Sunday, May 27, 2018

India's most decorated General departs

On 24 May 2018, India's most decorated and perhaps the most under-rated soldier, Lt Gen ZC 'Zoru' Bakshi passed away, largely unnoticed and unmourned. In 2015, while writing a book on the 1965 war, I had an occasion to meet someone who had seen then Brig Zoru Bakshi in action during one of his many legendary military exploits: the capture of Haji Pir pass. Here's an excerpt from that chapter. My small tribute to one of India's greatest military leaders. 

Extracted from 1965: Turning the Tide

Haji Pir: Taking the battle to the Enemy

In April 2013, military aficionados gathered at London’s National Army Museum and voted the twin battles of Kohima and Imphal between the British Indian Army and the Japanese Imperial Army during April-July 1944 as Great Britain’s ‘greatest battle’ ever fought  beating Waterloo and Normandy—two other decisive victories in war for Britain—to second and third place respectively. The voting was done by a select audience of military enthusiasts and not ordinary citizens. To that extent, it is subjective. But if the greatness of a battle is judged by its political, cultural and social impact, as much as its military impact then Imphal and Kohima were really significant for a number of reasons, not least that they showed that the Japanese were not invincible and that that they could be beaten, and beaten well. The battles of Imphal and Kohima saw the British and Indian forces, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General William Slim, repel the Japanese invasion of India and helped turned the tide of the war in the Far East.

India has fought four major wars (1947-48, 1962, 1965 and 1971), and a local conflict in Kargil (1999) since its independence. Many heroic acts and decisive moments in the glorious history of valour, sacrifice and team spirit displayed by Indian soldiers come to mind but if there is one battle that can truly be called a turning point in the overall context of a war, the vote should go to the conquest of the Haji Pir bulge under Operation Bakshi in August 1965. An important area for infiltration into Kashmir Valley and Rajouri/Poonch areas, Haji Pir Pass is located on the Pir Panjal Range at 2637 meters or 8600 ft on the road between Uri with Poonch.

As Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, who was Western Army Commander in the 1965 war noted: “Pak did exploit the peculiar configuration of the Cease Fire Line in the Haji Pir bulge, for launching the main influx of her infiltration campaign into the Valley. In addition to using this area for entry routes, huge stocks of arms equipment and supplies had been built up at several places in the Bulge for speedy administrative support of the various raider groups. The Haji Pir Operation was…intended to knock the logistic bottom out of the infiltration campaign as also to plug the entry routes of the raiders…”

