Thursday, April 25, 2013

Need to Transform Indian Navy into A Blue water Maritime Force

Radhakrishna Rao, 
Visiting Fellow, VIF

In the context of the South China Sea rapidly emerging as a turbulent oceanic stretch with China questioning the claims of a number of Asian countries over this disputed water body, late last year Indian Navy Chief Admiral DK Joshi had driven home the point that the Indian Navy is prepared to deploy vessels to the South China sea to protect Indian interests there. As it is, not long back India had sparred diplomatically with China over its gas and oil exploration blocks off the coast of Vietnam. China claims virtually the entire mineral rich South China Sea and has stepped up its naval presence here to ward off any challenge to its monopoly of this oceanic body. Joshi did also express the view that Beijing’s growing maritime strength was a “major cause of concern.” The moral of the story is that the Indian Navy cannot afford to keep its focus concentrated exclusively on the Indian Ocean region. It should build up the capability and power level good enough to take care of Indian interests in any part of the global oceanic stretch.

As diplomatic experts point out, China is beefing up its naval capability with a view to not only exercise virtual monopoly over the South China Sea but also challenge US dominance over the global oceanic waters. The combat edge of the Chinese navy is expected to receive a shot in the arm from the home grown,58,000-tonne class Liaoning aircraft carrier built around the decommissioned Soviet era ship Varyag. China has been able to successfully land the indigenous fighter J-15 on the deck of Liaoning, which is currently going through extensive sea trials.

Of course, Joshi did hit the nail on the head with the statement that while India was not a claimant in the dispute over territorial rights in South China sea, it was prepared to act, if necessary to protect its maritime and economic rights in the region. “China opposes any unilateral oil and gas exploration activities in disputed area in the South China sea and hopes countries respect China’s sovereignty and national interests as well as the efforts of countries within the region to resolve dispute through bilateral negotiations,” said an official of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Nearer home, recent developments in the neighbouring Sri Lanka and Maldives cannot but be a cause of concern for India. Along with Myanmar and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives are considered vital components of the Chinese strategy of “string of pearls” aimed at encircling India. In addition to lending a big hand to a variety of infrastructure projects in these two island nations, China has already made inroads in the area of space cooperation with both Sri Lanka and Maldives. The immense strategic significance of space cooperation could provide China a powerful platform in the Indian Ocean region to further its geo strategic interests. As such, Indian intelligence and security agencies have suggested that ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) should take a proactive role in building and launching satellites for these two vitally located Indian ocean island nations with which India has had a long standing, cordial relations. But then unlike China, which already operates a string of powerful rockets capable of delivering satellite payloads of different weight class to required orbital slots, ISRO lacks the launch power to deliver satellites in two tonne plus class. For currently, ISRO operates a solitary launch vehicle PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), the most powerful version of which is capable of delivering a 1800kg satellite into a polar/sun-synchronous orbit.

Meanwhile, in a development of significance, Indian Navy’s offensive capability will stand augmented with the state owned Kolkatta based Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE)launching work on the third corvette with stealth features. With 90% of the indigenous contents, this third anti submarine warfare corvette under Project-28 will showcase India’s warship building potentials with domestic resources and indigenous expertise. Aimed at enhancing Indian Navy’s underwater warfare capabilities, the warship, is said to be a first of its kind to be fitted with indigenous state of art weapons and sensors.

On another front, India’s near futuristic naval base is also set to take shape on the eastern sea board .This vitally situated sea base with an eye firmly set on China will ultimately have underground pens or bunkers to protect nuclear submarines from prying eyes of spy satellites. The project named Varsha to be located close to Vishakhapatnam is considered a counterpoise to China’s massive underground nuclear submarine base on the south-western tip of Hainan Island.

And to further bolster its blue water capabilities, the Indian Navy plans to acquire five self propelled Fleet Support Ships (FSS) that should be capable of transferring all types of stores, ammunition, fuel and personnel to naval units. Clearly and apparently, blue water navies boast of large auxiliary fleets comprising longer range fleet support vessels designed to provide support far beyond territorial waters. As part of the plan to boost its long range surveillance capability, in December last, the Indian Navy received first of its eight P-81 maritime patrol aircraft from it had ordered from the American defence and aerospace major Boeing. The P-81 long range surveillance aircraft is well suited for anti submarine warfare. Indian Navy has also decided to exercise the option of going in for additional four P-81 aircraft with a view to strengthen its maritime patrol capabilities as well as counter piracy threats and the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region.

