Livefist is Indian journalist Shiv Aroor’s two time award-winning site on Indian defence, aerospace & military affairs, currently the world’s most visited, quoted & referenced new site on the subject. It covers quickest news updates, most exclusives, best photographs & video.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA. | A proposal to take tourists up to 50 metres below the surface of the Arabian Sea to enjoy coral reefs and marine life along India’s Konkan coast has pushed the Indian government to seek the technology from a country that has built most of the Indian Navy’s military submarines — Russia. The Maharashtra Government, which kickstarted the project last year — with financial allocations — is looking to boost marine tourism especially along a stretch of sea in the Sindhudurg area.
Four months ago, after soliciting a proposal, Indian state-owned shipbuilder Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) confirmed interest in a pitch from one of Russia’s most secretive military design bureaus, the 70-year-old Malachite Marine Engineering Bureau. Malachite is an institution known better for its iconic nuclear-powered attack submarine designs than anything else, including Soviet Russia’s first class of nuclear-powered submarines, the Project 627/November-class. India already has a Malachite connection — the sole nuclear attack submarine in the Indian Navy, INS Chakra, an Akula-II class submarine, was designed by Malachite.
In a rare interaction, Alexander Serebrennikov, Chief Designer at Malachite, spoke to Livefist’s Shiv Aroor on a visit to St. Petersburg last week. Seven years ago, Malachite got involved in discussions with the Indian Navy to meet a competitive requirement for 4 special forces mini-submarines/Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDVs) that would be built at the Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam. According to Indian Navy documents at the time, it was seeking a capability for ‘insertion and extraction of combat teams for multipurpose special operations, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, special battle rescue operations and multipurpose inspection’. The documents also suggest the SDV will carry a combat team of 4-6 in addition to the two-man pilot crew. Malachite had pitched the Piranha-T, a 47 meter long mini submarine with a maximum diving depth of 200 metres and the capability to transport 6 combat swimmers, in addition to a 3-person crew.
Malachite is currently awaiting word from MDL on whether it will be moving forward on the proposal. The Russian pitch is understood to be a substantial modification of the military Piranha mini submarine family, though it could draw qualities from the Triton-2 midget submarine as well. MDL has specified that it would like to build any submarines it selects, in Mumbai.
When the Indian Navy first announced interest in the capability in 2013-14, Korea and Italy too pitched interest. But none of the three countries were invited to bid. In 2014, Indian private sector giant L&T too signalled that it was interested in making a pitch to the Indian Navy. Last contact between India and the three prospective contenders was two years ago, with little chance of that changing anytime soon.
The truth is, the Indian Navy’s requirement for special forces mini submarines has since been shifted down the priority ladder owing to an increasing budget squeeze — it is unclear if it will be revived in the foreseeable future. Naval sources say a great deal of budgetary spring cleaning has been necessary to free up resources for a line-up of big ship purchases, not to mention the giant P75I conventional submarine building project that’s now in motion.
While the Piranha-T is only a concept, it is based on a single baseline Piranha prototype that Malachite uses for tests and demonstrations. The Piranha isn’t in active service with the Russian Navy, nor has it been exported. Serebrennikov does believe, that Malachite’s expertise in special mission submersibles could find application beyond the military. Other than the tourism submarine effort his institution is working with India on, he sees opportunities in research, exploration and other civil applications.
An intriguing new product concept from Malachite’s stables at the recent IMDS 2019 show in St. Petersburg was the P-750B ‘small submarine’, a 1,450 ton boat with a 36-man/frogman complement sporting air-independent propulsion along with a closed-loop cycle gas turbine. Armed torpedoes, missiles and mines, Malachite literature on the P-750B says it is for short sharp attacks on stationary land targets, single ship engagements and covert special forces delivery operations.
Lada class lead submarine St.Petersburg with Russia’s Northern Fleet / PHOTO VIA USC
ST. PETERSBURG RUSSIA. A harbour utility boat cruises out onto the vast Baltic Sea inlet of St. Petersburg, the view framed by a multitude of ships under construction or being repaired by the Admiralty Shipyard, a corporation that, at 315, is only a year younger than its home city. On the far flank, a pair of giant ice-breakers get their finishing touches, and licks of brilliant blue paint. On the other, nearly invisible until it’s pointed out, the silhouette of a submarine.
On board the harbour boat, a group of Indian journalists, including Livefist’s Shiv Aroor, is being escorted by Russian shipyard officials directly to the latter for an up-close view — the Kronshtadt, a Lada-class submarine. Its engines in a low hum, the submarine will be one of five entering service with the Russian Navy. For the journalists on board though, it has a direct India angle. It is, crucially, the source material for a submarine that India will see compete for its next big submarine-choosing contest — codenamed the Project 75 India (P75I).
As Russia gets set to fight for the P75I @MakeInIndia submarine contest, Livefist’s @ShivAroor gets up close with the Russian Navy submarine that will be the source of the ‘Amur 1650’ that’s will compete against French, German & Swedish contenders. pic.twitter.com/R9Y2kTS8IP
The Amur 1650, an ‘export’ version of the Lada-class, is officially a contender in the Rs 45,000 crore (about $6.5 billion) competition to evaluate and choose not just a submarine, but also an Indian shipyard that will build six of those submarines under the Modi government’s Strategic Partnership policy. India has license-built submarines before — it built a pair of HDW Type 209 (Shishumar-class) submarines in the eighties, and is currently in the process of building six French Naval Group Scorpenes (the new Kalvari-class). If Project 75I moves forward along stated contours, this will be India’s third license-built submarine project, and will, on the face of it, see the Amur 1650 compete against the French Naval Group Scorpene, the German HDW Typo 214 and the Swedish Saab Kockums A26.
But that really is the operative question — will the project unfold along a path India says it hopes to? Or could it be bedeviled by its overreaching ambit at a time when the Indian Navy needs new submarines sooner than ever before. As with all defence contests, each of the contenders in Project 75I believes the contest should be subsumed by a deep direct government-to-government handshake that clears the decks for a meaningful submarine-building relationship. Russia’s shipbuilding leadership believes India is at a strategic crossroad for several reason. And that a misstep could prove costly in ways more than just sunk finance.
