Thursday, 24 May 2018

After Rafale splurge, a sensible Jaguar upgrade (a two-part report)

Decks cleared for HAL to install new Honeywell engines. $1.5 bn deal to rejuvenate 80 IAF Jaguars


By Ajai Shukla
HAL, Bengaluru
Business Standard, 24th May 18

The Indian Air Force (IAF), after being criticised for spending $9.2 billion on 36 Rafale fighter aircraft, is closing in on a far more prudent deal – the rejuvenation of 80 ageing Jaguar fighters into highly capable, multi-role, combat aircraft for a mere $1.5 billion or so.

This long-delayed project, which was resurrected last month, involves replacing the Jaguar’s underpowered engines.

Separately, the uprated fighter will get state-of-the-art avionics for striking ground targets more accurately, hitting maritime targets far out at sea, and winning aerial dogfights with enemy fighters. 

For a decade, the Jaguar upgrade proposal has remained stalled on the issue of cost. Honeywell was made responsible for “re-engining” the Jaguar, and the US firm quoted an unacceptable $2.5-3 billion for taking full responsibility for installing its new F-125IN engines in 80 Jaguars.

But now, breaking that logjam, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has been nominated the lead integrator, while Honeywell has stepped back to the more restricted role of engine supplier. HAL will buy F-125IN engines from Honeywell and install them in the Jaguars, replacing the current Rolls-Royce Adour 811 engines.

HAL chief, T Suvarna Raju, claims his company can do the job more easily, and cheaply, than Honeywell, having built more than 145 Jaguars under license over the years. “Installing the F-125IN requires 10-12 relatively minor modifications. HAL can handle this easily”, he said.

“The earlier tender stands withdrawn. In its place, HAL will take a quote from Honeywell for its engines and, after adding its own expenses, submit a ‘total project cost’. Based on that figure, the defence ministry will sanction the project. The contract will now be between the IAF and HAL”, said Raju.

The HAL chief says there will be no time-consuming competitive tendering, since Honeywell is the only vendor. Rolls-Royce has declined to participate, since they do not have an engine that meets the IAF’s specifications for the Jaguar. 

Honeywell will require 36 months for the F-125IN engines to start rolling off the production line, but HAL wants to go ahead with engine integration, using two engines that Honeywell had built earlier when it was to have the lead role.

Raju says he recently travelled to Honeywell’s facility in Phoenix, Arizona to “ensure that we benefit from several years of work they have already done on integrating the F-125IN onto the Jaguar. We need to cut down on time and expense, and avoid re-inventing the wheel”, he points out.

Besides building two F-125 engines, Honeywell also bought a Jaguar airframe from the UK to integrate them on to. It remains to be seen whether the US firm will cooperate with HAL for mutual benefit, or demand financial compensation for the work it did earlier.

The first indicator, say defence ministry sources, will be the terms that Honeywell demands for supplying two engines to HAL – sale, rent, lease or gratis.

Of the 145 Jaguars that HAL built for the IAF, only 119 are currently flying, comprising six IAF squadrons of about 20 fighters each. Since 39 of these would complete their airframe lives by 2025-30, the IAF considers it uneconomical to re-engine these. That leaves 80 Jaguars, whose service lives would be extended to 2035-40 with new engines.

With each of those fighters requiring two engines, and an additional maintenance reserve of 40 engines, HAL would require 200 F-125IN engines from Honeywell. Aerospace industry experts estimate a price of $5-6 million per engine, which would place Honeywell’s bill at a little over a billion dollars. The remaining cost would be incurred in integrating the engines onto the fleet. 

With engine supply starting only three years from the contract date, substantial numbers of re-engined Jaguars would probably materialize only after five years, i.e. around 2024.

IAF pilots joke that the Jaguar’s current engines are so underpowered that the fighter only gets airborne because the earth is round – and its curvature makes the ground drop away beneath the moving aircraft. With the Rolls-Royce Adour 811 engines output (25 kiloNewtons of dry thrust and 37.5 kN with afterburners) being replaced by the F-125IN (27.7 kN of dry thrust and 43.8kN with afterburners), Jaguar pilots believe they would have the last laugh.

