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December 22, 2011

Decision on combat aircraft within fortnight

(Business Standard) : The defence ministry (MoD) indicates a decision is imminent about whether the Air Force will buy the Typhoon or the Rafale; that Army chief, General V K Singh, will not get another year in office; and that indigenous ballistic missiles are the success story of this year. These are the highlights of the MoD’s ‘Year-end Review’, an annual summary released on Wednesday.
The review terms 2011 ‘The Decisive Year for the MMRCA’, suggesting the winner of the contest to sell India 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft could be announced this fortnight. In April, the MoD eliminated Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Mikoyan and Saab, leaving only Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon in the fray. On November 4, the two commercial bids were opened. The IAF has given a comparative evaluation and the ball is now in the MoD’s court.
 Once the winning bid is announced, the MoD will convene a ‘Contract Negotiation Committee’ to negotiate a final price. MoD sources indicate that price quoted by both vendors is significantly higher than the Rs 42,000 crore the Union Cabinet cleared for this purchase.
The MoD’s annual review also indicates ballistic missile development has topped the Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) indigenous programmes. Nine successful missile tests were conducted and the launch of the new 3,500 km range Agni-4 Ballistic Missile on November 15 is termed “the highlight of the year”.
Other missiles tested include the Prithvi-2; the Dhanush (both with a range of 350 km); the new Prahaar tactical battlefield missile (200 km); the Pakistan-specific Agni-1 (700 km); and Agni-2 (2,000 km); and the innovative, hybrid Shourya missile (700 km) that can be fired from land or a submarine.
The review is silent on the Agni-5 intermediate range ballistic missile, which was to have been fired this month. However, the DRDO postponed this high-profile test till February-March 2012, reducing developmental risk by testing and validating several of the Agni-5’s new technologies on the Agni-4.
Another success story is the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. IAF granted the Tejas its first stage of operational clearance in January 11; final operational clearance is expected next year. The review also mentions the naval Tejas, which will fly off the navy’s aircraft carriers. Having completed its engine ground run in September 11, it will shortly take to the skies.
The MoD review falsely eulogises the long-delayed Kaveri engine, which DRDO is developing for the Tejas. While the Kaveri did indeed complete ‘Flying Test Bed’ trials in Russia this year, powering a modified IL-76 transport aircraft, it remains well short of the power needed for the Tejas fighter. The DRDO is now partnering French engine-maker, Snecma, in an attempt to resurrect the Kaveri.
Another success story in the ‘Year-end Review’ is the warship building programme. Two major warships were commissioned this year: the 6,200-tonne frigate, INS Satpura in August; and the 27,500 tonne, ‘made-in-Italy’ fleet tanker, INS Deepak, in January. Another major warship, the 3,000-tonne indigenous anti-submarine corvette, INS Kadmatt, was launched in October. Four smaller Coast Guard and navy vessels were also launched. To nurture design capability, defence minister Antony laid the foundation stone for the National Institute for Research and Development in Defence Shipbuilding in January.
2012 could see a further boost. Likely to be commissioned are two Kolkata-class destroyers, each 6,800 tonnes; the Satpura’s successor frigate, INS Sahyadri; and the anti-submarine corvette, INS Kamorta, along with several other smaller craft.
Tantalisingly, the review suggests the MoD could ignore army chief General V K Singh’s petition, asking for his date of birth to be corrected, which would give him an additional year in office till May 2013. The review states, “MoD’s decision setting at rest the controversy of the age of Chief of Army staff General V K Singh was prominently carried by the media in July.”
The Review illustrates the growing role of military diplomacy, listing 27 international exchanges at the service chief or MoD level. The military also carried out seven exercises with friendly foreign countries, including the US, France, Turkey, Oman and Singapore. However, diplomatic niceties find no place in the review. It categorises Pakistan’s prompt return of an Indian helicopter — which strayed across the Line of Control near Kargil and landed at a Pakistani helipad in October — as ‘The Non-Event of the Year’.

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