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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download -

Date: 12 March 2019

Let them take flight

  • It is not late to declare the Tejas and Kaveri projects as ‘national missions’
  • At the Aero-India 2019 airshow and aviation exhibition, held in Bengaluru last month, there were two developments of significance, for India’s national security as well its moribund aeronautical industry.
  • On February 20, the Indian Air Force and the aviation community heaved a collective sigh of relief after the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mark 1, received its long-awaited Final Operational Clearance; this means it is combat-ready and can be exploited to the limits of its approved ‘envelope’. However, a day later, came a rather unwelcome report: a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) announcement at the show of its decision to shelve the Kaveri turbo-jet engine project. While one waits for this report to be confirmed or denied, given the criticality of this engine for India’s aeronautical industry, the issue deserves a close look.

POLITICAL MYOPIA

  • Historically, all major aerospace powers have possessed the capability to design airframes as well as power-plants.
  • Until India can design and produce its own aero-engines, the performance and capabilities of any indigenously designed/built aircraft will be seriously limited by the technology that we are permitted to import.
  • India has already had two bitter experiences in this regard. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s sleek and elegant HF-24 Marut fighter, of the 1960s and 1970s, failed to achieve its huge potential as a supersonic fighter for want of a suitable engine.
  • Rather than exert itself to seek alternatives, the government of the day, with stunning myopia, closed the programme.
  • Similarly, many of the problems the Tejas faced emanate from lack of engine thrust. Even as the Kaveri has failed to make an appearance, U.S.-made alternatives such as the General Electric F-404 engine, or even the more powerful F-414, do not deliver adequate thrust for the Tejas Mk 1, to meet all its missions.
  • For the Tejas Mk IA, Mk II, the LCA Navy, and other aircraft programmes such as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, India will need turbo-jet engines of even greater thrust.
  •  Thus, it is vital for India to develop a family of homegrown jet engines to power indigenous combat aircraft as well as re-engine imported ones.

A PIVOTAL ROLE

  • In this context, it is necessary to recognize that both the Tejas and Kaveri projects — which have seen more than their share of headwinds and uncertainty — form key components of India’s technological aspirations. Unless carefully guided, protected and nurtured, their failure could spell the end of India’s aeronautical industry, or condemn it forever to licensed production. A long production run of, say, 250-300 aircraft for the Tejas and its advanced derivatives is essential if the industry is to hone its design and production skills.
  • The same holds good for the Kaveri, except that the design and production of a functional turbojet engine are even more challenging. The HAL claims to have “manufactured” nearly 5,000 aero-engines of British, French and Russian design, and overhauled 18,000 of them.
  • Since this putative “manufacturing” process involves merely the assembly of imported components, several engine divisions of the HAL have failed to imbibe aspects of design, metallurgy, thermodynamic and aerodynamic engineering as well as the complex tooling and machining process required for the design and manufacture of aero-engines, over the past 60 years — a sad commentary.
  • In 1986, the DRDO’s decades-old Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) was tasked with developing an indigenous power plant for the LCA, which was to replace the U.S. engines being used for the development phase of the aircraft.
  • Having developed two experimental engines, the GTRE took up a turbofan design, designated the GTX-35VS “Kaveri”, for the LCA. Full-scale development was authorised in 1989 for 17 prototypes at a cost of $55 million. The first complete prototype Kaveri began tests in 1996, and by 2004 it had flown on a Russian flying test-bed; albeit unsuccessfully.
  • Since then, the Kaveri has made sporadic progress and the GTRE has been struggling with serious design and performance issues which it has been unable to resolve. As the Kaveri missed successive deadlines, the U.S. import option was mindlessly and gleefully resorted to.