“Yes, we would prefer an inter-governmental agreement,” says Alexey Rakhmanov, president of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, the umbrella corporation that administers all state-owned shipbuild firms and design bureaus. “An Intergovernmental Agreement would be a better basis for sharing of technology and intellectual property as well as production. Not just the submarine but also the air-independent propulsion (AIP) system.”
Air-independent propulsion — allowing extended submerged operations — is a mandatory requirement on in the new submarines that will be chosen and built. While Russia’s AIP system is not operational on any active submarine yet, it has said it willing to demonstrate and further develop the system under the aegis of Project 75I.
“All elements of AIP are functional. Now the target is to integrate it into a submarine section and continue testing. The beauty is we can tailor AIP needs to Indian Navy’s needs. This will preclude the need for changes after integration,” says Rakhmanov.
Livefist understands that Russia’s proposal for an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) instead of a contest would mean full transfer of the intellectual property rights and relevant technologies, including the technologies of the air-independent propulsion system, to India.
Andrei Baranov, deputy director general at the legendary Rubin Design Bureau, the legendary design house responsible for the Lada-class, and its predecessor, the Kilo class of submarine, says Russia’s desire for a more direct approach, rather than a protracted, variable-filled, contest, is more by way of cautioning an old friend, and trying to preempt problems later. That would be the submission of any contender with such enormous stakes at play, but Baranov qualifies it.
“Russia, since it is a well-proven and old partner of India in the sphere of submarines, is trying to prevent you from taking risky steps,” says Baranov. “We’ve been discussing this project (Amur 1650) for more than 10 years with your navy. Everybody understands the risks and responsibilities. We are not refusing to take part in this project. We understand what India requires. We will do our best to meet all the requirements. But we say up-front that there are risks. Not because someone’s work is bad. But it’s a systemic risk from the very beginning, and we are only saying we are aware of it.”
In the event Russia is chosen, the Admiralty Shipyard and Rubin Design Bureau will be the twin entities executing the submarine build project in India at a separately chosen shipyard of India’s choice. India’s Strategic Partnership policy dictates that India chooses the production partner, not the submarine-supplying country — an ambitious effort to focus efforts in building industrial capacity for defence armament.
USC’s Rakhmanov says, “There are two major candidates we are looking at. One is L&T and the other is Hindustan Shipyard. These are the two most competent shipyards for this big goal of building these submarines. Human factor is one of the keys to success. Would refrain from identifying any one shipyard. This is about transfer of technology and choosing the right partner.”
Andrei Veselov, deputy director general for military technical cooperation at Admiralty Shipyards says, “We have visited several Indian shipyards and assessed their potential capabilities in submarine construction. We saw Mazagon Docks and Hindustan Shipyard. These are the yards engaged in the submarine program at that moment. We know several yards have ambitious plans. We are ready to cooperate with the Indian yards in development. The MoD will nominate the shipyard as part of the Strategic Partnership process.”
The Admiralty Shipyard, since 1966, has built 70% of India’s conventional submarines — eight Foxtrot-class and eight (of ten) Kilo-class, a legacy it doesn’t fail to invoke when making its pitch for a deeper relationship. Russia’s deep involvement in India’s nuclear submarine program is another factor.
Kronshtadt, the Russian Navy’s 2nd Lada-class submarine
“You wouldn’t give such (nuclear submarine) technology to anyone if you had the smallest thought at the back of your mind that this country could one day be your enemy. I cannot think of anything that signifies trust more than this,” says Rakhmamov.
But with a contest formally afoot, Russia is also aware that there is a threat that is more current than in the past. India happens to be building new submarines — the French Scorpene class — as we speak. With one submarine, the INS Kalvari, delivered, and five more to go, the production line is far from cold. Considering the complexity, money and painful effort that’s gone into raising such a facility at the Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL), would it not be simply more economical to license more submarines from the same line? While that technically remains an option — and France has justifiably been pitching it aggressively — Russia is seeking to employ a different track to offset the obvious advantages its French rival has at play.
One, Russia plans to invest energies in persuading India that the Amur 1650 project under P75I will be a ‘new submarine’ and ‘developed from scratch’. The other, most recognisable thrust will be the suggestion that the Amur 1650 is a newer generation and more capable submarine than the Scorpene.
Rubin’s Baranov says, “Amur 1650 is an advanced conventional submarine capable of fulfilling any mission required from these types of submarines. Whereas P75I is a national Indian submarine, which has its own specific requirements — it is therefore another project. They are very different submarines. If we get into details, we can compare the specifications and parameters of the boats, but since we have some restrictions on information, we have no right to disclose the requirements of your own navy. This is a new project we keep saying to your navy, and has to be designed from scratch. It’s not a modification of Amur or Scorpene or Type 214. This is a new project. Under the umbrella of P75I, indigenisation has to happen on Indian territory. A lot of things will depend on Indian industry to ensure the specifications. It will therefore be a new project.”
Veselov of Admiralty Shipyards concurs. “Scorpenes do not have the kinds of weapons that Amur 1650 does. The acoustic equipment on the Amur 1650 is far superior to that on the Scorpene,” he says.
While the Scorpene is armed with MBDA Exocet anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles like the Klub-S on the Amur 1650, it doesn’t currently have torpedoes, a fallout of the AgustaWestland scandal that ended the navy’s planned fit of Black Shark torpedoes. Moving to fix the glaring weapon void, the Indian Navy this week has published formal interest in acquiring 100 heavyweight torpedoes for the six Scorpenes.