The pass had to be captured since it worked as a lifeline for the saboteurs operating in the Poonch area. It was dominated by three adjoining hill features—Bedori (3760 m high), in the north-east, Ledwali Gali (3140m) in the north-west and Sank (2895 m) in the north.  The capture of these features was considered necessary for advancing on to Haji Pir pass. Bedori is about 4 km to the south of the CFL while Haji Pir Pass is about 10 km to the South-west of Bedori.
Capturing the Pass was not going to be easy. Brig. ZC Bakshi, a veteran of the Burma campaign in World War II was Commander of 68 Brigade which was drafted in from Srinagar and placed under the command of 19 Division headquartered at Baramulla. As the infiltrators started pouring into the Valley, the Brigade was pulled into the conflict. Remembers retired Brig. Shamser Singh, who was then a young Signals Captain with barely two-and-a-half years of service in 1965: “On 4 Aug 1965, 68 brigade was asked to take part in the investiture parade planned in Srinagar for 15 August. Even as we were practicing for the event, we came to know on 7 August that infiltration had taken place across Pir Panjal. And sure enough we were put into action in Gulmarg two days later. Though the infiltrators had a tough time—no local support, no food, we were chasing them all over the place.”
 As the anti-infiltration campaign picked up speed, there were fresh orders for the Brigade. Recalls Brig. Shamsher: “Somewhere around 14-15 August—I was just a company commander, OC of the signal company of the 68 Mountain brigade with less than three years of service--I felt some lull in the operation. We were pulled back from Gulmarg to a place called Pattan. Around 18-19 August my BM (Brigade Major)—the lynchpin of a brigade who coordinates between the commander and the battalions under the brigade-- told me: get ready for something bigger. The briefing (orders) took place at Rampur, the 161 Brigade HQ. We had nothing of our own paraphernalia. The original battalions under 68 Brigade were left behind where they were and we were given three brand new battalions: 1 Para commanded by Lt Col Prabhjinder, 4 Rajput, headed by Lt Col Sudarshan Singh (the same battalion which had captured Point 13620 and Black Rocks in Kargil in May that year) and 19 Punjab, commanded by Lt Col Sampooran Singh. Coincidentally, all three infantry battalion Commanding Officers (COs) were Khalsas. Even field regiment CO, Lt Col Shivdev Singh was a Khalsa and so am I,” Brig Shamsher reveals by way of an aside.
The COs met the Brigade Commander for the first time in Ops room at Rampur!
The Brigade Commander was Brig. Zorawar Chand Bakshi--PVSM, MVC, Vrc, VSM, McGregors Medal—the most decorated officer in the Indian Army ever but certainly at that time.
On 21 August his opening lines in the briefing for the operation were: “Gentleman, since 1947 we have cribbing that government does not allow us to attack, go into offensive but this time, we have been clear mandate to capture Haji Pir at any cost.  Where I say at any cost a civilians may means 100 per cent casualties but I as an Infantryman, say only when you have had 40 per cent casualties, come back to me otherwise press home. In WW II, after my company lost 40 per cent strength we were prevented from pressing further. I don’t want that when I fought in WW II, it means if you have 40 per cent casualty come back to me otherwise press home.
“Ironically, our own battalion 6 Dogras were left behind in Gulmarg to mop up the infiltrators. So the plan was that D-Day would be 24 August. The attack was to be two pronged: Sank-Sark-Ledwali Galli (right) on night of 24 and capture it by 25 August morning. On left 19 Punjab was to capture Bedori by 9 am and Rajputs were to push through to capture Haji Pir by that evening. That was the plan. But as they say in the Staff College, ‘gentleman, this is my plan, but if everything goes according to plan, there is something wrong with this plan.’ Sure enough on 24th evening it rained so heavily that it was going to be impossible to launch the attack. I remember, I was wearing a blue turban. Its colour drained on to my face. So much so that Brig. Bakshi, jokingly said ‘have you camouflaged yourself with the blue colour!’ Anyway, the attack was postponed by 24 hours.”
“We went in on the night of 25th. 1 Para was to attack Sank-Sar, 19 Punjab to launch an attack on Bedori. On 25th night, 1 Para surprisingly could not contact the objective as they were ‘day lighted,’ meaning they were exposed in the open. In the mountains you cannot launch a daylight attack so they were pulled back. Similarly, with 19 Punjab attacked Bedori but they could not go beyond Pathri. The conditions were bad because of previous day’s rain, the slopes slippery. So the position on 26th morning was: 1 Para is stalled, 19 Punjab is stalled. And Zoru (Brig. ZC Bakshi) is sitting on Rustom picket, contemplating his next move, when he got a call from his course mate Hardev Kler, then a G-1 from 19 Division told him, Bedori has already been captured. Zoru was surprised. I was sitting with him. He told Hardev Kler, it can’t be. Then Kler said I will put you through to 161 Brigade Commander. 161 Brigade Commander was patched through and he also told Zoru ‘I have captured Bedori, what’s the problem?’ Zoru was still not convinced. Still he took the 161 brigade Commander’s word and told 4 Rajput to go an occupy Bedori to consolidate and let 19 Punjab press ahead since the ultimate objective was Haji Pir,” Brig Shamsher recalled.
Brig. Shamsher, now in his mid-seventies but still in possession of a sharp memory that recounts every moment of that momentous period continues: “In the evening of 26, that is night of 26-27th, as 4 Rajput advanced towards Bedori, they came under attack. Surprised at Pakistanis still being there, Rajputs asked for artillery fire on Bedori. Zoru did not allow that since he was told it was already captured. In the bargain, Rajputs took casualties and were stalled at the base of Bedori. When Zoru informed GOC 19 Div, Maj Gen  (first name) Klan about the situation on ground, Gen Klan lost his cool. The GOC told Zoru, in that case, ask the Rajputs to press on and capture Bedori at any cost since it has already been announced on radio that India has captured the peak! Zoru refused. He told the GOC, ‘Sir if I tell CO 4 Rajput now to capture Bedori, he will mutiny. One moment we tell them it is in our control, the next we say go and capture! This is not on.’ So the situation on 27th morning was: Rajputs were stalled, 19 Punjab was sitting around doing nothing. Of course 1 Para meanwhile had done all right. They were in Ledwali gali by the morning of 27th.”
For 1 Para getting to Ledwali Gali was not easy. The attack was launched at 2230 hrs on 27th night by the B company followed the D Company which moved forward towards Point 9591 or Sank. The Pakistani troops rushed from their trenches and opened fire with MMGs, LMGs and other small arms. The Indians also opened up forcing the enemy back into the trenches. By 0430 hrs on 27th August, the B Company had reached within 450 m of the Pakistani positions and formed up to charge frontally. The daring platoon attack that followed, the Pakistani MMGs and LMGs were silenced. The Pakistanis were forced to retreat to Sar leaving 16 dead although they managed to evacuate 100-odd wounded soldiers. Despite the small tactical victory, the position was still not secure since a menacing fire from Sar continued to pin them down. So D company was tasked to clear the feature. It soon captured Sar and advanced to Ledwali Gali where Pakistanis made their last stand to allow safe withdrawal of their remaining troops. The B Company had meanwhile secured the surrounding areas.
Despite these victories against heavy odds, Haji Pir was still in Pakistani control. That’s when Brig ‘Zoru’ Bakshi took, what Brig. Shamsher thinks was the momentous decision of the 1965 war—and took it unilaterally! As he narrates What Zoru Bakshi did that morning of 27th August 1965, Brig Shamsher’s eyes are looking far back in the past, his face glowing with pride for being one of the prime witnesses to that historic decision.
He recounts: “A most historic and momentous decision was taken by Zoru in my presence. Very few can do that in any army, any era. After Gen Kler told him to take Bedori, and after 1 Para had reached Ledwali Gali, Zoru knew that the Pakis would have guessed by now that all the thrust by the Indians was for capturing Haji Pir pass. Zoru knew the Pakis would have reinforced Haji Pir by now and sure enough they had. The 18 Punjab (Pakistan) was rushed in to defend Haji Pir on the night of 27-28th. But as the man tasked to capture the vital pass, Zoru knew he had to press on with the plan despite mounting odds and in spite of the express orders of the GOC to first capture Bedori.
“So Zoru asked CO, 1 Para, Lt. Col Prabhjinder, who can lead a commando style operation on Haji Pir. Prabhjinder nominated Maj. Ranjit Singh Dayal. Ranjit Dayal was given a Company plus for the attack. Before Dayal started his operation, Zoru told him in thet Punjabi: ‘Agar te jit liya Haji Pir to tu hero ban jayega, ne to meinu wah kaid kar lenge ( If you win Haji Pir you will be a hero but if you can’t I will be arrested for taking a unilateral decision),’” Brig Shamsher remembers.
Maj RS Dayal, who rose to become a Lt General, was once again in the limelight in June 1984 when he was chosen—despite being a Sikh--to lead Operation Bluestar into the Golden Temple. But more of that later.
Maj Dayal was given a mixed column of A and D companies. It started the march to Haji Pir from Ledwali Gali around 1530 on 27th afternoon descending to the Hyderabad Nallah along the spur. It encountered MMG firing from the western shoulder of Haji Pir. Small arms fire also rained down on the column from the east of the Pass. So the FOO (give full form) registered the two areas and brought down artillery fire to silence the two positions (is this correct?). The column kept moving though down to the Hyderabad Nallah   the two areas and brought down artillery fire to silence the two positions. 
The column kept moving though down along the left bank of the Hyderabad Nallah alongside the hill before crossing over to the pass side and then start the ascent (see map). At about 1730, two hours after the column had started the march, heavy rains began, making movement very difficult. By 1900 hrs it was completely dark. But Maj Dayal decided to continue climbing towards the pass despite adverse conditions. As the troops were climbing, they came across what looked like an abandoned house but in reality was a shelter for infiltrators. In a swift action, 1 Para troops captured 10 members of the Azad Kashmir militia—a kind of para-military force—one LMG and 10 rifles. The captured prisoners were gainfully utilised to carry the extra load of the column, mainly ratio and fuel! As the troops reached the Uri-Poonch road, 10 km below the Pass, it was already 0430 hrs on 28th August. Maj Dayal decided to give a much-needed two-hour break to the soldiers although they had to rest in pouring rain which accentuated the cold.
At 0700 hrs, the column resumed the march. In another two hours, it was barely 700 metres short of the pass. Pakistani troops, perched atop the peak were surprised to see the column. They had perhaps thought that the Indians had abandoned the attack due to the heavy rain the previous night! As the surprised Pakistanis opened up with an MMG from the western shoulder of the pass and with LMG and other small arms from the pass itself, Maj Dayal had to think of outwitting them.
Zoru Bakshi briefing Gen Harbaksh at Haji Pir
After assessing the Pakistani defence on the pass, Maj Dayal tasked two platoons to climb the steep spurs from the Western side of the pass, silence the MMG and then roll down to the main defences. The supremely fit and confident paratroopers did the job exceedingly well, surprising the Pakistanis. As the rest of the column fetched up, the Pakistanis could not withstand the twin attacks and withdrew to a feature west of the Pass.
By 1000 hrs on 28 August Haji Pir was in India’s control, thanks to the daring day light attack by 1 Para troops under the bold leadership of Maj RS Dayal. It was to prove a major turning point in the 1965 war. The main infiltration route was now plugged from one side but more importantly the morale of the Indian army was now sky high following two major successes in Kargil and this one in Haji Pir against formidable odds. Remember these battle victories had come in less than three years after the humiliation against China.
Capturing Haji Pir was however only a partial completion of the overall plan. Pakistanis were known to counter-attack swiftly, so Haji Pir and its surroundings had to be secured. As expected, the Pakistanis did counter-attack on 29th but it was repulsed by the brave and efficient paratroopers. To further consolidate their position, 1 Para captured Ring Contour on 30 August and the adjoining Point 8786 a day later.
For his act of courage, innovativeness and leadership in capturing the Haji Pir pass despite very adverse conditions, Maj RS Dayal was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.
Brig. Shamsher recalls: “When we captured Haji Pir, there was one small incident I cannot forget. When 1 Para was going for its assault, I had sent a detachment of  Signals headed by a Havaldar Pillai with a couple of radio sets which were short of batteries. So I had told the Signals men not to use the high frequency radio set unnecessarily and conserve the battery. I will call you, you don’t call was my instruction. But he called on the radio set after 1 Para had secured Haji Pir. So I scolded him, why are you wasting the battery, I said. So he replied, there is no problem sir. So I said what no problem. Havildar Pillai, pleased as punch said ‘Sir the Pakis have left behind many radio sets in full working condition besides lot of petrol and several tins of desi ghee!’
Meanwhile Bedori was still unconquered. Two attempts by 19 Punjab on 25 August and by 4 Rajput on 27 August had failed. Zoru Bakshi and his battalion commanders realised they had no option but to assault the Bedori peak through the Bedori springs in the north-east.
How media reported it that time
So after reaching a place called Heman Buniyar  at 0715 hrs on 28 August, the battalion moved to the Bedori springs, already secured by a neighbouring battalion, 7 Bihar and prepared for the final assault. At 0330 hrs on 29 August, 19 Punjab crossed the forming up place for the assault on Bedori. It involved a steep climb of nearly 600 m. After fierce hand to hand combat as well as a firefight, Bedori was captured in less than three hours. The B and C companies, besides a 3.7 inch Mountain gun played a major part in securing victory. The gun had apparently arrived just the previous night. Its firepower destroyed the Pakistani sangars (temporary bunkers) but also shattered the morale of the Pakistani troops. After securing Bedori, 19 Punjab moved through Kunthar di Gali and linked up with 1 Para on 1 September. The CO of 19 Punjab, Lt Col Sampuran Singh was awarded Mahavir Chakra for his un-daunting spirit, exceptional leadership and bravery.
However, had it not been for the bold leadership of Brig Bakshi (after whom the Operation was named). Haji Pir could not have been secured as quickly as the Indian Army did. For his bold, unconventional leadership Brig Bakshi was awarded Maha Vir Chakra.