(Next: New Jaguar avionics to give lethal combat edge)

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Tejas Mark 1A faces delay as air force adds on demands

The naval variant of the Tejas takes off from the shore-based facility at Goa

By Ajai Shukla
Bengaluru
Business Standard, 19th May 18

A key reason for crippling delays in indigenous weaponry like the Tejas fighter and Arjun tank has been the military’s tendency to repeatedly enhance specifications, preventing weapons systems from leaving the drawing board and entering production.

This is happening now with the Tejas Mark 1A fighter. It was to enter production in 2020-21 with five specific enhancements. But the Indian Air Force (IAF) has demanded additional features, and the fighter could be entering a time-consuming development spiral that takes another three-to-four years

Tejas Mark 1A was conceived specifically to bring the Tejas into production. In early 2015, the IAF, defence ministry and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) agreed it could enter mass production as soon as HAL incorporated five improvements: an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; an electronic warfare (EW) suite, a self-protection jammer, mid-air refuelling capability and easier maintainability.

With this clear map, the ministry sanctioned the building of 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters last December for an estimated Rs 33,000 crore.

But now, the IAF has added to that wish list. Amongst several additional demands are: “smart multi-function displays” for the cockpit, a “combined interrogator and transponder” to differentiate friendly aircraft from foes, a digital map generator and an improved radio altimeter.

While some of these systems can be bought off the shelf, integrating them onto the Tejas would require a comprehensive redesign of the fighter’s mission computer. HAL estimates that redesigning the mission computer and integrating the additional software could take up to three-to-four years.

“The existing ‘open architecture mission computer’ cannot support the software upgrades that are now needed for the Tejas Mark 1A”, says HAL chairman, T Suvarna Raju.

With HAL planning to deliver by mid-2020 the 40 Tejas Mark 1 fighters currently on order, the Mark 1A must enter final assembly by that date. Before that, two years are needed for building the systems and assemblies that come together on the final assembly line.

This schedule requires the IAF to contract for the Tejas Mark 1A by mid-2018. That order is still awaited.

“The time line is certainly important from the IAF’s operational perspective. But it is equally important from the standpoint of industrial production”, a HAL manager told Business Standard during a visit to the Tejas line in Bengaluru.

Another question: who will re-design the Tejas’ mission computer. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) – a Defence R&D Organisation entity – designed the current version, but HAL wants to re-design it for the Mark 1A.

“We have extensive experience, having designed mission computers for the Jaguar, Mirage and, more recently, the Hawk-i trainer. Furthermore, we are responsible for the Tejas Mark 1A project and time lines and would not like to be dependent on an external entity”, says Raju.

Worldwide, aircraft designers (ADA, in this case) cede control to the manufacturer (HAL, in this case), who is subsequently responsible for supporting the users (IAF), through spares, overhauls and upgrades during an aircraft’s service life cycle.

With both ADA and HAL keen on re-designing the Tejas’ mission computer, the former argues that it is already developing a more powerful mission computer for the Tejas Mark 2. HAL, however, counters that the Mark 2 will be a decade in the making – ADA is targeting 2025 – while the Mark 1A has much tighter time lines.

HAL officials say they are on track with the original requirements of the Tejas Mark 1A. In December, global tenders were floated for the AESA radar and EW suite. Three companies have responded – Elta of Israel, Saab of Sweden and Thales of France. A winner is likely to be announced soon. 

Meanwhile, the Tejas has already been installed with air-to-air refuelling capability, and maintainability improvements are almost completed. In the recently concluded IAF Exercise Gaganshakti, eight Tejas fighters participated with credit, consistently flying six sorties each per day and drawing praise from the air force.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

HAL offers 40 more Sukhoi-30s at one-third Rafale’s cost

HAL argues additional Sukhois can be fitted with BrahMos air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM)

By Ajai Shukla
Bengaluru, 15th May 18

With the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter – the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet – nearing the end of its production run, its manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), is taking up a case to build 40 more.

If the defence ministry accepts HAL’s proposal, the IAF’s inventory of the Russian fighter would be enhanced from the currently planned 272 to 312 Su-30s (sixteen squadrons).

