By Milind Kulshreshtha
Khukri was the first of its class guided-missile corvette indigenously built by the Mazagon Dock shipbuilders in 1989. INS Khukri served the nation for 32 years before being decommissioned in a solemn naval ceremony on Dec 23rd, 2021. Keeping in line with the steadfast naval traditions, in a few years the legend of INS Khukri shall be rising in another avatar.
The operational deployment of the warship saw its active participation in the Western and Eastern Fleets. As per the naval statistics, INS Khukri was efficiently exploited and the warship navigated equivalent to three times distance between Earth and Moon (i.e. over 6,44,897 nautical miles as per ship’s logbook), with 28 Commanding Officers getting an opportunity to be at her helm during these three decades of commission.
The follow-on Khukri class corvettes were Khanjar, Kirpan and Kuthar which are still in service with the Indian Navy. The unique sensor fit, power packed weaponry within a smaller hull frame, along with deft manoeuvrability make these warships highly proficient in warfighting abilities. During any fleet operations, the Khukri class corvettes were always in competition with much larger Destroyers and Frigates to clinch the Fleet’s best ship trophy. With the successful design of Khukri class corvettes, the Indian Navy constructed next generation corvettes, christened Kora Class (1350 ton). Kora, Kulish, Kirch and Karmuk were the four warships constructed under this class by Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) and outfitted at Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL).
Indian Navy’s Corvettes
In the last fifty years, Indian Navy’s tryst with Corvettes may be traced back to Veer class missile boats which began construction under Project 1241RE at Russia and, thereafter, more of these constructed indigenously under transfer of technology programme. Many ships in this class continue to be in service with the Indian Navy. The warships in this class also carried forward the names of the “Killer Squadron” ships gallantly involved in the 1971 Indo-Pak. It was only a few weeks back that President Ram Nath Govind presented the President’s Standard to the Killer Squadron (22nd Missile Squadron). The President’s Standard is the highest honour bestowed by a Supreme Commander in recognition of service rendered by a military unit to the nation.
The specialized corvettes are also used for ASW (Anti-submarine Warfare) roles and these are designed with specific underwater sensor and weapon fit for sub-surface operations. In the modern era, the Indian Navy has been operating the Abhay class (variants of the Soviet Pauk class corvettes) constructed in Russia under Project 1241PE. In recent times, the Kamorta class ASW stealth corvettes (Project-28) have been constructed at GRSE, with the last of these ships viz. INS Kavaratti commissioned in 2020. These ASW corvettes too form an integral part of the fleet for underwater operations, with specialized equipment like sensitive sonars and deck mounted torpedo tubes.
All the modern corvettes have a helicopter deck for aviation operations. A helicopter onboard provides a tremendous capability enhancement to the corvettes, like Command & Control support, situational awareness, EW picket and for transportation means for men and materiel.
Role of Corvettes
As per the Naval lexicon, Corvettes are smaller than the Destroyer and Frigate class of warships, with the primary role to support the main fleet operations or operate independently. These warships provide coastal protection and are exploited by the navy for fast attack purposes. Overall, modern navies always consider corvettes as multi-role warships for patrol duties, escorting merchant shipping, interdiction and many other support functions in the open sea missions. The Corvettes are more agile than the other larger warships and pack a formidable punch with some of the latest weapons fitted onboard. The surface combatant corvettes usually have long range surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) fitted in the forward section, along with a main gun mount like SRGM. The AK 630 CIWS (Close-in Weapon Systems) too are positioned amidships. What makes these ships unique is the long-range air threat detection capabilities. In a fleet level operation, corvettes can be deployed far ahead of the main fleet body to act as an early warning ship, more in the picketing role. The SSM capabilities of the surface combatant corvettes ensures that the enemy warships are engaged well before their own Naval Task Force falls within the adversary’s missile range. Typically, the corvettes may be considered as expandable units in any key Naval battle.
China too has been vigorously carrying out corvettes construction programmes and, as recently as early 2021, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy inducted the final batch of 72 corvettes of Type 056A class (1300 tons displacement). Type 056 warship construction commenced in 2012 and comprises 22 ships for coastal defence. Additional 50 modified hulls (Type 056A) have been designed for the ASW and minesweeper roles. The corvettes specialized for coastal defenses reflects the Chinese Indo-Pacific strategy of building a robust littoral naval force, a serious cause of concern for its neighbours already entangled in South China Sea hostilities by the Chinese militia. On the other hand, the large number of ASW corvettes and minesweepers indicate Chinese preparedness against adversary’s submarines in the waters closer to the Chinese coast. These large numbers of corvettes are a definitive indication of China’s attentiveness to safeguard its shipping lanes during any future blockade to keep the essential supply chain network going. It is also interesting to note that China prioritized construction of these corvettes over other larger warships like Type 054A frigates or Type 055 large destroyers.
The Khukri class may be considered as the beginning of the legacy of Indian designed and constructed corvettes. The agility along with a power packed weaponry onboard has made corvettes extremely popular with the Indian Navy. With technological advancements, corvettes are destined to evolve as a longer-range naval platform. In the future, UAVs fitted onboard the corvettes too shall make them more capable. A Corvette’s role in any modern sea battle is crucial as they are versatile and highly effective in the role of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions, while also possessing adequate offensive strike capabilities. Corvettes are smaller agile surface warships and are less expensive to construct when compared to the Destroyers or Frigates. With serious warfighting capabilities, future naval operations are expected to see more corvettes being deployed to defend India’s coastline and the vast EEZ.
(The author is a Strategic Analyst with a keen interest in technology related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).