Monday, January 15, 2018

What the fauj--and parents--taught me

I had written the piece below more than six years ago. The debt I owe to the fauj is immeasurable, not just because I report on it extensively but because many of the values I cherish and practice have been inherited from the ethos and tradition that the military preaches and practices in large measure. On Army Day 2018, reupping the article with a sense of gratitude. Many have probably read it earlier but no harm in reloading it for those who haven't. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What the fauj and parents taught me

Last week, a friend in the Army, reacting to my latest documentary on the endless-and thankless-war that Indian soldiers fight in Kashmir, paid a heartfelt compliment by calling me a ‘soldier-journalist’. Flattered though I was for a moment, the remark also embarrassed me no end. For I have never donned the uniform. To me soldiering is the only profession in which men and women go beyond the call of duty and therefore deserve the highest respect in the society. To me soldiers are a breed apart. In my chosen profession of journalism, this attitude is regarded as partisan. Many feel I am blind to many sins of commission and omission that the armed forces personnel seem to indulge in these days.

The charge may be partially true but I am not ashamed about it mainly because our forces are still way above the rest of the society when it comes to upholding the values of honour, teamwork, professionalism, ethics and camaraderie. But let me also confess: the biggest reason for my soft corner for the forces comes from the fact that I too am a fauji kid and sub-consciously somewhere deep down I still live by a dictum one learnt as a kid: Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana (Do your duty to the best of your ability and don’t seek rewards).

When I look back, I realise that my father, who retired as a subedar major in 1982 and with him my mother, followed this practice in their daily life and passed it to us three brothers without making a song and dance about it. Throughout my 28-year career as a professional journalist, I have been fortunate that I could follow this principle without even realising that I was practicing what my father did all his professional life. Now, wiser and littlemore experienced than before, I am in a position to analyse some of the reasons behind the moderate success that each of us-three brothers-have managed to achieve in our respective  professions.

Adaptability, my biggest strength, has been a second nature through our growing years thanks to the frequent transfers and constantly changing schools. In the 1960s and the 1970s, ordinary soldiers — and my father was one — had a tough life in the Indian Army. They lived far from their families, toiled hard for a pittance and yet possessed a dignity that is not found in an ordinary civilian. The soldier never complained, never whined and never expected anything in return for what he did. I changed eight schools in 10 years and studied in three different mediums- English, Marathi and Hindi before entering junior college in 1978. Sub-consciously, without ever preaching to us, our parents drilled a motto into us: “Take life as it comes.”

And we did.

We met the challenges head on. I remember travelling from Pune to Lekha Bali in Arunachal Pradesh by train in the late 1970s. It used to take us four days and five changes at Kalyan, Allahabad, Baruani,
New Bongaigaon and Rangiya before we could reach the destination.

Reservations were never confirmed.

Dad was never with us.

One lived by one’s wits and survived. Frequent transfers meant frequent dislocations and packings. And unlike today, there were no movers and packers in those pre-liberalisation days. So we learnt to adapt.

To be responsible for our actions. Discipline and punctuality was given.

