There is evidence of a heartening improvement in maritime surveillance as seen in the pre-emptive interception of suspected Pakistani surface vessels to penetrate Indian territorial waters or indulge in criminal activity on the high seas. But true Indian maritime security lies in a capability to be able to find, track and, if necessary, attack and destroy inimical elements on the high seas and closer inshore in the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the 20-nm contiguous sea.
The passage of a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine through the Indian Ocean littoral is the kind of development the Indian security network will have to contend with before it can claim to be immune from threats from the seaward side. However, it will need to be bolstered by an improved coverage of the whole littoral by a dedicated network of satellites.
The arrival of Chinese nuclear submarines in ports in Sri Lanka has raised questions about India’s ability to detect and trail these submarines across such vast open sea spaces as the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. India’s newest and most modern maritime reconnaissance, surveillance and strike aircraft, the Boeing P-8I Neptune (US version Poseidon) with a range of 2222 km and four hours of scanning the ocean below in a zig-zag pattern fall short of being able to conduct surveillance in one of the most crucial chokepoints in the Malacca/south Indonesia salient which requires a range of 3,000 to 3,500 km with at least a four-hour loiter time for sea scan.
While the P-8I will be able to keep a watchful eye up to the Pakistani port of Gwadar at the extreme western edge of the Balochistan seashore, its ability to reach Aden and the Red Sea approach to the Mediterranean is severely restricted. Getting even as far as Madagascar or Seychelles along the eastern coast of the continent of Africa is insufficient.
The P-8I Neptune is designated to become the mainstay of the Indian Navy’s long-range reconnaissance and strike aircraft, replacing the current Russia-made Tupolov TU-142 eight of which have recently been upgrade and refitted to act as a test bed for the Brahmos cruise missile in an anti-shipping role. Also to be replaced are the five remaining upgraded Ilyushin Il-38s. It is expected that India will purchase as many as 20 P-8I Boeing aircraft (eight have been delivered and the rest are expected to join the fleet over the next two years).
While the Boeing aircraft does not have the range to cover all the chokepoints leading into the Indian Ocean littoral in which peninsular India’s location is pre-eminent, it has facilities on board that can contribute immensely to submarine location and neutralization.
The first among these is the magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) device which is located like a sting at the tail of the fuselage. The device is a cluster of magnetometers that indicate the presence of metals. The device can pick up the slightest disturbance caused within the ambiance of seawater of a large metallic body lying on the seabed or travelling through the water. This disturbance can then be investigated by deploying sonobuoys that will localize and pinpoint the source of the magnetic disturbance. From there the normal drill can be conducted to warn the suspected submarine that its presence is known and that it should surface and make its intentions known. Any attempt to escape can be deemed to be an unfriendly act. The delivery of either torpedoes or depth charges would then be initiated.
In the event that the underwater object is a nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarine things could get very messy with radioactivity release in the marine environment. That is why it is best to keep potential hostile submarines at arm’s length by extending the range of its maritime surveillance and strike aircraft.
In conjunction with the MAD device the Boeing P-8I aircraft carries electronic intelligence and signal intelligence gathering equipment that can pinpoint electromagnetic emissions from sources located in the sea. To be able to communicate with its home base any submarine would have to surface to be able to deploy its antenna and make contact. This kind of transmission can be picked up by the Boeing P-8I and investigated to find its source.
Concerns for India
It has now become imperative that India’s maritime surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities be focused on submarine detection. A nuclear submarine berthed in Sri Lanka, the Maldives or even the Seychelles on the western edge of the Indian Ocean littoral will pose a grave danger to India both in terms of a conventional threat and a nuclear attack. India’s primary concerns in this regard are the air-independent propulsion submarines acquired by Pakistan and the independent existence of Chinese nuclear submarines deployed in pursuit of Chinese geo-strategy. Beijing’s Maritime Silk Route in conjunction with its economic corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have to be seen in India with a great deal of caution. The confluence of the maritime ‘string of pearls’ policy and the overland road, rail and pipeline network promises to be a serious concern for India.
The acquisition of the P-8I Neptune, the C-17 Globemaster and the C-130J Super Hercules from the US under the Foreign Military Sales or government-to-government route is fraught with the double jeopardy of loss of sovereign decision-making in the emerging geopolitical format and the possibility of intrusive inspections as per the US laws that are required to be signed before equipment is delivered. The first of these implies “inter-operability” which means that the US could decide to call upon India to participate in joint military operations in segments of the world where India’s historical relationships have been based on mutual respect and mutually beneficial commercial relationships. The rationale would be that since India has been given American equipment it is morally bound to assist American operations when required.
India must improve its maritime satellite surveillance capabilities. The G-SAT launched last year has improved India’s ability to scan the ocean, located as it is in geostationary orbit over the Indian Ocean. Efforts should be made for better sensors especially those that can pinpoint and track the positions of platforms that are inimical to India’s national interest. The Defence Electronic Applications Laboratory in Dehradun has been working on photo-interpretation techniques that can glean actionable information from the clutter of forms and reflections that permeate the ocean.
The detection of thermal layers between which enemy submarines can hide because sonar is diffused and misdirected making it difficult for the mother ship to ascertain the presence of a hostile submarine should be prioritized. Once the submarine is discovered finding out whether it is a friend or foe to avoid fratricide the Bharat Electronics Ltd has created a gadget which has been installed in the P-8I as part of India’s contribution to the electronic suite on board the aircraft. Once it is clearly established that the object in the water is not “one of our own” the standard operating procedure of dealing with hostile submarines can be executed. Newer satellites with better resolution may be launched in low earth orbit when the need for a holistic network centric operation arises.