Over the past two years or so the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have been receiving two patrol vessels offshore and inshore respectively for surveillance and policing of India’s maritime interests from the coastline of peninsular India to the outer reaches of the Indian Ocean rim. The remarkable feature is that these are indigenously designed and manufactured craft speeds of up to 40 kmph. Nonetheless, what India needs is a fleet of flying boats capable of reaching any point along the Indian Ocean rim within hours instead of days as at present.
With endurance of up to 6000 nautical miles (11,000 km), in enough numbers, these organizations will soon be able to maintain credible security within the 200 km Exclusive Economic Zone as well as large parts of the north Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. With such a huge expanse of ocean area to patrol, the Indian Navy which has been vested with the responsibility of maritime defence in its totality since the sneak attack by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai on 26/11/2008 will have to design patterns of patrol that provide failsafe security against both state forces and “non-state actors”.
The nature of threats to Indian maritime interests is changing almost by the month and the Indian Navy will have to plan the deployment of its inshore and offshore platforms in a manner that will give optimum results and ensure that another Mumbai style attack on the Indian hinterland or a ramming or gunfire/missile attack from a Pakistan Navy vessel commandeered by jihadi terrorists becomes a remote possibility. Given the recent abortive attempt to gain control of a Pakistan Navy vessel in Karachi harbor by jihadi elements their intent and purpose cannot now be taken for granted on the high seas and every close encounter (within missile or gun range) should be cause to raise a red alert and have all crew on readiness at battle stations to either take evasive action or shoot to kill in a retaliatory strike.
That India feels a dire need for the presence of inshore patrol vessels of the Indian Coast Guard along both the Indo-Sri Lanka maritime boundary as well as the fish-rich segments of the undemarcated portions of the Sir Creek next to Pakistan is seen in the hundreds of fishermen who fall prey to aggressive patrolling by naval vessels of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. These fisherfolk are pawns in the hands of these governments and the recent pardon by former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakshe underscores the kinds of dangers they face. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also conveyed a false camaraderie when he released dozens of Indian fishermen around the time he visited India for Narendra Modi’s PM oath taking ceremony. India needs to keep three or four fast inshore vessels to ensure that Indian fishermen do not inadvertently cross the maritime boundary as that around the Kachchativu Island in the Palk Straits or in our claim line in Sir Creek. Hitherto it has just been too easy for both these countries to pick up Indian fishermen and use them as pawns.
The responsibility for the defence of the 200-km Exclusive Economic Zone requires a more complex network of fast attack craft and electronic means of detection of anti-national activity using small motorized fishing craft. It requires a combination of fast surface transport, aerial surveillance and failsafe “friend or foe” transmission across the airwaves. Intelligence has to be backed up by swift, precise strikes-either apprehension or neutralization-before the suspects can attack. As on land, this area of responsibility of the Indian Coast Guard has to be accomplished by a combination of fast surface transport well enough armed to deal with a hostile situation and airborne resources also capable of striking if warnings are not heeded.
Further out at sea, in the mid-Arabian Sea in particular, it is an area that must be crossed to get within hitting distance of the Indian mainland. It is also the crossroads of Indian maritime trade between the Gulf and east African countries and the peninsula. It is used extensively by all kinds of malcontents be they pirates of smugglers of gold, narcotics and weaponry and, increasingly jihadis. A case in point is the intelligence collected that a merchant vessel that had been hijacked earlier was being used as a mother ship by pirates in the mid-Arabian Sea zone for forays against merchant ships using these sea lanes of communication. The Indian Navy sent ships to intercept it but the target had moved away and was untraceable-a clear indicator that standard operating procedures of keeping the target under 24-hour surveillance and tracking till an interception takes place were not being followed.
It is in this context that the flying boat becomes eminently suitable to Indian requirements. The Indo-Japan project for the transfer of technology for the manufacture of the ShinMaywa US-2i is the way to go. The Indian product must cater to Indian needs and it remains to be seen how soon the negotiations are successfully concluded. While Japan uses these amphibious platforms for communications and search and rescue, the Indian requirement is for an additional military capability.
The Japanese amphibian has the advantage of being able to deploy a 20-member work force up to 4,700 km which can cover Gulf and the approach to the Suez Canal and large parts of the east coast of Africa up to Seychelles from a base in Cochin. By comparison though the Indian Navy Offshore Patrol Vessels have a range of up to 11,000 km but at even 45 kmph it will take the OPV more than ten days to cover the distance with several refueling along the way. The ShinMaywa amphibians, travelling at up to 550kmph will take just one day with at least one refueling enroute.
It is with these factors in mind and the various patrolling patterns that can be woven around given performance characteristics, the Indian requirement for the proposed transfer of technology will have to include a midair refueling facility in its flying boats and a wider, longer fuselage to be of use not only for the protection and search and rescue operations in and around its offshore island territories but also further afield in the Indian Ocean littoral.
That the Japanese craft is also capable of high altitude operations opens the possibility of deployment on the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh where too the Indian and Chinese troops are in an eyeball-to-eyeball position. There is possibility of using it in disaster relief in other inland waterways. The current assessment is that India will buy up to 16 of the amphibians, the first lot in flyaway condition and the rest constructed in Indian aviation hubs just as it happened with the acquisition of fast attack craft.
The first lot of OPVs was purchased from a South Korean shipyard with subsequent orders placed with Hindustan Shipyards Ltd. A total of nine Sukanya class boats were acquired.
In the meantime Goa Shipyard Ltd developed the inhouse expertise to design and manufacture the follow-on type of four advanced OPVs which were first constructed on its slipways and later the design was made available for the private sector Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering Company to make five more for the Indian Navy. Pipavav is situated in Gujarat and has drydocks capable of constructing aircraft carriers of up to 100,000 tonnes.