Anti-submarine warfare is a multi-layered activity. There is the submarine-submarine killer (SSK) level where one predator is in constant search for similar predators below the surface of the oceans.
The other is surface vessels fitted with sonar as integral equipment supplemented by helicopters armed with dipping or “dunking” listening devices and ready-to-use torpedoes, and the third is the long-range fixed-wing aircraft fitted with a “sting in the tail” magnetic anomaly detector that indicates the presence of metallic objects on the surface (as when submarines rise to take in fresh oxygen to recharge their batteries) or those lurking deep below the surface.
In the Kilo class of Russian submarines, India has a diminishing fleet of the first level of counter-measures against enemy submarines. It frittered away a chance of becoming self-reliant in submerged hunter-killer technology when it failed to utilize the German license to produce the HDW submarine in Mumbai docks beyond four because of the political fallout of a kickbacks scandal.
Two were to be bought in swim-away conditions from the German shipyard and the remaining four were to be built at Mazagon Dockyard Ltd, Mumbai. After the project was completed the assembly line was allowed to languish and the trained manpower retired and dispersed-a valuable human resource was lost.
India began its Advanced Technology Vessel project (a euphemism for a nuclear powered submarine) in the 1990s and the nuclear submarine was launched in 2013 for sea trials and is expected to join the fleet by the end of 2014.
The other five nuclear powered and armed submarines are to join the fleet by 2023. The induction of the first of the class, the Arihant will complete India’s triad of nuclear weapons delivery platforms. The K-15 Sagarika missile on board has a range of between 750 and 1500 km and the follow-on missile the K-4 will have a range of more than 3000 km, bringing large parts of both Pakistan and China within reach and hence being capable of inducing the minimum nuclear deterrence that is India’s avowed policy.
These are strategic assets intended to demonstrate a capability of being able to deliver nuclear weapons at targets within our adversaries’ territories with the intention of inducing hesitation in the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Simultaneously with such a project there is need for the creation of nuclear powered assets for the hunter-killer role to challenge the increasing presence of foreign navies in the Indian Ocean region.
A nuclear powered attack submarine, with the advantage of remaining submerged for long periods can execute combat patrols all around the Indian Ocean littoral, both in its brown water sphere as well as in long-range blue water ambiance.
The armament of these will have to be enhanced with the introduction of “loitering torpedoes” that would do the same job as of the airborne combat air patrols during moments of heightened tension between neighbors.
Their presence in the sea would act both as decoys as well as deterrent when enemy submarines seek to enter areas of the sea that India would want to control or deny the use of. With several spiraling around in ocean waters the sonar of enemy submarines would find it difficult to differentiate between submarines and the loitering machines. The addition of sub-surface to surface communications system would help create an underwater network centric warfare capability.
This arrangement could prove to be especially efficacious in detecting and tracking foreign submarines within the Indian Ocean vastness by connecting the underwater detectors to the airborne long-range maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft of which the Boeing Poseidon P-8I is the latest addition.
India also has the Russian built Tupolev TU-142 which has a range of about 6000 km and can effectively cover the chokepoints south of the Indonesian group of islands from where the Chinese nuclear-armed submarines will have to enter the Indian Ocean.
Once detected and tabbed and the noise signature of its engine room and propellers recorded, it would be easy to locate and neutralize Chinese submarines operating against India.
The collection and collation of this kind of intelligence is a 24x7 activity and cannot be taken lightly because it involves nuclear armed nations and can prevent any nasty surprises that the enemy may have in mind. Information gathered from all the three levels of anti-submarine operations-sub-surface, surface and airborne-can become part of the databank that is collected during peacetime and utilized for swift optimum action in the event of hostilities.
India needs to recall its experience of dealing with the Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi during the 1971 war. In a daring bid to ambush the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikrant which was playing havoc against East Pakistan with its blockade and incessant bombardment of shore-based facilities in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, the Ghazi quietly parked itself outside the Vishakhapatnam harbor and began planting mines outside the harbor. The Ghazi was blown up before it could do any damage but the incident illustrated very graphically the possibility of what a determined enemy could do.
Another lesson learned during the 1971 war is the need for long range sonar or other means of detection of enemy submarines and decoying of torpedoes before they can do damage to our own naval assets.
The case in point was the sinking of the INS Khukri in the mid-Arabian Sea by a Pakistani submarine. The captain of the ship was caught by surprise when the torpedo struck and it appears that this happened because the enemy submarine was outside the range of the Khukri’s sonar. The sinking is wrapped in controversy with survivors claiming negligence on the part of officers on board.
Be that as it may and the incident underscores the truism that eternal vigilance is the price for safety.
Among the first things that need to be done is to be able to detect the submarine before it can launch its torpedoes. In case that is not possible then there should be means on board ship that will facilitate a decoy of the incoming torpedo away from the target ship.
There are inflatable decoys that can be launched at short notice on either side of the ship if a torpedo is sighted. There are also electronic decoys that either interfere with the homing device of the torpedo or project a virtual target well away from the hull of the ship. A great deal of how these counter-measures should be handled in the event of a confrontation depends on experience and practice of standard operating procedures.
Naval warfare can be very unforgiving as can be seen by the sinking of the INS Khukri on the Indian side and the destruction of the PNS Ghazi on the Pakistani side.
While all surface ships have nowadays incorporated an anti-submarine warfare helicopter in its inventory, India has developed an indigenous anti-submarine platform in its Kamorta class of ships; the first of four ran aground in the Hooghly during sea trials when the engines and propulsion gear failed. It is now expected to join the fleet next year.
As can be seen every naval platform has to be keyed to the submarine threat. To deal with the enemy submarine not everything is left to the surface vessel. It is assisted by airborne elements both rotary and fixed-wing.