Arun Kumar Singh
In recent weeks, the government has signed contracts or announced its intentions to sign a series of government to government (G to G) contracts with Russia and the US for a large number of critically needed items for the Indian military. Some “experts” have derided these contracts as an attempt to balance our relations with Russia and the US (given the CAATSA threat of sanctions) or “pre-election stunts” for the forthcoming mid-2019 general elections or an attempt to further isolate Pakistan which is incapable of buying sophisticated military hardware due to its collapsing economy. In my view, such large contracts need to be leveraged in our national interests, and Prime Minister Modi has taken the first step in arresting the downslide in Indian military capabilities. This article deals only with the requirements of the Indian Navy (IN), which celebrates its Navy Day on December 4, 2018 and its Submarine Arm Day on December 8, 2018. There has been no seaborne or landborne terror attack in the last few years, and the IN (along with the Indian Coast Guard, Marine Police, Intelligence Agencies) has kept a large number of its ships and aircraft at sea on counter maritime terror and counter piracy operations. IN ships have showed the Indian tricolour in distant lands and participated in various exercises in Russia, Japan, Pearl Harbour, Australia, South Africa, Oman and ASEAN. While acute shortages continue in conventional submarines, MCMVs (Mine Counter Measures Vessels), medium 12-ton and light four-ton types of shipborne helicopters, the good news is that India is inducting four more Russian-origin Talwar class frigates (two to be imported and two to be made in Goa Shipyard Ltd), while media reports indicate that another Akula class SSN maybe contracted for on a 10 year lease from Russia. Also after decades of wait for a viable submarine rescue capability, some good news came recently when the first of the UK-built DSRVs (Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel) carried out its first test dive off Mumbai to a depth of 666 m as per media reports. The second DSRV (for the east coast) is expected shortly and two DSRV “mother ships” (one for each coast) are being built at Hindustan Shipyard Ltd and should be delivered by 2022-23. On November 5, 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that the indigenous SSBN INS Arihant had completed her maiden deterrence patrol. This article focuses on some pending critical shortages which continue to plague the IN, given the growing threats posed by a rapidly expanding and modernising PLAN (Chinese Navy) which is adding 25 warships and subs annually to its fleet, and has a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with six to eight warships and submarines on patrol or port calls, apart from its naval base in Djibouti and footholds in many countries, viz. Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Despite the above welcome decisions announced by India recently, some critical IN shortages remain. The first is MCMVs (Mine Counter Measures Vessels), which are essential to keep our ports open by ensuring “clearing or neutralising” any sea-mines (which can sink ships and close our ports) laid by the enemy in wartime or by state sponsored terrorists in peacetime. Even a single merchant ship being sunk by a sea mine will result in international merchant shipping refusing to enter or leave the Indian port or ports and shipping insurance rates will go up for ships nearing Indian coasts, thus raising prices of Indian sea borne trade including our massive oil imports — the result maybe catastrophic for the Indian economy. The IN which needs 24 MCMVs was “managing” for the last three decades with 12 Russian-origin MCMVs (six on each coast), but today has only one MCMV left (and this too maybe could be decommissioned in the near future). Decade long talks and negotiations with South Korean Kangnam Shipyard to make 12 MCMVs in Goa Shipyard have failed, apparently due to unwillingness on the part of South Korea to do a complete transfer of technology (ToT) for these advanced vessels which use non-magnetic GRP material for their hull and non-magnetic low noise machinery to avoid activating sea mines which can explode on contact with a ship (MCMV has sophisticated equipment to detect and destroy sea mines at a safe distance from itself) or due to the magnetic or acoustic field of the MCMV (or any other ship). Hence India, which sees a role for its Navy as a “net security provider” in the IOR and conducts counter piracy operations off distant Somalia, is presently faced with a situation that its sea ports are vulnerable to sea mines as by terrorists in peace time or by enemy nations in wartime. Clearly a government to government (G to G) contract needs to be signed urgently to induct a few MCMVs and build the rest in India.
The second critical shortage of the IN relates to shipborne helicopters, which are extensions of a warship by providing it an ability to extend its reach by 50 to 100 miles ahead of itself, of which the IN needs about a hundred 12-ton multi-role (anti-ship, anti-submarine warfare or ASW, reconnaissance) and 111 four-ton LUH (Light Utility Helicopters) which are needed for multiple tasks (Search & Rescue, Stores transfer, short range ASW). The recent Government announcement of initiating talks with the US to induct 24 medium multi-role shipborne MH-60R helicopters is welcome but a lot needs to be done. Both the medium and light helicopter types need to be made in India also.
The third critical and long pending IN requirement is to produce six conventional long range submarines (Project 75 I) and six tactical nuclear submarines (SSNs). One modern French designed, Indian built Scorpene sub (INS Kalvari) was commissioned in December 2017, and five more will join at 12 month intervals. Their is no mention of six more conventional subs under Project 75(I), but the CNS mentioned to the media on November 24, 2018) that the “indigenous SSN is in the design stage and the launch of the first SSN is over 10 years away.” In the meantime, India is trying to extend the life of its nine Russian origin Kilo conventional subs and four German origin SSK subs by another 10 years, thus utilising these subs (with an original design life of 25 years for over 40 years) while our neighbour Pakistan has signed contracts with China to induct eight new subs.
The fourth long pending case for the IN relates to indigenous construction of five 30,000-ton Fleet Support Ships or FSSs (needed to refuel warships at sea and thus extend their blue water range) and four 20,000-ton LPDs (Landing Platform Dock) which are used for amphibious warfare, with each LPD capable of transporting 1,000 troops, tanks, artillery, trucks and landing them ashore by various means including using integral 12-ton helicopters. The LPDs are vital for our island territories and also for rendering humanitarian assistance during natural or manmade disasters. India presently has only four FSSs and one LPD.
On November 5, 2018, Prime Minister Modi made a series of tweets about India’s first indigenous SSBN having completed her maiden deterrence patrol. Three more SSBNs are reported to be under construction and should join in a decade to complete the “triad” as four SSBNs are needed to keep one at sea for 2-3 months, with another in port getting ready while the third and fourth undergo short duration and long duration repairs respectively. The Arihant presently is reported to embark 700 km range nuclear tipped SLBMs, while another SLBM with a range of 3,500 km has been undergoing sea trials and should be ready soon. China has five SSBNs, each capable of launching twelve JL-2 SLBMs and each JL-2 has a range of 7,000 km. American, Russian, French and UK SSBNs, have SLBMs with range upto 10,000 km.
Clearly the 6,000-ton Arihant and her 3 follow ons (which may be slightly larger as per media reports) are insufficient to meet the needs of simultaneously deterring Pakistan and China. An SSBN operating in the northern Bay of Bengal would be 2,500 km from Pakistan and 3,600 km from Beijing. Press reports do indicate that a much larger SSBN with SLBMs having ranges of over 5,000 km is in the plans. Clearly India and its Navy have a very long way to go.