MH370 and three worrying “ifs”

Implications for India’s diplomacy, national security and civil aviation policy.: my The Asian Balance column at Business Standard.

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH470 was lost over South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of assistance. Given that the Malaysian authorities knew — for Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the Andaman Sea — that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, we wish they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister said that “(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners – including neighbouring countries…(in the investigation)”, which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either. Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand—which implies overflight or landing on Indian territory — Kuala Lumpur’s lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India’s Look East policy in general and the Indian navy’s sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leaves countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur’s delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging & capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing.

From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India’s direction is only 50% (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean). The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India’s borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircrafts in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the Andaman Sea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three “ifs” concerns our military setup in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s only tri-service theatre command, it is “charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman & Nicobar territories, its air space and waters.” If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars. That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told the Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focussed on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and might not be operate round-the-clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can’t spot a lumbering elephant the chances are that you can’t spot quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That’s not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don’t miss the next bird.

The second “if” involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane’s transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn’t have detected it — but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable. However, if (and note that this is a bigger “if”) it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far fetched “if”. What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn’t diminish the risk to national security. Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

Ad hoc defence

In my Business Standard column today I argue that structural reform of the armed forces is the unfinished business of Kargil:

It may appear that the country has been lucky to have escaped without too much damage for another 14 years. But the failure to restructure our armed forces in line with contemporary needs will impose strategic costs beyond just delays and scandals. The current structure, divided as it is between the army, navy and air force (and within their constituent arms), is unable to holistically conceptualise India’s strategic environment.

Take, for instance, the Cabinet’s approval for a new mountain strike corps to handle the Chinese threat along the unresolved boundary. It involves an army formation of 45,000 soldiers and a cost of Rs 62,000 crore over 2012-17, tasked with mounting an offensive in Tibet in the event of a Chinese attack. This move was widely hailed as a robust Indian response to China’s aggressive actions along the boundary and its steadfast refusal to move towards a settlement. Few asked where the money and the soldiers are going to come from. As my colleague Rohan Joshi notes, the army is already short of 10,000 officers and 30,000 soldiers. With slower economic growth, higher social expenditure and looming deficits, how does the government plan to finance this expansion?

The bigger question, though, is not the financial cost but the opportunity cost. Is an army strike corps India’s best response to the strategic threat from China?

It is possible to argue that by choosing an army strike corps, New Delhi has played right into China’s hands. Beijing has, by inexpensively raising tensions along the Himalayan boundary, managed to induce New Delhi to invest in an expensive military asset that is unlikely to be used. Nuclear deterrence makes a direct military conflict between the two countries unlikely; and a large-scale conflict necessitating the use of corps-level formations is even more unlikely.

Meanwhile, the geostrategic contest of our times is being played out in the oceans. The only regional force that can challenge the Chinese navy’s quest to dominate the Indo-Pacific waters is the Indian navy. And guess what? India has Rs 62,000 crore less to spend on the naval expansion of the kind that would have countered China’s maritime power.

Perhaps the decision to invest in a strike corps is the better one, though this columnist disagrees. Yet, absent the long-pending restructuring of the armed forces, we can never say that the big trade-offs were adequately weighed.

Fourteen years after Kargil, the country certainly cannot afford such ad hoc functioning. [Business Standard]

Coincidentally, another op-ed in another newspaper by one of India’s foremost thinkers on strategic affairs takes up this argument in greater detail. Admiral Raja Menon packs quite a punch in the pages of The Hindu when he argues that instead of a mountain strike corps, a “a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group” makes more sense:

Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular. Beijing’s paranoia about the Indian Ocean is therefore understandable but the threat according to its strategic commentators comes only from the U.S. Sixty thousand crore spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore. [The Hindu]

While I am not a fan of aircraft carriers, I am of the same opinion as Admiral Menon on the need to invest in naval and expeditionary assets. The absence of a higher defence structure that can look at strategy in a comprehensive manner—including the nuclear dimension—is causing India to engage in linearism, incrementalism and ad hocism.

