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Rafale: A national tragedy or just plain stupidity?

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In other countries, it would have been a badge of shame for the Government, Bureaucracy, Defense Industry and the citizenry as a whole. In India, it has become an ugly no-holds-barred slugfest like none other. Endless discussions, numerous debates and multitudes of expert opinions have pervaded the national discourse on just one topic these days. Apparently, the topic on which everyone in India and apparently a few abroad, have become an expert is Dassault Rafale. Every moment, new facts, truths, half-truths, and blunt lies are being tossed about in the Print, Television & Social Media and apparently, some so-called experts have started a smear campaign to malign the name of the Prime Minister, labeling him as a chor (thief) and much more. What is the whole issue about? Pick any hundred shouting at the very top of their voices and ask them about the issue. Not one would be able to go beyond the generality and much-used catchphrases like Scam, Ambani-Adani, Modi, France. Most, if not all, detractors of the defense deal have a half-baked understanding of the fighter aircraft in general and would be unable to differentiate between an interceptor and an air-superiority fighter in any literature. Conversely, the supporters of the deal, in their standard fashion, have built walls of ignorance so high that it puts even Mount Everest to shame. While most (though not all) of the questions of the detractors are logical and valid, tagging every detractor as an Urban Naxal while ignoring his line of questioning won’t work. It’s time for the supporters and detractors of the deal to gain a meaningful insight into the entire deal and then form an opinion on the issue.

The entire fiasco has its roots way back in 2001 when the Indian Air force had projected a requirement for 126 (seven squadrons of 18 aircrafts each) aircraft. The strength of the IAF was starting to fall. It has last acquired an aircraft (Mirage-2000) in the 1980s and the acquisition of the Sukhois (-30MKI) was starting to gain steam. The initial requirements were for a 20-ton class fighter aircraft with medium role capability which would fill the multi-role niche between the heavy-hitter Sukhoi Su-30MKI (an air superiority fighter) and the MiG-21/Tejas (a smaller multi-role interdictor). Apparently impressed by the Mirage 2000s bomb lugging capability at high altitudes during the Kargil War, the IAF was keen to acquire the Mirages and had quietly made up its mind to acquire the same until the French Aerospace industry and Rafale, in particular, threw a spanner in their works. However, the French aerospace industry was winding down Mirage 2000 production due to lack of orders and preparing for the manufacture of the Rafale aircraft. Apparently, the French Air Force needed it Rafales faster (point to be noted- the Rafale is the next iteration of the Mirage-2000 fighter and the current mainstay fighter of the French Air Force). The Mirage production line was shutting down and the French could only keep it open if India gave a firm order. But we are Indians, have we ever committed to anything without first bargaining and comparing the hell out of it?

Hence, Requests for Information (RFI) were issued in 2004. In the formative years of the tendering, aircraft in the running were: Mirage 2000-5 Mk.2 (Dassault, France), F-16C/D (Lockheed Martin, USA), MiG-29OVT (Mikoyan, Russia), and JAS 39 Gripen (Saab, Sweden). Preliminary estimates pegged the costs in the neighborhood of INR 55,000 crore (US$8.6 billion), making it India’s single largest defense deal. However, the 20-ton MTOW (maximum take-off weight) limit requirement was later removed and this limit was revised to 24-tons. Given the protracted nature of the tendering and the past governmental acquisition timelines, Dassault replaced the Mirage 2000-5 with the Rafale and the MiG Company placed MiG-35 in instead of the prototype MiG-29OVT. The Eurofighter consortium entered the Typhoon into the competition. Not wanting to be outdone, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet also joined the tendering. Given the vagueness of the clauses, all aircraft, single engine or double and both light and heavy became a part of the fray.

As per one defense analyst, this deal meant that The Indian Air force was comparing every four-wheel vehicle from a Maruti 800 and a tractor when it just needed a jeep.

The Indian government had initially planned to buy the first 18 aircraft directly from the manufacturer. The remaining fighters will be built under license with a transfer of technology (ToT) by HAL. After an intensive and detailed technical evaluation by the IAF, in 2011, the competition has reduced the bidders to two fighters — Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. On 31 January 2012, it was announced that Dassault Rafale won the competition due to its lower life-cycle cost. The deal has been reported to cost US$28–30 billion in 2014. However, the French refused to provide any guarantees for the 108 aircraft that would be manufactured by HAL. The deal went back to the chopping block and the fleet strength of the IAF continued to deplete at alarming rates. A report commissioned under the erstwhile UPA slammed the HAL’s practices and there were some serious differences between HAL and Dassault on the various fronts.

In light of this, on April 10, 2015, Prime Minister Modi declared: ‘Keeping in mind the critical operational necessity of fighter aircraft in India, I have discussed with the president (of France) the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in ‘fly-away condition’ at the earliest through an inter-governmental agreement.’ However, the Congress party alleges that the Modi government, in buying 36 Rafales for €7.8 billion ($9.2 billion or Rs 58,000 crore/Rs 50 billion), paid more than what Dassault had quoted in the MMRCA tender but a full breakdown of figures is essential as the total cost of a fighter contract includes — besides the cost of the aircraft — costs related to technology transfer, spare parts, weapons and missiles, added-on equipment and maintenance costs. Moreover, the same aircraft Rafale has also be bought by the Governments of Egypt and Qatar.