A SERIES OF TROUGHS

  • Given the DRDO’s penchant for secrecy and misplaced optimism, the true story of the Kaveri’s halting progress has never been revealed to Parliament or the taxpayer.
  • However, two details, available on the Internet, are revelatory of the organisation’s ‘modus operandi’. It has, at least, on two occasions, approached French and British aero-engine manufacturers for advice and consultancy in operationalizing the Kaveri. Despite reportedly attractive offers of performance-enhancement and technologytransfer, the negotiations stalled reportedly on cost considerations.
  • It is also interesting to note that in 2014, this project — of national importance — was arbitrarily shut down by the DRDO only to be revived subsequently for reasons unknown.
  • It is obvious that the onus for repeated setbacks in these projects must lie squarely on India’s political leadership; for its neglect as well as absence of a vision for the aeronautical industry.
  • There are three more factors:
  1. over-estimation by the DRDO of its capabilities compounded by a reluctance to seek advice;
  2. inadequate project management and decision-making skills of its scientists; and
  3. exclusion of users — the military — from all aspects of the projects.
  •  It is still not too late for the government to declare both these projects as ‘national missions’ and initiate urgent remedial actions. The success of both the Kaveri and Tejas programmes will transform the aerospace scene, and put India in the front ranks of aeronautical nations, perhaps even ahead of China, if the desired degree of resolve and professional rigour can be brought to the fore. If we miss this opportunity, we will remain abjectly import-dependent forever in this vital area.

A case for aggressive diplomacy

  • Indian state responses cannot be reactive to the agenda of terrorist groups
  • Pakistan and India are strange nations. Just as the conflict after India’s bombing of the Balakot terror camp was winding down, Pakistan alleged on March 5 that it had thwarted the entry of an Indian submarine into its waters. India responded that Pakistan was indulging in false propaganda. On the same evening, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a statement that its High Commissioner to India, Sohail Mahmood, would be returning to Delhi and talks with India on the Kartarpur Corridor would go ahead. It was a signal that tensions were officially being defused. India confirmed the talks on Kartarpur and also sent back Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria to Islamabad.
  • The morning and evening’s events of March 5 could cause genuine confusion among the public. But it appears as though Pakistan, through its morning assertion, was playing to its domestic audience, while its evening statement was a signal to the international community that it had no further desire to climb the escalation ladder with India.

WINDING DOWN TENSIONS

  • It was U.S. President Donald Trump who provided the first clear indication of the involvement of major powers in defusing tensions between India and Pakistan. Apart from the Americans, the Chinese and Saudis also seem smack in the middle of the India-Pakistan equation. If the Indian intention postPulwama was to isolate Pakistan, that doesn’t seem to have happened.
  • For the two governments, given that the score was level — one had shot down a F-16 and the other had shot down an MiG-21 — they could now respond positively to global concerns. As for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ‘Operation Balakot’ had given him ammunition to use in his election rallies.
  • The Modi government’s decision to go ahead with the Kartarpur talks days after tensions were at the peak, and after withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan, is bizarre, but it serves two purposes.
  1. One, it is an effort to win votes in the Punjab.
  2. Two, it shows India as being reasonable before the international community.
  • There is little doubt that India got away with its pre-emptive strike in Balakot because Pakistan’s denials that it has nothing to do with fostering groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) carry no credibility, including among thinking members of its own civil society. Further, the JeM even claimed responsibility for the Pulwama terror strike. There’s also little doubt that India and Pakistan narrowly escaped a full-fledged conflict, the extent of which can never really be predicted amid social media propaganda, fake videos, domestic pressures and ugly jingoism on both sides.

