Anti-submarine warfare is a multilayered operation involving all elements ranging from the air, surface to the sub-surface domains. India’s dwindling anti-submarine infrastructure has been well-documented but there is little to show that any large-scale rectification is underway.
From insufficient numbers of conventional hunter-killer submarines and surface fighting ships bereft of even the required number of anti-submarine warfare helicopters with vacant hangar space on board, to the still-to-arrive naval nuclear deterrent INS Arihant there are wide gaps in India’s maritime defence posture.
It is undoubtedly a supreme achievement that most of the surface vessels required for maritime security are now being built in Indian shipbuilding yards and the Indian Navy has to be congratulated for being forward-looking enough to achieve this measure of self-sufficiency while the other two Services are floundering about in license-produced self-reliance.
The intention of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon, after the debacle of 1962 at the hands of the Chinese, was to achieve self-reliance based on foreign weapons platforms built on foreign technology, create competence and self-confidence and move on to achieving self-sufficiency based on indigenous technology. In aviation Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd failed to make full use of the transfer of technology and upgradation written into the contract for the Allouette class of utility helicopters Cheetah and Chetak. Finally they did manage to make the Dhruv with an improved Shakti engine based on a French design. The Defence Research and Development Organisations achievements are patchy and this is beginning to show in maritime preparedness.
There is a lesson for the Indian Navy from the grand victory of 1971. It lost the INS Khukri to a Pakistani submarine. The inability to detect the lurking danger had cost India dearly in trained manpower and an efficient weapons platform.
Apart from the normal surface screens that are intended to detect, destroy or chase away undersea threats helicopters armed with dunking sonars and torpedoes are now standard equipment on nearly every type of fighting vessel. The intention is to enable the captain to look for and neutralize threats that may be lying in wait along his path. The Indian Navy has proudly demonstrated its capability of designing fighting ships that can operate two helicopters with an enlarged hangar for parking. However, not all the modern vessels have helicopters on board because of the overall shortage caused by accidents, wear and tear and time for upgradation. Not to mention the fallout of the scam involving a former Chief of Staff in the acquisition of VIP helicopters for the IAF.
The other components of anti-submarine warfare-surface vessels equipped to find and shoot at submarines; hunter-killer submarines; long-range airborne maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft; and underwater arrays of listening and recording devices-are intended to compile a dossier of engine and propeller signatures to assist in the “friend or foe” exercise. All of these are required in sufficient numbers and should be capable of being deployed in a manner that will meet India’s increasing maritime interests not just in the Indian Ocean littoral but also further afield as in the South China Sea.
As with many other modern weapons systems the naval demand is for multi-role platforms that can accomplish both anti-ship as well as anti-submarine roles. For the ship strike India has sought a missile with a 100 km beyond visual range and a concomitant anti-submarine torpedo that will be fire and forget and capable of homing in on the steel hull of the submarine or the sound of its propeller. Government needs to expedite the acquisition of helicopters (a contract for 16 S-70B Sikorsky platforms has been signed with the option that the order would be raised to 60). Anti-submarine surface vessel being put to sea without the normal complement of helicopters on board could turn out to be suicidal in a conflict situation (as the INS Khukri episode has shown). Most Indian surface vessels nowadays are designed to carry two helicopters apiece-itself a testimony of the perceived efficacy of this kind of platform for anti-submarine operations.
If network centricity is to have any meaning India will have to develop a method of enabling airborne assets like helicopters and long-range surveillance, reconnaissance and strike fixed wing aircraft to be able to communicate over secure transmission networks with its submarines. With just about a dozen currently in service the upgraded Kilo class boats have to be able to operate in conjunction with ships and airborne assets to ensure full utilization of the extant fleet.
Given the vast expanses of water that needs to be sanitized against submarines with limited anti-submarine assets India must utilize the strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to lay out an undersea array of sensors that will locate and report on undersea and surface intruders, noting their hallmark acoustic signatures of engine and propellers. Undoubtedly the long-range multi-role maritime patrol aircraft P-8I Neptune secured from the US has the capability to hit surface vessels but it is the magnetic anomaly detector attached to its tail that is of particular interest to India. It enables the aircraft to detect the magnetic anomaly created by a subsurface metallic body. Its 2222 km range with four hours of loiter time to search for submarines is more suited to detection of the nuclear powered submarine which does not need to surface to recharge its batteries every 24 hours or so.
Used in conjunction with undersea array of sensors around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands this platform can deploy sonobouys on the southern route off the Indonesian group of islands to check on the Chinese nuclear submarines as they make their way from their undersea base in Hainan island off southern China to patrol the Indian Ocean. India has acquired eight of the P-8I maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft and is expected to place orders for 12 more to be able to effectively cover both the eastern and western chokepoints in the Indian Ocean littoral.
The Indian defence public sector undertaking Bharat Electronics Ltd has contributed significantly to the acquisition by installing a secure data link that could facilitate exchange of messages between the airborne P-8Is and Indian surface vessels. Given that the American aircraft has inbuilt electronic intelligence equipment on board, it should be a challenge for BEL to expand its contribution to real-time communications between the airborne platform and the submerged Indian submarines.