Trefor Moss

Trefor Moss


Ashok Singh (LinkedIn):
Should India be concerned about China’s military build-up?

Why worry about something that you can’t control?

In my view, Indians should accept China’s military build-up as a fait accompli, and focus their concerns on making their own defense establishment the best it can be. China is a strategic rival, not an enemy; but Indian weakness in future decades would undoubtedly make Chinese assertiveness or even aggression a more likely prospect.

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The ball is very much in India’s court. Unfortunately, the problems with Indian defense are deep-rooted and systemic, and recent governments have lacked the political will to grasp the nettle of reform. As Gen. V.K. Singh, the Army Chief, lamented last week in a leaked letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, there’s something rotten at the heart of Indian defense. New Delhi is certainly doing some things right: increasing the country’s defense budget, forging some canny strategic alliances, and investing in some impressive military capabilities. But corruption is stubbornly persistent, too many arms procurements descend into fiascos, and the domestic defense industry has somehow been allowed to opt out of the private-sector reforms that have energized so many other parts of India’s dynamic economy. There are obviously some powerful vested interests who find the sclerotic state of the Indian defense sector very much to their liking. These vested interests, I would say, are more of a threat to Indian security than anything that China might be up to.

Steve Taylor (Facebook):
Do you think India made the best choice with its selection of the Dassault Rafale fighter in its recent MMRCA competition? What do you think about the other selections, such as the F-16 and Su-35?

India needed to get three things out of the MMRCA procurement: a capable fighter aircraft, a high level of technology transfer, and a program that would deliver on time and on budget. Both the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon would have delivered on the first two fronts, and it seems that the Rafale had the edge in terms of cost. So I don’t think you can really fault the decision to go with Dassault. The F-16 is an older aircraft, and I doubt the Americans would have been willing to give India as much technology as the Europeans, while the Su-35 was at too raw a stage of development for India’s needs.

The danger now is that the procurement gets lost in the procedural maze into which so many other Indian defense acquisitions have disappeared over the years – sometimes for decades. The Indian Air Force, which has a pretty grim rate of attrition just now, needs the aircraft to come on stream quickly. Indian aerospace needs the technology that Dassault will provide (though whether the structures are in place to enable Indian industry to absorb that technology in a meaningful way is another question). And India itself needs advanced new aircraft in order to field a convincing deterrent to China’s improving air force.

So it’s deeply troubling that Defense Minister A.K. Antony confirmed last week that the Dassault order is now on hold, pending an investigation into what the MP who brought the complaint about the procurement process has termed the “Rafale Scam.” Indian Air Force officers must be tearing their hair out.

Harold Pike (LinkedIn):
Over the last year, much has been made of China’s 5th generation J-20 fighter. Where does the plane stand today in terms of operational readiness and comparison to American 4th generation fighters likes the F-16 or F-15 and 5th generation fighters like the F-22 or F-35?

The simple answer is that nobody knows, and there’s no consensus among Western aviation experts about what the J-20 is really capable of. Some argue that the J-20 is nothing more than a publicity stunt, and that it’s highly unlikely ever to make it as a production aircraft. On the other hand, when the J-20 first appeared about a year ago, analysts Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon of Air Power Australia wrote that “any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design [i.e. the J-20] in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd.”

Personally, I thought their confidence in the prototype J-20’s superiority over its Western competitors was greatly overstated. Unless Kopp and Goon had more information than the grainy internet snaps that the rest of us were looking at, there were simply too many unknowns to say what the J-20 might ultimately become. What’s certain is that getting an advanced fighter aircraft from the drawing board, onto the production line, and into active service is a horrendously complex challenge. Look at the F-35: the best aerospace companies in the world have had terrible problems getting the thing to work.

Jenny Summers (Facebook):
What are your thoughts regarding China’s rebuilt Soviet carrier the “ex-Varyag?” Do you think the carrier is more a developmental carrier to give the PLAN expertise before building larger, more able carriers, or will it be deployed with the intent of carrying out naval operations?

The purpose of the Varyag is to give the Chinese navy some basic experience in how to operate an aircraft carrier, but I doubt the ship has any part in the navy’s long-term operational plans. It was even reported that some senior officers were embarrassed by the carrier’s existence, given that the old Soviet hulk chimed very poorly with the Chinese military’s modern image as a hi-tech force. So I think they’ll be all too happy to build a casino out of it just as soon as it’s served its purpose.

Almost certainly, China will soon construct, or has perhaps already started constructing, a new class of aircraft carrier. By the time these ships are ready to enter service, China’s naval officers and pilots will have completed Carrier 101 aboard the Varyag and will be ready to graduate to their new operational aircraft carriers. Then, maybe 10 years from now, we’ll start to see what China’s idea of a blue-water navy really involves.

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