By Commodore Anil Jai Singh
The country will be celebrating the Navy Day on 04 December – the day on which 50 years ago, the Indian Navy’s daring missile attack on Karachi left that country’s war effort severely degraded and its navy stunned and in tatters. Occasions such as these are a reason for celebration as well as reflection and introspection. The Indian Navy indeed has much to be proud of. It has maintained an exceptional operational tempo in pursuance of the country’s foreign policy and maritime security objectives. It has reaffirmed the country’s credentials as a provider of net security in the region and has led the regional response to various crises and in providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR); it has ensured effective maritime domain awareness with its multi-mission deployments, SLOC protection efforts and taking the lead in establishing robust information sharing mechanisms. The navy has contributed significantly to various bilateral and multilateral regional capacity building initiatives in line with the country’s SAGAR ( Security and Growth for All in the Region) Doctrine and has led India’s efforts was at the forefront in supporting India’s vaccine diplomacy and the country’s internal response to the pandemic.
However, the Navy also has its share of concerns.. The expanding Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean and the inadequate budgetary allocation over the years has led to a deceleration in naval capacity and capability enhancement which has led to capability deficits arising in some key operational areas. This has been flagged by successive Naval Chiefs over the years. The government has been highlighting the importance of the maritime domain but that is not translating into effect on ground. Equally disconcerting is the delay in decision making in the corridors of power in New Delhi with an indifferent bureaucracy concerned more by the process rather than the outcomes. This is compounded by the inadequate shipbuilding capacity and the inherent inefficiency in the shipyards which leads to time and cost overruns and stymies the navy’s planned force level projections.
At a recent Press conference the Vice Chief of the Navy confirmed that the Navy is on track to become a 170 ship navy by 2027. This is a substantial reduction but perhaps a more realistic estimate from the 200 ship navy in the same time frame that a former Chief of the Naval Staff had stated a few years ago. While quantity no doubt has its own quality, just numbers do not often tell the whole story. It is both capacity and capability accretion that is important and as a multi-dimensional blue water force, there are many other parameters that also matter.
In the next few years there are going to be some notable additions to India’s blue water naval capacity and capability. Vikrant, the indigenous aircraft carrier built in Kochi and currently undergoing extensive sea trials is likely to get commissioned in mid-2022 or thereabouts.The addition of four Project 15B destroyers, the first of which, INS Visakhapatnam was commissioned on 21 November 2021 will add tremendous firepower to India’s surface force. These are sophisticated state of the art platforms displacing more than 7500 tonnes and are amongst most powerful and modern ships operating in the Indo-Pacific and will replace the four Kashin class destroyers which had been acquired from the former USSR in the 1980s. Hence, while there may not be an appreciable increase in numbers, these ships will be able to deliver much greater effect.
India also has an ongoing programme for seven Project 17A stealth frigates, four of which are being constructed in Mumbai and three in Kolkata. India’s frigate programme is being further augmented by the addition of four Project 1135.6 large frigates. Two of these are being acquired from Russia and two will be built at the Goa Shipyard. The yard is gearing up for this challenging task since it has never built ships of this size and sophistication before. By 2027, it is expected that at least two Project 17B frigates and two of the Type 1135.6 frigates will be in service. These will be a valuable addition to the existing frigate force of three Shivalik class stealth frigates, six Type 1135.6 (Talwar class) ships and three Brahmaputra class.Therefore, by 2027 India should have at least 16 frigates in service with another seven to follow in in quick succession over the next few years.
In addition to these, the four ASW corvettes, eight guided missile corvettes, four Underway Replenishment ships and a few large Offshore patrol vessels provide a balanced surface force capability for the navy to meet its many operational commitments as well as forming two potent Carrier Task Forces, one each for the two aircraft carriers.
In the undersea warfare domain, the Indian Navy has been facing choppy seas with its submarine acquisition programmes. India’s strategicindigenous nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) programme is progressing smoothly with the second SSBN, Arighat likely to get commissioned soon and reportedly two larger and better armed SSBNs under construction.Once all these SSBNs are on line, India will be able to maintain continuous deterrence at sea thus making our second strike capability credible and invulnerable. SSBNs are meant for strategic deterrence and are not traditional war fighting platforms. It is nuclear attack submarines (SSN) and conventional diesel-electric submarine (SSK) forces that constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s offensive capability. SSNs are the preserve of the Big Five as yet though many aspiring blue water navies are attempting to develop this capability though SSKs are being operated by 17 navies in the Indo-Pacific alone. India too does not have any SSNs – a leased Akula-2 class SSN was returned to Russia earlier this year while the next one is expected in 2025. The indigenous programme for six SSNs which is awaiting CCS approval is at least two decades away from fruition. The IN presently has 16 conventional submarines (SSK) in commission, of which nine have been in service for over 30 years old and three are aged between 21 and 29 years. It is only the four Scorpene class submarines which are less than five years old with the latest one; INS Vela having been commissioned on 25 Nov 2021.The last two of this class are likely to enter service within the next three years. The older submarines are being kept in a fine operational fettle with regular upgrades and life extension programmes. Some of them are formidably armed with tube launched land attack missiles in addition to their complement of heavyweight torpedoes. By 2027, the Navy will have all six Scorpenes in commission and with about 11 older ones, will still pack considerable strength despite their age. However, technology, like time and tide waits for no one and they would be operationally constrained in the emerging technology intensive networked battlespace environment. By the end of this decade, India’s submarine numbers may begin to dwindle till the six submarines of Project 75(I) get built or an interim solution is found. Project 75(I) is already running over a decade behind schedule and is presently at the RfP stage. An optimistic guesstimate would suggest that the first of this class is unlikely to enter service before 2034 at the earliest.