Burney points

Beyond the Pakistani initiatives in releasing MV Suez

Other than the fact that six of its 22 sailors were Indian nationals, the MV Suez, an Egyptian-owned, Panamanian-flagged ship, was more about Pakistan.

It was captained by a Pakistani national and was on a voyage from Karachi to the Eritrean port of Massawa in July-August 2010, when it was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), off the Horn of Africa. It sent distress signals to the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFORCE) patrolling the region but was seized before naval helicopters could arrive. The ship, cargo and crew have been held for ransom since then.

Its release was also, on the face of it, a largely Pakistani affair. Negotiations between the ship’s Egyptian owners and the pirates were deadlocked until February 2011, when Ansar Burney, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, entered the scene. A ransom was arranged through his good offices and paid sometime in late May. As is usual with such arrangements, the source of the funds, its final recipients and suchlike are unclear. Somalia’s transitional federal government, which is against ransom payments, might even have apprehended the individuals and cash (which may be between $2 million to $4 million) in Mogadishu on May 25th. Eventually though, the pirates released the ship and its crew.

But the drama didn’t end there. Pirates attacked it again after it was released, and a Pakistani naval ship, Babur, which happened to be in the vicinity as part of the international coalition task force (CTF-151) came to its assistance and chased the pirates away. The Pakistani initiatives received well-deserved applause all around, including in the Indian media. After all, Pakistani individuals and the Pakistani navy had helped secure the return of Indian sailors when the Indian government, on the face of it, didn’t.

Indeed, the episode turns a little bizarre thereafter. MV Suez‘s crew claims they called an Indian naval ship, the Godavari, for assistance, but it didn’t respond. According to the Indian Navy, Godavari diverted course from the two ships it was escorting and tried to contact the Suez, failed, and returned to its original course. The Pakistani authorities now charge that INS Godavari “hampered humanitarian operations”, violated international codes of conduct and brushed against PNS Babur. Whoa!

Update: The Indian Navy has dismissed Pakistan’s allegations. India’s foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that India had summoned the Pakistani naval adviser in New Delhi yesterday to register serious concerns on PNS Babur‘s risky manoeuvres and that it had lodged a protest with the Pakistani government today. Also, MV Suez ran out of fuel and is stranded off Oman. 18th June, 1945 IST

Now it is extremely unlikely that the Godavari‘s captain would deliberately engage in such behaviour. It won’t be difficult to establish facts of the case, as video footage is likely to be available. The Pakistani navy is under a cloud at this moment, and the officers of PNS Babur might have resented the presence—of all ships, an Indian one—at their moment of glory. Interestingly, MV Suez‘s captain suggested that even PNS Babur was attacked by pirates, which was denied by the Pakistani navy chief.

The media coverage does not emphasise the reality that the high seas are global commons. The world’s navies on anti-piracy operations are securing the world’s shipping, providing international public goods. This is, of course, interpreted selectively, but by and large, it is not uncommon for one country’s naval ship to assist ships of other countries. In any case, international shipping is a truly international enterprise: with owners, flags, crews and cargos belonging to different countries. One’s own security lies in everyone’s security. So it is that as of November 2010, more than 1037 foreign-flagged ships benefited from the Indian Navy’s protection, compared to only 144 Indian-flagged ones. You can be sure that most of those ships, Indian or foreign, had some crew members who were Indian nationals.

The Indian government was in a bind because it could neither pay out ransoms itself nor condone the payment of ransom by others. It therefore couldn’t satisfy the relatives of the hostages. This is understandable. What is not understandable, and certainly not excusable, is its inability to manage the hostage crisis competently. The Ministry of External Affairs explained the limits of its mandate, passing the buck to the Director General of Shipping. The Ministry of Shipping had little to offer. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs made promises it was unlikely to be able to keep. The lack of purposefulness is palpable even if the Indian Navy continues to discharge its duties admirably.

The Cabinet Committee on Security must create a Maritime Security Management Task Force, headed by a serving or retired officer with expertise in maritime security and intelligence. Reporting to the National Security Advisor, it must have senior officers from the ministries of external affairs, defence, shipping, commerce, the cabinet secretariat, in addition to the three armed services. The buck on piracy matters should stop there.