A closer look at the costs shows that the contracted price averages out to €91.7 million (Rs 686 crore/Rs 6.86 billion) per Rafale which includes the purchase of 28 single-seat fighters, for €91.07 million (Rs 681 crore/Rs 6.81 billion) each; and eight twin-seat fighters, each priced at €94 million (Rs 703 crore/Rs 7.03 billion). That puts the cost of each of the 36 fighters at €91.7 million (Rs 686 crore) — totaling up to €3.3 billion.

Besides this, the IAF will pay €1.7 billion for ‘India-specific enhancements’, €700 million for weaponry such as Meteor and SCALP missiles, €1.8 billion for spare parts and engines, and €350 million for ‘performance-based logistics’, to ensure that at least 75 percent of the Rafale fleet remains operationally available (our Sukhoi serviceability is an abysmal 50%). We are paying extra for the India specific enhancements that were earlier not the part of the generic aircraft selected via the MMRCA process. Also, while such a direct comparison is not right, prima facie the IAF is paying more or less the same as the EAF and the QAF. The Egyptian air force has paid €5.2 billion for 24 fighters and is reportedly considering buying 12 more, a ‘fully loaded cost’ of €217 million per Rafale. Similarly, the Qatar air force has paid out €6.3 billion for a similar number of aircraft, with a ‘fully loaded cost’ of €262 million per fighter.

The opposition Congress is arguing that by reducing the buy from 126 aircraft for which a sum of (520-700 crores per aircraft, varying in every speech) to just 36 aircraft (700-1600 crores), the present dispensation is causing a scam of epic propositions. There are also serious concerns about the offer being made to Reliance instead of HAL to partner with the deal. While concerns about the apparent lack of Reliance’s experience in making aircraft is genuine, this is no excuse to mock and needlessly criticize a perfectly valid deal. One Congress legislator had even claimed that he would make a better plane than Reliance and mockingly flew a paper plane in the august presence of elected public representatives. Wish making fighter jets was only that simple. However, they seem to forget that Reliance is not going to manufacture any aircraft. It is just a part of an Indian Consortium which will be benefitted by offsets as part of the deal. Why Reliance? Yes, this is a question that needs to be asked and should be answered. The choice was primarily dictated by Dassault’s need to gain a foothold in Indian Markets and tap the rich moolah in the pockets of Indian Industrialists. Given the tie-up between Tata ASL and Lockheed Martin & Pilatus, Honeywell and HAL, Adani and Elbit Systems of Israel and Mahindra taking a heavy plunge in the aviation industry with its acquisition of Gipps Aerospace, Dassault was wary of being caught napping and needed a partner that would be accommodative for them and assertive for others. Reliance Group fit the bill perfectly and while many have been accusing the govt. for crony capitalism, the Dassault-Reliance tie-up is one of survival.

Many have also lamented that private industries are being promoted at the cost of public institutions. Well, only HAL can be blamed for this mess. Not only has HAL chronically underperformed over the years and hamstrung the IAF’s expansion plans (read Sukhoi SU-30MKI) by its ineptitude, it is also overcharging the Indian Tax-payer for basic jets like the domestic Tejas. Recent estimates show that the much-hyped Tejas (named by our former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his regime) is still facing teething troubles even after 2 decades in testing & production and the costs have ballooned exponentially over the years. It is being reported that each Tejas will cost between 460-480 crores per platform which is significantly higher than other fighters for its niche (read JF-17, FC-1) and certainly not making sense in any way. It’s an irony that people accusing the present dispensation of allowing private players to siphon taxpayers’ money are either unaware or simply don’t care that the public sector undertaking is just as expensive (if not more) with the added downside of inefficiency and lethargy. It must also be pointed out that HAL Dhruvs (a light helicopter) manufactured by the PSU have had serious doubts raised about their capability and a South American nation has mothballed all its Dhruvs after a significant no. of them crashed within a short span of time. It is only logical that any foreign manufacturer would be hesitant to partner with HAL. If there is indeed something wrong in this deal, it is the sorry state of affairs at HAL and the government must take immediate steps to resolve it.

On an ending note, defense procurements in India and around the globe have always been shrouded in mist and with good reason. Given the stringent security clauses, unique modifications and country-specific costing, it is near impossible to compare figures across the board, unlike the Big Mac Index. While everyone has the right to an opinion, it should be exercised with caution and should never be misused. The fleet strength of the IAF is rapidly depleting and the Rafales are needed. The opposition is being hypocritical by painting its inability to close a deal in a decade (remember, Saint Antony of the “You can’t be accused of corruption if you do nothing” fame) as a done deal and conveniently forgetting the facts and reports, it had itself prepared. The Government, on the other hand, is doing a poor job by its high on rhetoric and low on facts media reporting. The deal is tough and not easily understandable for all because it is meant to be that way. Having a simple analogy to substitute for this deal is hilarious and plainly, uncalled for. Something must be left to the experts and not brought down to the floor. We are, after all, buying a Mach 2 capable fighter plane, not the bhaziya-tamatar of everyday use. While common sense should prevail on this issue of national importance and the cacophony should subside, it is highly unlikely in the coming days and the slugfest will continue. Meanwhile, the only casualty in this conflict will be the Indian Air Force and its brave pilots, who continue to fly old and unsafe planes for the foreseeable future to come.

