This year’s defence budget has shown a marginal eight per cent increase over the previous years (to cater for inflation), and continues the trend of the last four years, of remaining below 1.8 per cent of GDP, thus leaving practically no money for any new inductions, which means that if no contracts are signed in 2018, then given the 2019 elections, the nation will need to wait for 2021, to sign any major contracts, given the lead time taken to process the cases and contract negotiations. While shortages of the Air Force (300 fighter jets, 200 helicopters), Army (artillery, infantry weapons, 300 helicopters, etc.) are a major cause for worry, this article deals with four critical items for the Indian Navy, which have very serious implications on our sea-going combat capability, at a time when Pakistan and China are rapidly building up their naval capabilities in our backyard, the Indian Ocean. China has established a maritime base in Djibouti and is expected to set up naval-cum-airbases in its funded and built ports in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka).
Chinese warships and submarines routinely deploy to the Indian Ocean. All the four items required by the Navy would need contracts to be signed by March 2018, and an additional annual allocation of about $4-$5 billion for the next decade. The first item in this list (all four items are equally important for a three-dimensional service like the Navy) is to select and sign a contract for indigenous construction of six modern, long-range conventional submarines, under Project 75 (India), which was approved by the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS) in 1999, under the “30-year submarine building plan”. At today’s costs, these six submarines would cost a total of about $10 billion. Out of the 13 conventional submarines presently in commission, 11 have completed their service life of 25 years, and are being “kept alive” by refitting them in Indian and Russian shipyards (two Kilo-class subs have been sent to Russia already for a 30-month refit and modernisation) well beyond their service life, and, hopefully they will “plug the underwater combat capability gap” till we make six new Project 75 (India) indigenous subs. If by some miracle, a contract for these proposed Project 75 (India) submarines is signed by 2018 (before the six-month “election restriction” sets in), then the first of these submarines would be inducted only by 2026, when the only “new and reliable” subs in service would be the six new (1,500-tonne each) Scorpene subs being presently built by Mazagon Dock Ltd (Mumbai) under Project 75 — the first of these long delayed subs, the ‘Kalvari’ is expected to be commissioned by May-June 2017, and the sixth by about 2023. It may be noted that our neighbour, Bangladesh, inducted two Chinese-built conventional subs in January this year, while Thailand is signing a contract with China for three conventional subs. In the meantime, China has signed a contract with its strategic ally Pakistan to induct four large (4,000-tonne each) conventional subs from China by 2024 and simultaneously making four at the Karachi shipyard. These new Pakistani subs will each have the capability to fire three or more 500-km range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles against crowded Indian coastal cities like Mumbai.
Thus our backyard will soon be full of foreign submarines. The second item on the Navy’s critical list is the long-delayed indigenous construction at Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL) of 12 mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs), which are needed to clear the entrance to our ports of sea mines laid by enemy submarines, aircraft and other vessels. If a single ship is sunk or damaged due to an enemy mine (which can have 200 to 400 kg of high explosive), most merchant ships will avoid ports, thus resulting in shortage of important supplies like oil, LNG, etc. Safely locating and destroying enemy sea mines in our muddy, saline waters, is a very dangerous and difficult task, requiring very high-technology ships with “almost zero acoustic, magnetic and water pressure signatures” along with very high-tech equipment. For the last 35 years, the task of wartime sea mine clearance was carried out by 12 Russian-origin obsolete MCMVs, of which barely three to four are available today, and these are long overdue for the scrapyard. The tragedy is that after the normal international bidding procedure was gone through, and a shipyard in South Korea won the contract about five years ago, some complications set in (GSL apparently did not get the “assurances for transfer of technology”), and the contract, worth about $5 billion is yet to be signed. Here also, if the contract is finally signed by mid-2018, then the first locally-built MCMV may be commissioned only by 2022-23, leaving a huge gap in our capability to counter enemy sea mines in times of war.
The third item on the Navy’s critical list is the decade-long pending case to import 16 medium multi-role shipborne helicopters of about 12 tonnes each, to be used for detecting and destroying enemy submarines and ships. Here also, some complication has set in, after an American firm won the contract, and over two dozen of our frontline warships are left with a total of 26 obsolete helicopters (10 Russian origin which may be modernised and 16 of British origin). The actual immediate requirement of such 12-tonne helicopters is closer to 50. In addition to this, the Navy needs another 200 indigenous shipborne three-tonne light utility helicopters (LUH) to replace its obsolete fleet of Chetaks. An additional $10 billion would need to be earmarked over the next decade, if the contract for the 16 12-tonne helicopters is signed, and local manufacturer of the LUH is authorised by the government. In any case, its high time the Navy takes on the case for indigenous manufacture of a suitable 12 to 14-tonne multi-role helicopter, which could also meet the needs of the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, BSF and for civil aviation.
The fourth critical item on my list is the need for government authorisation for indigenous construction of six nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) which are needed for long-range high-speed operations to “deter, detect, track and in case of war to destroy” enemy aircraft-carriers and submarines, not only in the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean Region, but in the distant East and South China Seas, where they will be the only effective challenge to the growing Chinese Navy in the dragon’s backyard. This project, if approved, would require a second nuclear submarine production line (the first nuclear sub-production line, being the Arihant class strategic nuclear subs or SSBNs), and additional funding of about $12 billion over a 24-year period. In the interim period, the Navy would need to manage with its lone SSN (INS Chakra) inducted on 10-year lease from Russia in 2012, and, later, its media reported successor SSN from Russia, which would replace it by 2022 for another 10-year lease. The Navy has a proud record of indigenisation, and given the complexity of these projects, the government needs to take early decisions, as not only new additional infrastructure and money is needed but also skilled manpower for the Navy (which designs its warships and nuclear subs) is needed by the shipyards who will build the conventional subs, MCMVs and SSNs.