Colleagues laugh at me when I start getting uncomfortable if I am late for an appointment. They laugh at the fact that  I sleep by 10 pm and up by 5.30 am. But I know no other way. I mentioned adaptability earlier. My parents not only taught us how to adapt and accept but also practiced the principle. The biggest proof is my being a journalist. In the summer of ’83, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned.

I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30 and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold.

I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of combined defence services exam that December.

That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.

The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games from kabaddi to squash and from kho-kho to cricket as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held.

Five days later, they called me for an interview. With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 700 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday. At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me, “When can you join?”

 My answer was, “Whenever you want.” He said, “Can you join, tonight?”

And I agreed to join that very evening. Then I became a journalist.

Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put  together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am. Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot.

My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a junior commissioned officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father
accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time was “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam.

My parents moved back to Pune soon after but again luck smiled on me. Neha married me in 1988 and continued to encourage me to take risks with life and with career. Never ever complaining that I chose to take up risky assignments touring deep into north eastern states, reported the Kargil war, the Sri Lanka conflict, when I could have played safe and remained a desk bound journo.

Today those risks have paid off.

I can say with a bit of  immodesty that I can compete with the best in business without feeling inferior.

The urge to do better than yesterday comes naturally to the men in uniform. If I behave that way even now, it is thanks to my upbringing in a military environment. Despite all its faults and foibles, the military remains a vital part of my life for whatever I am today is thanks largely to the fauj and its ethos.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Harnessing space for security & development

Date: 30 June 2014
Place: Satellite Launch Centre, Sriharikota

Just a month into office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had travelled to the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) facility to witness the launch of the PSLV-C23 satellite. In his speech after the successful launch, Modi praised the ISRO scientists for their stellar work and then stunned them into momentary silence by posing a challenge. “Today, I ask our Space community, to take up the challenge, of developing a SAARC Satellite - that we can dedicate to our neighbourhood, as a gift from India. A satellite, that provides a full range of applications and services, to all our neighbours. I also ask you, to enlarge the footprint of our satellite-based navigation system, to cover all of South Asia.”

Initially, the assembled scientists did not know what to say. “We had never done such a thing,” remembers an old ISRO hand. Modi reinforced this idea five months later, speaking in Kathmandu at the SAARC Summit on November 26. He said, "India's gift of a satellite for the SAARC region will benefit us all in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication.”

In less than three years after the Prime Minister challenged the ISRO scientists, they came up with the answer. On 5 May 2017, the SAARC Satellite’ was launched from Sriharikota, opening a new chapter in space diplomacy.

The 2,230 kgGSAT-9 is a Geostationary Communication Satellite. Communication services from it will be shared with five neighbours (Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives). It will help to meet the growing telecommunications and broadcasting needs of the region. All participating nations will have access to at least one transponder using which they can telecast their own programming. The countries will develop their own ground-level infrastructure. The satellite is expected to provide communication channels between countries for better disaster management. Afghanistan is also expected to join the group soon. As a scientist in ISRO says, “For smaller countries, this is a dream come true. To lease a transponder, a lot of money has to be spent. But here India has gifted them a permanent asset.” Apart from the obvious use (telecommunication, broadcasting), leaders of these six countries can have secure dedicated one-on-one communication through the VSAT facility that the satellite provides, explained ISRO officials. The leaders can also have a video conference between themselves if they so wished, thanks to the South Asia satellite.
In a way, by dedicating a separate satellite for the neighbourhood, Modi has taken his favourite theme of SabkaSaath, SabkaVikas, beyond India’s own physical boundaries. An early example of helping neighbours through satellites came in Nepal. In August 2014, a massive landslide blocked Sun Koshi river in Northern Nepal indicating the possible formation of a lake. This created flood threat for several villages downstream in Bihar.

ISRO immediately swung into action, acquired the images and in consultation with India’s National Disaster Relief Agency (NDMA) could get to exact location of landslide, compute the extent of debris due to landslide and could come up with a solution for controlled release of blocked water slowly, averting possible flash floods in Bihar. This operation was made possible because ISRO now coordinates closely with Inter-Ministerial Group for Emergency management at the Centre. IMEG helped coordinate the relief operation in Nepal and later in September 2014 in Srinagar too.

But that’s not all.
As ISRO Chairman K. Kiran Kumar sees it,“While ISRO has always been a pace-setter in space application Prime Minister Modi and NSA Ajit Doval have spurred us into taking our technology a step higher.” He cites the example of ‘Island mapping’ programme launched in 2015.
Apparently in one of the meetings in the PMO sometime in June 2015 Modi asked the number of islands India possesses. As officials from MHA scrambled to get the exact figures from Survey of India, some officials in the PMO itself tried to add up the number by getting the figures from state governments and from the census records. But the figures varied widely. It was clear that the records were old and not updated in years.
That’s when NSA Doval turned to ISRO. He asked ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar if the space agency could help in determining the exact number of islands. Kiran Kumar was quick to say yes. Remembers PG Diwakar, currently Scientific Secretary to the ISRO Chairman: “I was then in-charge of Remote Sensing Applications at NRSC. The Chairman asked me to devise a quick method to map the islands around India’s vast coastline.” He got down to work immediately with a hand-picked team. “We were asked to not just determine the numbers but also look at their exact status, distribution and area (of the islands). We were particularly told to recheck the status of the islands that were on the Survey of India list from the British days. The fear was that some of them would have gone underwater while some others would have sprung up,” Diwakar recalls.
The unspoken apprehension behind the exercise was the possibility of some remote, uninhibited island in Andaman-Nicobar territory or around Lakshadweep or even in the Sundarbans being illegally occupied!!. Security agencies were aware of how arms smugglers had used a remote island in Andaman in 1998 to land a large consignment of arms meant for Burmese rebels and tried to transport it across the Bay of Bengal to be delivered in Myanmar. The agencies had foiled the consignment in well-coordinated plan under Operation Leech in February 1998. Nearly twenty years later, the likelihood of an uninhibited island being occupied by forces aligned to India’s adversaries has increased manifold. The exercise thus had strategic implications too.
Once the number was determined, the ISRO team developed an Island Information System that has 34 attributes (give details). The Prime Minister was briefed about the system in October 2016. Since then, the NITI Aayog, state governments and other ministries have started to draw up development plans for 10 selected islands, five each in Andaman and Lakshadweep.
At the same time, ISRO satellites are keeping a continuous watch on these island territories. A software that updates any noticeable changes on these islands has since been developed too. So as Diwakar and his team drew up the latest data base on islands, they came up with new discoveries.  “Says Diwakar: “This work became very popular because we built this information system within a few months and were able to demonstrate this to MHAand other Ministries that were involved in the exercise. The Home Ministry had then called in many other ministries who are relevant in this exercise and also needed this data. For example, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, the Census people, Environment & Forests and the Survey of India officers, all came on board. What we did is we brought on a common platform, an information system which can be used by multiple ministries.”  For example, an IG of Police from Gujarat told ISRO scientists that his force is now able to monitor vulnerable islands close to the maritime boundary with Pakistan much more closely and take counter measures accordingly.