THE VAJPAYEE YEARS

  • The India-Pakistan nuclear ‘deterrent’ was first put to test by General Pervez Musharraf, who planned the Kargil incursion months after Pakistan went publicly nuclear in response to the Indian nuclear tests of May 11 and 13, 1998.
  • As India began clearing the Kargil heights of the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry masquerading as ‘mujahideen’, there was enormous pressure on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to use the Indian Air Force across the Line of Control after the loss of two MiG aircraft. But Vajpayee held firm against both public and IAF pressure.
  • During the Kargil conflict, Pakistan’s then Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed and Minister Raja Zafar-ul-Haq made it clear that its nuclear weapons were not for show, but for use.
  • Pakistan’s conduct during Kargil exposed the state as irresponsible and led to numerous international calls for respecting the LoC.
  • Had India retaliated across the LoC then, or hit back against Pakistani retaliation during this year’s confrontation, the country’s “miltablishment”, to borrow Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi’s expression, in Rawalpindi may well have been pondering the unthinkable nuclear option.
  • Pakistan went to great lengths to obtain its nuclear capability to insulate itself against India and no “miltablishment” can survive there if it’s unable to even the score with India. The nuclear option is built into the trajectory of its survival as a state.
  • India can ignore such default Pakistani options at its own — and the region’s — peril. Looking strong in an election year might be good for a political party’s prospects, but will do nothing to enhance India’s credentials as a responsible state that thinks long term.
  • During the Kargil war in 1999, after the Parliament attack in 2001, and post the Mumbai attack in 2008, two Prime Ministers of India had the option of retaliation, but they did not exercise it. Instead, India’s patience projected the responsible nature of the state, which was in stark opposition to Pakistan’s tattered credibility.
  • It is a commentary on the sorry state of India’s covert capabilities that key figures in the terror network in Pakistan operate unhindered. A key planner of the 1999 IC-814 hijacking and founder of the Harkat-ulMujahideen, Fazlur Rehman Khaleel, was recently received at a Pakistani air base in Waziristan. That’s the ground reality. Whatever Pakistan is doing to rein in the JeM and LeT is being dictated by the threat of sanctions from the Financial Action Task Force, not by Indian pressure. These actions will vanish if the threat of sanctions dissipates.

Talks and more talks

  • A conventional response to terrorist groups can demonstrate intent, but does very little to whittle down their abilities.
  • Covert capabilities coupled with deft and persistent diplomacy is the only way forward in such difficult circumstances.
  • The Modi government’s inability to reach out to Kashmiris and its actions against the Hurriyat leadership at a time when the separatists have lost control of the public mood underline an uncaring attitude. This has also created a fertile ground for Kashmiri youth to join terrorist ranks.
  • Indian state responses cannot be reactive to the agenda of terrorist groups, howsoever brutal their actions are. A calm, mature, informed and long-term strategy with aggressive diplomacy at its core, one that leverages India’s economic strength, remains the country’s best bet to deal with the terrorist threat from Pakistani soil.

Avoiding a slowdown

  • Central banks are reversing the direction of their policies in a seemingly coordinated bid
  • Over the last few days, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has been trying to allay fears that it will continue to raise interest rates notwithstanding conditions in the economy. Many, including President Donald Trump, have been quite critical of the Fed raising rates despite a slowing economy and inflation staying well below its official target of 2%. In fact, many have argued that the gradual but persistent raising of rates may be the reason behind the slowdown in U.S. growth and the lacklustre inflation numbers. The American economy created a mere 20,000 jobs in February, the slowest growth in jobs in well over a year, and GDP growth in the coming quarters is expected to slow considerably from the rate of 3.4% in the third quarter last year. On Sunday, however, Mr. Powell termed the current interest rate level as “appropriate”, and noted that the Fed does “not feel any hurry” to raise rates further. The Fed Chairman’s remarks come around the tenth anniversary of the historic bull market in U.S. stocks, which began in March 2009 after policy rates were cut aggressively in order to fight the recession. This marks a significant change from Mr. Powell’s hawkish policy stance since taking over last year.
  • But right now it is not just the Fed that has put the brakes on the normalization of monetary policy through a gradual tightening of short-term interest rates.
  • As economic conditions in Europe and Asia begin to deteriorate, central banks have been quick to turn more dovish. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi last week announced that rates in Europe will be kept low until next year and offered to lend cheaply to European banks.
  • The People’s Bank of China has promised further monetary stimulus measures to stem the fall in growth, and
  • the Reserve Bank of India has started to cut interest rates as growth has slowed down each successive quarter this fiscal ahead of the general election.
  • It should thus be obvious by now that central banks around the world are reversing the direction of their policies in what seems to be a coordinated effort to avoid a global growth slowdown. The brakes applied to the raising of interest rates by the Fed allows other central banks to lower their own policy rates and boost growth without the fear that disruptive capital flows could wreak havoc on their economies. While such coordinated monetary policy can certainly prevent slowdowns, it also raises the risk of extended periods of low interest rates leading to more destructive bubbles.