INS Kalvari, the Indian Navy’s first Scorpene-class submarine
“If we compare Amur and Scorpene, I would like to highlight only one thing — the most important thing for any submarine. Weapons,” says Rubin’s Baranov. “We do not want to offend India by saying Scorpene is not an advanced boat. It’s definitely a modern submarine. Your submariners are among the finest in the world. They go to sea a lot. Your navy therefore deserves better submarines than it has now. Scorpene is built only for export. The French Navy does not use them. That means the French Navy has nothing to share with India in terms of operational experience, maintenance, repairs and upgradation. Whereas Amur 1650 has a specimen already in the Russian Navy. Therefore this experience of supporting the life cycle of these boats is more realistic and valuable. Yes, P75I is a different project. But the prototype for it would be the Amur 1650.”
While Russia has a multitude of agencies and bodies that would be activated to execute the sort of partnership that Moscow is proposing, it is the Rubin Design Bureau that will be the soul of any such venture. It is from the blueprints and drawing boards of this 119 year old institution that an Indian shipyard will receive what it needs to put together submarines. Rubin sees its history with India as locus standi for some honest hardtalk.
“There is another source of apprehension regarding P75I,” says Rubin’s Baranov. “There are too many issues that people want to pack into one project. I would like to say there is no successful precedent to such a project in world history. Either you or the Australians will be pioneers. Therefore, difficult to foresee a timeframe. There’s no precedent for this in the world. Normally countries buy off the shelf, where you can quantify delivery time. Even with Scorpene, those timelines were off the mark. But when we want to do everything from scratch, then it is impossible to make a timeframe prognosis. You can judge from the relationship between Australia and Naval Group. Again, lots of ambitions and delays. And nobody can predict the outcome. It’s a serious risk in this respect.”
India currently operates 14 conventional submarines — 9 Kilo-class, 4 Typo 209s and a single Scorpene class, in addition to an Akula II class nuclear-powered attack submarine INS Chakra on lease from Russia. It also operates the nuclear-powered INS Arihant ballistic missile submarine and has recently embarked on an indigenous effort to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA. It is this facility on the cold, windswept shores of the Baltic Sea that finds itself at the centre of distant India’s most delicate strategic tangle. It is from here, a production facility of Russia’s Almaz Antey, that India will begin receiving five regiments of the explosively controversial S-400 Triumf advanced anti-aircraft defence system starting next year. Amidst very tense maneouvering with an openly angry Trump Administration, India has stood its ground and will be clearing payments to Russia for the missile system shortly — something that will do two things: set the $5.2 billion contract in motion after months of escalating pressure, and two, instantly trigger production at the Almaz Antey’s North West production centre here on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
Livefist Editor Shiv Aroor was invited to be among India’s first journalists to tour the production facility and be briefed on the S-400 system. As per terms of the contract, deliveries roughly two years after first payments. The facility therefore aims to deliver all five systems between late 2020 till 2024, with one regiment a year, a schedule that has come under pressure owing to diplomatically-compelled delays in the first payments.
“There will be no delays in delivery, The production facility is equipped with state of art equipment and highly automated lines. Even if the first payment is delayed, even if there are other orders being executed, we are absolutely sure the lines can be worked at capacity to deliver on time and within the framework of the contract,” says Irina Volokitina, first deputy director at the Almaz Antey North West Production Facility.
This sprawling production facility was placed under American economic sanctions in July 2014 by the Obama Administration following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, sanctions that have forced India to rapidly evolve new payment methods for both pipeline and fresh defence contracts. The S-400 contract, signed late last year by the Putin and Modi governments, presented itself as a test case for how the two countries could bypass sanctions for payments to be made.
“With the S-400 we have found a permanent solution with the Indian side,” says Vladimir Drozhzhov, deputy director of Russia’s apex Federal Service on Military Technical Cooperation (FSMTC). “The details are quite confidential since banking institutions are involved, but there are nuances which will change with each contract. On big contracts with India, we have agreed with a schedule of payments that are mutually acceptable to both sides. These payment methods and schedules are fully in line with the contracts — they are designed to make the sure the contracts happen on time. The solution that we have found can be applied to future contracts.”
The S-400 system, widely acknowledged to be among the most effective air defence systems, is currently being produced for the Russian military and most recently Turkey. The latter contract has placed Turkey in a destructive confonrtation with the United States, with billions of dollars in armament supply (including the F-35 fighter) among much else at stake. India’s own S-400 situation has been less angular, less fraught with absolutes, mostly owing to India’s long-standing relationship with Russia, as well as a strategic hedging that has seen the United States partake substantially in India’s rising regional ambitions. While Russia has $14 billion in defence contracts being executed at present to India, the United States will be looking to close no less than $10 billion in the next three years, consolidating a steady-rate supply of advanced armament to a country it sees, quite plainly, as a stabilising force to China’s own unpredictable rise. China, also a buyer of the S-400 hasn’t helped Washington’s mood, though on that radial, the U.S. doesn’t have leverage.
India, incidentally, is in advanced talks to procure the U.S. National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS II). When Livefist asked about concerns over whether the S-400 would plug seamlessly into the Indian air defence network — and crucially be able to ‘talk’ to other air defence systems (including the NASAMS II) in a dynamic and emergent targeting scenario, Volokitina put it delicately.
“The decision on which anti-missile system to use is India’s sovereign choice. What we can say for sure is that the S-400 is the only multilayered system in the world and can provide comprehensive protection,” she said.
She then went to speak of why the S-400, in Russia’s view is acknowledged as one of the world’s most effective air defence systems.
“The S-400 has three advantages against competitors,” Volokitina said. “First, the range (detection and engagement) is twice its nearest rivals. Its range is up to 400 km, and can cover heights of up to 30 km. The second advantage is time taken to deploy — 3 times shorter than rivals. The S-400 is not a separate system — it’s a whole complex. It has a whole array of systems. The missiles in the system have different capabilities and ranges. So it provides multilayered protection. No other system in the world has the same capability. The third advantage is the competitive price.”