With HAL offering to price the additional Su-30s at just Rs 425 crore (4.25 billion), the fighter will be barely one-third the cost of the Rafale. According to a Business Standard analysis (November 24, 2017, Clouds over fighter jet: How much did Rafale actually cost?) the IAF is paying Rs 1,125 crore (11.25 billion) per Rafale, excluding the price of weapons and logistics.

HAL chairman, T Suvarna Raju, said: “We will offer a very competitive price. Since 2010, we have been delivering the Su-30 at Rs 425 crore. We can deliver another three squadrons at that same price.”

At that price, the IAF would pay Rs 17,000 crore (170 billion) for 40 additional Su-30s.

However, that would involve buying the fighter in ready to assemble kits from Russia and putting them together in Nashik. “HAL has already absorbed the technology for building and supporting the Su-30. Now, the aim is to build those three new squadrons as quickly, and as cheaply, as possible”, said Raju.

Rationalising the proposal for 40 additional Su-30s, Raju says they are needed to carry the BrahMos air launched cruise missile (ALCM).

“We are required to modify 40-odd Sukhoi-30s to carry the BrahMos ALCM. Instead of upgrading older fighters, with a shorter residual lifespan, it would be better to build three more squadrons of Sukhois with the capability to carry BrahMos missiles”, said Raju.

The air-launched version of the BrahMos has been downsized to eight metres and 2,560 kilogrammes. Even so, mounting it on a Su-30 fighter requires reinforcing the aircraft’s underbelly and installing a heavy-duty mounting station. After years of development, the BrahMos was successfully test-fired from a Su-30 in November.

“It is easier and better to kit out new Su-30s to carry the BrahMos, rather than carrying out structural modifications to old aircraft”, said Raju.

Ministry sources indicate that a proposal to build more Su-30s would be considered positively, given the shortfall of IAF fighter squadrons.

HAL is currently building the last 23 Su-30 fighters, of the 222 it was mandated to build. The IAF’s first 50 Su-30s were built in Russia

Sukhoi-30 upgrade

Even as HAL Nashik builds the last Su-30s on order, HAL and Sukhoi are negotiating the upgrade of the Sukhoi fleet.

HAL officials say they wanted to be the lead agency, but Sukhoi has indicated it wants a 50 per cent share in this lucrative contract to upgrade the fighter’s avionics, including radar, glass cockpit displays, electronic warfare systems, warning systems and jammers.

“The IAF has already frozen its upgrade requirements. We are now waiting for the commercial proposal from Russia”, says the HAL chairman.

HAL estimates that an avionics upgrade for the Su-30 would cost upward of Rs 100 crore (one billion) per aircraft, placing the cost of upgrading 312 fighters at Rs 31,200 crore (312 billion).

HAL officials say the upgrade will have two distinct parts. In Phase I, Sukhoi would take over some IAF Su-30s and use them as prototypes to install and certify new-generation avionics and weapons upgrades. Subsequently, HAL would install those upgrades into the entire fleet.

Phase II, which would involve India-specific enhancements, would be designed and developed by HAL and also incorporated onto the fighter by HAL alone.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Private firms respond to MoD offset proposals

Support for investment fund, larger private sector role for identifying projects

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th May 18

By Tuesday, defence production stakeholders must respond to new draft proposals for the defence offsets policy, which the ministry of defence (MoD) issued last month.

The defence offsets policy, which the Kelkar Committee first proposed in 2005 and which was formalised that year, binds foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that win Indian contracts to plough back money into Indian defence industry. The Defence Procurement Procedure of 2005 (DPP-2005) required all OEMs winning defence contracts worth over Rs 300 crore to invest at least 30 per cent of the contract value into “direct offsets”, i.e. into production in India related to that contract. 


Since 2005, the offset policy has been repeatedly tweaked and liberalised. Important changes include: permitting offsets to be discharged through civil aerospace and internal security, besides defence; disallowing and then re-allowing offsets through “services”; and promulgating “multipliers” that grant enhanced offset credits for investments in MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) and high-technology projects. 


