Sunday, December 4, 2011

India needs a home-built Navy

December 3, 2011
By Arun Kumar Singh, Deccan Chronicle.
The Indian Navy, which celebrates Navy Day today and Submarine Day on December 8, and will be holding a grand President’s review of the fleet in Mumbai on December 20, would look back with some justifiable pride on its recent achievements, including the unglamorous task of coastal security and anti-piracy operations, while simultaneously proudly displaying the tricolour in its overseas deployments.

However, the Indian Navy’s traditional record on indigenous force augmentation needs “help” from the government given the emerging challenges from piracy, terrorism, a growing Pakistani submarine capability and Chinese sea power.

It takes about 15 years from the time a request for proposal (RFP) is sent to competing vendors till the time the ship, submarine or aircraft becomes available — there’s the protracted process of evaluation, contract signing and commencement of work. During this period, the strength of the Navy continues to get depleted (obsolete warships and submarines are phased out) while threats continue to multiply.

For example, by 2025, Pakistan would have imported from China six more submarines, four frigates and unmanned aerial vehicles, while the Chinese Navy would have inducted a huge blue-water capability which could be deployed against India (12 conventional submarines (SSKs), 12 SSNs, six SSBNs, three aircraft carriers, a dozen frigates or destroyers, a 3,000-km-range, shore-based anti-aircraft carrier missile (DF-21D) and six large amphibious warfare ships).

Hence, if timely action is not taken, India will be at a serious disadvantage within a decade, and the Indian Navy may not be able to protect our seaborne trade in the Asia-Pacific, the Indian Ocean regions, or ONGC’s planned oil exploration in the South China Sea.

Since imported platforms are expensive and make us dependent on imported spare parts, India needs a home-built Navy, which can protect India’s seas and borders while providing the nation with strategic second-stike capability. Unfortunately, the Navy is not yet equipped to carry out all its tasks.

The Indian Navy has placed fresh orders for the indigenous construction of two cadet-training ships, five offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), eight Landing Craft Utility, 80 fast interceptor craft (FICs to be imported from Sri Lanka) and 15 FIC (to be imported from France).

The FICs are small high-speed boats for harbour and offshore oil rig and counter-terror patrols, meant for use by the newly created Sagar Prahari Bal, post-26/11, and hence have no relevance to any traditional naval blue- or green-water operations.

A contract to import two and indigenously built six South Korean-origin minesweepers may also be signed soon. RFP for indigenous construction of four 20,000-tonne amphibious warships has been issued, and the construction may commence by 2015.

Though some 49 ships and submarines are under construction (45 in India and four abroad), many important projects are still gathering dust, either at the naval headquarters or the ministry of defence. These include proposals for six indigenous SSKs under Project 75 (I), a dozen OPVs, seven frigates and four destroyers.

Awaiting approval is a proposal for the indigenous construction of one 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier.

The six Project 75 (I) SSKs are crucial as they provide critical tactical submarine capability at sea to attack enemy ships and submarines. The tactical SSKs (and SSNs) must not be confused with the strategic SSBNs (or ballistic missile submarines), like the indigenous Arihant class, which are essentially second-strike platforms and play no tactical role in a conventional war. To clarify, India urgently needs indigenous SSKs, SSNs and SSBNs.

The irony is that while our public sector shipyards are overloaded by 200 to 300 per cent with orders, modern private sector shipyards, like Pipavav, with spare warship and submarine building capacity, are awaiting regulatory approvals.

For India to become a great sea power, the combined capacity of all its public and private shipyards must be harnessed for building indigenous warships, submarines and merchant ships. The proposal for joint ventures — between public and private shipyards — needs to be approved at the earliest, with clear guidelines for optimal output of indigenous shipbuilding.

India’s naval aviation strength is being augmented with the induction of P-8i maritime patrol
aircraft, MIG-29 fighters for aircraft carriers, and helicopters. However, there is an urgent need to fast-track the trials and induction of the indigenous naval variant of the LCA (light-combat aircraft), and indigenous 10-tonne helicopters.

The Navy also needs additional dedicated indigeneous satellites for maritime surveillance, communications and data link to provide instant “situational awareness” across large ocean areas.

Hopefully, the long-delayed single Russian Akula-class SSN will be inducted in the not too distant future, on lease. However, one imported submarine is not enough. India needs to start an indigenous SSN production line of six units.

The writer, a vice-admiral, retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam


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