Indian Air Force teams will arrive in Russia next year for inspection and training on the S-400 to coincide with the production of the first regiment ahead of delivery. Deployed in India, and with a sweep that covers the full span of air threats from Pakistan and most from China, the S-400 is designed to destroy ballistic targets, unmanned air targets and all kinds of aircraft. Volokitina stresses that it is also one of most jam resistant systems in the world. The unprecedented mobilisation of U.S. heft against S-400 contracts, most here at Almaz Antey believe, is more testament than anything else to the quality of the system.
“The S-400 is capable of detecting and destroying stealth targets,” says an officer at Almaz-Antey. But due to objective reasons, there has never been a situation where it has been required to do so. We have worked out these scenarios. We also know from the western media that governments acknowledge those capabilities.”
The S-500 Prometey, a successor to the S-400, will be operational with the Russian Army next year. The system essentially replace and supplement some of the S-400’s missiles to give it a strategic anti-missile capability.
Russia’s Yantar Shipyard will complete and deliver two Advanced Talwar class (Project 11356) frigates to the Indian Navy by end 2022, with India’s first payment instalment in the $950 million deal expected this month.
While preparation of the 2 hulls has been on in fits and starts since 2016, full-scale work will be triggered at one of Russia’s oldest shipyards on the Baltic coast with the first contractual payments arriving soon.
Sporting 22 Indian-built systems that will differentiate them from the six earlier Talwar-class ships, the new vessels will add significantly to the Indian Navy’s frontline fleet at a time when its resources stand stretched with expanding responsibilities in the Indian Ocean region, particularly the Gulf.
The ships, based on two old hulls that the Russian Navy was forced to walk away from, will be followed by two more that will be built under license by India’s state-owned Goa Shipyard Ltd. The propulsion systems have now been directly contracted by India (the same as those that power the earlier Talwar class ships) and will be supplied to Yantar by the Indian government, said Yantar Shipyard General Director Eduard Efimov today.
The shipyard is currently waiting on technical documentation from the ship’s designer, the Severnoye Design Bureau before beginning the process of procuring equipment to fit out the ship. Next month, the two hulls will be lifted out of the water and onto a slipway for fitment of early equipment, including the gas turbines.
Indian equipment on the Advanced Talwar class ships will include navigational equipment, combat management system, surface surveillance radar and the DRDO HUMSA sonar.
The four ships that will be built in India and Russia add to a fleet of six Russian-built Talwar class frigates, all currently in frontline operations.
Interestingly, the two ships to be built under license at Goa Shipyard will differ in their ‘technical design’ from the two under construction at Yantar, Efimov said, indicating that this was a result of significantly different manufacturing processes at Yantar and Goa Shipyard. The technical design documents for the Goa-built ships are to be finalised soon by Severnoye Design Bureau separately.
”Goa Shipyard is more than ready to make these ships on site. Our technical team has conducted a full study and this is their conclusion,” says Efimov, who will, by early next year, send a high-level technical team to provide technical assistance for the Indian build.
An Indian Navy team will visit Yantar later this year once the first two hulls have been lifted out of the water to monitor the first phase of equipping. Once fitted with equipment, the ships will begin a process of trials next year — harbour acceptance trials, harbour sea trials and finally user acceptance trials before formal delivery to the Indian Navy.
The Indian Navy also operates 3 Indian-designed and built Shivalik-class (Project 17) stealth frigates, with seven of an improved P17A type planned.
We had reported in January, as part of our newsbreak, that the Indian Air Force’s move to sling British ASRAAM air combat missiles onto its Russian Su-30 fighters was unlikely to go down well with Moscow. And now it’s official — Russia isn’t pleased at all.
“No country would allow this,” said Vladimir Drozhzhov, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC). “This is mostly out of concern for the security of the technology. We are concerned about a foreign manufacturer invited to integrate anything on our equipment.”
Drozhzhov, who was taking questions from a group of visiting Indian journalists at the Rosoboronexport offices in Moscow also indicated that Russia usually informed its customers that liabilities and after-sales support on supplied equipment stood jeopardised if the customer embarked on “any conrtact, modernisation or upgrade” that didn’t involve the “participation of the OEM.”
“It’s a universal practice, not just in Russia,” Drozhzhov said, also confirming that Russia had received no formal word from the Indian Air Force about the move. With IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa in Moscow this week on an official visit, it is possible that Russia will record its concerns on the issue. The IAF, on its part, is looking at the ASRAAM integration as a rare break from history — an attempt to standardise a weapon across its combat aircraft fleets to tap into attendant doctrinal and commercial economies.
Russia’s misgivings go deeper than just concerns over technology security or being kept ostensibly out of the IAF’s re-weaponisation drive on a Russian fighter. As Livefist reported, the IAF is looking to fully replace the Su-30 MKI’s current close combat missile — the Russian-built Vympel R-73 — with the ASRAAM in phases, and then standardise the ASRAAM across its fleet of combat aircraft.
Unlike a radar-guided missile, the heat-seeking ASRAAM doesn’t require complex modifications — the IAF, as Livefist reported, has already modified the software on a pair of Su-30s to deploy the ASRAAM. A first test could take place later this year. The ASRAAM, already integrated on IAF Jaguars, will see test firings begin this year, with a move to arm a limited number of Hawk trainers to move forward too.
It is unclear if Russia’s concerns over the ASRAAM integration will escalate into any kind of flashpoint. The trajectory of the India-Russia relationship on the Su-30 suggests India is using its heft to exercise weapons flexibility. Russia has supplied 222 Su-30 kits to India for assembly at HAL’s license-building facility in Maharashtra. The Indian Air Force has formally asked Russia for 18 more, which will cement India’s already significant place as the world’s largest — by far — operator of the Su-30 type. Add the pipeline proposal to upgrade at least 84 Su-30s to the ‘Super 30’ standard, and you have a slice of the defence pie that won’t stop giving any time soon.
Russia is expectedly indignant about being kept out of the loop on the ASRAAM integration, but it could be a minor fold in the larger circumstances. Russia is executing Indian armament contracts worth $14 billion in total at this time and continues to be one of India’s most sustained suppliers of military equipment.
