few years due to its ageing fleet of aircrafts.

Even though, ever since the nuclear weapons came into arsenals, possibilities of full blow warfare has become passé, Bharat needs to be fully prepared for any kind of misadventure against our national interests. The need for modernising armed forces is essential as the dark shadow of two front war is looming upon us and the enemy has been arming itself from years for it.

Here we will see where this government stands in enhancing Air Force and Navy’s defence capabilities in the past 5 years.

Rafale Deal

In the dire need of advanced multi role combat aircraft, the Bharatiya Airforce under the previous UPA regime floated the contract for the procurement of MCRA aircrafts. France’s Dassault Aviation manufactured Rafale aircraft bagged the competition defeating other world class fighter aircrafts. But even after clearing the trials and tests, Rafale had to face delays in the finalisation process due to incompetence of UPA’s political and administrative establishment.

AK Antony, the then defence minister, in his own abstemiousness and self-denial of the urgency to procure aircrafts, was unsuccessful in striking a deal due to differences between Dassault aviation and HAL. Precursory government underscored the strategic importance and urgency in need of the aircraft. The dispute was not ensconced due to authorities’ indolent and pococurante attitude.

This, Narendra Modi led NDA government, however, stand apart from previous one in the aspect. The government, acknowledging the urgency, showed no inert debilitated attitude and enhanced the deal with France. New deal, signed between both nations’ governments in January 2016, included faster procurement of more ready to use 36 Rafale aircrafts. In May 2016, the government finalised the deal in significantly lesser cost per aircraft with additional advanced weapons.

According to The Hindu, citing defence sources, the agreement provided for many components superior to those in the original deal, in particular the weapons package. It was reported that Bharat would acquire 28 single-seat aircraft at a cost of €91.1 million (Rs 681.7 crore) each and 8 dual-seat aircraft at a cost of €94 million (Rs 703.4 crore) each. The deal also included tailor-made enhancements for the Bharatiya Air Force at a cost of €1.8 billion (Rs 13,470 crore), a weapons package costing €710 million (Rs 5,313 crore) and a performance-based logistics agreement at a cost of €353 million (Rs 2,641 crore).

The weaponry procured included missiles such as MICA and one of world’s most advanced Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) and SCALP air-to-ground cruise missile. The Bharat-specific enhancements included, among the dozen or so enhancements, the integration of an Israeli-made helmet-mounted display (HMD), radar warning receivers and low-band jammers.

The agreement also included 50% ‘offset clause’ requiring companies involved in the deal to invest 50% of the contract value (roughly Rs 30,000 crore) back into Bharat with 30% reserved to be invested in DRDO. The government pulled off a better and more cooperative deal with French than UPA could have.

The New MMRCA Deal

The government of Bharat, with conscious understanding of the need to fasten up aircraft procurement in the Air Force fleet, has floated a fresh US 20 billion MMRCA (Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft) deal. The deal aims at inducting 110 aircrafts into the Air Force, 85% of whose parts would be indigenously built in the country in partnership with domestic manufacturing firm under the Strategic Partnership route. Some of the likely to win aircrafts are Lockheed Martins F-16 block 70, SAAB’s Gripen JAS 39, Dassault Rafale and Boeing FA-18 hornet.

The F-16 is a single-engine, air-superiority, multi-role fighter which first flew in 1974 and has since been operated by 26 countries. It has been upgraded a number of times. The Block 70 which is being offered to Bharat, is the latest variant. Lockheed Martin is prepared to relocate the F-16 production line to Bharat making Bharat the global supply chain hub. It has APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, modernised cockpit, advanced weapons, conformal fuel tanks, automatic ground collision avoidance system, advanced engine, and industry-leading extended structural service life of 12,000 hours. Lockheed Martin has a joint venture company with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL).

The Swedish company SAAB has offered it’s best and state-of-the art aircraft Gripen JAS 39 currently flown by 6 other countries. The Next Generation version on offer to Bharat can be with more powerful EJ 200 power-plant, new avionics and AESA radar. SAAB has proposed significant transfer of technology and to make Bharat ‘an independent manufacturer’ of the Gripen. With backing of the Swedish government, SAAB has tied with the Adani group as their production partner in Bharat.