On a longer term canvas, Indian Navy has a 30 year plan for inducting 24 new submarines that was approved by the Indian Government in late 1990s.But unfortunately that plan went wrong with not a single new vessel inducted in the one and half decade since. The Indian Navy currently has 14 diesel–electric submarines in its fleet-10 Russian origin Kilo class vessels and four HDW German origin vessels-apart from one nuclear powered vessel borrowed from Russia on a 10 year lease. China on the other had has 60 diesel-electric submarines and 10 nuclear powered vessels in its fleet. As such the need of the hour is to strengthen the submarine fleet of the Indian navy which is looking at expanding the area of its “operations”.

There is no denying the fact that the Indian Navy would need to boost by a substantial extent its surveillance and reconnaissance, capability with a view to attain a blue water capability essential to meet the multi dimensional challenges of the future. The Indian Navy, currently the fifth largest in the world, plans to operate three aircraft carriers by the end of this decade. Indeed, air arm holds the key to attaining a credible blue water capability in all its manifestations. Against this backdrop, Indian Navy’s maritime doctrine rightly incorporates comprehensive modernization plan for its air arm through a mid life upgrades and modernization of its current aircraft fleet. The induction of Mig-29 multi role fighter aircraft with air combat, ground attack and maritime strike capability, would prove a major force multiplier for the air arm of the Indian Navy.

The 37,500-tonne Air Defence Ship (ADS), currently under construction at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd, will be capable of accommodating 30 combat aircraft mix of Mig-29K and LCA Tejas navy. Everything going as planned; this indigenous aircraft carrier will be inducted into the Indian Naval fleet by around the middle of this decade. Looking into the future, Indian Navy has also drawn up a plan to design and develop a vastly improved home grown aircraft carrier as a follow up to ADS. The Indian navy’s currently operational lone aircraft carrier Viraat is planned to replaced by INS Vikramaditya which is now undergoing sea trials in Russia .

However, the delay in the delivery of the retrofitted aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya by Russia is a matter of concern for the Indian navy. This 45,000-tonne class carrier refurbished around Russian decommissioned vessel Admrial Gorhskov was to be handed over to India in December 2012. But problems in the boiler of the carrier revealed during the sea trials of September 2012 implied that the carrier required extensive rectification to render it fully operational. The saga of INS Vikarmaditya has been marred by time slippages in delivery schedule and steep cost escalation. India, which in 2004 had signed US$974-million deal for the retrofitting of this decommissioned Russian vessel, was ultimately forced to cough up US$2.3-billion. The air arm INS Vikarmadiaya comprises Mig-29K deck based fighters and Ka-30 early warning helicopters. Sometime back, Indian Defence Minister AK Antony had told the Indian Parliament that the Russia has been asked to deliver the retrofitted aircraft carrier before the end of 2013.

In a major milestone in developing a home grown deck based fighter, the naval version of India’s home-grown fighter aircraft Tejas is now getting ready for a flight test involving the crucial ski jump trials at the shore based test facility at Hans air station of the Indian Navy in Goa. The ski jump trial is crucial for establishing the carrier compatibility of the deck based fighter. Derived from the air force version, the naval Tejas is longitudinally unstable fly by wire aircraft making it agile war machine. The flight control system of LCA navy is being augmented with Leading Edge Vortex Controller (LEVCON) aiding reduction in approach speed for carrier landing. Landing gear for Tejas naval has been adequately strengthened to withstand increased landing loads in carrier operations. Phase Two of the LCA Tejas naval envisages the development of a single seat fighter with a new higher thrust engine and further design optimization.

