An article titled ‘India to get own missile tracking ship in December’, published in The Economic Times’ on July 20, states that India’s secretive missile tracking / ‘specialized’ ocean surveillance ship ‘VC11184’ (which is yet to be given a commissioning name) is undergoing harbour trials and is likely to be delivered to the Navy by December. The ship, part of the elaborate missile shield being planned against attacks, being built for the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), is supposedly on its way to completion just over four years after it was ordered as part of the Modi government’s focus on creating a nuclear missile shield for the nation. The next step is to include sea trials by a joint team of the Navy and the NTRO in which its specialized surveillance systems (three dome shaped antennas packed with sensors), will be extensively tested before the handing over.
The VC11184, one of the largest indigenous warships at over 15,000 tons, built under the Make in India initiative and costing Rs 725 crore, generates over 14 MW of power to power its tracking radars. It will have multiple roles; from tracking enemy missiles to accurately giving data on tests that are routinely carried out of indigenous vessels and strategic missiles. High secrecy is being maintained on details, including the capabilities and systems on board. Rear Admiral LV Sarath Babu, Chairman & Managing Director of Hindustan Shipyard Limited says, “It is a very complex vessel and we have set a new standard for building vessels of such class on time….. We expect to deliver the ship by December this year”. The keel of the vessel was laid in June 2014 and construction completed in less than five years. The vessel was initially constructed in a covered dry dock at the Hindustan Shipyard Limited to keep roving satellites and spying attempts at bay. However, for the past several months, the vessel has been docked alongside and is now visible from the Vizag channel with its distinct shape; large globe shaped radar placed on the aft gives it distinctive signature.
VC11184 undoubtedly is an excellent addition to India’s combat potential but the manner in which it has been projected has many anomalies. If the aim was attracting votes for coming elections, it has more than achieved it – as may be seen by scanning through readers comments on the abovementioned article in The Economic Times. If the project is so “highly secretive”, where was the need to publicize it at this stage even before sea trials and its commissioning? The vessel anyway has been in the open for ‘harbour trials’ past several months, which no one queried, and even if someone did, could we have not staved off the query by saying it is meant for hydrological survey?
The centre display in the abovementioned article indicates only basic details of the project have been obtained from CMD, Hindustan Shipyard Limited, but the boldest headline “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy’ appears to be MoD’s mischief to portray that admiral is the one who is behind this publicity. China would have hardly done so until the vessel was fielded in PLA Navy and perhaps even then kept the capabilities secret. The publicity that it is a nuclear missile tracking ship is naïve, because it will simply track missiles, whether nuclear or non-nuclear. In no manner can it distinguish whether the incoming missile is conventional or nuclear. The term nuclear has been perhaps added to make the news spicy. Similarly, to term it a vessel built for NTRO or calling it ‘NTRO Ship’ is utterly ridiculous. All VC11184 will be doing is, providing inputs to NTRO, like many other platforms on land, sea or air. It will be very much an Indian Navy ship. Hope in their exuberance to make brownie points, the MoD doesn’t start briefing media that X, Y and Z satellites are “NTRO satellites” and may even have NTRO operatives on board as is being propagated for VC11184.
India’s ballistic missile defence program was conceived many years back, primarily against ballistic missile threat from Pakistan. Plan was to have a double-tiered system consisting of two land and sea-based interceptor missiles, namely the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) missile for high altitude interception, and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) Missile for lower altitude interception – with these two tiers aiming to intercept incoming missile launched from 5,000 km away. The system also includes overlapping network of early warning and tracking radars, as well as command and control posts. PAD was tested in November 2006, followed by the AAD in December 2007. With the test of the PAD missile, India became the fourth country to have successfully developed an anti-ballistic missile system, after United States, Russia, and Israel, although the system is yet to be officially commissioned. It may also be recalled that on March 6, 2011, India launched its indigenous interceptor missile which destroyed a ‘hostile’ target ballistic missile, a modified Prithvi, at an altitude of 16 km over the Bay of Bengal.
So while, the present government deserves due credit for fast-paced development of VC11184, the credit for conceiving the missile defence system goes many years back. So does the VC11184, with the present government taking office on 26 May 2014 and the keel of VC11184 having been laid in June 2014. VS11184 is an indigenous vessel developed by Hindustan Shipyard Limited, like many other vessels, in the past and ongoing. Crediting it to the ‘Make in India’ initiative is absurd since Make in India was launched on 25 September 2014, much after construction of VC11184 had commenced. At the same time we need to acknowledge it is China that is the main threat, not Pakistan. The China threat is not only from mainland China but its CBGs that will be roving the IOR plus numerous bases in countries like Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and others. And China is putting billions of dollars into R&D for new technologies.
Last year, Russia tested its new hypervelocity missile system, Zircon, believed capable of travelling about 7400km/h. Talking about new “invincible” Russian weapons, President Vladimir Putin recently stated Russia has successfully tested a cruise missile with a nuclear-propulsion engine, which would fly at a low altitude and follow an “unpredictable flight” path to avoid US missile defence systems. Putin added, “Every single weapons system discussed today easily surpasses and avoids an antimissile defence system.” In 2017, China claimed it had successfully developed hypersonic ramjet engine after a series of eight test flights; ready to be mated to a new generation of air-to-air missiles. Hypersonic implies engine moving at more than 6200km/h. According to western analysts, these new Chinese long-range, super fast missiles may be “undetectable”. Notably, China also believes in ‘swarm attacks’. These are serious issues that we need to focus on. Prudence demands we brag less, build our capabilities speedily and bide time, not letting the combat asymmetry grow more. It is here that the present and future governments can make the difference.