Originally Published 2012-02-24 00:00:00 Published on Feb 24, 2012
Antony figured the French were more likely to part with critical technologies needed to enhance India's defence aviation sector than any other country
When strategy was technical
France has always been a difficult ally of the US. Like an extremely talented problem child, France has defied the US time and again. And this cock-a-snook attitude has been most visible in the field of defence and military hardware sales. Some call the French approach business-like, driven by self-interest and realpolitik. Critics, however, describe the French approach as one with a flexible moral compass.

During the 10-year Iran-Iraq war, the French played both sides admirably. While the Iraqis were given French warplanes, Milan anti-tank missiles and Exocet AM 39 anti-ship missiles, the Iranians were subtly directed to the Chinese who supplied them with sea-skimming Silkworm anti-ship missiles to keep the Straits of Hormuz boiling. The interesting point was that the French had secretly supplied the Chinese with the inertial guidance system and the solid fuel technology to the Chinese. But this was still minor indiscretion. The French looked the other way when Iraq acquired highly restricted Maraging Steel, used in uranium enrichment centrifuges, through a complex series of transactions, middlemen, and front companies.

Antony and his team seemed to know this history and felt that the French were more likely to part with critical technologies needed to enhance India’s defence aviation sector than any other country. They had their own precedents too. When sanctions were imposed on India, especially on dual use technologies, after Pokhran II the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project was the worst hit. The US, which was supposed to help Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) with crucial cockpit systems, avionics, Fly by Wire (FBW) flight control systems and engines (GE-404), backed out and refused to part with off-the-shelf units as well as the technology. The French decided to break ranks with the US and helped out.

People familiar with the LCA project contend that it’s no accident that India preferred to go with a relatively complex tailless compound delta-wing design, a design philosophy followed by the European aircraft manufacturers. Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen are all delta-wing aircraft. Antony and his team were aware of the commonality of design philosophy between Rafale and Tejas. The commonality was strategic as it had the potential to comprehensively transform India’s defence aviation sector.

The French support in helping India develop indigenous technological capabilities is by no means small. Three examples will suffice. First, Indian company Samtel, which produces state-of-the-art Heads up Display (HUD) display systems for Tejas and Sukhoi-30 MKI, is a joint venture with Thales, which has a 26% stake in it. Thales is one of a handful of companies in the world with proprietary avionics technology. Second, Dassault, which manufactures Rafale, was initially invited by ADA to provide consultancy services for developing the FBW system of Tejas. Third, when India’s efforts to produce an indigenous engine (GTRE GTX-35VS Kaveri) for Tejas with 90 kilonewton (KN) thrust fell flat, it was the French Snecma that stepped in to help the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) finetune the Kabini core of the Kaveri engine. Snecma powers Rafale with its twin M-88-2 engines.

Insiders also revealed that Antony and his team were not convinced about the American intentions to transfer core technologies. Their suspicions had solid grounds. Of course the sanctions imposed on India was one obvious ground, but the way the US pressured Israel, one its closest allies, to abandon the Lavi fighter aircraft project was another. In 1980, the Israel government authorised the Israel Air Force (IAF) to present its requirements and specifications to Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) for the production of a 4th generation fighter aircraft. Called Lavi, it was jointly financed by Israel (60%) and the US (40%). The first prototype flew in 1986 and it became clear that the Lavi was far superior to the F-16, which constituted a substantial chunk of the IAF. The US started putting intense political pressure on Israel to cancel the project, eventually cutting off its part of the funding. Left with inadequate capital Israel abandoned the Lavi project. Rumour has it that Boeing and Lockheed Martin used its clout to put pressure on the US government

Nobody could have anticipated it, but the abandonment of the Lavi project led to the development of a direct threat to India. For the last three decades the Chinese have been on frenetic mission to modernise their armed forces by all means possible. Some military experts are convinced that the Chinese J-10 (manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and internally designated as ’Vigorous Dragon’) is a copy of the Lavi. The Chinese, of course, deny it. But the similarities between the two aircraft are uncanny. The Chinese do have a track record of using below the belt tactics to achieve their aims. In 2008, a furious Russia threatened to sue China when it copied the Sukhoi-27SK fighters and released them into the export market as Shenyang J-11. Despite the threat, the Chinese continue to produce J-11 and have thumbed their nose at the Russians by copying carrier-based Sukhoi-33 and releasing them as J-11BH.

The best example of Chinese underhand tactics was the way in which they acquired Admiral Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Varyag in April 1998 from Ukraine. Some military experts say that China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) floated a front company called Chong Lot Travel Agency Ltd, based it in Hong Kong, and bought the aircraft carrier ostensibly to convert into a floating hotel and gambling parlour. For over ten years the ship disappeared from everyone’s radar. Then it finally popped up as fully refurbished indigenous Chinese aircraft carrier for sea trials in August 2011. It will be China’s first aircraft carrier.

Antony recognised the Chinese threat and got the previous National Security Adviser M K Narayanan on board. Together they met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and decided to implement a comprehensive action plan to counter the increasing Chinese muscle. One part of the plan was a concerted upgradation of critical defence equipment. The upgrade programmes of MiG-29, MiG-21, Mirage-2000, Jaguar, T-72 and T-90 tanks are all part of this effort. But a more long-term part of the plan was to upgrade and build India’s military industrial base, especially with regard to critical technologies.

Antony knew that India could never go the Chinese way of copying military hardware or reverse engineering technologies. He was clear that while India needed to be self-reliant on critical technologies, it could not do so on its own. It needed reliable partners. Using the blueprint of the successful Indo-Russian venture to produce the world’s first supersonic cruise missile, Brahmos, Antony decided to scout for partners who would treat India as equals and at the same help the country develop competencies in critical technologies. This approach has resulted in a partnership with Sukhoi to develop a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), tie-ups with Israeli companies to develop avionics and cockpit systems and German engineers to develop Arjun Mark II. The selection of Dassault Rafale is only a continuation of this well-thought out policy.

< class="heading11verdana">•  The stubborn man and his flying machines
< class="heading11verdana">•  How it all played out
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