In August 2015, fresh offset guidelines permitted OEMs flexibility in choosing and changing Indian Offset Partners (IOPs) and projects. In 2016, the threshold at which offsets liabilities kicked in was enhanced from Rs 300 crore to Rs 2,000 crore.

Yet, with neither OEMs nor the MoD satisfied with how offsets have delivered, the MoD has now proposed bold new offset initiatives. These include, first, allowing offsets through creating defence manufacturing infrastructure --- such as testing laboratories, ranges and skill centres; through sponsoring projects that generate high-technology; and through transferring critical technologies that do not exist in India.

Multipliers between two-to-five have been proposed for these, with higher multipliers allocated to investments in the recently-announced defence industry corridors in Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh. A multiplier of three means an investment of $100 million would gain offset credits of $300 million.

Secondly, the MoD proposed to allow OEMs to discharge offsets through equity investment in manufacturing units for defence, aerospace or internal security. Such an investment, made in a defence manufacturing corridor, would be eligible for a multiplier of four, while investment into any other area would obtain a multiplier of three.

Finally, the MoD’s draft guidelines propose allowing offsets to be discharged through investment in “MoD registered, professionally managed, SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) regulated funds dedicated for development of start-ups and MSMEs of defence, aerospace and internal security related enterprises in the country.” Such investments would be eligible for a multiplier of three.

Private industry reactions, most of which have already been fed-back to the MoD, express incomprehension about why identifying defence infrastructure projects, technology projects and critical technologies eligible under offsets are to be identified by “a collegium” that only comprises “SHQs (service headquarters), DRDO (Defence R&D Organisation) DPSU (defence public sector undertakings), OFB (Ordnance Factor Board) [and the] DDP (Department of Defence Production).” Private industry says that, as equal stakeholders, they must participate in identifying eligible projects.

Private firms have also questioned the clause that restricts offset credits only to the capital investment an OEM makes in a production project, but the “products/services arising out of the investment by the vendor shall not be eligible for offset discharge.”

Private firms point out that production value is the final goal, and should be the most important metric for offset eligibility. “Disallowing offsets for production value would mean that an OEM who invests in a joint venture (JV) that produces nothing would get the same offsets credits as an OEM that is highly successful in producing defence equipment for the domestic and export market.

There are strong private sector views about the proposed defence investment funds, especially given that the MoD’s Technology Development Fund, proposed by the Rama Rao Committee in 2011, has received only a luke-warm endorsement from the MSMEs it was meant to benefit.

“Given that offsets are not being fully discharged, establishing such a fund through offsets would not take away from anything. Instead, investment would come into India and another channel created for funding MSMEs and start-ups”, says the chief of a large defence firm.

Others point out that leaving the regulation of the fund to SEBI, rather than to the MoD, is an excellent step. “There should be professional management of the fund, and oversight of the funds investment activities should be through the quarterly reports that SEBI mandates. Excessive MoD interference would be a death blow”, says a chief executive.

On April 11, the MoD announced the establishment of the first such fund. Details are still awaited.

MSMEs, however, which were meant to be the prime beneficiaries of offsets, argue that the bulk of offsets have thus far been discharged through “build to print” manufacture of defence and aerospace components and sub-systems in Indian factories. They say this method must continue to derive the maximum offset benefits.

Driving home their point, they say that maximum production value, and the most employment creation, has taken place through “build to print” manufacture. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Sitharaman acknowledges private sector for building crucial naval systems

Sitharaman complimented Tata Power (SED) for developing the combat nerve centre of INS Vikrant

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th May 18

While public sector shipyards continue getting warship building orders without competitive tendering, and defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) like Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) are “nominated” to build key systems for them, the defence ministry today publicly, and unusually, acknowledged the growing competence of the private sector.

Addressing top naval commanders in New Delhi on Tuesday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, paid public tribute to Tata Power (Strategic Engineering Division) for developing the combat nerve centre of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, being built in Cochin Shipyard.

“The Combat Management System for the indigenous aircraft carrier being developed with a private vendor (M/s Tata Power SED) is a big step towards strategic partnership between the MoD (ministry of defence) and industry”, said Sitharaman.