Early in the afternoon of June 11, an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter spotted it. Through wisps of persistent cloud, the scattered debris of the wreckage of an aircraft that had disappeared from radar eight days earlier. The IAF was prepared to spend weeks searching for the wreckage if necessary — it was deeply aware of how difficult it was likely to be to locate the lost An-32 Tail No. K2752, given it was dealing with terrain with a notorious appetite for aircraft and some of the most whimsical weather in the world. Hovering at 13,000 feet, the sight of the debris at least meant the story of the tragedy could begin to be told.
One of the first things the helicopter crew noticed was that the An-32 had impacted the mountain — the highest feature in an area of Arunachal Pradesh replete with towering peaks — just 200 feet below the summit. An officer who was part of a helicopter flight following the sighting tells Livefist, “The An-32 may have been trying to gain altitude and climb out over the mountain. The fact that it impacted just 200-250 feet below the peak means it was very close.”
IAF Dhruv hovers close to the An-32 crash site
The flight on June 3 from Jorhat to the advanced landing ground in Mechuka was a routine mission to a forward area. Taking into account valley flying typical of the area, weather en route was deemed to be acceptable for the flight. The permutations of what finally took a highly proficient crew so tragically into a mountainside will only be clear after a painstaking Court of Inquiry (COI), but one possibility that presents itself instantly is a sudden change of weather and the possibility of a newly formed cloud deck moving in — and not being predicted before or during flight. That would support the theory that this wasn’t an uncontrolled crash into the mountainside, but rather a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) — a situation where the pilots were fully in control of the aircraft and were unaware of the looming disaster until too late, at which point attempts to avoid it prove futile. Which brings us to another question that has dogged the tragedy through the eight days that the aircraft remained untraceable.
Why, people justifiably asked, was it so difficult to find the missing An-32? Why did it take 8 days to locate? Didn’t the aircraft have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT)? Why didn’t it trigger? The An-32 in question was fitted with one ELT. This wasn’t an upgraded airframe — upgraded An-32s are fitted with an additional ELT to increase the possibility of at least one firing. IAF officers that Livefist spoke to say the aircraft may have impacted the mountain in a climb, while it was trying to clear the peak. This impact, enough to destroy the aircraft and tragically kill its crew, was ironically insufficient in terms of g-forces to activate the ELT. The ELT on the An-32 that crashed required approximately 20g to trigger. Unless there was a more serious technical malfunction in the emergency equipment, this is being seen as a possibility.
The difficult retrieval of the An-32 wreckage for forensic accident analysis is currently on, and the full picture of what happened can only necessarily happen once professionals from the IAF have a chance to study every aspect of the tragedy. With the aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder recovered, the team has a chance to put together the aircraft’s final moments — including decision-making in the cockpit. Crash investigations have been known to topple prima facie indicators in final conclusions.
As the investigation begins into what went wrong, it can be nobody’s case that the An-32 is an unsafe aircraft. Procured since the 1980s, it has earned its place as a tactical transport workhorse, loved by its crew and admired for its ability to get out of sticky situations. When it arrived in the eighties, it was a welcome shift from the earlier transports operated by the IAF. Much of the An-32’s reputation for reliability still holds. But the case to keep it deployed for such missions — and for missions over water — has drastically thinned. An IAF An-32 that went missing in July 2016 over the Bay of Bengal — an upgraded airframe fitted with two ELTs — has never been traced.
An An-32 from the same squadron as the ill-fated K2752, seen her landing at Sikkim’s Pakyong airfield in January
Flying in the aggressively whimsical weather of the North East, it is crucial that aircraft are able to climb out of valleys as quickly as possible so they can fly well above the weather, if possible avoiding it entirely. For all the An-32’s excellent qualities, its performance parameters and ‘drift-down altitude‘ sometimes make this difficult, especially with large cargo loads. Livefist learns, therefore, that this month’s crash has persuaded the IAF to take a tough decision — it will unburden to the extent possible the An-32 fleet from air logistics flight in the north-east and for flights over ocean. Doing this will be a complex and multi-pronged effort that brings other assets into the works (the C-130J, CH-47F Chinook helicopters and, in the future, Airbus C295 aircraft when they are ordered) and a possible reworking of the logistics matrix to optimise the use of other aircraft. The IAF sees the looming changes as an imperative — 2019 has been one of the IAF’s worst years in terms of loss.
Bureaucratically stalled for years, the procurement of Airbus C295 aircraft is likely to get a big nudge out of inertia in the aftermath of the An-32 tragedy. Livefist can confirm that the Indian Air Force has reiterated urgency and indicated to the new leadership at the Ministry of Defence that cost negotiations on the deal have been completed. The C295 aircraft are intended to replace over 50 British-origin HS748 Avro transports, not the An-32, though it is certain that the C295 — which sports a logistics-critical rear ramp like the An-32 — will take over freight duties in the north-east when inducted.
India happens to be the only country that operates the An-32 in such large numbers — well over 100 aircraft. While the fleet is still in the process of being upgraded, the aircraft’s maker, Ukraine’s Antonov, has been attempting to pitch the An-32’s successor, the higher performance An-132, for years to the IAF, but without success so far. The company clearly sees enough of an opportunity, considering it brought an An-132 to the Aero India show this year for the first time.
Procurements of more capable aircraft will necessarily only be long term solutions. For the moment, the IAF doesn’t have the luxury to change things abruptly. And as a troubling accident investigation begins, the very core of the IAF and government could be under test.
Further viewing: On the day the wreckage was sighted, Livefist editor Shiv Aroor did a television discussion with two former Indian Air Force flight safety directors on the accident and what may have happened.
