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Role of OPVs

With the responsibility of protecting and projecting power across more than 50 million square kilometers of ocean space within the Indian Ocean littoral the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard Organization will have to improve their presence by the more easily and quickly achievable method of increasing the numbers of its fleet replenishment vessels of which there are only four.

That there are vulnerable gaps in the maritime security network has been admitted by naval sources. The most recent case of an abandoned boat in one of the creeks adjoining Gujarat on which ten terrorists are supposed to have arrived underscores the kind of vulnerability the nation is still confronted with.

The frequent arrests of Indian fishermen by both Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the use of the Sundarbans sector in the Bay of Bengal by Islamist terrorists and smugglers from Bangladesh accentuate these vulnerabilities and show up the dangers that lurk closer home along India’s 7500 km of shoreline.

It is the Indian Coast Guard’s responsibility to safeguard the shoreline and the contiguous Exclusive Economic Zone which under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) has been stipulated to be 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. There is a provision that if the continental shelf is measured and demarcated and it is proven that it extends beyond the 200 nautical mile zone the EEZ could be extended to 350 nautical miles. If this happens the Indian EEZ will grow exponentially from the current 2.2 million square kilometers.

Strengthening fleet

The ICG has drawn up a plan to increase its fleet of surface vessels to 200 and aircraft to 100 by 2020. Till such time as this fructifies auxiliary support vessels capable of delivering fuel, water and “victuals”-food and other canned edibles to ships posted on the edge of the EEZ to help ensure that they remain on station for longer periods would, in effect, have a force multiplier effect. This can be achieved by converting commercial vessels to tanker roles. Given the current state of global shipping this could be a boon for Indian shippers.

The ICG has a fleet of 19 fast Offshore Patrol Vessel and 47 fast patrol vessels for use close to the shore to deal with smugglers and gunrunners. With such numbers the existence of ‘vulnerabilities’ is self-evident.

Some like the Samar class of vessels have a sixty day endurance and ability to stay on patrol before returning to base. With only five of such ships available and given the requirement for periodic maintenance and repair downtime, more such ships are required.

The Samarth class of OPVs with the ICG has an endurance of 20 days on station and the Viswasth class with a range of 4500 nautical miles (8300 km) can set up a credible patrol pattern over a large segment of the Indian EEZ. But with only three available there is need for force multiplication by using tankers in support.

In combination the long-endurance patrol craft and the fast small patrol craft the ICG should make sure that no Pakistani fishing craft or dhow can find its way into Indian waters by hugging the coastline in the Gujarat sector as appears to have happened recently. As already stated in the case of patrolling along the land borders, presence matters, and a system of overlapping patrols can impose a 24X7 blanket coverage of designated sensitive sectors.

Similar should be the case with the maritime boundary with Sri Lanka where the arrest of Indian fishermen is an almost daily incident and along the Sunderbans where the danger of terrorist infiltration is greater.

Surveillance needs

With overall charge of maritime security the Indian Navy has to oversee both the inshore defences along the coastline and the EEZ as well as be prepared to show the flag at any point along the vast Indian Ocean littoral. The latter has become more particularly accentuated with the Chinese policy of establishing a “string of pearls” comprising naval facilities intended to encircle India. Facilities in Myanmar in the east, through Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and Gwadar port in Pakistan have the effect of a military necklace around India’s neck. This will have to be countered by the Indian Navy.

The Indian Navy’s fleet of Offshore Patrol Vessels consist of three Saryu class and seven Sukhanya class OPVs. The former’s role is ocean surveillance and monitoring and sea control especially along shipping sea lanes. It has been indigenously designed and developed by Goa Shipyard Ltd and is essentially a gunship with a 70mm Oto Melara cannon in the power projection mode and two close-in counter-air weapons system. An onboard Dhruv helicopter is employed for anti-submarine torpedo launchpad as well as over-the-horizon air-to-surface Helina (helicopter launched Nag missile).

Because of the gigantic nature of its jurisdiction it is apparent that expecting it to respond to hostile presence it would take several hours for it to arrive at any given location by which time the target would escape by evasive maneuvers (as has happened). Pre-positioning with the support of auxiliary vessels would enable it to reach such vessels-be they pirates or terrorists-faster. Moreover the airborne surveillance by the onboard Dhruv helicopter would extend the range of the reconnaissance and improve sanitization. As part of the outer periphery of a port blockade the mission would be better served by an on-station replenishment than having to return to port for such services.

It is in the smaller Sukhanya class of OPVs that India has a strategic weapon. It can fire the Prithvi derivative called Dhanush with both a conventional high-explosive warhead or deliver a nuclear warhead. Its range of 7000 nautical miles (13,000 kilometers) at a leisurely speed of 15 knots (28 kmph) will ensure that it can reach the length and breadth of the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean continuum. The ranges at which the Dhanush missile can be used add significantly to the deterrence value of India’s nuclear capabilities.

From a range of 350 km the Sukhanya OPV can deliver a 1000 kg warhead either of conventional explosives or a nuclear weapon. With a well-publicized patrol mission in the North Arabian Sea, India would send a clear message to Pakistan that the use of terrorists from behind its nuclear shield can be neutralized in one blow on Karachi. With a 500kg warhead it can decimate all military installations along the Makran coast of Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Sindh from a standoff range of 600 km and deliver a 250 kg warhead from 750 km. These distances bring Pakistan’s naval fleet headquarters in Karachi; the Ormara submarine construction facility, the Pasni port and Gwadar port within striking distance.

After the Indian Air Force, this would constitute the second leg of the minimum nuclear deterrent and it is filling the gap caused by delay in inducting the nuclear powered and armed indigenous submarine Arihant which is expected to join the fleet later this year.

To keep this deterrent mobile and elusive the Navy will have to deploy auxiliary support vessels that will help keep the platforms capable of delivering their warheads at any time 24X7 even if they have to expend more fuel while travelling at higher speeds. That will require a very much greater investment by Pakistan on maritime surveillance aircraft and effort. Conversely too, a clear message can be sent to China that any attempt at coercive naval diplomacy will cause the string of pearls to be targeted.