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The Global Hypersonic Race

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Prominent Western politicians have launched a global discussion about the risks associated with Russia developing hypersonic weapons. Arms control experts are attempting to estimate the potential of these new weapons, but attempts at this stage are hindered by the absence of important technical data and the lack of specialized terminology in this field.

The discussion of the threats posed by hypersonic weapons was triggered by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, described the impressive capabilities of Russia’s new Avangard and Kinzhal strategic missile systems as follows: “The glide vehicle strikes its target like a meteorite, like a fireball, with its surface temperature reaching between 1600 and 2000 degrees Celsius, while remaining completely controllable at the same time.”

Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany Heiko Maas attempted to take the lead in discussing the destabilizing new technology. In March 2019, he hastily organized the “2019. Capturing Technology. Rethinking Arms Control” international conference in Berlin. In his opening speech, Maas said: “Manoeuvrable missiles travelling at many times the speed of sound barely leave time for considered human responses. The fact that we are not just talking about science fiction here is demonstrated by Russia’s announcement that the first Avangard systems will be entering service this year. I would therefore also like to seize this conference as an opportunity to establish an international missiles dialogue that takes into account both the challenges posed by new technologies and the dangers of their proliferation. The experts gathered here today could form the backbone of this kind of global Missile Dialogue Initiative.”

However, the subsequent discussion at the conference demonstrated that many of the participants were unfamiliar with the topic of hypersonic weapons. Recognized experts on missile control proved unprepared to hold a substantive conversation about hypersonic technology. As a result, the dialogue was reduced to discussing the INF Treaty.

At the end of the conference, the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden signed a political declaration stressing the “need to build a shared understanding of how technologically enhanced military capabilities may change the character of warfare and how this will influence global security.”

In the United States, where hypersonic technology has already been developing at a rapid pace, including as part of the Prompt Global Strike programme, Putin’s announcement was used as a pretext for investing more in the Pentagon’s projects. “We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics [but] we have not lost the hypersonics fight,” said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva. Meanwhile, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, for his part, has identified hypersonics as his top priority and called for an industrial base to be established that could support the development and production of thousands of deterrence hypersonic vehicles.

Mike White, the Pentagon’s assistant director for hypersonics, announced that the department had a three-step plan for the development of hypersonic weapons that involves investing generously in offensive capabilities, then in defensive systems, and finally, at least ten years from now, in reusable airborne hypersonic vehicles. The Pentagon’s spending on hypersonic projects has increased from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, and the overall cost of the program is estimated at $2 billion.

China has been no stranger to this “war of words,” with several fantastic reports emanating from the country about “successful tests of hypersonic flight vehicles,” the creation of a material capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 3000 degrees Celsius, and even the development of a universal engine that can accelerate a vehicle from zero to hypersonic flight. Japan has stated its intent to create a High-Speed Gliding Missile, an equivalent of Russia’s Avangard.

Minister of the Armed Forces of France Florence Parly has announced the country’s plans to use the ASN4G supersonic air-to-surface cruise missile as the baseline for the V-MaX supersonic glider that could travel at a speed of over 6000 km/h. The project is being led by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, and the first test flight could take place in late 2021.

In the meantime, the global expert community has yet to come up with a clear scientific definition for the term “hypersonic vehicle.” Hypersonic flight is conventionally understood to mean atmospheric flight at speeds higher than Mach 5, that is, five times the speed of sound. The second important feature of a hypersonic aircraft is its ability to maneuver with the use of aerodynamic forces, rather than merely adjusting the target accuracy. This entails longer atmospheric flight times and greater susceptibility to the destructive factors associated with atmospheric flight.

At present, only a handful of countries are close to creating effective hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons engineers are faced with some very unique technical challenges. To begin with, there is the problem of ensuring controlled and sustained flight in a rarefied atmosphere whose density varies with altitude. Among other things, this creates difficulties for propulsion systems that consume oxygen.

Also, the friction created by the hypersonic airflow around the vehicle’s surface generates a sheath of ionized plasma, with the nose fairing temperature reaching up to 3000 degrees Celsius. Even vehicles made of ultra-heat-resistant alloys or composites lose their shape and original aerodynamic characteristics due to the heating and ablation. For example, the U.S. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird high-altitude supersonic reconnaissance aircraft would become 10cm longer in flight owing to thermal expansion, and fuel would seep from its seams on landing.

Controlling a hypersonic vehicle from launch to target impact is a separate problem, as the plasma sheath blocks radio signals. Solving this problem requires complex and expensive research. Even US engineers have not yet found a solution to this problem.

