This article was inspired by a novel ‘Mayhem in south China sea’ by Cmde PR Franklin, a retired Indian Naval officer and a submariner by professional specialisation. It is fiction that borders on realism. China has vitiated the tranquility of Indo-pacific and is unlikely to give up her domineering attitude. India has no option but to take up cudgels.
Submarine and aircraft entered maritime combat domain concurrently during first world war, thus transforming maritime warfare multi-dimensional. A century later both platforms are pitted against each other in adversarial role. This is not gladiatorial contest but search for new operational methodology. The search is driven by evolution of platforms to attain higher performance capabilities and role enhancement; paradigm shifts in maritime strategy and emerging geopolitical scenario. These transformational changes have underscored new thrust areas for the Indian Navy and airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is one of them. Advocacy of airborne ASW is premised on a principle that it is more effective and safe to prosecute a target in one medium from adjacent or alternate medium.
SWOT – Submarine Vs Aircraft
Evolving operational art for confrontation between two platforms is in essence SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity and threat) jugglery based on performance parameters of propulsion, sensors and weapons. In this instance, both platforms operate in near homogenous media – aircraft in aerospace, submarine on surface and undersea. Sensor performance of these platforms in their respective media differ widely but are predictable.
Stealth is prime charcterestic of submarine but that is not absolute. Navigating on or near surface she is vulnerable to satellite/electro-magnetic surveillance and whilst submerged to MAD/Sonar scanning. Submarine’s main sensor, sonar, can operate in both active or passive mode. Sustenance and reach are great and those of nuclear powered ones are greater and thereby upgrading the submarine to a strategic platform. Due to their substantial displacement can carry larger payload of ordnance, for instance, Soviet era typhoon class displaces 30,000 tons when submerged. However, conventional submarines due to their relative low speed wait for their prey at choke points or trade routes. Nuclear submarines with their high speed run and wait and even act as screen ahead of carrier task force. Global navies have conventional submarines providing protection to nuclear submarines for they constitute the strike potential from the sea. Regional navies can ill-afford such luxuries.
Airborne ASW thrust should ideally comprise of shore based fixed wing aircraft and ship borne helicopters as integral air power. At this point it needs reiteration that in an ASW operation carrier is more a liability than an asset. Airborne assets can due to their speed traverse and scout vast geographical areas using MAD, dipping sonars and sonobuoys. They virtually face no threat from submarines except those capable of firing anti-aircraft missiles. They can, however, carry limited payload of ordnance to prosecute a hostile target.
Paradigms of Maritime Strategy
In the post second world war era there have been paradigm shifts in maritime strategy – the most conspicuous of these being the shift in locale of maritime combat arena from oceanic expanses to the littoral. Even maritime expeditionary forces transit oceans/sea spaces only to reach the littoral. Interests of homo sapiens lie on the continental masses and targets on land are usually more accessible from the littoral. Technology has enabled maritime forces to manoeuvre in the littoral. International maritime trade routes and a host of economic activities thrive in the littoral region.
Nuclear powers strive to base their third leg of the nuclear triad at sea and littoral is the ideal location both for initial and retaliatory strike. For reasons of stealth submarine is the platform of choice.
Today the world body United Nations Organisation (UNO) has emerged as an effective instrument of international management. International laws of the seas, promulgated by UNO predominantly seek to regulate conduct of nations in the littoral. These Laws clearly delineate what is legal or illegal. Navies are guided by these while formulating their Rules of Engagement (RoE).
Emerging scenario in Indo-Pacific Region
Use of expression ‘Indopacific’ is not motivated by nationlistic fervour, instead by necessity to accurately describe a vast geographical area stretching from pacific rim to west asia and enveloping Indian ocean upto Dieago Garcia in the south, running along east coast of Africa. In the littoral of Indo-pacific runs the international maritime trade route of energy and other resourses. Geographically the region has a number of straits, channels and narrow sea spaces which act as focal point for transit of trade and maritime military forces. Politically the area has small and medium powers alongwith extra regional power presence. There are five nuclear powers in this geographical stretch. Thus the area has emerged as the hotbed of geopolitics.
Despite her economic and military growth, China, is actively conscious of her vulnerabilities in the maritime domain where her energy and resource lines run. She is also conscious of the fact that her ambitions to be a global power cannot materialise unless she is a maritime power. While she rides rough shod over smaller neighbours by denying them fair share of the common; denying freedom of navigation and grabbing maritime territories, she is uncomfortable with emergent India and extra regional power presence. She has declared her intention to possess a fleet of 450 ships and 100 submarines by 2030. Both India and China are likely to attain their ambitions in a decade or two. For reasons of geography, shifts in maritime strategy and the littoral missions, submarine will emerge as the platform of choice in the littoral warfare. Indo-pacific would be a pool of submarines (there is no collective noun for submarines). As this pool will be multi-national in character, mere harnessing of counter (ASW) capabilities will not suffice. ASW will have to be conducted with professional elan.
Submarines are well suited for certain roles due to their special operational characterestics as much as handicapped by some performance parameters. They nevertheless are aggressive platforms with innocent face. The ideal roles for both conventional and nuclear powered submarines lie in the littoral. These roles are
(a) intelligence gathering
(b) mine laying
(c) special operations including launching of midgets
(d) commerce raiders disrupting economic lifelines of the adversary
(e) attack surface crafts
(f) deliver strike against enemy coastal and land based valuable and vital targets.
Just as the possible roles of submarines are arranged in escalating order of violence, the counter measures too can be graded in responce. ASW essentially comprises of following sequential activities – scouting (patrolling/reconnaissance) using any type of platform; detection using MAD, EW surveillance or sonar in either passive or active mode and prosecution (forced surfacing and leading outside own territorial limits or proactively attacking).
Scouting is ideally carried out by Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircrafts fitted with ASW suites. Due to their speed and endurance (range) they can cover large tracts of submarine probable areas. Although, their detection probablity using MAD/sonobuoys is low, frequent random patrols can inhibit submarine operations, particularly of conventional types. Ship borne helicopters, despite their limited operational radius can search with their dunking sonar and deliver initial/urgent strike. Surface ships whether part of ASW screen, escort or operating independantly can also detect and attack.
The success of the team comprising of LRMP aircraft ship borne helicopter and the surface units to a large extent depends on the command, control and communication facility network that integrate the above units with shore based facility if any. while planning any such network, provision should be made to integrate the submarines as well. Shore based facility should be located in either A & N Islands on southern Deccan Plateau.
A well designed network will not only form the base of successful ASW campaign but will also dovetail into Navy’s overall operational network.
ASW Materiel in Indian Navy
Information on this aspect has been entirely accessed from open sources due to reasons of security and authorial conviction that privileged information of a professional should not form input for journalistic pursuit. This deliberate attitude may provide information to the reader which is more indicative than accurate.
Boeing P-81 Neptune
India signed up USD 2.1 billion contract with Boeing for 12 in number P-81 Neptune anti-submarine aircraft to replace her aging fleet of Russian Tupolev-142M. P-81 has MAD and aft mounted radar which provides 360 degrees aeriel surveillance. Many communication and other devices have been developed by BEL.
Indian Navy acquired Dhruv helicopter developed by HAL in March 2008. The naval variant is fitted with Super Vision 2000 maritime radar, dunking sonar, torpedoes and depthcharges.
Kamov series of helicopters
These helicopters were inducted into Indian Navy beginning in 1980. The Ka-31 the highest in technological capabilities was enabled for real time network centric warfare.
These anti-submarine helos were grounded for want of spares due to US sanctions after nuclear tests. These all weather, day and night capable, multi-role helicopters are now being upgraded.