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The disarming pitch

Print edition : Jun 08, 2002 T+T-

Peacemakers are also arms sellers. Countries that have launched diplomatic offensives to avert a war between India and Pakistan are also desperate to provide them more arms.

A DELICIOUS irony pervades the efforts of the countries working hard to avert a conflict between India and Pakistan, while they queue up to sell the nuclear rivals military hardware worth billions of dollars.

Led by the Untied States and its close ally Britain, France and Russia have collectively launched diplomatic offensives of varying intensity to stop New Delhi and Islamabad from going to war, fearing it might escalate into an apocalyptic nuclear exchange. Their leaders are sparing little effort at shuttle and telephone diplomacy to ease the tensions over Kashmir, which they have declared to be a "nuclear flashpoint". But paradoxically, backed by their governments, the military industrial complexes of these very countries are either supplying India or Pakistan or both varied military goods or negotiating desperately for access to the world's largest arms market.

The U.S. has taken the lead in this collective hypocrisy by signing in April a $146-million deal with India for eight AN/TPQ-37 fire-finder/counter-battery radar built by Thales Raytheon Systems Corporation of El Segundo, California, at a time when over one million Indian and Pakistani soldiers are locked in a stand-off along the 3,200-km long frontier.

Another 20 "big ticket" military items have been approved by the Bush administration for sale to India. These include 40 General Electric (GE) F404-GE-F2J3 engines and advanced avionics for the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) programme, submarine rescue facilities and ground sensors and electronic fencing for installation along the Line of Control. Pakistan too is being sold these satellite-linked sensors made by the Los Angeles-based Cooperative Monitoring Centre of Sandia Laboratories and has unofficially been told that "low key" military sales will resume shortly.

The U.S., which has acknowledged the Indian Navy as a "stabilising force" in the Indian Ocean Region and is keen on working closely with it as it best serves Washington's long-term regional strategic aims, is interested in selling it Sea Black helicopters to replace the ageing GKN Westland Mk 452 Sea King fleet, P-3C multi-mission maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Along with the U.S. Navy, the Indian Navy has begun patrolling the Malacca Straits, ostensibly to combat piracy, but in reality to try and counter the People's Liberation Army Navy as it advances into the Indian Ocean Region, cementing relations with Myanmar and establishing signals facilities off the Coco's islands, 30 nautical miles from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in order to monitor India's missile tests. The U.S. also wants to ensure the smooth flow of oil to close ally Japan from West Asia, over 80 per cent of which passes through the Malacca Straits.

U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, imperiously hectoring Delhi to pursue the path of peace and restraint, has declared that U.S.' defence links with India, of which arms sales were a part, were "gaining more altitude". He hinted that measures were being initiated with Congress to release 20 arms licences to New Delhi.

American arms lobbyists speciously argue that the U.S. is merely selling India "defensive military equipment", the kind that is guaranteed not to trigger a regional arms race or enhance its offensive capability. While this analysis is open to debate, the harsh reality is that faced with a shrinking global market, the U.S. military conglomerates have, for years, eyed India as a potential growth area, as it lumbers towards modernising and upgrading its predominantly Soviet and Russian military machinery that has reached collective obsolescence.

Much to Washington's chagrin, Israel stole a march over it in the late 1990s by selling India naval missiles, radar, electronic and other military hardware which was intrinsically American in origin, but sufficiently retrofitted to bypass any U.S. export control regulations. U.S. sanctions following India's 1998 nuclear tests boosted Tel Aviv's sales significantly. Israel is India's second largest weapons supplier after Moscow.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led federal coalition considers Israel its "natural ally" and strategic partner that is "wholly dependable" in times of conflict. "Russia delivers the hardware - tanks, aircraft and ships - and Israel provides the weapons systems, the radar, the electronic control systems and other high-tech add-ons," a military official said. The only irritation is that the U.S. has not been dealt a hand.