Another challenge is linked to the fact that the plasma sheath significantly complicates navigation, which for a strike vehicle must be autonomous, prompt and very accurate. Plasma makes electro-optical and radio-frequency homing impossible. Inertial navigation systems cannot provide the required accuracy at long distances. A solution to this problem has yet to be found.

The traditional types of aviation fuel (jet fuel and methane) are unsuitable at hypersonic speeds. A hypersonic vehicle needs a special kind of fuel. Also, a universal propulsion engine capable of accelerating a vehicle from zero to hypersonic speeds has not yet been created. At present, militaries have to make do with rocket boosters or supersonic aircraft to accelerate vehicles to speeds at which their supersonic combustion ramjet engines can be engaged.

When it comes to the flight mode, there are three different types of hypersonic vehicles. The first type is an unpowered glide vehicle, which rides a ballistic missile to an altitude of approximately 100km, separates, and performs a maneuverable flight in the upper atmospheric layer at speeds between Mach 8 and Mach 28. By skip-gliding along the atmosphere like a skipping stone along the water surface, such a vehicle can increase its flight range by several times. The second type is a scramjet-powered vehicle, which can only fly in the atmosphere because its engine needs oxygen. The third type is a quasi-ballistic or semi-ballistic missile that mainly follows a shallow ballistic trajectory but can also maneuver to evade enemy missile defenses. One example here is the Russian Iskander-M missile, which flies at hypersonic speeds of between 2100 and 2600 m/sec (Mach 6 to Mach 7) at an altitude of 50km.

Experts sometimes use the term “aeroballistic.” However, this definition is not applied to the speed of flight, but rather to the mode of travel: namely, it implies a combined mode of partially traveling along a ballistic trajectory and partially employing aerodynamic control surfaces and jet vanes for steering. An aeroballistic vehicle does not necessarily have to be hypersonic, as the term can also be applied to slower vehicles, although it is now widely used in the context of the hypersonic Kinzhal and Iskander-M missiles.

Hypersonic vehicles have one distinct feature which traditional exo-atmospheric ballistic missiles do not. While most ballistic missiles develop speeds of dozens of Machs (i.e., they also travel at hypersonic speeds), they are not described as hypersonic unless they or their warheads are capable of aerodynamic maneuvering in the atmosphere.

Some ballistic missile warheads are capable of terminal trajectory corrections. They are not classed as hypersonic vehicles, since the purpose of their maneuvering is not to increase the flight range or evade an anti-missile attack, but merely to reduce the circular error probable (CEP).

All hypersonic vehicles can be subdivided into five categories depending on their mission:

  1. Manned aircraft (the first and so far only example here is the U.S. North American X-15, which set the world airspeed record of Mach 6.72 in 1967)
  2. Unmanned vehicles (mainly experimental projects such as the Boeing X-43, which reached Mach 9.6 in 2004)
  3. Scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles (such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon)
  4. Hypersonic glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard or the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon)
  5. Air- or ground-launched spaceplanes (the Soviet Buran and U.S. Space Shuttle vehicles, which reach speeds of Mach 25 upon re-entry).

Military hypersonic vehicles fall into the following three categories:

1. Reconnaissance vehicles

At present, only one purely reconnaissance hypersonic vehicle is known to be under development: the Lockheed Martin SR-72, which can theoretically travel at speeds of up to 7400 km/h. This vehicle is expected to be better at monitoring mobile missile systems than reconnaissance satellites. It could also eventually be equipped to carry a charge for a pinpoint strike.

Another experimental orbital hypersonic vehicle is the Boeing X-37B. Although little is known about its intended mission, it could also serve as a reconnaissance platform.

2. Hypersonic kill vehicles

Scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles that can be launched by an aircraft, a sea-surface ship or a submarine (the Russian 3M22 Zircon or the U.S. X-51A Waverider, which is currently under development) can be used to destroy enemy missile early warning systems, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses, airfields, hardened command posts and critical facilities.

Glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard; the U.S. Lockheed Martin Falcon, HIFiRE and HSSW/TBG [High-Speed Strike Weapon/Tactical Boost Glide]; and the Chinese WU-14/DF-ZF) are primarily intended as nuclear strike weapons.

Quasi-ballistic missiles (the Russian Kinzhal and Iskander-M; the Indian Shaurya tactical missile; and the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile) are relatively difficult to detect by radar thanks to their shallow trajectory. Their warheads can change trajectory, so enemy missile defenses cannot calculate the exact target, and the warhead’s maneuverability considerably complicates interception.

3. Hypersonic interceptors

These are surface-to-air missiles designed to intercept ballistic missile warheads, normally in their terminal, atmospheric phase of trajectory. The most advanced interceptors can engage ballistic missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes and even shoot down low-orbit satellites.

To stand a chance of intercepting a ballistic target, an interceptor must not only develop a high speed, but also launch promptly and maneuver actively. U.S. RIM-161 SM-3 Block IIA missiles of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System can travel at speeds of up to Mach 15.25; the Russian S-400 48N6DM missiles have a speed of Mach 7.5, and the future S500 77N6-N1 missiles will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 21.

