By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Nov 16
The Indian Navy, the smallest but most strategic of the three services, is suffering from chronic malnutrition with its share of defence allocations cut from 18 per cent four years ago to just 14.5 per cent today. In dealing with a Chinese military offensive the army and air force will be on the defensive. The navy alone can take the offensive, with its control over the Indian Ocean trade routes providing an instrument to throttle China’s economy. Yet, short-term preoccupations grab the resources. When a high-power, empowered committee visited Russia last month after the Uri attack, the focus was entirely on making up the army’s shortfalls. Ditto for another similar committee that is currently shopping in Israel. Meanwhile many warship and naval acquisitions are starved of funding while indigenous projects, like the building of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, languish for years awaiting sanctions.
It should not take an operational emergency to remind planners that the navy needs urgent attention. Given the years it takes to build warships or to integrate naval systems into the existing fleet, one cannot rely on makeshift solutions at times of crisis. So here are five vital navy concerns that are seriously worrying the admirals.
First, the navy needs more warships to discharge the multiple responsibilities of a regional security provider --- dominating two seas and an ocean, counter piracy duties, humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) missions, showing the flag in port visits across the world and growing bilateral and multilateral exercises like Malabar. Planning documents --- including the navy’s “Maritime Capability Perspective Plan” and the tri-service “Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan” --- recognise the need for a 198-warship by 2027. The navy would like 60 per cent of these (i.e. 120 vessels) to be capital warships, a category that includes large, offensive combat platforms like aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and submarines. The other 40 per cent can be smaller vessels like missile boats, fast attack craft, patrol boats, amphibious landing ships and logistic support vessels. Against this requirement, the navy has just 140 vessels today, of which barely half are capital warships. The admirals say they need 24 frigates, the workhorses of any navy, but are ten short of that requirement. Worse, they see no way of making up the deficiencies by 2027.
India’s only two yards that build capital warships --- Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) --- are stretched to capacity. MDL is building four destroyers and four frigates, while the smaller GRSE constructs three frigates and two corvettes. Meanwhile, the largest defence shipyard, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL), and the smallest one, Goa Shipyard Ltd, have never built capital warships --- a lacuna the defence ministry should purposefully address, but does not. The same is true of two private shipyards, Larsen & Toubro’s Kathupalli Shipyard, and Reliance Defence and Engineering’s Pipavav Shipyard, which both have world-class facilities but are still to demonstrate they can build high-tech warships.
With so many facilities idling, small wonder the defence ministry has clutched at Moscow’s offer of four half-built frigates, variants of six Talwar-class vessels already in the navy’s fleet. This Band-Aid, while perhaps inescapable, provides little assurance about who will build seven “next generation corvettes” in the pipeline, or the “next generation destroyers” and “next generation frigates” on the drawing board.
A simultaneous focus must ensure full operational capability in warships in service. For varied reasons, including the blacklisting of prospective vendors, crucial vessels have worrying operational gaps. Torpedoes have not been procured for the Scorpene submarines; several capital warships are dangerously vulnerable to enemy submarines for lack of “advanced towed array sonar”; and a five-year delay in inducting the Indo-Israeli Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile has left several frigates and destroyers without adequate defences against anti-ship missiles, their primary threat. A 127-millimetre anti-aircraft gun for warships remains stalled since the company that builds it is blacklisted. As one admiral grimly observes: “Without all these systems, our new platforms will serve only to provide target practice to the enemy.”
Thirdly, focused attention is needed on procuring “naval multi-role helicopters”, to be deployed on capital warships for airborne early warning (AEW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and search and rescue (SAR). These choppers significantly extend a warship’s bubble of influence, especially its ability to detect and destroy enemy vessels. For decades, Indian warships deployed the Westland Sea King-42B chopper, but the fleet atrophied rapidly after parent US company, Sikorsky, imposed sanctions on spare parts after India’s nuclear tests. Now, ironically, Sikorsky is riding renewed US-India defence relations by offering S-70B multi-role helicopters. So urgent is the navy’s need that India might have no choice but to grit its teeth and forgive Sikorsky.
The fourth focus area must be fleet support ships, essential for a “blue water navy” to operate far from the mainland. Fleet support ships carry the logistics support --- like fuel, stores and repair facilities --- that sustain a naval flotilla on long deployments. The navy currently makes do with four such vessels: two 27,500-tonne fleet tankers, Deepak and Shakti, built by Fincantieri and commissioned in 2011; INS Jyoti, a 35,900 tonne Russian oiler commissioned in 1996; and INS Aditya, a 24,600 tonne replenishment and repair ship delivered by GRSE in 2000. To add to this capability, HSL is required to build five 40,000 tonne “Fleet Support Ships” with technology transferred by Hyundai Heavy Industries. An Inter-Governmental Agreement with South Korea is moving at a leisurely pace that must be expedited. Similarly impetus must be given to the construction of four “multi-purpose vessels” (MPVs), for which private and public shipyards were invited to bid last year. These 4,000-5,000 tonne vessels are jack-of-all-trades, used for varied tasks like logistic support, HADR missions and towing targets --- all essential for effective naval functioning.
Finally, we must focus on quickly beginning construction of six submarines under the long-delayed Project 75I. This will boost the submarine arm, which dwindled to just 13 boats when INS Sindhurakshak sank after an explosion in 2013. Some relief is on hand with six Scorpene submarines entering the fleet by 2021. Yet, expensively acquired submarine building skills are atrophying on MDL’s idle production line while the government dawdles over sanctioning Project 75I. This mirrors events in MDL in the 1990s and early 2000s, when submarine building skills, developed while building two HDW submarines, attenuated because of delays in concluding the Scorpene contract. We cannot afford to repeat this multi-billion dollar blunder.