And, while India has declared that it will continue to acquire basic military hardware from Russia and Eastern Europe owing to competitive prices and assured supplies, single service users too are looking "positively" at U.S. manufacturers for force multipliers such as radar, laser-guided bombs and electronic items.

Signing the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) has paved the way for the sale of American military hardware to India and the joint production of weapon systems. GSOMIA was finalised during Defence Minister George Fernandes' visit to Washington earlier this year, weeks after the Indian Army was mobilised along the border after the attack on Parliament building last December. The agreement was ostensibly meant to develop a "long-term strategic" partnership, but its real purpose was for the U.S. to gain access to India's hungry weapons market.

Britain, equally keen to tap India's poverty for its riches, may have dispatched Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Islamabad and New Delhi to lower tensions in the region, but it is desperate to close the deal with the Indian Air Force (IAF) for 66 BAE Systems Hawk training aircraft worth around Rs.7,000 crores.

"The possibility of war is real and disturbing," a perturbed Straw said in London after tensions between India and Pakistan spiralled following the Kalu Chak militant attack. This is a crisis the world cannot ignore. India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons and a capacity to use them and have talked about a possible nuclear exchange," Straw added before embarking on his South Asia trip.

In New Delhi, Straw was quick to refute news reports that that Britain had imposed an arms embargo on India and that it had opposed the sale of Hawk trainers. In a desperate damage-limiting manoeuvre, he told Fernandes that the confusion arose from a senior Labour Party leader speaking out of turn. A possible nuclear holocaust, however, did not deflect Straw, with his eye to the economic main chance, from again pushing for the Hawk. The astute Foreign Secretary had pressed equally vehemently for the jet trainer during his visit to India in February, following up the sales pitch of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon, both of whom visited India and Pakistan this year to broker peace. If British politicians were insufficient, Sir Kevin Tebbit, Britain's Permanent Under Secretary in the Defence Ministry, too pitched in for the BAE trainer during a visit to Delhi earlier this year as head of a delegation seeking to further "strategic dialogue". It seems that as in previous instances, when AB Bofors, the Swedish company, was economically resuscitated after India bought 410 FH 77B howitzers and the U.K.'s Westland was saved from closure after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi acquired 21 Westland-30 helicopters in the mid-1980s, Delhi will once again intervene to rescue BAE financially and help avoid hundreds of lay-offs. It is merely incidental that the Bofors kickbacks scandal is still under investigation and that the Westland-30s, bought for 60 million, were sold recently for a pittance after lying around in crates at the Safdarjung Airport in New Delhi for years waiting for a bidder.

Meanwhile, Russia which is calling upon General Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee to meet at a regional security conference at Almaty in Kazakhstan this month, remains the largest military hardware provider to India.

Around 50 of the 310 Russian T-90 main battle tanks (MBTs) that India bought last year for around $700 million have arrived and been absorbed in three 'sabre' or strike squadrons in regiments deployed across Rajasthan against Pakistan's Ukrainian T 80UDs based in Sind. Their operational task is to counter an Indian Army thrust to cut off the southern province from the rest of Pakistan.

Alongside, about 10 of the 40 Su-30 Mk-I fighter aircraft, fully upgraded to their multi-role capability with French, Israeli and locally developed avionics and weaponry, are scheduled to arrive soon. Almost a squadron of upgraded MiG 21 'bis'-93 ground attack interceptor fighters are ready. The deal for the 44,500-tonne Kiev-class Soviet aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, and the "associated" leasing of two Akula-class Type 971 nuclear-powered submarines, is also nearing fruition.

India is also believed to have invoked its Friendship Treaty and Strategic Partnership Declaration of 2000 with Russia, calling for urgent security consultations between the two countries. Diplomatic sources said that K. Raghunath, the Indian Ambassador to Moscow, called on Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov for talks following a series of meetings in Delhi of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). This bilateral pact signed during Russian President Boris Yeltsin's 1993 visit to India and extended to 2010 by his successor Vladimir Putin, provides for urgent consultations between the two sides in the event of a security threat to either country and for close cooperation to alleviate danger jointly.