The Island Information System apart, ISRO has successfully launched CARTOSAT 2 Series of satellites that can provide sub-meter images (spatial resolution of 65 cm) for monitoring purposes. ISRO is also building on capabilities to acquire images from as far as 36,000 km up in the space and yet give a resolution of about 55 m, at frequent intervals, empowering Indian security agencies like the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and other intelligence arms to monitor real time activities of India’s adversaries. Such a capability would also help in effective monitoring of major national disasters in the country.
The Special Projects Division dealing with all strategic requirements of the armed forces and intelligence agencies has been reinvigorated. A senior scientist in charge of the Division works in close coordination with the Deputy National Security Adviser to meet all requirements in quickest time possible. So, for instance, while new and powerful ISRO satellites are continuously monitoring India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood as a matter of routine, a specific request like the one to hover over areas in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the wake of the Uri attack in September 2016 was handled by the Special Projects Division. For a week in the run up to the surgical strikes in late September that year, ISRO kept a close and specific watch on terrorist camps and movement of Pakistani army troops. When Indian Special Forces crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and struck several locations inside PoK, real time surveillance was mounted by ISRO both to capture the assault and to monitor any threatening movement against the Indian Special Forces teams.
In June and July 2017, at the height of a tense standoff between India and China in Chumbi Valley just north of the Siliguri corridor, connecting rest of India with the north eastern states, ISRO was tasked with monitoring Chinese military activity in Tibet to determine if there was any unusual movement of troops, tanks or aircraft. Besides, ISRO now provides real time support to Indian Navy and Coast Guard to keep a close watch on the long coastline as well as the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that India has. Movement of Chinese survey ships, submarines and warships in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal besides the Pakistani Navy’s forays into Arabian Sea, in conjunction with the Navy, is now one of the important tasks of ISRO following the new coordination mechanism established in 2015.
ISRO has in fact been continuously launching a series of satellites, mainly for cartography purpose. Called the Cartosat series, these satellites are mainly used for cartographic mapping the earth. So they are useful for dual purposes—military as well as civil. Through the Cartosat 2 series of satellites programme for instance, ISRO is helping derive1x4000 scale maps for better urban planning. As Kiran Kumar says, “the beauty of this technology is that it is continuously available. One can take an image today, one can take an image again, 15 days later, compare and monitor the progress of a project, a building or whatever else. With two-time data, say between 2007 and 2017, we can calculate the difference in height of a given building through stereo imaging and three-dimensional mapping and calculations to establish building heights, Mining related works or even new constructions.”

K Kasturirangan, former chairman of ISRO, says "The space agency has a formidable suit of technologies and all are suitably deployed with each user agency utilising the assets to their best advantage."

So while high resolution imaging satellite can help in urban planning it can also monitor terrorist camps across the border. Kasturirangan says a satellite image does not distinguish between friend and foe that interpretation rests with the users. Kiran Kumar says, "The Indian space agency will not be found lacking in helping secure India's national interests now and in future."

Speaking about the capabilities of this ultra-sharp satellite, Kumar said "The Cartosat 2 series has a unique capability of capturing a 1-minute video, which despite its enormous speed of 37 km a second, is able to focus at a single point for a minute." 

In addition, there were three other earth imaging satellites Cartosat-1, Cartosat-2 and Resourcesat-2 that provide top class imagery during day time. Going further, ISRO seeks to develop satellites that have a resolution of 25 cm in the very near future.

Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair says even China does not have such high resolution satellites, the best China has is about 5-m resolution.
Nair says "India invested heavily in space imaging technology and is now reaping the benefits." Nair says right now India relies heavily on using Thuraya handsets for satellite telephony but he hopes very soon the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will be able to deliver Indian handsets that are compatible with the country's GSAT-6 satellite.

In fact Nair insists that in the upcoming GSAT 6-A, satellite telephony should be made the bigger component. 

While understandably much of the resources are focused on land since India has hostile neighbours both on its western and eastern fronts. ISRO has not forgotten the deep blue oceans that surround India and they need to be protected as well. On a specific demand by the Indian Navy, the Indian space scientists have already deployed a satellite the Navy calls 'Rukmini'. This is a dedicated communications satellite which helps the Indian Navy talk to its ships when they are beyond the visual range, in a secure fashion.

As a senior security manager summed it up: “Now ISRO has got strategically aligned to India’s security requirements, thanks to the Eye-in-the-Sky. Earlier, it was largely technologically focused.”
Another feather in ISRO’s cap is the Indian National Regional Navigational System, meant for creating India’s own GPS facility. Having put up a constellation of  seven satellites which covers India and the neighbourhood—up to 1500 km to the east and west of India’s shores—ISRO has created a powerful system which is used for several important tasks including creating India’s own GPS system. This constellation of seven satellites was named as "NavIC" (Navigation Indian Constellation) by Prime Minister Modi and dedicated to the Nation on the occasion of successful launch of IRNSS-1G, the seventh and last satellite of NavIC. Navic in Sanskrit is incidentally, a sailor.
All the satellites will be visible at all times in the Indian region. While the first of the series of satellites was launched in July 2013, the rest six were put into space between 2014 and 2016.ISRO spent Rs. 1,420 crores on building and setting up the seven NavIC satellites in the orbit. Regarded as a precise system, comparable to US's GPS, NavIC is capable of providing position accuracy of about 10 metres. India has thus become one among a handful of countries, to have its own GPS. IRNSS Or NavIC will provide two types of services, namely, Standard Positioning Service (SPS) which is provided to all the users and Restricted Service (RS), which is an encrypted service provided only to the authorised users. The indigenous system is already up and providing services that is being tested and used a few applications already.  Says an ISRO official: “From 2018, we need not depend on US GPS at all.”It’s a major strategic advantage.