If the government manages to get the deal sedulously and diligently with all the major weaponry and manufacturing with it, it will be a humongous achievement. In addition to adding 6 squadrons into the fleet, the aircraft deal and procurement can prove to be a great diplomatic aid to the nation. US 20 billion deal would, if won by a US firm, make global muscle powers like United States to stand by Bharat in latter‘ bid for NSG and Permanent Membership in the UN.  

Tejas Aircraft

The IAF has ordered 20 LCA Tejas Mk I with Initial Operational Clearance, 20 LCA Tejas Mk I with Final Operational Clearance and 83 Mk IA equipped with AESA radar and an electro-optic EW Sensor suite. It will be of lower weight and with easier service maintainability thus reducing downtime of the aircraft. It will also have a mid-air refuelling probe. All LCA ASQRs will be met only by the larger Tejas Mk II with more powerful GE F414 engine.

The first flight of Mk II is unlikely to be earlier than 2025. The Mk II will be a new aircraft and will require extensive flight testing. Induction into service could be around 2030. The government is focusing at modernising and upgrading the indigenously built Tejas aircraft. New Tejas would be capable of catering to IAF’s warfare requirements in modern air warfare.

Induction of AWAACS and LR-SAMs

Bharat purchased three AWACS from Israel for the Air Force. Airborne Warning and Control Systems is a mobile, long-range radar system which is very efficient in detecting low-flying aircraft at a distance of 370 km and also high-level targets. AWACS can detect and track incoming fighters, cruise missiles and drones much before ground-based radars. Due to its high speed, the communication system of AWACS cannot be jammed or intercepted. Although Pakistan and China have more of this than Bharat, it is a start in the right direction.

Bharat also purchased a Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) from Israel. Israel has agreed to supply the Barak 8 Missile for seven ships of Bharatiya Navy. This is jointly being developed by Israel and Bharat. Designed to defend against a variety of short-to-long-range airborne threats including fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, drones and projectiles, Barak-8 incorporates a state-of-the-art phased array multi-mission radar, two-way data link, and a flexible command and control system, enabling users to simultaneously engage multiple targets day and night and in all weather conditions. Barak-8 LR-SAM will be vital and extremely helpful for the Navy which requires precise long range missiles to target.

Pulling off Various Contracts

Bharat signed 182 defence contracts with the domestic as well as foreign vendors for procurement of defence equipment aimed at enhancing the capabilities of the armed forces in the first four years of Modi led NDA’s rule. In a written reply in Lok Sabha, Former Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh said while 62 contracts were signed for the navy, 79 and 41 contracts were signed for the army and IAF respectively.

Apart from that the main projects concluded were a $8.7 billion deal for 36 Rafales, a $3.1-billion order for 22 Boeing AH-64E Apache Longbow attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift choppers, a $2 billion deal for advanced surface-to-air missile systems from Israel and scores of minor procurements all vital for enhancing air and water capabilities of our forces.

Bharat will also purchase 4 frigates from Russia for the Navy. These frigates will improve Bharat’s capability to detect and track submarines and enemy missiles. They will also help in carrying cruise missiles. 2 of these will be built in a Goa shipyard and two will be directly imported from Russia. The two that will be built here will involve transfer of technology which will lead to higher prices for these two frigates. Frigates have been a long-standing demand of the Bharatiya Navy. Transfer of technology will assist in government’s aim of domestically manufacturing defence equipment and making Bharat self reliant in defence sector.

The NDA government led by PM Narendra Modi has shown strong instincts for modernising the armed forces. They have been scrupulous and pedantic in quest for preparing the nation in tackling adversaries. This government has been successful in standing apart from the previous blasé and laodicean UPA government as far as the dealings in the defence sector is concerned.

The government has also been successful in exposing the duplicitous and mendacious people in the mainstream who used to artfully further the cause of adversaries in the past regimes. Though, there are still needs for reforms and the defence procurement processes still remains a gordian task, the intentions of the government are clear, graspable and in right direction.

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About the Author

Yogendra Thakur
A student and two time state topper in Astrophysics and Art of Lecturing. Primary focus areas are Indology and Economics.