Indian Navy has been bestowed with the huge responsibility of keeping a round the clock watch on the Indian Ocean spanning from the African Coast to Australia and up to the Malacca Strait with limited resources. Though the Indian Navy started inducting the Offshore Patrol Vessels from the late eighties, the Navy has not been able to acquire a sufficient force of Offshore Patrol Vessels considering the vastly increased requirement of safeguarding the maritime assets, sea lines of communications and need to take timely action against the sea pirates, mostly from Somalia.
The Indian Coast Guard which assists the navy in patrolling the coastal area is also equipped with Offshore Patrol Vessels. They have six Samar class Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessels having 2005 tons displacement, three Vishwast class Offshore Patrol Vessels (1800 tons displacement) and five Vikram class Offshore Patrol Vessels (Displacement 1220 tons) . One Samar Class Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel is under construction, whereas six GSL class Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessels are planned. Considering more than 7000 kms coastline and two groups of Island territories Andaman-Nicobar and Lakshadweep, these assets are not sufficient in view of increased security challenges from State and non-State actors.
Since Indian Navy has in recent years given commitments to the Indian Ocean Island nations to assist them in patrolling their Exclusive Economic Zone, the need to induct more and more Offshore Patrol Vessels is being felt by the naval planners. However, funds constraints, and the low level attention of the Ministry of Defence on giving more emphasis on enriching maritime capabilities has compelled the Navy to live and manage its maritime security duties with the existing limited assets of Offshore Patrol Vessels.
The first offshore vessel Sukanya was inducted way back in 1989 and within a span of 25 years the Ministry of Defence could provide only nine OPVs to the Indian Navy though the Indian Coast Guard has 14 Offshore Patrol Vessels till this year and a few more are under construction. For the Indian Navy the last vessel inducted in March this year was the INS Sumedha, named after legendary Indian women, the other Offshore Vessels are the following-Sukanya, Subhadra, Suvarna, Savitri, Sharda, Sujata, Saryu, Sunayna and Sumedha.
These Offshore Patrol Vessels and off course other naval ships, require tankers for refueling in the high seas , but Indian Navy has pretty low refueling capacity, which impacts the long duration surveillance capabilities of the Indian vessels. Presently the Indian Navy has got only three tankers Deepak, Jyoti and Aditya. The Jyoti was inducted in 1986 whereas the last tanker Deepak joined the Indian Navy in 2011. In the absence of tankers the Indian warships cannot loiter around the high seas for months. They need to come back to shores for refueling and other stores.
The Offshore Patrol Vessels have a very important role to play in patrolling and policing the maritime zones. They are also required to engage in search and rescue, pollution control and external fire fighting and surveillance of the high seas. Since these vessels are designed to carry helicopters, Indian ship builders have accommodated the indigenously made Advanced Light Helicopters on most of the Offshore Patrol Vessels, which can cover a large maritime area and also keep a track on subsea movements, like the submarines. They can also play a significant role in preventing infiltration and transgression of maritime sovereignty. In the aftermath of 26/11 terrorist attacks the government was quick to order few OPVs for the Indian Navy for undertaking ocean surveillance and surface warfare operations.
India is fortunate that the country has developed the expertise of manufacturing the offshore patrol vessels, off course with Korean assistance, who have made Indian shipyards capable of constructing these ships. But the Indian defence ministry failed to leverage these capabilities and order large number of these vessels to augment Indian Navy surveillance capabilities in the high seas.
The naval offshore patrol vessels are capable of enhancing the security of the EEZ including the security of offshore assets. These vessels can be required to meet any contingency in high seas. They also play the role of escorting high value ships and other Fleet Support Operations.
Considering the indigenous strength in constructing the Offshore Patrol Vessels, the naval planners are expected to focus on enhancing the surveillance capabilities through these Offshore Patrol Vessels.
The Goa shipyard has acquired the capabilities of constructing the Naval Offshore Patrol Vessel (NOPV) which is fitted with state of the art navigation, communication and electronic warfare equipments. These ships are also fitted with 76 mm SRGM and two 30 mm guns with associated fire control system with four chaff launchers from the main weaponry package of the vessel.
The fourth of this class ship INS Sumitra was commissioned in 2010 which has two engines each driving a controllable pitch propeller through a reduction gear box. The recently inducted 105 m long Saryu class OPVs has a displacement of about 2215 tons.
They have a max speed of 25 kts, range of 6,000 nm at 16 kts and a normal endurance of 20 days, extendable to 60 days. They carry a complement of 16 officers and 102 sailors. Armed with 1 x 76 mm Ottomelara gun with FCS and 2 x 30 mm CWS they feature a helicopter landing deck and hangar. Their sensor pack includes a radar with ARPA. This is the largest offshore patrol vessel operated by the Indian Navy. Besides the Goa Shipyard the private sector Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering Co ltd in Gujarat has also developed facilities for constructing large OPVs and the MOD has placed orders on behalf of the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard.
Considering the role Offshore Patrol Vessels can play in securing India’s maritime area, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard will be requiring these vessels regularly as they can play a very effective role in combating the low intensity maritime threat.
Since the OPVs are considered very flexible in deployment and have the capabilities to act as multi mission platforms, they will be required in large numbers in the coming years. In view of the increased threat perception from the coastal areas, the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard need to be on guard all the time, to prevent any 26/11 type Mumbai terror attack. The recent trends show that navies are now dispensing with specialized platforms like mine hunters. Some of the navies are also utilizing the Offshore Patrol Vessels as platforms for Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and AUVs to tackle the mine and underwater threats.
Since the nature of maritime threats has changed in recent years, the significance of Offshore Patrol Vessels has grown tremendously. The OPVs can be deployed in multipurpose operations, whereas the frigates and destroyers have a role only during multidimensional maritime conflict.
Significantly the OPVs can also accommodate the Prithvi missile launcher, as shown by one of the Sukanya class OPV, hence they can be considered as low cost warships with bigger roles.