Based on the Indian GPS system, ISRO has tied up with Indian companies—under Make in India projects--for manufacture of a chip set. Once the chips are produced, they can be used for variety of purposes, from defence to simple road navigation in the civilian sector. Several trials have taken place of late. NavIChas started supporting the fisherman in coastal areas. Says Kiran Kumar, “the first application (of NavIC) which we have devised is given through a mobile App, a basic mobile. Once installed and linked to the NavIC Device, a fisherman in say Gujarat or in Tamil Nadu will get important services, like 1. Potential Fishing Zones (PFZ) information for him to navigate to that point for fishing, 2. Weather alert, like thunders storms, 3An automatic alert if his boat approaches international maritime boundary. Otherwise, on high seas, it is difficult to make out where the Indian area ends and other country’s begins.” Given the frequency of arrests of Indian fishermen in Pakistani or Sri Lankan waters, NavIC must come as a big relief to the fishermen community.
ISRO has already developed necessary Apps on Mobile that will allow fishermen to download potential fishing zones in the area before they launch the boat into the sea. Explains Diwakar: “Here, what we do is we use the sea surface temperature and chlorophyll information, which comes from the satellite data, Oceansat-2 is used here, both these are integrated to determine an area which would have a school of fish, that around this lat-long, the fishermen need not waste time in searching for fish as he can follow the PFZ maps and reach the right place for assured fish-catch.” This is in fact the first application based on NavIC, which is already in field-trial phase.
Once tested and tried, the chipset may even become integral part of every mobile handset in India to provide accurate GPS to everyone, ISRO scientists now say. There will be multiple applications that NavIC can be used for.
However, ISRO’s mandate goes much beyond just helping India’s strategic sector. Chairman Kiran Kumar says the scope and work of ISRO has expanded manifold since the Modi government has taken charge in 2014. In fact, the Chairman of ISRO says under this government, the number of ministries using ISRO data has gone up manifold. “From about 10-12 ministries in the past, we now have 58 ministries, including the tribal welfare ministry (which one wouldn’t have thought would have any use of our data) have a dedicated link to our data. That’s a huge difference.”

For example the Smart Cities & AMRUT projects that the government has launched. ISRO provides 65 cm data, 1x4000 scale maps, to urban planners for consistent and continuous planning and monitoring. ISRO’s technology now gives a three-dimension imagery allowing urban planners to record progress of a construction site. Project managers can now map the progress of various construction activities by comparing earlier images with the latest ones at a central place, on a dashboard. ISRO’s ability to map potential ground water zones, provide acreage and production of major crops well before harvest, monitor encroachments in forest in addition to mapping and monitoring forest reserves, assess quality of land (whether it is fallow, a wasteland or fertile), gives a handy tool to town planners. They can now plan to make optimum utilisation of water, electricity, energy since the entire three dimensional view of the proposed town or a city in progress is available. Once a new city comes up, many of its basic civic functions can be controlled, managed and utilised through a central system, thanks to ISRO’s technology.
Says Diwakar, “If I am a town planner, I would like to optimally utilize resources in a cost effective manner, let us say, the water, electricity and sewerage systems. I wouldn’t like to waste the precious water. So you can completely control through ICT technologies on how you’re going to distribute the water in a city. Through the computerised mechanism you release the water to a particular area for a particular time, you auto shut-off and close it since you know the amount of water the population is going to consume. ISRO scientists say their technology gives an integrated perspective and the ability to modify outcomes as and when required. For instance, they can effectively do traffic management by using ICT because the control room has the full picture and ability to monitor the amount of load on a given road and identify choke points during different hours. Near real-time monitoring and making real-time projections helps in better urban management. And at nights the control room can even manage street lighting and control energy consumption of a particular area based on traffic and use of public places. The control room manager can switch on /switch off or even reduce the illumination for a certain area if there’s no traffic, say after 12 midnight. In short, the Central control room concept in a smart city can literally manage and monitor all the basic amenities and facilities which are used by common citizens daily. Yet another possibility of using “Internet of Things (IOT”, intermixed with space technology helps in better management of smart cities. The capital of Chattisgarh—Naya Raipur—that is moving towards smart city program is one of the unique examples of marrying urban planning with space technology, ISRO scientist point out.
AMRUT or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation is another example where urban bodies (municipal corporations, city councils) will be able to use geospatial technology for planning. For example, urban planners can get the full picture at the click of a mouse about the drainage situation, existing pipelines, allow them to check if space exists for new pipelines to be laid etc. The authorities can also take a comprehensive look at the green cover available in an urban setting thanks to the ISRO eye in the sky and decide accordingly which areas to leave out for construction, which to allot in case the land is found to be fallow or is a wasteland with no hope of being used for agriculture purposes.

So wasn’t this being done earlier, I ask the ISRO scientists. “Not at this level or with so much of coordination,” said one of them in reply. Normally, it used to take four to five years for town planners to finalise the city plans or even update them but now, working in close coordination with Ministry of Urban Development the process is much faster than before. The Ministry has modified the entire documentation with respect to town planning, they have evolved new guidelines that uses space and geospatial technology, so now the entire urban planning starts with a geospatial base map, the base map given by the high resolution satellite pictures. The satellite pictures combined with the existing maps gives full information on elevation, type of land--waste land or a productive land—to enable faster planning. At the moment, about 500 AMRUT towns and cities have been taken up and sought ISRO’s help.  Having tasted success, the authorities now want to use the technology for all 4,041 cities in the future.

Explains Diwakar: “This is a procedure we’ve put together. A client server system has been designed to be used by the MoUD. All the services will be ‘e’ enabled services.  All of them—water and waste management, traffic system, electricity grids, housing numbers-- can be brought under one roof and monitored in a dashboard. We are for example working with Naya Raipur to make it one of the first modern smart cities in the country. The model should be amenable to be emulated throughout the country.”

Planning smart cities apart, ISRO is contributing in mounting surveillance on gas pipelines, geo-tagging all the post offices in the country, helping tourism departments to come up with a real-time information monitoring system and collecting data for municipal corporations. The information of all 1.55 lakh post offices in the country—including their location, status of road connectivity to each one of them and even the services provided by them—is now available at one place, that is Bhuvan Geoportal. Moreover the 3Dimensional imaging capability that ISRO now has enables municipal authorities to monitor and compare data on building heights. For example, simply looking at a residential building’s 3D image from 2010 and 2017—for instance—the civic authorities can calculate the number of stories added to a building and accordingly come up with an estimate house tax they can collect.

Similarly, for agriculture sector, satellite imagery was used earlier too but over the past three years, the use of ISRO satellites has gone up manifold. Says a scientist: “Our technology now enables the agriculture department to estimate grain production much before the harvest. Earlier we used monitor about eight crops, now the count has gone up to 11 and also helping the ministry with Soil Health Card program in country in addition to the Crop Insurance scheme to help the farming community. Moreover, we have also included horticulture in this monitoring. The most important change however is the use of ISRO technology to assess damage to crops in drought hit areas or places that get excessive rains or flooding. This way the government’s crop insurance programme gets implemented in double quick time. We are actually able to provide almost real time data to enable the agriculture department in assessing the need for crop insurance.”