AN 32 Wreckage: After Manhunt For 8 Days, Parts Of AN-32 Located In Dense Forest In Arunachal - YouTube
Wind tunnel model of India’s Hypersonic Tech Demonstrator
An Indian hypersonic weapon technology demonstrator was flight tested for the first time today by the country’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), though it is understood that the test was not completed successfully. In the works since the turn of the millenium, the vehicle was tested this morning off India’s east coast. The DRDO issued a short statement confirming the test:
Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Today launched a Technology Demonstrator Vehicle to prove a number of critical technologies for futuristic missions from Dr Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha. The missile was successfully launched at 1127 Hours. Various radars, telemetry stations and electro optical tracking sensors tracked the vehicle through its course. The data has been collected and will be analysed to validate the critical technologies. — DRDO STATEMENT
The statement, typically vague, doesn’t mention the status of the test, leading to speculation over whether it successfully met all test points, or whether it was aborted per force. Top sources tell Livefist that the Agni-I ballistic carrier vehicle on which the HSTDV was to receive its altitude boost, didn’t complete the mission, therefore likely precluding the flight of the hypersonic demonstrator itself.
How the HSTDV was launched, carried on an Agni-I ballistic missile
The DRDO and MoD haven’t responded to questions about the status of the carrier and demonstrator vehicle’s performance. Livefist will update this report if and when they respond and provide official detail. Separately, the Chief Minister of Odisha Navin Patnaik and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan both, congratulated the DRDO for the flight on Twitter.
Whether or not the test was ‘successful’ in terms of meeting all expectations, it must be said that flight testing a complex air vehicle for the first time is fraught with complexity and risk. While the precise details of how the launch platform and HSTDV performed (or if the latter achieved flight at all) are not known at this time, the HSTDV team will undoubtedly be looking to fix what went wrong. One scenario suggests that the Agni-I missile carrier malfunctioned. If that is the case, it doesn’t strictly throw a cloud over the HSTDV itself, but does raise questions over an inducted weapon system. Overall, an advanced technology aeronautical test of this kind even achieving flight-worthy status is a major achievement. None of this of course precludes the difficult questions that will face the test team now as they align to fix problems for the next attempt.
The DRDO statement also doesn’t reveal what speeds were being aimed to be achieved even though official data (see below) on the project mentions speeds of between 2-8 Mach, a wide margin. That being said, the test today is a small first step but an important one in what has been a long-standing propulsion project — one that the DRDO has kept necessarily under wraps and believes will be a gamechanger. The purpose has been to develop and then flight-prove a fully indigenous scramjet engine using kerosene fuel (the DRDO also recently tested a solid fuel ducted ramjet system).
The HSTDV is a curious project — there is no specific requirement from the military for such a capability, especially since the DRDO still depends on Russia for the ramjet engine that powers the joint BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. With a squeezed development budget, at least one former military chief that Livefist spoke to wondered whether the DRDO had “fulfilled basic needs of the forces to justify the luxury of such high-end research”. These are questions that have always — and must always — buffet the DRDO’s choices. The tilting balance between baseline needs of the military and ambitious futuristic research projects have always rankled.
The long term vision is for the hypersonic propulsion technologies to fuel platforms for extended air defence, global targeting and surveillance/reconnaissance. In 2010, right around the time images first emerged of the HSTDV’s wind tunnel model, Livefist also accessed official literature on the program, providing the first formal schematics and data on the vehicle:
With 2019 at its half-way mark, the Indian Air Force has officially achieved its most unsafe year for flying. Search teams continue to hunt for the wreckage of an An-32 transporter that went missing over mountainous jungles in India’s east on Monday, with near zero hopes that the aircraft or the 13-man crew could have survived. The ill-fated An-32, once officially designated as destroyed, will be the tenth IAF aircraft lost this year. With nine personnel already killed across the first nine accidents — including six personnel in a Mi-17 that was destroyed in accidental friendly-fire during the post-Balakot skirmish — the An-32 accident will take that toll to 22. Going by available records, this is likely the IAF’s worst year for air safety.
Things kicked off in January with a Jaguar from the Gorakhpur air base crashing in Uttar Pradesh. The IAF’s Jaguar fleet has waited in the wings for upgraded engines for years to make the jets more nimble. This has failed to move forward, with the IAF likely forced to settle with existing Rolls Royce engines. In February this year, India’s HAL unveiled the ‘Jaguar MAX’ upgrade to open up the IAF’s Jaguar jets to more weapon choices, though it remains unclear whether budgetary pressures give the IAF elbow room on an older aircraft type like the Jaguar.
Here’s HAL’s ‘Jaguar MAX’ upgrade to open Darin-II airframes up to more weapon choices (including the ability to deploy 4 privately developed swarm drones — seen below the model in that photo), better network centric code and all-round performance fine-tunes. #Aeroindia2019pic.twitter.com/vIhAZXP6Ti
The following month, in February 2019, a newly upgraded Mirage 2000 was destroyed during its take-off roll at the HAL airport in Bengaluru, killing both pilots. While the accident inquiry has concluded, in part, that a software glitch may have led to the disaster — throwing a harsh glare on the upgrade process being undertaken by HAL in Bengaluru — the crash also drew attention to the surprisingly slow pace of the very expensive $2.4 billion Mirage 2000 upgrade program. Of 50 odd aircraft, barely a handful have been upgraded since the first arrived back from France in 2015.
India's 1st two upgraded Mirage 2000 I/TIs land in Jamnagar after ferry flight from France via Greece, Egypt & Qatar. pic.twitter.com/M2GQBVOF26
Later that same month, a MiG-27 jet crashed in Rajasthan, though both pilots managed to eject safely. Safety issues on the MiG-27 have dogged the Indian Air Force for years, despite an extensive uprade. The following month another MiG-27 would go down in Rajasthan.
February would prove to be a singularly devastating month for the Indian Air Force, and also one in which its peacetime role would rapidly change to full offensive duties. After the loss of two young pilots in the Mirage 2000 earlier that month, the IAF would lose a pilot and two Hawk Mk.132 jets of the Surya Kiran aerobatics team just ahead of the Aero India 2019 show — found by an inquiry to have been caused by pilot error.