Advantages of Hypersonic Missiles

Hypersonic missiles have several obvious advantages over ballistic missiles. First, they follow significantly shallower trajectories, so ground-based radars detect them later into the flight. Second, thanks to their maneuvering, high speed and unpredictable trajectory, the enemy cannot be certain of the hypersonic vehicle’s target, whereas the trajectory of a ballistic missile is currently fairly easy to calculate. Third, ballistic missile interception experiments have been conducted since the 1960s, and there are plenty of reports on successful trial intercepts. However, intercepting a high-speed maneuvering atmospheric target is extremely difficult and is believed to be impossible at present. Also, the mass production of hypersonic vehicles is expected to be cheaper than that of ballistic missiles. Despite the challenges associated with developing scram engines, such jets have virtually no moving parts and their cross-sections represent special configuration tubing. According to analysts at the U.S. company Capital Alpha Partners, “If hypersonic weapons can be produced with unit costs of $2 million, or less, they will impact some of the outyear weapons plans. A weapon that travels at Mach 5, or faster, and that can maneuver will see strong U.S. demand in the later part of this decade.” Finally, the kinetic energy of a hypersonic missile is so high that its release will be enough to destroy certain types of targets even without using a charge. This gives experts reason to state that hypersonic missiles might become an alternative to nuclear weapons in certain situations.

Shortcomings of Hypersonic Missiles

As for the shortcomings of hypersonic missiles, experts point out that they cannot offer high target accuracy because it is almost impossible to fit such a missile with a homing head, and its high speed will result in an increase in targeting error. A hypersonic vehicle is believed to have a CER of between 30 and 50 meters. Furthermore, high-speed missiles will have a large infrared signature due to frictional skin heating, making them easily detectable by IR sensors. Designers will need to find a compromise between the high impact speed and the high probability of standoff detection. Also, a scramjet-powered missile must be initially accelerated to a speed of about Mach 3. This complicates the use of such weapons, which require a rocket booster or a high-speed air-launch platform. Experts believe that, due to a plethora of technological problems, hypersonic weapons currently have a relatively limited effective range (some 1000km for scramjet-powered missiles). However, the veil of secrecy surrounding this type of weaponry provokes rumors and excessive fears, and this destabilizing factor could prompt the enemy to resort to a pre-emptive strike.

Challenges for International Security and Stability

The U.S. expert community has carefully studied the potential of Russian hypersonic weapons in terms of how they could affect the balance of forces and concluded that, in general, they do not pose an existential threat to major nuclear powers. Thus, fitting Avangard missiles with glide vehicles will not increase the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, nor will it extend the effective range of the missiles, their range of action or their strike speed. The United States and other nuclear powers will still be able to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.

U.S. experts admit that maneuvering hypersonic vehicles are almost impossible to intercept. However, given that the U.S. missile defense system has very limited intercept capabilities when it comes even to Russian ballistic missiles, the introduction of Avangard hypersonic missiles changes little in the nuclear war scenario. For the United States, this is more of a technological challenge, with which both the Pentagon and the White House are fairly unhappy. Dominance in military technology has remained a priority for the United States for decades, ever since the launch of the first Soviet satellite. Therefore, the news of Russia’s hypersonic achievements does not sit well with Washington. At the same time, it has provided the United States with an opportunity to study the possibility of extending missile defense to near space. Megawatt laser weapons are believed to be capable of destroying both ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The current level of U.S. technology already allows for equipping different types of ground transport with lasers generating in excess of 50kW of power, while sea-based lasers can generate over 150kW. Under the current trend, laser power increases tenfold every three years. In this sense, within five years, we can expect U.S. laser technology to reach a level that where the Pentagon may be confident in the possibility of building lasers that are capable of shooting down hypersonic devices. The next step will then be to deploy laser weapons in the Earth’s orbit.

In light of the above, the emergence of hypersonic weapons will introduce a number of destabilizing factors for international security. First, countries possessing such weapons will have an asymmetric advantage over other developing countries. Second, it will trigger the deployment of the space-based laser component of the missile defense system. Third, it will provoke a new global arms race, including with regard to laser weapons, hypersonic anti-missile systems, cyber-weapons, railguns and unmanned delivery platforms for strike weapons. Moreover, for non-nuclear powers, hypersonic missiles may become a serious instrument of deterrence or power projection. It should also be noted that hypersonic missiles could be used in a pre-emptive strike against an enemy whose main weapons are situated within their effective reach (at present, within a radius of up to 1000km). That is, the deployment of hypersonic weapons can be considered as a critical threat to the country’s immediate neighbors. Finally, there are global risks to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The secret hunt for missile components such as fuel, alloys, electronics and airframe blueprints has never stopped. In the new environment, even those countries that are signatories to the MTCR are interested in obtaining prompt global strike technologies.

The current leaders of hypersonic weapons research are, in addition to Russia, the United States and China.

China

Despite its ambitious statements, China has not yet rolled out a reliable prototype of a hypersonic vehicle. Chinese engineers have developed the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, but the country’s military currently only has subsonic ground-based cruise missiles in service. It may be the case that Beijing hopes to leap from subsonic straight to hypersonic, skipping supersonics altogether.