A warship’s Combat Management System is a complex software engineering challenge. It brings together inputs from all the ships sensors – radars, sonar and others – and fuses them into a coherent battlefield picture of threats the warship must deal with. Simultaneously, the CMS controls the various on-board weapons, and presents the operations officers with the options available to destroy those threats.

Tata Power SED has travelled a long developmental road before being entrusted with developing the CMS for such a critical platform as INS Vikrant. Most recently, it developed the combat system for INS Arihant, India’s lone nuclear missile submarine. Earlier, in the late-1990s, it was chosen by then Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) chief, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, to develop critical components for the Samyukta electronic warfare system – a system that must ideally not contain any foreign sub-systems.

When Dr Kalam – as president of India – commissioned the Samyukta, he paid fulsome tribute to Tata Power SED’s role in fully indigenizing key part of the system.

However, Sitharaman made no commitment to allow private sector shipyards – including highly capable yards like L&T’s Kathupalli shipyard in Tamil Nadu – to build larger and more complex warships like destroyers, frigates and corvettes, which remain the preserve of DPSU yards. However, in passing, she underlined how little business was being funneled to private sector shipyards.

“I am happy to note that shipbuilding projects worth over Rs 32,000 crore have been tendered and are progressing towards contract conclusion. Projects worth Rs 760 crore for construction of yard crafts are also being targeted for early conclusion through private and small shipyards, to bolster the 'Make in India' initiative and provide the necessary impetus to the Indian shipbuilding industry”, she said.

Sitharaman, who was addressing the bi-annual Naval Commanders’ Conference, complimented the navy for its commitment towards indigenization. Of the three armed services, the navy has been at the forefront in building its own equipment, and creating design and manufacturing capabilities over the preceding half century.


“I firmly believe that as a nation we cannot be truly self-reliant until we are able to develop our own weapons and sensors. Indian Navy's active role in engaging with a wide range of R&D and production agencies – government, semi government and private – is indicative of its commitment”, she said.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

India caught in the crossfire as US Congress squeezes Trump on Russia

India’s defence faces collateral damage as the US Congress binds Trump to act against Russia

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th May 18

The United States of America (US) has leapt ahead of Russia as India’s biggest supplier of new weaponry. A recent report from Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence reveals that, during the last three years, US firms concluded 13 contracts with India, worth Rs 288 billion. In the same period, Russia got 12 contracts, valued at just Rs 83 billion – not even one-third of the US bag. Now Moscow’s share could decline further, with New Delhi being squeezed by the threat of US sanctions against countries that buy weaponry from Russia.


These sanctions are embedded in legislation – titled “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) – that the US Congress passed in mid-2017. While CAATSA is directed at Russia, Iran and North Korea, it is the Russian component of the law that most concerns India. It enjoins the US administration to impose sanctions against countries that engage in “significant transactions” with Russian defence and intelligence entities. India is highly vulnerable to that charge, with its military heavily dependent upon the purchase from Russia for spares, maintenance, and overhaul of its roughly 6,000 tanks and infantry combat vehicles, artillery and air defence guns, warships, submarines and large numbers of fighter and transport aircraft and helicopters. It would be no exaggeration to say that without large purchases from Russia, India’s military would grind to a halt. In addition to keeping its legacy fleet running, India is exploring crucial new transactions from Russia, such as the lease of a nuclear submarine, the purchase of 200 Kamov-226 helicopters and the S-400 Triumf advanced air defence systems.

Intriguingly, recent days have seen a resurgence of chatter in the strategic community about the possibility of India being sanctioned under CAATSA. It is speculated that India’s proposed purchase of the S-400 Triumf has caused red lights to start flashing in Washington DC. Like CAATSA itself, the S-400 proposal is not new; the defence ministry cleared it in principle in December 2015 and negotiations have been on-going since then. But Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to Moscow last month and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Monday meeting with President Vladimir Putin has heightened anticipation of an imminent contract. Washington insiders say that top US administration officials might be willing to condone procurements like Kamov light helicopters, arguing that is not a “significant transaction”. But the S-400 Triumf, which is an upgraded version of the S-300 missile system that China’s military uses, and which is a key preoccupation of US Air Force planners could never be accorded an exemption. Besides, the estimated $4.5 billion value of such a contract could hardly be ignored by Washington.