Update: Pakistan’s Express Tribune, without quoting sources says “India, which was due to contribute $500,000 as part of its share of the ransom fee, never turned up with its promised amount, almost putting the lives of 22 sailors in jeopardy.” (19th July)

The Asian Balance: General Liu can shut his eyelids now

Why does China need an aircraft carrier?

This is the unedited draft of my column in the Business Standard today.


China’s new aircraft carrier should surprise only those who were not looking—it has been China’s largest open secret for several years now. It has been apparent, literally,—thanks to Google Earth—, that the partially-completed Soviet-era vessel that China’s Chong Lot Travel Agency purchased for $20m in the late-1990s, complete with designs, was not really going to be used as a floating casino and amusement park. There have been other signs, including facilities and training programmes for naval personnel and aviators, that suggested China intended to operate aircraft carriers. As early as 1987, General Liu Huaqing, the recently deceased father of the modern PLA Navy, said that “Without an aircraft carrier, I will die with my eyelids open; the Chinese Navy needs to build an aircraft carrier.”

So both stated intentions and signs on the ground indicated that an aircraft carrier was on the cards. The only question was why, for the PLA Navy’s strategy over the last two decades has been to counter the United States’ formidable surface fleet through the development of its own submarine force. This strategy—of using submarines to neutralise the power of aircraft carriers and warships—was pioneered by the Soviet Union’s Admiral Sergey Gorshkov. In a remarkable demonstration of irony or its deficiency, the Soviets named one of their aircraft carriers after him, the same that India since purchased and is awaiting delivery of.

If aircraft carriers are a platform for a country to project hard power far beyond its shores, submarines are an effective way deny to them space. China had around 65 operational submarines last year. In 2007, one of them slipped past an array of ships and aircraft into an area in the Pacific Ocean where the US Navy’s aircraft carrier strike group was conducting training exercises. That incident was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the Gorshkov strategy. It was also a signal of the changed maritime balance in the Western Pacific ocean.

The utility of aircraft carriers as a device to project power on the littoral is also undermined by anti-ship missiles. Chinese-made anti-ship missiles or their variants are deployed, among others, by North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Bangladesh and possibly Pakistan. To the extent that their range, capability and proliferation grows, aircraft carriers become less useful in their traditional roles of power projection.

In other words, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier is likely to diminish over time, even if the costs stay the same. An aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and causes a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed.

After doing so much to neutralise the strategic utility of aircraft carriers why does China want to deploy them? Of course, there is prestige. Another reason is to do with the balance of power within the Chinese Community Party and the People’s Liberation Army, where pro-PLA Navy factions might have strengthened in recent years. That said, it is difficult to conclude if the navy’s growing political clout is the cause or the effect of the geopolitical churn in East Asia. Beyond these explanations there are three broad reasons why China might want to use aircraft carriers for.

The first is Taiwan. The very name proposed for the new carrier, Shi Lang, suggests Taiwan as its intended target. Shi Lang, a Manchu Qing dynasty general, conquered and annexed Taiwan into the Chinese empire in 1683, defeating the Qing dynasty elite who had fled to that island. Lan Ning-Li, a retired Taiwanese admiral notes that “the carrier would be in a position to move in areas surrounding southern and eastern Taiwan…(making it) vulnerable to enemy attacks at sea from both front and rear.” With nuclear weapons and submarines deterring the United States, an aircraft carrier will add to China’s military capabilities in a possible invasion of Taiwan. The PLA’s statement that “even after China owns an aircraft carrier, it is impossible for China to send the carrier into the territories of other countries” does not rule out use against Taiwan, which according to Beijing is part of China, thanks to the original Shi Lang.