Even the water resources ministry uses space technology much more than before. Thanks to the new synergy, the Ministry now gets the water spread information in all water bodies and reservoirs on a bi-weekly basis through, says Diwakar. Every 15 days we get the picture of surface water body in the entire country, he adds. This kind of data is automatically processed and published on ISRO portal. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States have launched a major program on water resources management using our technology and the advantage of such bi-weekly data on water from space.

ISRO’s achievements are already formidable but with growing use of space for defence and commercial purposes, its role is bound to increase and it must therefore strive to remain ahead of the curve by inviting India’s private sector to forge a beneficial partnership. As Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head, Nuclear & Space Policy Initiative, at the Observer Research Foundation says, “India has a sizeable and talented private sector that must be brought in to maximize the capacity to manufacture as well as launch satellites. Isro might need to do a bit of handholding in the beginning but with a little help the Indian private sector can contribute to India’s space growth story in an effective manner.”

Increasing private sector participation part, ISRO will need to remain focused on India’s defence and strategic requirements in coming years and contribute much more than before in securing India through precise application of its capabilities even as it continues to attain new heights in commercial application of  space assets.

(From my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Why govt was forced to but Rafale jets off the shelf

As the new political leadership was briefed about the impasse, MoD officials were told to try and break the deadlock as soon as possible since the IAF’s fleet of fighter aircraft was depleting alarmingly.

So, during a meeting of CNC on 25 September 2014, Dassault Aviation was told provide commitment on these two issues within 10 days. The Company demurred. As no response was received they were again requested vide letter dated 31 October 2014 that the requisite commitment may be provided within a week. In their response dated 7 November 2014, Dassault Aviation did not provide the confirmations sought by the CNC.

On 10 November 2014 meanwhile Parrikar took over as Defence Minister. While being briefed about the major pending projects and contracts, he realised that the MMRCA contract wasn’t going anywhere. Yet he wanted to give the French sufficient time to comply with the terms of the tender.

In December 2014, the French Defence Minister came visiting and as expected raised the issue of conclusion of contract negotiations in the MMRCA case with Parrikar who told him  that conclusion of the contract was held up on account of the vendor not confirming compliance to the terms of the RFP. This was followed up by a formal letter from Parrikar to the French Defence Minister stating that it would be really useful for Dassault Aviation to confirm compliance to the terms of the RFP and the terms of the bid submitted by them at the earliest. It was further mentioned in the letter that the negotiations can be carried forward and concluded thereafter if Dassault Aviation could be asked to depute a fully empowered representative to discuss non-stop with CNC.

Another  discussion with the delegation of Dassault Aviation was held on 12 February 2015. A clarification was sought from  Dassault Aviation  towards confirmation of compliance to the terms of the RFP and terms of the bid submitted by them specifically. The two crucial points, i.e. (i) the consolidated Man Hours (MH) based on which Dassault Aviation had been declared L-1 would be the same man hours required for license manufacture of 108 Rafale aircraft in India, and (ii) Dassault Aviation as the Seller under the contract for 126 aircraft for the IAF will undertake necessary contractual obligations as per RFP requirements.

The representatives of Dassault Aviation reiterated their stand on both issues and stated that while Dassault Aviation will be responsible only for delivery of 18 aircraft in a flyaway condition, they will not take ownership for the 108  aircraft to be manufactured by HAL as the Local Production Agency (LPA). On the issue regarding Man Hours , the  Dassault Aviation representative  stated that the company’s  stand has always been consistent that the Man Hours indicated in their proposal correspond to the related tasks performed in French Industrial condition. He also mentioned that only HAL being the Lead Production Agency can talk about the factor of multiplication to be applied to these Man Hours to convert the same to the Man Hours required for license production of 108 aircraft in India. Clearly, Dassault Aviation was using the loophole in the original terms of the tender to get away with shirking its responsibility towards the quality of the 108 jets to be manufactured in India.

Exasperated at the obduracy shown by the French company, MoD issued an ultimatum in on 20 March 2015 asking it to fulfill the commitment and confirmation on the two aspects mentioned above, ‘failing which MoD may be constrained to withdraw the RFP issued.’

However, Dassault Aviation, in its response dated 24 March 2015, did not commit on the two aspects mentioned above. Instead, the French Company stated that the estimate of consolidated Man Hours given by them is to be used by HAL to prepare its own quotation with respect to the completion of its (HAL’s) tasks under the MMRCA. The MoD realised that applying a factor of 2.7 on the Man Hours quoted by both Dassault Aviation and EADS (the company that quoted the second lowest price), the Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA), as on November 2011, would undergo a material change to the extent that Dassault Aviation would have no longer remained L1 vendor and would have become L2 vendor.

As the CNC members took the matter to Parrikar he realised the process had been convoluted to such an extent that, it would have been impossible to take it forward. He however knew from the briefings given by the IAF, there was no time to lose in acquiring fighter jets. The number of effective squadrons was going down rapidly. The IAF leadership also told him that they were happy with Rafale’s performance and would rather have the fighter in its fleet than scout of other options. Parrikar realised that another round of MMRCA kind of competition would have taken enormous time and effort. So he took the matter to the Prime Minister and briefed him about the necessity of procuring the fighter. At the same time, Parrikar told Modi, it would be legally untenable to go through with the MMRCA contract since the process had got vitiated completely thanks to Antony’s indecisiveness and a crucial oversight in the original terms of the contract.

Under the circumstances, there was no alternative but to withdraw the original tender, Parrikar told Modi since the CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) guidelines provide that negotiations cannot be held with the competitor who has come second in the contract (L2 vendor in officialese). The only way, the defence minister suggested, was to scrap the tender and buy a minimum number of Rafale jets off the shelf to fill a critical gap in the IAF’s inventory. The Prime Minister agreed and decided to talk to the French President about such a possibility during his upcoming visit to Paris in April 2015. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) also gave its approval to the new proposal before Modi left for Paris on 9 April 2015.

That evening, alerted by a source about the possibility India scrapping the MMRCA tender and going in for off-the-shelf purchase of Rafale jets, I scooped the story on my blog NewsWarrior (, 10 minutes to midnight on 9 April, almost 22 hours before  Modi’s announcement of India deciding to buy Rafale jets off the shelf was in Paris. I however got the numbers wrong. My report said India would buy 63 Rafale directly from Dassault Aviation.

Eventually, Prime Minister Modi announced in Paris that India would purchase 36 aircraft. Shishir Gupta of the Hindustan Times was closer (as far as numbers were concerned). But I had the satisfaction of having reported about such a possibility before anyone else in the world, a fact that gives reporters an unimaginable high. Once our stories (Gupta’s and mine) were out, other news outlets started confirming the possibility. Most reports on 10 April 2015, waiting for the announcement to be made by Modi and Hollande, quoted my blog post and Gupta’s report as the source of the initial information.  