As with the other elements of naval power, and indeed India’s military power, bureaucratic prevarication driven by a misplaced sense of confidence perpetuated by the country’s R&D establishment has led to concerns at the widening capability gap in naval aviation. A robust naval air arm is a critical capability with multiple types of aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary wing , undertaking a wide range of roles and missions. Recent developments have given rise to optimism that some of the current issues facing the arm are being addressed, at least to some extent. The Boeing P8I Long Range MaritimePatrol aircraft has more than proved its worth in enhancing India’sand indeed the region’s maritime domain awareness with its ability to cover a wide expanse of ocean besides its combat role as a potent anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare platform. The induction of the MiG 29K fighter aircraft operating from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya gave the Navy a much needed strike capability from the air. This aircraft will also be deployed from the Vikrant. Indigenous development of the LCA Tejas for carrier operations has been progressing in fits and starts and is now being superseded by the development of a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter(TEDBF) which, though underway, is still more than a decade away from operationalisation. The navy’s requirement for importing a suitable fighter to meet its operational commitments is still circulating ‘on file’ in the labyrinths of New Delhi’s hallowed South Block.
The recent induction of the first two of the 24 Sikorsky MH60R Multi-Role helicopters from the US will provide a shot in the arm to the Navy’s surface and airborne combat potential. Multirole helicopters are an integral part of Fleet operations and are embarked on all major frontline surface combatants. While the IN’s requirement is for over 100 such helicopters, these 24 will be timely replacements for the ageing Seaking Mk42b Which are at the end of their service life but are continuing to deliver the goods mainly because of the professionalism of the personnel who maintain them and the pilots who fly them. Similar is the case with the Light Utility Helicopter where the French origin Alouette -3 of 1950s vintage continues to be built in India and remains the workhorse of the Navy. A replacement for these has been on the cards for some time which includes a programme for 111 Naval Utility Helicopters. This is being processed under the MoD’s Strategic Partnership model which itself is yet to mature so an early induction of these helicopters is unlikely. By 2027 therefore, the Fleet Air Arm will be marginally less constrained than at present but still well short of the desired capability.
At the Naval Commanders Conference held in October 2021, the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh released the Navy’s ‘Unmanned Roadmap’. This document will provide the Navy the way ahead for building its capability in unmanned platforms in the air, on the surface and in the deep. Autonomous vehicles supported by disruptive technologies including Artificial Intelligence and quantum technologies are being increasingly adapted for military applications and will shape the future of the maritime battlespace. They may not replace the human in the loop for some time yet but as force multipliers in support of naval operations they will offer additional operational options. UAVs have been in service with the Navy for almost two decades and the Navy is likely to get armed drones from the USA. The Navy is now focussing its attention on these technologies in the sub-surface domain and various options are being discussed. It is understood that an unclassified version of the Unmanned Roadmap is under preparation and will become available in the public domain soon to provide industry, the scientific establishment, academia and various other stakeholders the how, why, what and when of the navy’s requirements.
The Navy has always taken the lead in promoting indigenisation and self-reliance. It had recognised the country’s strategic vulnerability in relying on imports much before ‘Make in India’ and ‘Aatmnirbhar Bharat’ became buzzwords. For Over five decades the majority of naval ships have been built in Indian shipyards. The Navy has resorted to imports mainly because of the capacity constraints or the lack of expertise in the country to design and build certain platforms. Presently, except for two ships which are being procured from abroad, all other ships and submarines are being built in the country.
India has been blessed with a favourable maritime geography and has all the attributes of a maritime power. As the pre-eminent naval power in this region, it is in the unique position of leveraging this advantage to shape the future geopolitical outcomes which will be drawn up in this region. As China expands its strategic and economic footprint westwards, the Indian Ocean is going to witness intense competition, aggressive contestation, potential confrontation and possible conflict. Effective containment of India is the key to China’s ability to dominate the Indian Ocean; it has already begun doing so across the disputed land border and has not provoked India at sea simply because it lacks the capacity to do so. However, its own naval expansion programme (it is adding an Indian Navy to its force every five or six years) and the arming of Pakistan with four Type 054 destroyers and eight AIP fitted Type039 submarines clearly indicates its intention to do so in the maritime domain sooner rather than later. The challenge to India’s regional maritime pre-eminence is in the here and now and the Indian establishment cannot afford to be complacent and force the Navy to limit its options at sea for want of either capacity or capability.
(The author is former submariner, Indian Navy & Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).