With the kind of capabilities on the anvil, Indian Navy is seriously working towards transforming itself into a credible maritime force to tackle multi-dimensional challenges of the future. Against the fast changing global maritime dynamism, the Indian Navy has drawn up an ambitious plan to take care of the Indian ’interests and assets” across high seas of the world. Indian Navy is clear in its perception that the futuristic threat would be dynamic and could emanate from multiple sources. Perhaps the most striking feature of the on-going programme of modernization launched by the Indian Navy is its thrust on sourcing its requirements through the indigenous routes by harnessing the potential of the Indian industry. The Indian Navy has already made it clear that its plan for modernization is not China specific but based on the multiple threats facing India.

Indian Navy’s vision is to position itself as the third largest fleet in the world. The centrepiece of Indian Navy’s modernisation scheme revolves round besides the acquisition of aircraft carriers, the nuclear powered submarines. In 2009, India launched INS Arihant, its first home-grown nuclear submarine. This will give India a nuclear triad, currently capability possessed only by US, China and Russia. Arihant will carry Shaurya missile capable of carrying one ton class nuclear warhead with a range of 750-km.The 6,000-tonee plus Arihant equipped with a dozen K-15 ballistic missiles will constitute the robust under sea leg of the Indian nuclear triad.

The Nerpa class Chakra nuclear submarine which India has taken on lease from Russia in tandem with Arihant will give Indian Navy a greater degree of manoeuvrability to hoodwink the enemy’s surveillance system and strike hard as they remain submerged indefinitely. Arihant is now close to attaining its operational status. In particular the sea based nuclear strike capability being put in place by the Indian navy would provide credible second strike capability. Incidentally, the nuclear strike capability based on a submarine platform has the advantage in terms of stealth and survivability in cause of a first attack.
The vision of Indian navy is to operate 150 plus warships of various categories and 500 aircraft including fighter jets, helicopters and maritime reconnaissance aircraft by 2027. However the trump card of the Indian Navy is the Indo-Russian supersonic cruise missile BrahMos which has already been inducted into some of its warships. The 290-km range BrahMos with a phenomenal destructive power has been described as the “most powerful and most formidable” naval missile of its kind.

In keeping with the global trends, Indian Navy has been quite keen on making use of the space assets with a view to projects its combat power in littoral regions with a greater degree of confidence. The plan is to create and sustain a three dimensional, technology driven and satellite enabled network centric system to transform itself into a formidable sea power. To boost its strike capability, Indian Navy is quite keen to link up its long range missiles, radars and air defence systems as well as the sea bed assets to a central room through a highly dedicated satellite network.

Given the practical difficulties involved in guarding long and porous coastal stretch, the Indian Navy is looking at a string of satellites specially designed to take care of maritime security aspects. Against such a backdrop, Indian Navy should be excited over the possibility of the launch of multi band communications satellite GSAT-7 sometime this year by ISRO. This satellite which will serve as the exclusive space platform of the Indian Navy will go a long way towards strengthening the communications network of the Indian Navy to effectively link up its resources spread across the vast and sprawling oceanic region. It is expected to transform the entire maritime domain awareness of the Indian navy. As envisaged now, the satellite will have a 600-700 nautical miles footprint over the Indian Ocean region.

Further into the future, as the situation unfolds, the Indian Navy will look at having dedicated satellite systems for ocean monitoring, weather watch, navigation, surveillance and reconnaissance. Without doubt, in years ahead to sustain its expansion programme, Indian navy would be interested in acquiring advanced microwave imaging satellite systems, naval transit space platforms, electronic ferret satellites and other specialized space birds.

Indian Navy should draw inspiration from the fact that India has had a long and chequered maritime and ship building tradition. What is more, the setting up of cultural empire in South East Asia by Indian rulers was a tribute to the sea faring spirit of medieval India. According to the US based geo-strategist Parag Khanna, who is also the founding director of the Global Governance Initiative at the new American Foundation think tank, “In terms of geopolitics, India’s influence is still very limited…What underpins that is the reality that India is not going to be what initially was thought and hoped it would be a land based continental rival to balance China. Now, India is seen as much more a naval power—overseeing and having a strategic role with respect to the Indian Ocean and the trade routes there. That actually is the geopolitical future of India. It is a very strong future.”

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