The February 14 terror attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Jammu & Kashmir’s Pulwama triggered punitive air strikes by India on a terror facility in Pakistan’s Balakot on February 27 (Livefist editor Shiv Aroor’s upcoming book contains an account of this), a mission that featured Mirage 2000 jets. In a controversy-ridden air battle that followed the following morning, the Indian Air Force famously lost a MiG-21, with its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman credited with destroying a Pakistani jet in return. The dogfight would at once make a hero of the ageing MiG-21 Bison, yet amplify the need to replace it with more modern aircraft on, quite literally, a war footing (A MiG-21 would crash in Rajasthan the following month). The need for newer, more modern aircraft would be underscored by Prime Minister Modi, who declared that the ‘outcome’ of the air battle would have been vastly different, had the IAF been fighting with Rafales — a political hot potato at the time. If the air battle emphasised the need for more modern fighters (and, crucially, weapons), the steady spate of fighter accidents has created perhaps the biggest imperative yet for India to speed up combat aircraft modernisation. India’s first new Rafale jets will arrive in September.
India’s massively ambitious plans to buy and build 110 new fighters will hopefully receive a push this year now that elections are done. A political mandate harnessed around national security — and emphasised by the the Balakot air strikes — practically dictates that the government not shuffle its feet on giving the IAF new fighters jets quickly.
Here’s how the 7 aircraft that have responded to the Indian Air Force’s RFI for 110 fighters are present at #AeroIndia2019. Clockwise from top left: F/A-18 Rafale Gripen E Typhoon Su-35 MiG-35 F-21/F-16 Block 70 pic.twitter.com/os0Egs8zLe
2019’s accident that will bedevil and haunt the IAF more than any other in decades will be the February 27 shoot-down of a Mi-17 helicopter in Kashmir’s Budgam in friendly fire. Livefist was among the first to report the catastrophic misfire early in March, with a Court of Inquiry all set to hand out harsh indictments. A devastating break-down of protocol, systems and procedures goes beyond any technological fix the IAF can opt for. Indeed it goes to the very core of how the IAF practices for conflict. Expect much more to emerge on the Mi-17 shoot-down in the weeks ahead.
The missing An-32 has greatly worsened an already unsteady year for safety. While search teams continue to battle bad weather to search for wreckage in a place where hundreds of World War II aircraft were infamously lost — some are being discovered to this day — the onus has shifted to questions on why the very reliable An-32’s crucial upgrade program has been allowed to stall, despite it being the IAF’s tactical backbone. It has also raised serious questions on why, if India’s multifarious air logistical needs are to be serviced by aircraft such as these, has there been such a visible lack of will to move forward with procuring new aircraft, including the stalled mission to buy and build Airbus C295 transporters.
An Indian Air Force Antonov An-32 tactical transport aircraft crashed today in the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The aircraft had taken off from the Jorhat air force base about 200 km away from its destination, the Mechuka advanced landing ground on the border with Tibet. All 13 personnel on board — 6 officers and 7 enlisted men — were killed in the crash. Information provided by the IAF suggests the aircraft disappeared from radar about 25 minutes after take-off from Jorhat, triggering an extended search operation using fighters, helicopters and drones. The wreckage was finally spotted about 40 km from its destination.
A Court of Inquiry has been ordered into the tragedy involving the aircraft from the IAF’s 43 Squadron ‘Ibexes’ that functions under the Maintenance Command from Jorhat, Assam. Flights under the Eastern Air Command to advanced landing grounds are common, with several flying every week from to Mechuka, Walong, Vijaynagar and Ziro among others.
For those with daggers out for the fleet/ IAF – this is the 14th accident 43 sqn has seen in its 60 years of ops, the 1st in 10 years and 3rd since 2000. Grieving for martyrs, but saluting the flight safety of sqn @IAF_MCChttps://t.co/DDmUsZ5GC6
The An-32 that crashed today was headed to Mechuka, a base where the IAF has operated its largest jet — the Boeing C-17.
Great Long Vid Of IAF C-17 Landing At Mechuka, Arunachal - YouTube
Today’s tragedy comes almost exactly a decade after an identical number of personnel perished in an An-32 in roughly the same area. The crash today also comes as a reminder of an unresolved 2016 incident, in which an IAF An-32 went missing over the Bay of Bengal while on a flight from Chennai to Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The wreckage was never found. As Livefist reported at the time, in a deep irony, the IAF was in the process of testing gear that could have helped locate the aircraft when it went down.
The An-32, to be sure, has proven to be a reliable workhorse of an aircraft that its crews love to fly. With several An-32s upgraded, and many more in the process of being upgraded, there is nothing specifically wrong with the type — indeed they enjoy a robust safety record in Indian service. Today’s crash however throws a telling glare on the Indian Air Force’s so-far stalled efforts to procure at least 56 Airbus C295 aircraft to replace HS748 Avro aircraft in IAF service. Avros, like the An-32 function as troop transports, though the latter are far more versatile and capable of much more varied cargo owing to presence of rear ramp. The Airbus aircraft selected by the Indian government to replace the Avro — and to be built for most part through a joint venture with Tata in India — would be similar to the An-32, but a leap forward in terms of electronics, cockpit systems and sensors.
In November last year, Livefist reported that the stalled Avro replacement program was tentatively moving forward again. With a new government now in play, the Indian Air Force will be hoping it comes unstuck and fast.
The landslide election victory by India’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has led to an expected shuffle of top ministerial portfolios. India’s new defence minister is now Rajnath Singh, who moves in after a stint as the country’s Home Minister. He replaces erstwhile defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who moves up to the crucial post of Finance Minister at a crucial juncture for India’s economy.
