On December 4, Navy Day, President Ram Nath Kovind, vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman along with the three service chiefs and bureaucrats are expected to attend the traditional tea party at Navy House in New Delhi. A few days later, on December 8, the President will review a ceremonial parade at the naval base in Visakhapatnam where the President’s Colours will be presented to the Submarine Arm of the Indian Navy on the 50th anniversary of its foundation day (the Indian tricolour was first hoisted on our first submarine INS Kalvari at Riga, Latvia, on December 8, 1967). The original INS Kalvari was decommissioned a few years ago but its reincarnation will rejoin the Indian Navy on December 14, when the Navy is formally expected to commission the first French-designed Scorpene-class submarine (built by Mazagaon Docks Limited, Mumbai) as INS Kalvari, in the presence of the Prime Minister. Henceforth, five indigenous Scorpene-class subs will join the Navy, at the rate of one every year. As a former naval officer and submariner, I hope that the President, the Prime Minister and the defence minister will find time to spend a few hours underwater in a submarine as was done in the past by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and defence minister George Fernandes. Given the recent tragic sinking of the 32-year-old Argentinean submarine ARA San Juan on November 15, 2017 with the loss of her entire crew of 44, it is vital that the Indian Navy gets funding for additional subs, more so as 11 of its 13 conventional subs have crossed their designed life of 25 years; eight of these are over 30 years of age.
With India joining the joint secretary-level talks in Manila last month for the proposed Quadrilateral, or “Quad”, of the US, Japan, India and Australia, to ensure safety and freedom of seas, this basically maritime organisation, if it fructifies, will need India to increase the size of its largely home-built Navy by greatly increasing its miserly naval annual budget of about $5 billion (Chinese Navy budget is $40 billion) starting with the next budget in February 2018. I doubt if the proposed Quad would take the form of a military alliance, nevertheless it may result in sharing real-time intelligence and maritime domain awareness (MDA), cooperation in tracking Chinese subs and warships in the Indian Ocean along with possible coordination of activities to combat piracy and maritime terror. With or without the Quad, the Navy needs additional funds and political support.
I write this article with the experience of having visited and been briefed at ship, submarine, aircraft and missile-building facilities in India and abroad. One encouragement our domestic industry needs is long-term investment and economies of scale. It is my opinion that top priority should be given to the infrastructure development for maritime operations in our long-neglected and strategically-located Andaman and Nicobar, and Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands.
While the Indian Navy is doing extremely well with about 44 indigenous ships and submarines (another 20 more are expected to be contracted for soon) in Indian shipyards, there exist some critical shortcomings. In my last article, Sitharaman’s to-do list for next 16 months published in this newspaper on September 8, 2017, I had listed three items which would need urgent government approval for domestic production — viz conventional and nuclear subs (SSK, SSN, SSBN), mine counter-measures vessels and light (four tonnes) and medium (12 tonnes) multi-role ship-borne helicopters. Indeed the Indian Navy, which has over the last 60 years built up a team of highly competent warship and submarine design specialists, now needs to consider inducting design specialists for aircraft, helicopter as well as the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). And since Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the future of human progress and also warfare, it is vital for the Navy to create a cadre of AI specialists. Also, since I am unaware of the results of the Indo-US talks on building a 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier (IAC2) in India, with the latest electric propulsion and EMALS (electro-magnetic aircraft launch system), I have not written about it here. I am happy that the Navy has finally decided that IAC2 will not be nuclear-propelled.
I now come to some articles in the press criticising the Indian Navy for “abandoning” the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA-Navy) jet fighter project, and sending an RFI (request for information) for 57 foreign twin-engine jet fighters needed to operate from the indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant (IAC-1) when it becomes operational in 2021, and also for the planned IAC-2. The actual facts about LCA (Navy) are that the HAL-designed LCA Tejas, made for the IAF, was heavier by one tonne and the naval version which required additional modifications (a “drooped nose” for better pilot visibility and a strengthened undercarriage with tail hook for arrester wire landing system on a carrier) was two tonnes overweight. Trials ashore on the Shore-Based Test Facility in Goa, which replicates an aircraft-carrier flight deck on land, indicated that the LCA (Navy) in its present form could not take off within the 195-metre deck runway space with any worthwhile load and neither could it land on the carrier. But true to its faith in indigenisation, the Indian Navy continues to fund the naval version of LCA Mk2 with a more powerful American engine GE 414, replacing the present GE 404 which powers the LCA Mk1.
Lastly, given the enormous in-house expertise available and capability built-up of domestic vendors for nuclear submarines, India urgently needs to commence domestic production of SSNs in a separate production line. The only Indian platform capable of stealthily tracking Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean and also patrolling in the western Pacific to deter China is the SSN. Hopefully, the February 2018 defence budget may bring good news for a home-built, balanced and three-dimensional Indian Navy....