Second, an aircraft carrier can be used as a vehicle for China to enforce its territorial claims over the Yellow, East and South China seas. If so, Shi Lang will be replacing fishing trawlers that have engaged in decidedly unfishermanly activities such as carrying surveillance equipment, ramming Japanese patrol boats, entangling with cables connected to Vietnamese exploration vessels and squatting over unpopulated islands. These presumably non-state actors currently perform the function of tripwires, creating incidents that trigger Beijing to assert its maritime claims. Introducing aircraft carriers into this game is dangerous, but the threat to do so could deter the US Navy from entering the fray in support of its allies.

Finally, China’s interests are global. It is likely to want to set up expeditionary forces to operate in distant theatres to pursue those interests. This is normal. However, like “peaceful rise”, a “defensive aircraft carrier” is a layer of sugar coating applied to make the indigestible just a little more palatable.

© 2001. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Now China wants to divide up the sea

Maritime territorialism is a bad idea—but it might signal something worse

Rory Medcalf, over at the Lowy Interpreter flags a very important issue (via NRA). He draws attention to a media report that suggests China is considering maritime territorialism in the Gulf of Aden where navies from as many as 40 countries are engaged in anti-piracy operations. Not only that, but in what appears to be another manifestation of the kind of thinking that made a Chinese admiral recently offer to divide up the world’s oceans with his US counterpart, China is discussing this with Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. Mr Medcalf writes:

I very much doubt that other powers would accept such a move—and nor should they—because it would suggest that China is not really willing to engage in serious coordination, cooperation or transparency at sea. Carving up national maritime zones in the Indian Ocean would both reflect and worsen mistrust. It implies the failure of multilateralism, not its success. The Cold War was all about zones, spheres, sectors: think occupied Berlin. And what would happen if ships from one country strayed into another’s chosen sector?

We also need to wonder how accurate is the article’s assertion that ‘the prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean’ is being welcomed by the shipping industry.

Second, it was intriguing that India received no mention in the article as one of the countries that China needs or wants to coordinate with in the Indian Ocean.[Lowy Interpreter]

The first thing to note here is that such territorialism doesn’t make much sense given the vast expanse of the world’s oceans—or even the Gulf of Aden—compared to the number of ships that the world’s navies have. There is thus a very strong case for naval co-operation and co-ordination against maritime threats. It is inconceivable that Chinese maritime strategists are unaware of this.

So why is China floating what appears to be a foolish idea? Look at the countries mentioned in the media report—Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. What is common to them is that they—like China itself—are outside the Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, China has not been admitted to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a new platform for the navies of Indian Ocean littoral states. Beijing might be attempting to force its way into IONS by raising the bogey of an alternative organisation of extra-regional powers. (India’s unwillingness to admit China into IONS is par for the course, as China routinely attempts to keep India and the United States out of East Asian groupings)

But that is only a charitable explanation. China might be trying to gain exclusive control of key international waterways—an intention that is all the more disturbing given the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy’s capacity.

In any event, India must strengthen not only its naval operations in Indian Ocean theatres like the Gulf of Aden—something that we have been stressing for long—but also deepen maritime co-operation with the navies of the United States, Australia, Japan and Indonesia.

France, Pakistan, submarines and unpaid kickbacks

How do you say “some faecal matter has hit an air circulation device” in French?

From Paris come reports of an allegation that the real motive for the terrorist attack on French submarine engineers in Karachi in 2002 was non-payment of kickbacks to Pakistani officials.

At the time (1994), such commissions would have been legal: Before France joined an international anticorruption initiative in 2000, it wasn’t illegal for French companies to pay commissions to foreign officials to secure contracts overseas. The alleged commissions were supposedly to be paid before 2000.

Investigators are looking into whether part of the money from the commissions was destined to flow back into France to help finance the 1995 presidential bid of then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. At the time, Nicolas Sarkozy — now France’s president — was budget minister and Mr. Balladur’s campaign manager.

