The launch of Vikrant, the indigenous aircraft carrier, and first of the Arihant class of indigenous nuclear powered submarines have been great leaps in capacity building for a blue water capability of our Navy. 90 percent of Vikrant has been reportedly built indigenously albeit it is unclear what parts and technology were imported, how crucial are they and what is the cost. The 37,500 ton Vikrant makes India the fifth country after US, UK, Russia and France capable of designing and building a ship of this size. Vikrant will obviously house a number of Mig-29K aircraft, the indigenous LCA and Kamov helicopters though post extensive sea trials, actual commissioning is likely by 2017 or so.
To that end, we are making progress toward acquiring blue water capability and aircraft carriers as the nerve centre and main punch of Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) are definitely vital but the question mark remains in terms of our submarine capabilities.
With a coastline extending 7,863 kilometres, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.02 million squares, island territories, and off shore assets extended over 17,000 square kilometers (including 30 processing wells, 125 well platforms and 3000 kilometres of seabed pipelines) and 97 percent trade by sea, India definitely requires 2-3 aircraft carriers in service at all time. Our Navy is currently undergoing a 15-year modernization plan. The Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov is likely to join by next year and underwater test firing of BrahMos has been successful. To that end, we are making progress toward acquiring blue water capability and aircraft carriers as the nerve centre and main punch of Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) are definitely vital but the question mark remains in terms of our submarine capabilities. The Arihant class submarines will help in closing some of the gaps. Post the unfortunate tragedy of INS Sindhurakshak serious concerns have emerged in respect of vintage of our submarines and the pace of their possible replacements.
Perhaps there is a need to closely examine why China that has displayed great forethought in every possible field remains behind India in launching an indigenous aircraft carrier despite top Chinese military and civilian officials periodically affirming the importance and relevance of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) to China’s military modernization. Even though some Western analysts conclude Chinese RMA being limited to ‘pockets of excellence’, surely sea and oceanic capabilities are topmost on Chinese agenda.
The fact is that in terms of field force structuring, Chinese have achieved growth in asymmetric capabilities. They have invested heavily in submarines and guided missile destroyers to counter a probable US CBGs in possible stand-offs, making sea capability the answer to a superior US forces sea control capability. Not that they do not consider CBGs important but that perhaps is the reason that China is yet to launch an indigenous aircraft carrier (though they have acquired a refurbished one from Ukraine in year 2012) but already have 65 submarines (most with adequate reach into Indian Ocean) versus 15 of ours while a small country like Pakistan has eight. Of course the Chinese also have advanced ICBMs, nuke delivery systems, undeclared chemical weapons capability, advanced satellite and anti-satellite capabilities, extensive third dimension capability, a formidable Air Force, potent cyber warfare capability and advanced sub conventional / asymmetric warfare capabilities.
Considering the threats that we face at sea including the security of our Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) on which our economy is heavily dependent, is our submarine development plan on course in the overall mosaic of acquiring true blue water capability.
Considering the threats that we face at sea including the security of our Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) on which our economy is heavily dependent, is our submarine development plan on course in the overall mosaic of acquiring true blue water capability. More importantly, is the execution of such a road map being done in the required timeframe in coherent fashion maximizing investments? This is all the more needed because of the downward spiral of India’s economic outlook whose bleakness at least in the immediate future has been exposed by MJ Akbar in his article on the editorial page of the Times of India of today,18 August 2013. There are numerous instances that indicate haphazard approach and lack of integrated and cohesiveness in developing defence capability. With respect to the Navy, the major examples are in terms of submarines and the underwater BrahMos capability.
On 20th March 2013, India achieved the stupendous feat of test firing the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile underwater. Media reports did not clarify what was the platform used for the launch but it obviously was a static platform constructed underwater for there is no submarine in India’s kitty that can fire the Brahmos underwater and will probably need another decade plus to acquire one. Though there was plenty fanfare and praise post the successful firing, did the Defence Minister know there is no submarine to fire the BrahMos underwater? Reminds one that when the Power House of the NHPC Chutak Hydroelectric Project on Suru River in Kargil District of Ladakh was inaugurated in 2005 by the Prime Minister, there were no transmission lines going to any villages. So when the button was pressed, the electrification amongst much clapping was only of the power house itself plus premises of some 150 staff housed in the power house complex since 2003. The NHPC explanation was that the project was by the Centre but transmission lines was responsibility of the State of J&K. So much so for our great coordination capability! And, such incongruous coordination capability is not limited to the civil sector alone. There have been many such examples in the defence sector, latest one being the underwater Brahmos test firing.
The underwater capable Brahmos is ready to be fitted onto the submarines of our Navy, but where are the submarines?
The underwater capable Brahmos is ready to be fitted onto the submarines of our Navy, but where are the submarines? The underwater Brahmos cannot be fitted onto our current inventory of Russian Kilo class submarines and German HDW submarines, and reportedly not even the six Scorpene submarines being constructed at Mazagaon Docks at the enormous cost of Rupees 23, 562 crores. Interestingly, these Scorpene submarines (to be delivered in period 2015-2020) are part of ‘Project 75’, which is to equip the navy with state-of-the-art submarines.
Now, if these Scorpene submarines and the underwater Brahmos were being developed concurrently, why could their mating not be planned ab initio? To exploit the underwater Brahmos, India will now need to identify yet another submarine from abroad by issuing a Request For Proposal (RFP), selection, technological collaboration, initial outright buy followed by indigenous production – a process which has not even commenced and will probably take 10-12 years before eventual fructification. Of course Brahmos is likely to be fitted on the nuclear submarine Arihant too which is a long way off. Delays in outfitting the Indian Navy with submarines including delays in ‘Project 75’ due to vested interests are no secret. Some years back, a top naval officer was reportedly given the marching orders because in mid 1990s he favoured joint submarine development with South Korea whose submarines were highly advance.
Not without reason Manibhai Naik, Managing Director, Larsen & Tubro wrote to the Prime Minister in March 2011 saying, “Defence Production (MoD) Joint Secretaries and Secretaries of Defence Ministry are on the Boards of all PSUs — sickest of sick units you can think of who cannot take out one conventional submarine in 15 years now with the result that the gap is widening between us and China and bulk of the time we resort to imports out of no choice. The defence industry which could have really flowered around very high technological development and taken India to the next and next level of technological achievement and excellence is not happening”.
The million dollar question is whether our defence production and defence procurement is matching up to what the Indian Navy wants?
As regards the hyperbole of opening the private industry to the defence sector through Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) 2013, the Association of Chambers of Commerce (ASSOCHAM) has already asked the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to review this policy, terming some of the clauses of its procurement procedure as unreasonable and impractical while some provisions are heavily lopsided in favour of Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs). There is obviously no ‘level playing field’ as being claimed by the government. Yet the charade of improving the DPP is played out internally within MoD without outsourcing it or even involving the private industry while reviewing the policy.
The million dollar question is whether our defence production and defence procurement is matching up to what the Indian Navy wants? Government needs to ensure the blue water capability development is not just through floundering – the right shades of blue must be developed at the right time !