FRANCE too is not far behind others in pushing its military wares in the region, but preoccupied with parliamentary elections, it has not dispatched a peace envoy to South Asia. President Jacques Chirac, however, has spoken with both Musharraf and Vajpayee to try and dissuade them from the path of conflict.

Commercially-minded France, however, is not one to miss a business opportunity to exploit a ripe market. Its Direction des Constructions Navales is on the verge of closing a deal with the Indian Navy to build six Scorpene submarines at Mazagon Dock Limited for Rs.900 crores to Rs.1,000 crores. The two sides had last year signed a memorandum of understanding for the Scorepenes and armament industry sources said the contract was "imminent".

Under Project 75, the Indian Navy had initially decided to build a "locally redesigned" version of the German HDW Shishumar, Type 1500, conventionally-powered patrol submarines. Two of the four German boats in service with the Indian Navy were assembled at MDL, but the HDW deal was plagued by allegations of corruption, and two years ago the Navy opened negotiations with DCN for six Scorpenes. Official sources said the first Scorpene boat would take at least five years to build after the deal is signed and for all subsequent vessels the period will be 18 to 24 months. Indian Navy sources said that France had agreed to arm the Scorpenes with Exocet SM 39 anti-ship missiles made by Aerospatiale, giving the Navy a decisive edge over the Pakistan Navy.

DCN is also bidding for the propulsion system for the Indian Navy's locally designed 24,000-tonne air defence ship (ADS) that is to be built at Kochi Shipyard and completed by 2008. The ADS design is based on the blueprint prepared by DCN in the late 1980s.

The IAF too has opened preliminary discussions with Dassault Aviation of France to acquire Mirage 2005 fighter aircraft to enhance its strike and nuclear deterrence capabilities. Official sources in New Delhi said that the IAF plans to acquire 126 Mirage 2005s to equip seven squadrons that will comprise the "backbone" of India's Strategic Nuclear Command (SNC)

Commanded by Air Marshal T.M. Asthana who was recently appointed to head the IAF's Southern Command, the SNC will be based in Thiruvananthapu- ram. Functioning under the newly created Integrated Defence Staff headed by Lt. Gen. Pankaj Joshi, a large proportion of the SNC's air and sea-based assets will eventually be based on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the headquarters of India's first tri-services command established last October.

The IAF, convinced of its pre-eminent strike capability, had wanted sole control of India's nuclear assets and was perturbed when the government announced the raising of the Army's second Strategic Rocket Regiment last year to induct Agni-II, the indigenously designed intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that entered series production in June 2001. The IAF was of the view that the Army, with a "40 km perspective", was doctrinally unsuited to handle long-range missiles. But the government decided that the Army's missile expertise and its vast manpower, compared with the Air Force's, equipped it to secure and manage nuclear missiles in an able manner.

Official sources said that the IAF wants 36 of the 126 Mirage 2005s to be delivered in completed form with the remainder to be assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bangalore. HAL units in Bangalore and Kanpur have been servicing the IAF's Mirage 2000's since 1998 besides making a small range of spare parts.

According to Jane's Defence Weekly, Dassault officials in Paris confirmed that they were engaged in talks with the IAF for a new order for Mirage fighters in addition to the 10 Mirage 2000Hs that India booked two years ago.

India sanctioned Rs.150 crores for the 10 Mirage 2000Hs, delivery of which will begin by September 2003 and be completed a year later. Six of the 10 that are dual-seaters are replacements for the existing fleet of 38 Mirage 2000Hs.

Indian and French officials said the status of bilateral defence relations was shifting from a buyer-seller one to one of joint developer and manufacturer. After India's 1998 nuclear tests the two countries established a Committee of Cooperation for Military Affairs to focus on nuclear arms control, closer cooperation in military affairs and civilian nuclear energy generation.