It is ironical that the US Congress, which is uniformly well disposed towards India, has enacted CAATSA, even though it directly undermines Indian defence capability. In fact, India is mere collateral damage in the operating of CAATSA, which is primarily directed at President Donald Trump. Practically every Democrat in the US Congress, and a large percentage of Republican Russia-hawks, have been furious at Mr Trump’s kid-glove treatment of Russia. Democrats believe Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election robbed Hilary Clinton of the presidency; meanwhile Republican orthodoxy can hardly countenance Mr Trump’s chumminess towards Mr Putin and his thuggish administration. With the common objective of forcing Mr Trump to confront Moscow, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the US Congress passed CAATSA. In this single-minded focus on binding Mr Trump to an anti-Russia course of action, the collateral damage being inflicted on national security allies has been disregarded.

Mr Trump could have sent CAATSA back to Congress, but he realised that, given his perceived closeness to Mr Putin, not signing off on it would only make things look worse. Besides, so overwhelming was the support in Congress for CAATSA that it might well have reappeared before Mr Trump in veto-proof form, backed by a two-thirds Congressional majority. So, while signing off on CAATSA on August 2, 2017, Mr Trump did what a number of US presidents have done over the last 30 years when signing legislation they had grave reservations about. He issued a “signing statement”, that said the bill was “seriously flawed – particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate”. Stating that he was signing CAATSA for the sake of “national unity”, Mr Trump’s statement ended with characteristic flourish: “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress”.

Realising CAATSA’s potential for damaging relations with key partners like India, Secretary of Defence James Mattis has been campaigning for a national security waiver from CAATSA for key allies, including in recent testimony before the US Congress. However, Democratic Congresspersons are virulently opposed to any waiver that might allow Mr Trump’s administration to bypass CAATSA. The Republicans might be more open to the notion of a waiver for a small handful of countries, but they do not want to give Mr Trump a free hand on Russia either.

Complicating matters is the fact that the administration itself is divided on the issue of a CAATSA waiver. There are administration officials who still bear a grudge against India, believing that Washington had conceded too much to New Delhi in the US-India nuclear deal. Mr Mattis is clearly on India’s side, but he is the only adult in the room for most administration confabulations. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to be brought onto the same page, but they have both been in office for just days and have not revealed where they stand. Neither is a known friend of India.

The Indian Embassy in Washington has made sporadic efforts to reach out to individual Congresspersons for supporting a CAATSA waiver. However, Indian diplomats in Washington have not been great at “working the Hill”. They have relied instead on powerful allies — like Jim Mattis today — hoping they would fight the battle for India. 

Perhaps to reduce the likelihood of sanctions, there have been noticeable efforts by New Delhi to downplay the Indo-Russia defence relationship. In February, India terminated its participation in the high-profile proposal to develop an Indo-Russian fifth generation fighter. During Defexpo 2018 last month, Ms Sitharaman noticeably cold-shouldered the Russian delegation. There are clear limits to how much, and how quickly, India can decrease its dependence upon Russian arms supplies, something that many US officials in Washington do not quite comprehend. But for now, it would appear that American officials are taking solace from the decreasing Indian purchases from Russia – evident from the Standing Committee report – a trend that US officials could use to justify waiving sanctions on India. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

The Great River Run: Rafting down the Siang



By Ajai Shukla
Siang River, Arunachal Pradesh
Business Standard, 5th May 18

Most journalists encounter moments in their working lives when they pause, shake their heads in wonderment and ask themselves: “Am I actually being paid to cover this story?”

One such moment came in May 2003, when a television channel asked me to make the insanely beautiful, nine-day trek to the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal for the commemoration of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of the mountain, 50 years earlier. I would have paid to make that trip.

I felt the same last month, when the Arunachal Pradesh Tourism Department invited me for the “Siang Rush” – a three-day rafting trip down the swirling rapids of the grey-green Siang River, which enters Arunachal from Tibet, and flows for almost 300 kilometres through the state to Assam. There, merging with the Lohit and Dibang rivers, it forms the Brahmaputra.

