INS Tarkash, a Krivak-III frigate built for the Indian Navy
By Ajai Shukla
Unsigned editorial for Business Standard
2nd October 2019
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was correct in stating that the Indian Navy could deal Pakistan a heavier blow today than in 1971, when Indian missile boats attacked Karachi port. But Mr Singh has set his sights very low. The Karachi strikes, while morale boosting, were eventually peripheral to the outcome of that war. Today, given that Indian Navy’s budget of $8 billion is only slightly smaller than Pakistan’s entire defence allocation of $11 billion; far more would be expected from it. New Delhi’s strategic vision of the Indo-Pacific requires the Indian Navy to exercise control over not just the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, but all of the northern Indian Ocean from the Strait of Hormuz in West Asia, to the Malacca Strait in the East. In achieving this, the key challenge would come not from Pakistan’s weak navy, but from a bigger and stronger China, which is already asserting its presence in these waters. The question for Indian planners is: How ready is our navy for that?
Serious capability shortfalls are evident from the navy’s demand for a larger share of the defence modernisation budget. In an unusually blunt statement last fortnight, the navy vice chief publicly lamented that, in the last seven years, its share of the overall defence budget has dropped from 18 per cent to under 14 per cent today. Meanwhile, its share of the capital budget has fallen from over 30 per cent to less than 24 per cent today. The Indian Navy’s long-term capability plan envisions a fleet of 200 warships and 450 aircraft by 2027, but it currently has just 131 warships and 230 aircraft. Worse, most shortfalls are in capital warships – the multi-role destroyers, frigates and corvettes that are the navy’s workhorses. Submarines are in short supply and the government’s inability to conclude a long-delayed contract for building 24 minesweepers has left the navy with not one of these crucial vessels.
Equally worryingly, many capital warships built in the last two decades are operating without sensors and weapons that are central to their capability. Most of the navy’s modern vessels are not fitted with modern towed array sonars, essential for detecting enemy submarines. These warships, each costing several hundred million dollars, risk being torpedoed because of the absence of sonars worth a few million dollars each. Similarly, the Scorpene submarines now entering service at half a billion dollars each are toothless because contracts have not been concluded for modern torpedoes. As a stopgap, the navy’s decades-old SUT torpedoes have been given a lifetime extension but numbers are falling to barely six torpedoes per submarine.
Part of the blame lies with the navy, which designs quality warships, but builds just three-to-four vessels in each design class. In comparison, the US Navy builds to a standardised design – it commissioned USS Arleigh Burke in 1988, and has since built 82 destroyers of that class. This allows for incremental design and process improvements and economy of scale for vendors and sub-vendors. In comparison, the Indian Navy’s 12 destroyers are spread over three different designs.
The challenges before the navy are clear. Rather than bluster, it is time for the government to set a clear roadmap, allocate the finances needed and facilitate the navy in creating the capability needed for supporting India’s strategic vision in the region.