China is believed to be working on at least two hypersonic programs. Since 2014, it has been testing the DF-ZF (dubbed Wu-14 in the United States) hypersonic glide vehicle complete with the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile for the launch vehicle (eventually to be replaced by the DF-31 missile). The second project, the air-launched CH-AS-X-13 missile, is primarily intended against aircraft carriers. According to a representative of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Mechanics has created a turbine-based combined-cycle engine capable of accelerating a vehicle to Mach 6.

United States

As part of the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the United States Air Force are working on three hypersonic concepts. The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) combat vehicle riding a solid-fuel rocket booster, under development by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is planned as an equivalent to Russia’s Avangard. The Boeing Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) will have a combined-cycle engine (the turbine will accelerate the vehicle to Mach 2, after which the scramjet will further propel it to hypersonic speeds). According to some reports, the vehicle may be reusable. Northrop Grumman Corporation is working to design the combined-cycle Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) for HAWC under a contract with DARPA. Finally, the reusable unmanned craft under development as part of the HyRAX project and the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane program will be used as an inexpensive launch vehicle to insert dual-use satellites into low-Earth orbits.

The HSSW program is aimed at designing and testing a hypersonic strike vehicle by 2020. The key specifications include speeds of Mach 6 to 10, an effective range of over 1000km, a CEP of under 5m and a variety of warhead types (penetrator, HE-fragmentation or cluster).

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is looking into the possibility of creating a combined-cycle propulsion system for reusable vehicles, including by way of integrating scramjets with reheated bypass turbojets.

In addition to DARPA, hypersonic weapons are being developed by the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command in conjunction with the Sandia National Laboratory under the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon project, which calls for the creation of a hypersonic glide vehicle with a precision terminal guidance system.

Russia’s breakthrough in the hypersonic weapons race may have shaken the global balance of forces, but it has not reshaped it. The United States is not far behind Russia technologically, and may even be ahead in certain aspects of hypersonic weapons, including when it comes to making combined-cycle or hybrid propulsion systems for hypersonic vehicles that would allow a reusable reconnaissance/strike vehicle to be created. Nevertheless, the Russian achievements came as an unpleasant surprise for all the leading world powers.

The situation appears different for those nations that do not command massive nuclear arsenals. The Russian example opens a window of opportunities for them. Hypersonic weapons may appear to be an excellent solution for ensuring a decisive military advantage over a technically lacking adversary. Those countries lagging behind in the arms race may perceive hypersonic weapons as a critical and potentially disarming threat to an unfriendly neighbor.

In the art of war, uncertainty often drives progress. As the leading analytical centers are working to collect relevant information and understand the scale of possible threats, politicians and militaries are approving investment in new defense programs. A new item on defense budgets around the world has appeared.

From our partner RIAC

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Miles Long UK Arms Trade Routes of Saudi Arabia Reaching Ends

Marcus Salles

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The opacity of oil-drenched Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has failed to hide the blood-bath it has been shedding over several Middle Eastern nations, both directly and indirectly. A number of other countries have become suppliers to the Arab nation’s barbaric objectives that have been causing grave instability in the MENA region.

However, with increasing death toll in the war-torn regions, brutal killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights violations, Saudi’s partners in crime began pulling out their support.

The latest in the series of “unfriending” the Arab nation is the United Kingdom, which is the second-largest exporter of arms to the Saudis, after the United States, as the statistics suggest. Last month, the British government put a halt to the approval of any new licenses for selling weapons, after the judges ruled that the ministers acted unlawfully despite being aware about the possibility that it could lead to the violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

According to the UN, the Saudi-led military coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”. While Saudis, with support of its major partner UAE, has claimed to have been fighting the rebels, rights groups have been protesting that their attacks have killed thousands of civilians in the last four years. Human Rights Watch reported deaths of 6,872 civilians as of November 2018, with 10,768 wounded.

The UK master of the rolls — Sir Terence Etherton, Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Singh — ruled in favor of the campaigners, who have been against the arms trade. They concluded that the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, was “irrational and therefore unlawful”, as he licenced weapons exports without judging if the past incidents broke international law and if there was a “clear risk” of future breaches.

Where the activists celebrated the courts of appeal ruling, the government is likely to challenge it and drag it to the Supreme Court. Fox stated that the government had suspended new exports licenses for the Kingdom and its coalition in the vicious war, but the existing grants would not be suspended.

UK’s Contribution to Destruction

The move could have come sooner, but it is still a major setback to the UK’s rearmament of Saudi Arabia. A day after the four-year-old war began under the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the Saudi-led coalition dropped first bombs in Yemen on March 26, 2015, foreign secretary Phillip Hammond told reporters that Britain would “support Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”.

Since then, the UK arms companies, BAE Systems and Raytheon, increased the pace to keep up with the deadly attacks that Saudis are launching on thousands of civilians, along with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. According to the BBC, Britain licenced export of over 4.7 billion pounds (nearly $6 billion) to one of the biggest human rights abusers in the last four years. Moreover, from 2008-2017, the British government granted a total of 9,003 export licenses to the UAE, which included 6,038 exclusive grants for weapons and military equipment.