(Photo credit: Apal/Ribex)

Dubbed “Mount Everest of rivers”, this dramatic, 3,850 kilometre long watercourse has its source on the slopes of Mount Kailash as the Yarlung Tsangpo (Yalung Zanbu in Chinese), close to where the Indus, Sutlej and Ganga also originate. After flowing placidly for over 1,000 kilometres across the high Tibetan plateau, the Tsangpo spectacularly enters the eastern Himalayas. Foaming and churning like a furious beast, it thunders through the world’s deepest gorge at the Great Bend – a dizzying 16,000 feet chasm between the 25,531 feet high Namcha Barwa, and the 23,930 feet high Gyalha Peri – and then turns south into India. The so-called “Grand Canyon of the Tsangpo” is thrice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.

It is just as well that our expedition of mainly amateur rafters was not boating this stretch. No human has ever managed to do so. In November 1998, four expert kayakers attempted the Great Bend, but called it off after one of them drowned. In 2002, seven of the world’s most experienced kayakers attempted it in February, when water flows are the lowest. However, after almost losing their leader to a whirlpool, they were forced to carry their kayaks rather than paddle in them. The expedition was abandoned after the exhausted local porters demanded more money to physically carry the kayaks over an 11,000 feet pass to a friendlier patch in the river downstream.

In contrast to these intrepid adventurers, the Siang Rush brought together some ten guests – travel writers, photographers and Arunachal hands – some of whom were white water rafting for the first time. I had taken permission to bring my family along too, so my timorous, non-swimming wife, Sonia, and worryingly gung-ho daughter, 10-year-old Meera, were in the boats too.


Also with us was Andy Leeman, a 64-year-old adventurer who has sailed many of the world’s great rivers from source to sea – including the Zambezi, Amazon-Orinoco, Mekong, Yukon, Ganges and Gomti – in his storied 60,000-kilometre river-running career. In 2010, he had attempted the Brahmaputra, sailing from Mount Kailash to about 200 kilometres before the Great Bend, where soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army abruptly terminated his expedition, telling him that foreigners were forbidden beyond that point. So Andy came to Assam, bought new boats and resumed his Brahmaputra journey, sailing down to Bangladesh where the river meets the sea. Now, armed with the Inner Line Permits needed for non-Arunachalis to enter the state and accompanied by his trusted cinematographer, Apal Singh, Andy was embarking upon the third leg of his Brahmaputra journey.



We flew in to Dibrugarh, a charming tea town in Upper Assam, and boarded the ferry at the village of Bogibeel to cross the Brahmaputra. Stretching across the river was the near-complete, five kilometre-long road-and-rail bridge, which could be inaugurated this year after 16 years in construction – not unusual in the neglected north-east. For the ferry operators at Bogibeel, who do brisk business carrying people, animals, cargo and even cars across the Brahmaputra on a 75-minute trip, the new bridge will mean relocating to some other part of the river.


We stayed the night in Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh’s oldest town, which the British established in 1911 to keep an eye on the untamed wilds of what was then called the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Over a drink (okay, several!), we met our host, Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travel & Expeditions, who the Arunachal government had chosen to organise this showpiece event. Tayeng, who is well known to travellers in the north-east, engages in the most intriguing projects, such as locating and recovering the remains of US Air Force pilots whose aircraft crashed in the Eastern Himalayas during World War II, while ferrying supplies from airfields in Assam to Chiang Kai-shek’s armies, who were fighting the Japanese in Yunnan and Szechuan.

(Photo credit: Apal/Ribex)

The next day was spent in a six-hour drive up the Siang valley to Geku camp, where the rafting was to start. Oken had organised a delicious lunch en route, through a “self-help group” of local Adi tribal women. We wolfed down the chicken and fish, marinated and broiled in the local tradition and served with rice on large leaves. Due justice was also done to the local rice liquor, Apong, attractively served in glasses fashioned from hollow bamboo. We reached our camp to find our tents pitched just yards from the river. Andy reassuringly informed us that, on the Zambezi or Nile, we would have all been crocodile food by dawn. While Meera chanted “crocodiles, crocodiles, we want crocodiles”, I crept off and surreptitiously confirmed that the Siang’s croc population was zero.