Bruising as the just-concluded election campaign was, it was conspicuously steeped in a defence/military flavour, thanks to an aggressive politicisation by the Opposition Congress Party of the 2016 Rafale jet deal, suggestions that state-owned military airframer Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd had been led to ruin, and that private sector firms (chiefly the Anil Ambani group) had been favoured in the area of defence offsets. With the dust all but settling on what was a year-long slugfest, the defence ministry tentatively gets to get back to priority business. Much has remained stalled as a result of the political atmosphere. The country’s incoming defence minister, Rajnath Singh — a seasoned politician from Uttar Pradesh who has been both chief minister of the state as well as president of his party — is no greenhorn. The Home Ministry, under his charge for five years previously, after all has several major overlaps with the ministry he will now lead.
It is also well known that the paradigm of policy has changed dramatically under Prime Minister Modi, with defence ministers drawing much of their direction from the National Security Advisor and Prime Minister’s Office. That said, here’s what we believe should be top of the pack on Minister Rajnath’s table on the first floor of South Block:
1. Dust on the Rafale deal is unlikely to settle soon, but the election win finally gives the MoD the breathing space to get the acquisition of fighter aircraft back on track. There is little doubt that the political storm slowed the already long and complex road to acquiring 114 new jets for an ambitious Make-in-India project. While the acquisition will undoubtedly be shaped by the Prime Minister’s Office and External Affairs Ministry, the MoD needs to get the nuts and bolts done. And that includes starting the process with an RfP to seven prospective aircraft contenders. (A more immediate off-the-shelf acquisition is for 21 MiG-29 jets from Russia, which could move forward a lot faster).
Here’s how the 7 aircraft that have responded to the Indian Air Force’s RFI for 110 fighters are present at #AeroIndia2019. Clockwise from top left: F/A-18 Rafale Gripen E Typhoon Su-35 MiG-35 F-21/F-16 Block 70 pic.twitter.com/os0Egs8zLe
2. While the Indian Navy has finally started adding submarines to its force with the entry of the first Scorpene-class boats, the crucial and long-delayed Project 75(India) submarine build program continues to hang fire. Four contenders have officially announced their participating in a program that, like the 114 fighters project, is to be executed under the Strategic Partnership model. Given the lead times on submarine construction — and the efforts being applied to keep the navy’s submarine levels respectably — there are few excuses left but to get cracking on Project 75 (India).
These are the 4 submarine types that have officially thrown their hat in the ring to compete in India’s Project 75I submarine build program. Long road ahead. pic.twitter.com/W3CMYmZO6P
3. The tenure of his predecessor saw a slew of important basic equipment being fast-tracked for the Indian Army’s infantry regiments, including assault rifles, carbines and sniper rifles. But there’s plenty of work ahead across the spectrum of infantry requirements, including machine guns of all types, man-portable anti-armour weapons and infantry vehicles.
4. The Indian Navy has set the ball rolling on the Strategic Partnership model-driven acquisition of 111 naval utility helicopters to replace the ubiquitous Alouette II/Chetak helicopters still in service. With the current fleet faltering amidst a stretched mandate both for military and humanitarian duties, there is pronounced urgency for the new light helicopters. The navy will be hoping for full support from the MoD to accelerate the contest.
5. The Indian Navy is also hoping that recent progress in the acquisition of urgently needed medium multirole helicopters moves fast too. In April, the United States cleared decks to support the supply of 24 MH-60R helicopters to augment and then replace the Indian Navy’s Sea King helicopters. 2018’s flood relief operations in Kerala and expanded commitments in India’s island territories have heavily amplified the need for these helicopters — not even the mention their anti-shipping/submarine role.
6. India’s pre-emptive airstrikes on a terrorist facility in Balakot, Pakistan in February has underscored several separate acquisition priorities stemming from the impending retirement of India’s old MiG-21 fleet. Livefist has argued before that there is no time like now to replace the MiG-21 with the indigenous Tejas. The new minister in office should continue his predecessor’s efforts to accelerate production of the Tejas and see wider squadron service as quickly as possible, with additional funds if necessary. An action plan to energise and accelerate the fifth generation AMCA concept project will be imperative too, with India choosing to walk away from partnering in Russia’s Su-57 program.
7. India’s first Rafale jets arrive in September this year. The aircraft contract has been dragged through an unremitting election campaign — and continues to be a case in India’s top court. But with campaign heat dissipating, the government gets its first chance in 18 months to seriously return to a consideration that was very much on the table — sign on for more Rafale jets, since the Indian Air Force has said from the start that the 36 jets originally contracted would by no means translate into a full fleet capability for India’s requirements.
The first Rafale for the IAF in flight test in France
8. In February, the Indian MoD contracted for 114 Dhanush 155mm artillery guns — a tiny fraction of the Indian army’s vast and varied artillery requirements that runs into thousands of guns across separate contests and configurations. The Indian Army commissioned its first M777 ultralight howitzer unit regiment earlier this year, with indigenous assembly commencing from next month. Requirements still exist for tracked, truck-mounted and towed artillery guns in large numbers. Other high caliber weaponry crucially required includes close-in weapon systems to protect the Indian Air Force’s bases.
India’s Ordnance Factory Board receives bulk production order for 114 Dhanush towed 155mm artillery pieces — the indigenised/improved Bofors FH-77B. pic.twitter.com/Xww31Y3WQy
9. The Indian Navy has a grave minesweeper deficiency, exposing serious vulnerabilities in the ability to sanitise coastal sea-lanes. The Indian Navy has had three unsuccessful attempts to buy or build mine countermeasure vessels (MCMV) in the last 12 years. Last year, it rebooted efforts in the hope that it can build 12 ships quickly at an Indian shipyard with foreign technology.
10. Several priority capabilities await action in the all-important battlefield intelligence, surveillance and command and control spheres. The aerial confrontation over Balakot has hugely amplified the need for real-time intelligence and actionable command assets. Several remain in the pipeline and will see movement in the months ahead: two more Phalcon AWACS (and the Indian AWACS program based on Airbus A330 jets), at least 4 more (a larger number likely later) Boeing P-8I Poseidon surveillance and anti-submarine jets, 2 Raytheon ISTAR jets for an expanded Indian project and Sea Guardian drones (and the Indian Rustom-II).