Where the UK ban on arms sale is being associated to merely weapons, not many are aware about the extensive assistance that the British nation solely provides to Saudi Arabia. Among the weapons that the Kingdom and UAE receive from Britain are precision-guided bombs, sophisticated armoured vehicles, grenades, rifles, rocket launchers and fighter jets. 

As per a report by The Guardian, BAE systems and UK Raytheon were under government contract to manufacture Paveway bombs that costs £22,000 a piece, Brimstone bombs costing £105,000 per unit, and Storm Shadow cruise missiles for £790,000 a piece. Moreover, BAE has long been under a government contract to assemble jets in hangars located just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.

In addition to weapons, BAE has also been sub-contracted to deliver logistical support, ensuring the provision of engineers and weapons maintenance inside Saudi Arabia. Reports revealed that nearly 6,300 British contractors are stationed at Saudi’s forward operating bases.

UK has been providing the Gulf nation with the personnel and expertise that is helping them to continue such barbaric wars. For years, the British government has been deploying RAF personnel to train Saudi pilots as well as to work as engineers.

According to the Stats, the United Kingdom had issued 103 licenses in 2016 with the value of 679 million and 126 licenses in 2017 worth 1.129 billion to export military goods to Saudi Arabia.

Beginning of Arms Trajectory

UK and Saudi Arabia share a long history of dealing in weapons. These weapons have been used to create chaos and deaths in several countries in the MENA region – Yemen, Syria, Libya and Sudan. The UK has been supplying arms to the Arab nation since 1960s. However, the first major deal was signed in 1985.

Becoming one of the biggest arms deal in history, it came to be known as The Al Yamamah. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the then-UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of former Saudi Defence Minister and Crown Prince Sultan.

Under the deal, the Saudis were receiving weapons supply from BAE Systems, which provided 48 Tornado IDSs, 30 Hawk training aircraft, 30 Pilatus PC-9 trainers, 24 Tornado ADVs, a range of weapons, radar, spares and a pilot-training programme, until 2007.

Years later, the Saudi negotiator, Prince Bandar came under allegations of receiving payments of £30 million every quarter for at least 10 years, from BAE. It was reported that the payments were a lobbying effort by the UK government— Thatcher and BAE Systems. The massive bribes were reportedly offered to persuade the Gulf nation to change its choice of French Mirage jets, leading the Kingdom to instead sign the deal for joint UK-French made Tornado.

While BAE Systems came under investigations, former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was quick to cover the matter under a black cloth. As his government came into power, Blair broke the law and abandoned the fraud investigation into a multibillion-pound arms deal, giving birth to newer controversies.

The scandals and lobbyists became successful in keeping the arms supplying route free of hindrances. The arms deal that began for strategic purposes soon turned into an economic agenda.

In 2013 and 2014, the British government issued three special export licences to BAE, which permitted the sale of an unlimited number of bombs to the Kingdom. Becoming an immunity for Saudi, these licenses exempted the requirement of disclosure of total sale. Despite the major sales not being on record, Britain’s military exports to Riyadh augmented almost 35-fold in a year— from £83m in 2014 to £2.9bn in 2015.

While the UK weaponry was already being deployed for wars in MENA countries, the western nation became the major supplier of arms and military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen in 2015. The Guardian had reported that a majority of the bombs that fell on the war-torn country belonged to Britain.

Increasing Criticism, Decreasing Support

The country, under Prime Minister Theresa May, has been continuing the arms support, despite the increasing death tolls in both Syria and Yemen. On the other hand, protests from the Labour Party, world leaders and rights groups, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Amnesty International, continued to soar.

“Theresa May must prove that she is willing to stand up to the kind of repugnant behaviour shown by the killing of Khashoggi and halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately,” stated Belgian leader Philippe Lamberts.

May has been criticised of supporting husband Philip May, who’s an investment relationship manager at Capital Group, the largest shareholder in arms manufacturer BAE Systems. “While UK Prime Minister Theresa May supports Trump and Macron’s military action in Syria, she is also helping her husband’s investment firm to make a killing,” said political investigative journalist Johnny Vedmore.

After the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, where the UN recently reported to have “credible evidence” against Crown Prince MbS’ links in the operation, several countries — Germany, Belgium, Norway, Canada, Denmark and Finland — have discontinued arms trading with the Saudis. However, the major suppliers of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — the US, UK and France — decided to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s increasing human rights violations.

British foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, even tried convincing Germany to lift the ban. He wrote a letter to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, stating, “I am very concerned about the impact of the German government’s decision on the British and European defence industry and the consequences for Europe’s ability to fulfill its NATO commitments.”

The UK’s diplomatic lobbying and relentless support for Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), raised doubts that for British leaders, an economy thriving on blood-money is more important than the millions of lives being killed brutally every day.

Re-routing arms to rogue elements

Several reports released in the past reveal a disturbing scenario. The investigations and analysis have revealed that the arms that the Saudis and the UAE received from western countries ended up in the hands of ISIS, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda, hardline Salafi militias, rebel groups and other factions in Yemen, Syria and Libya.