 We awoke the next morning in a quiver of anticipation. Peering out of our tents, we saw a blanket of fog over the Siang getting dissipated by the morning sun. A quick camp breakfast (boiled eggs, bread and jam, poori-aaloo) and we assembled at the riverside to kit ourselves out with “personal floatation devices” (okay, lifejackets!) and helmets. Lined up alongside the rafts, the safety crew briefed us on what to do if disaster struck – someone fell out of the boat while navigating a rapid or, worse, if a boat overturned, trapping its crew underneath. Our guardian angels would be four accomplished kayakers, brought in from Rishikesh, since kayaking is still new to Arunachal. Calling themselves the “Ganga Boys”, they sported ponytails, designer stubble and wraparound shades. But, once afloat, we quickly discovered how deadly serious they were about their work, which was to pull us out of the water within seconds of a crisis. 


Criss-crossing our four-raft fleet like riverine sheepdogs, their unearthly rapport kept them positioning continually to respond immediately to an emergency on any raft. Over campfire chats during the subsequent three nights, we learned that the team leader, Ayodhya Kothiyal, works five months a year on expeditions like ours and then busts his earnings on extreme kayaking and participating in international competitions in Austria and Switzerland. The other members – Pawan, Arjun and Vijay – were following in Ayodhya’s mould.


Once on the river, our apprehensions quickly dissolved; we were rafting a stretch that held only medium difficulty and danger. Rapids are graded on scale of I to VI, with Class 1 representing a calm, smooth river and Classes V and VI indicating extremely dangerous rapids with difficult rescue conditions and real hazard to life in the event of a mishap. In the Class III stretches we were navigating, we could expect high, irregular waves and narrow passages that required precise manoeuvring.


Moreover, the Class III rapids we ran – with names like 65 Rapids, Begging Rollercoaster, Rottung and Big Pongging rapids – were interspersed with long stretches of placid water that allowed us to practice rowing, ride pillion on the safety kayaks, and even swim in the river. Over the three days of rafting, even the most apprehensive of us (no names!) stopped screaming through the rapids, and the ones that initially vowed not to venture into the challenging Big Pongging rapids on Day Three eventually did so with aplomb. Meera insisted on swimming in the Siang in between rapids and, such is the peer pressure a child can create, that several avowed non-swimmers put aside their fears and tested the waters. Raising confidence all around were the Ganga Boys, who would appear almost magically next to a swimmer, gauging the beginnings of fatigue, danger from an undertow, or even just a wish to leave the water and piggyback a kayak ride back to one’s raft.


With days of rafting boosting appetites and fatigue, everyone enjoyed the three overnight camps. Three Arunachali travel firms had established a camp each, one of them inaccessible by road. Surprisingly, that camp, while basic, turned out to be the best of the lot, since a local village had been co-opted to feed us and stage an entertainment programme. After we despatched a community lunch, the village elders invited us to tour the hamlet where every door was left open for us. Several of us used the opportunity to siesta on the shaded bamboo verandah of a traditional Adi stilted house, drowsy with the Apong we had rather over-indulged in.


This is what could uniquely characterise rafting in Arunachal Pradesh – blending the river experience with traditional tribal culture (there are 26 unique tribes, each with its language and customs), insights into the state’s botanical and zoological wealth, and a description of the many interesting sights en route, such as hanging bridges that locals construct, using ancient techniques, for crossing even major rivers like the Siang.


The Arunachal government’s eagerness to boost tourism was made clear by Pema Khandu, the state’s 38-year-old chief minister who flew down from Itanagar for the closing party in Pasighat. Khandu, accompanied by senior officials, listened carefully as we recounted our experiences. And then the evening devolved into an Apong-soaked celebration, with everyone dancing to a local rock band. Khandu himself took the microphone and belted out a vigorous rendition of “Country Roads”. The official who was dutifully noting down suggestions about tourism development turned out to be an acid rocker with a particular enthusiasm for Pink Floyd.

(Photo credit: Apal/Ribex)

That is what makes every visitor’s memories of Arunachal Pradesh special: the recall of time spent with free-spirited people who are unapologetic about having fun, and who ensure that visitors to their magical, green paradise do so too.