India’s decision, announced at a joint Press Conference between Modi and then French President Francoise Hollande on 10 April 2015, took everyone by surprise but under the circumstances, the Prime Minister had chosen the best possible solution.
Once the in-principle decision was taken, it was left to Parrikar and his team in the MoD to negotiate the eventual price for buying the 36 jets. Their confidence bolstered by the PMO, the Parrikar-led MoD drove a hard bargain with the French. But it wasn’t until another 15 months later—in September 2016-- that India finally signed the contract and got the state-of-the-art fighters at a competitive price.

36 Rafale Vs 126 MMRCA Package Comparison

As the contract was signed, inevitable comparisons about the costs India was paying for the 36 jets and the 126 planes India was supposed to have bought under the MMRCA deal, began.

The final negotiated price for 36 Rafale package, along with initial consignment of weapons, Performance-based Logistics (PBL), simulators along with annual maintenance and associated equipment and services was fixed at 7890 million Euros.  The average unit cost of Rafale aircraft thus turned out to be 91.7 million Euros (going by the Euro-to-rupee conversion rate at the time of signing the contract it meant each aircraft would cost Rs 688.30 crore and not Rs 1500 or Rs 1700 crore quoted by some analysts). In any case, officials involved in the nitty-gritty of the negotiations pointed out that the  package cost of 126 MMRCA and 36 Rafale cannot be directly compared to work out per unit cost as the deliverables in the two cases were quiet divergent.  Obviously, the CCS, briefed in detail about the absolute necessity of procuring the Rafale jets for the IAF and the cost comparisons, did not hesitate for a moment to clear the proposal, Parrikar remembers. “I must give full credit to the negotiating team for having diligently worked out all details to get a good bargain and the Prime Minister’s total trust in us” Parrikar told me.

What the former defence minister doesn’t mention however is his own steadfast belief that the cost had to be negotiated to India’s advantage. Recalls a senior IAF official involved in the hard bargain with the French: “It was Mr Parrikar who backed us to the hilt and even held firm in the face of tremendous pressure applied by the French when their President (Francois Hollande) was in Delhi as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade in January 2016. Mr Hollande was keen to sign the MoU, inclusive of the finalised price, with our Prime Minister while in Delhi. We negotiated through the night until 4 am but the price Mr Parrikar thought was still high. So he took the matter to the PM and requested him to sign the MoU without mentioning the final price, which Modi promptly did. So on 26 January 2016, India and France signed a MoU for India to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets. Newspapers reports the next day said the 9 billion dollars deal would take some time to be finalised. It took another eight months for the contract to be signed. The team drove a hard bargain and obtained a hefty discount. As I wrote on my website, “The MoD-IAF negotiating team extracted many concessions and discounts to arrive at a price that is almost 750 million less than what was being quoted by the French side in January 2016, when the commercial negotiations gathered pace, almost seven months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s intention to buy 36 Rafales off the shelf from France during his trip to Paris in April 2015.
“To bring down the cost, the Indian team asked French officials to calculate the deal on actual cost (Price as on today) plus European Inflation Indices (which varies like stock markets and is currently around 1 per cent per annum). The MoD has also capped the European Inflation Indices to maximum 3.5 per cent a year. In other words, if inflation Indices goes down (chances of it going down are more, looking at the current situation of European markets) India will have to pay less. Even if it goes up India will not pay more than 3.5 per cent increase.
“In the now scrapped process for buying 126 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) floated the confusion reigned supreme in calculating the cost of the contract. After the French Dassault Aviation—makers of the Rafale Jet—emerged winners the UPA government had agreed with French officials to calculate the price on the fixed cost formula that allowed the company to include additional price of 3.9 per cent Inflation Indices from day 1 of the deal. So, had the India gone ahead with the UPA deal and the European Inflation Indices had fallen (as it indeed has), India would have ended up paying additional cost of inflation Indices (@3.9 per cent) which was already added at the initial negotiation itself.” 
The lower price apart, the Rafales that IAF will operate will have a weapon suite much superior to the ones proposed in the earlier case. They will include Air to Air weapons METEOR Beyond Visual Range Missiles with ranges more than 150 Km, MICA-RF Beyond Visual Range Missiles with ranges more than 80 Km and MICA-IR Close Combat Missiles with ranges more than 60 Km. The Air-Ground weapons include SCALP missiles with range in excess of 300 Km. The induction of METEOR and SCALP missiles will provide a significant capability edge to the IAF over India’s adversaries.

The Rafale for IAF will have 13 India Specific Enhancement (ISE) capabilities which are not present in the Rafale aircraft being operated by other countries. Three capabilities pertain to Radar enhancements which will provide IAF with better long range capability. One of the specific capability being acquired is the Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) through which the IAF pilots will be able counter many threats simultaneously. Another very significant capability enhancement sought is the ability to start and operate from 'High Altitude Airfields'. The 36 Rafale aircraft are to be delivered to the IAF within 67 months after signing of the Inter-Government Agreement. This delivery schedule is better than the delivery schedule proposed earlier by the French side by five months.  

But buying the aircraft is only the first step. After the initial purchase, the effectiveness of any aircraft is in the speed with which it can be repaired and ‘turned around,’ that is readied for another mission the moment it returns to base. In that respect, the IAF could not have negotiated a better deal.

 In MMRCA case, the initial PBL support was to be for five years for one squadron. In 36 Rafale case, the PBL is for five years for two squadrons with an additional contractual commitment for another two years with the base year prices kept intact. In the earlier proposed contract, the computation of PBL performance had considered cannibalisation of components from unserviceable aircraft. The Indian side was able to remove this clause without any additional cost. The PBL Agreement now stipulates that the company will ensures that a minimum 75 per cent of the fleet will always be available for operations. Moreover, Rafale has lesser turnaround time as compared to other fighter available. The Rafale aircraft can do five sorties in a day as compared to other two engine fighter aircraft available which have a sortie generation rate of three per day.

Rafale was the biggest of the complicated cases that the MoD resolved but there were other crucial pieces of equipment that India needed and needed as soon as possible. So all the hurdles in purchases of  artillery guns (M-777 howitzers from the US), attack and medium lift helicopters for the Army (Chinook and Apache helicopters from the US); frigates and mine counter-measure vessels for the Navy and Akash missiles for the Air Force, were removed in double quick time.

(Excerpted from my book Securing India: The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical strikes and more)