Robert Fisk, The Independent’s correspondent, released a report in July last year, providing evidence that the arms sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were handed over to what the US State Department itself calls terrorist organizations’. He stated that ‘the buyers’ transferred several expensive weapons “to ISIS, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda … or some other anti-Assad Islamist group”.

Months later, in November 2018, The Guardian reported that an investigation into the weapons used in the Yemen war exposed how the weapons traded to the Saudi and UAE-led coalition by the US and UK, end up in the hands of militias. A report by journalist Mohamed Abo-Elgheit and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (ARIJ) alleged that the weapons are also openly passed on to marginalised and feuding groups fighting their own territorial battles that serve the interests of the two Gulf nations.

The Arab powers — Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition — have strategically caused havoc through proxy wars. The US and the European nations have been equal contributors to the prolonged destruction, despite the resistance from their own people as well as the rights groups.

Recently, Switzerland banned its aerospace firm, Pilatus, from continuing its operations in Saudi Arabia and UAE. The restrictions came after the revelation that the Swiss company was providing “logistical support” to armed forces of the two countries. The move came after several other nations had already extricated their support.

While Saudi Arabia and UAE’s major arms trading partners, the UK, has suspended export licenses, only the US and France remain as the crucial allies serving Saudis’ merciless objectives. However, the US President Donald Trump is also facing soaring opposition from his administration and the Democrats over his unwavering alliance with the Arab nation.

The Saudi-led coalition, though, is increasingly losing the support it has been receiving from its international allies. The brutality that these Middle East powers have been inflicting may finally have become too much to bear for the global community.

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India’s Space Program and Deterrence Stability of South Asia

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Outer space has become a key component of military power projection for the world’s major powers. The weaponization of outer space is also a global tragedy as it has always remained a neutral and ‘shared heritage’ for all of mankind. Only a few countries which include the US, Russia, China and India have been able to develop their space programs. Space resources facilitate military operations and also provide assistance in making crucial battlefield decisions. As a result, the increasing dependence of armed forces on outer space assets for communication and operational tasks make them increasingly valuable. In this regard, the world’s great powers are attempting to militarize and command this sphere to pursue their strategic goals.

Military presence in outer space is one of the components of India’s long-term hegemonic designs. In pursuit of its regional and global dominance, India is involved in several advanced missile development programs. India though claims to utilize space for peaceful purposes, but ended up in space weaponization. This shift also changes India’s policy from simply having a presence in space to projecting power there. Colin Gray a renewed strategist described space power as ‘a state’s ability to use space while denying its reliable use to any foe’. In India’s case, it has the capability to use space but not have enough counter space capability.

India first Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile test on March 2019 is a considerable sign that India is on the verge of developing counter space capability. After its successful ASAT test, India has become one of the few countries after the US, Russia and China to have the capability to destroy objects in space. ASAT weapons are specifically designed to destroy the adversary’s space assets, blinding them or disrupting communication networks, thereby providing India a major military advantage. The successful test of ASAT has thus made India more confident in its space program’s capabilities.

In a recent development, India is going to conduct its first simulated space warfare exercise in July 2019. These exercises termed as‘IndSpaceEx’ are designed to gain a better appreciation of the existing and emerging challenges in the space security sphere by creating a real time war scenario. These exercises would be conducted to assess India’s major space vulnerabilities, requisite space and counter space capabilities and also highlight the gaps within these capabilities during conflict. The conclusion of these war games would assist policy makers to develop space policies accordingly. These exercises will also help India in grasping its related strategic challenges and to take appropriate measures for effective deterrence in space.

Space modernization carried out by India shows that the country is steadily expanding its focus on missile development from the conventional and nuclear realms towards the space domain. It is also worth noting that these developments were also focused on gaining certain political objectives. It has been argued that India’s anti-satellite test was only to hype the Indian public’s emotions for political gains in the recently held general elections. But India’s plans to conduct war-games demonstrate that India is on route to practically test its counter space capabilities to minimize the threats posed especially by China’s growing space program.

India’s quest for space weaponization touches a number of key issues which endanger the regional and international security environment. At the regional level, South Asia is marred by mutual hostility between India and Pakistan. These ongoing Indian space developments threaten to adversely affect the strategic stability in the region, which ultimately could lead to an inevitable arms race between both states in the domain of space. Pakistan should take these developments seriously as it forms a key of part of India’s future military plans and take measures accordingly.  At the global level, this creates a debate on outer space policy, politics, and the weaponization of space. The international community has also expressed its concerns regarding the resulting space debris from India’s ASAT test, which would likely have a drastic effect on the existing operational satellites.

In all, space has become a new theatre for major military powers in pursuit of their military doctrines. Major Powers are in competition for securing space assets and to effectively utilize them for future warfare. These advanced space technologies could play a decisive role in modern warfare. India’s desire of presence in space and the acquisition of advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems which are meant to facilitate military strategies for conducting offensive military operations at the present pose serious concerns for Pakistan as well.

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