It would have been illegal for part of the alleged commissions to flow back into France — a mechanism sometimes known as reverse kickbacks. Prosecutors say they have documents that indicate part of the alleged commission may have been aimed at helping Mr. Balladur’s campaign coffers. The prosecutors and investigators say they have no evidence implicating Messrs. Balladur or Sarkozy. [WSJ]

But Mr Balladur lost the election to Jacque Chirac, who supposedly stopped paying those kickbacks. The Pakistanis “eventually lost patience and organised in retaliation the attack on the bus full of French engineers, who were working on the Agosta submarine project.” (More details here)

That’s not all. The online edition of the Times of India has a PTI report that says “According to media reports, the French secret service retaliated after the 2002 attack, breaking the legs of two Pakistan navy admirals and killing a lower-ranking officer.” PTI doesn’t say where this nugget came from.

Mr Sarkozy described these allegations as “ridiculous”, “grotesque” and rhetorically asked “who would believe them?” He did not, however, unequivocally deny them. It’s not as if his name is coming up for the first time in allegations of reverse kickbacks in naval deals—l’affaire Clearstream 2 involved Taiwan, frigates, kickbacks and campaign finance.

But there are holes in the story: France24 quotes a family member of one of the victims alleging that the kickbacks were to paid to Asif Ali Zardari who was a minister in Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet when the deal was struck, but in prison and out of favour when the terrorist attacks took place. It’s hard to see why ‘officials’ would take up the cudgels on his behalf.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the Sindh High Court acquitted two members of the Harkatul Mujahideen Al-Alami who had earlier been convicted by a lower court for having carried out the attack on the French engineers. On the familiar grounds that the prosecution “failed to prove the case against the appellants beyond any reasonable doubt.” Even the small fry got away.

Blame it on Lax Indica

Where India yields, China will step in.

Quite often, the alarm and indignation comes from a sense of entitlement. Surely, the argument goes, India’s size and geographical location entitles it to a pre-eminent maritime status in the Indian Ocean, so how dare China intrude and construct a “string of pearls” around India?

To be sure, the emergence of China as a regional maritime power is the big story of our times. Over the past two decades, China has methodically developed basing arrangements (the ‘string of pearls’), invested in a submarine fleet designed to counter the US Navy’s aircraft carrier groups and, is now working on a surface fleet (including six aircraft carriers) whose purpose is to project power. This worries Indian strategists, because some of China’s accretion of power will come at India’s expense. While China certainly seeks to contain the expansion of Indian power, the object of its grand strategy is to counter the United States. And it is getting there: not by matching renminbi-for-dollar and getting into an arms race, but largely by developing capabilities that exploit United States’ weak points.

So at a time when China seeks to play in the same league as the superpower of the day, it is to be expected that it will try to extract advantageous positions in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense. The big scandal is not that China is securing bases in India’s neighbourhood by shoring up nasty regimes and abetting their outrageous policies; but rather, India does not even show any sign of doing what is necessary to protect its interests.

So Home Minister P Chidambaram criticised China for fishing in troubled waters by backing the Sri Lankan government to the hilt in its war against the LTTE. So what else does Mr Chidambaram expect it to do? If the UPA government couldn’t find the resolve to shape a bold Sri Lanka policy that would promote India’s interests, why should he hold it against China for doing so? Similarly, if the UPA government found itself immobilised over its Nepal policy, why should China be blamed for promoting what it sees as its own interests? (See Lax Indica). Surely, the likes of Pranab Mukherjee and A K Anthony didn’t think that China should be held to the statements they made about there being enough space in Asia for two powers to rise simultaneously? (Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Chidambaram did gruesome damage to the pace at which India could rise in the first place).

Let’s face it: unless the next government—regardless of whether it is the UPA, NDA or a Ghastly Numbered Front that comes to power—firmly resolves to ensure that India’s strategic frontiers are not rolled inwards, strategic containment is assured. Those who take recourse to fatalism and declare that coalition politics doesn’t allow an assertive foreign policy, especially in India’s neighbourhood, better not express indignation when they spot a Chinese aircraft carrier group a few hundred nautical miles from Kochi or Mumbai. Actually, coalition politics has been offered as an excuse for gross mismanagement of neighbourhood policy—other than during the election season, coalition partners limit their foreign policy demands to largely to rhetoric. It stands to reason, therefore, that a central government that can’t stand up to pressure from its coalition partners can’t stand up to pressure from Beijing.