Coastal vigil

Requirements of OPV and frigates

To be able to gauge the number of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and frigates, India will require in the second quarter of the 21st century -2025 to 2050- an appreciation of the relative roles of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard. This will have to be made on the basis of a blue-water and brown-water categorization of their respective jurisdictions. At the moment the entire maritime defence is under the jurisdiction of the Indian Navy with Indian Coast Guard handling the close inshore patrolling under the overall supervision of the Navy.

As things stand the Indian Coast Guard is to patrol the 12 nautical mile (NM) territorial waters measured from the coastline as per the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas by which was also created the 200 NM Exclusive Economic Zone.

It does this largely with the help of fast attack craft, aircraft, helicopters, and hovercraft. The Indian Navy backs this up with its own network of ocean-going fast attack craft, frigates, destroyers, aircraft carrier, long-range maritime surveillance and attack aircraft, and helicopters on board nearly all categories of surface vessels both for over-the-horizon surveillance and anti-submarine warfare on a littoral-wide scale.

The Indian Ocean littoral is truly huge extending from the tip of South Africa (Cape of Good Hope) to the western coast of Australia. This requires vessels capable of staying at sea for long periods and be armed to handle both equally well -armed foes or pirates and smugglers.

India still has a long way to achieve air-tight maritime domain awareness even though the first phase of the radar coverage has been completed and the futuristic game plan appears to expand the capabilities of the ICG to cover all of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

This is to be achieved first by an expansion of its area of patrol from the 12NM territorial waters to the 24 NM contiguous zone by 2020 and eventually extending it to the whole of the 200 NM Exclusive Economic Zone to deal with pirates, smugglers, pollution control, maintain marine ecology, guard the offshore islands and oil and gas fields.

The kind of vessels that it will need to deal with this vast marine space would be offshore patrol vessels and frigate-size warships that will need to be able to handle its assignments over longer timeframes than what its current inshore capabilities allow.

It is as yet unclear whether the Indian Navy will divest its frigates and hand them over to ICG command and control or an entirely new fleet of frigate-size ships will be ordered and be created for customized use that will include marine pollution control with all its paraphernalia of chemicals and gadgets for containment of oil spills and retrieval/elimination of spilled crude oil and its derivatives.

Multi-role capability

The vessel will need to incorporate all the multi-task and multi-role capabilities that current modern frigates do not need to have. The basic requirement of weapons on board will be those for maintenance of laws at sea which will per se be of smaller caliber but rapid fire types.

To be able to adequately fulfill the second line of maritime defence there will have to be a long-range artillery, surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles along with torpedoes and depth charges.

It will need to have at least one helicopter on board for over-the-horizon surveillance and reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare against lurking enemy submarines (remember the Pakistani PNS Ghazi was waiting outside Vishakhapatnam to try and hit the Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant during the Bangladesh war of 1971)

In the proposed frigates for the Indian Coast Guard for the next quarter century it appears obvious that the design will have to be radically different from what has traditionally been the size and working spaces of naval frigates.

For one, a large portion of its hull space will have to be devoted to store anti-pollution equipment and the means of deployment of these assets will show in the kind and placement of cranes and handling equipment on the deck.

In the light of the decidedly additional capabilities that need to be incorporated on board frigates (and smaller craft) in the Indian Coast Guard fleet it would appear sensible that eventually the ICG vessels will be constructed with its peculiar requirements in mind.

For a period it may be necessary to shift Indian Navy frigates that are on the verge of retirement to the ICG to gradually expand its jurisdiction over a larger portion of the contiguous seas around India and to patrol the mid-ocean island territories on both of peninsular India’s flanks. This is because a ship with intrinsically longer endurance and range will be required for such an assignment.

In the short term this exchange would facilitate a smooth transition from close inshore role to a longer-range, longer duration patrol repertoire. Currently, the ICG fleet consists of about 80 surface vessels and 60 aircraft and helicopters.

With the creation of two new regional headquarters on both flanks at Gandhinagar and Kolkata, additional assets would come from the 150 ships and 12 hovercrafts that are already on order. By 2020 it is expected that the ICG will have 20,000 manpower and 160 ships and nearly four dozen of very small harbor patrol boats possibly of the Gemini kind along with 100 aircraft/helicopters.

More coastal stations and airfields will be required to create a closer security network with little or nil loopholes amenable to be exploited by inimical forces. This growth will happen even as normal decommissioning continues as per schedule.

Combat capabilities

The Indian Navy, on the other hand, currently has 23 destroyers and frigates ranging in tonnage from the nearly 7,000 tonnes of the Delhi class destroyers to nearly 4000 tonnes older generation Godavari class frigates which are in reality stretched Leanders with two helicopters on board.

More and more stealth technology has been introduced in the Indian Navy vessels to enable penetration of the radar screen on Pakistan’s Makaran coastline.

If the Indian Navy is to be able to field task forces to patrol the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden and the Cape of Good Hope chokepoints on the west and the Malacca Strait/South Java sea approaches in the east and beyond, its ships will have to have long-range capabilities installed in its engine-rooms. The need of the hour is one should combine diesel and gas in the required propulsive fuel for fast destroyers and frigates. Indeed, that can get to their objectives all along the Indian Ocean littoral in quick time with enough lethality to be brought to bear on target.

In addition the Indian Navy has 24 corvettes of the 1350 tonne and less than 500 tonne capacity. These are used primarily for brown-water protection within the EEZ which role will eventually be taken over by the ICG. It may have to take over these vessels as part of its growth curve. It is predicted that to be able to patrol the whole of the EEZ,  the contiguous zone and the territorial waters the Indian Coast Guard will require a force of 300 vessels, 200 aircraft/helicopters and a manpower of 30,000. Many will be of the traditional frigate configuration with ICG qualitative staff requirements.   

With the Navy left with blue-water intervention and littoral combat capabilities it will have to redefine the range and speed capabilities of surface vessels that have hitherto been described as “frigates” which by itself is an extremely elastic configuration.

What India will need is ships that will be able to patrol the outer fringes of the Indian Ocean littoral in flotillas that are largely self-sufficient and yet networked to be able to integrated into a larger force at short notice with ability to stay on station for several months.  

The general assessment of naval requirement is about 50 vessels, in terms of numbers, as part of three carrier task forces (Virat, Vikramaditya, the indigenous sea control vessel being prepared at Cochin); as forward outposts off the five chokepoints on the western and eastern seaboards and robust presence in the Bay of Bengal, the mid-Arabian Sea and in the vicinity of the major sea lanes of communications in the Indian Ocean.

Out of these 50 vessels, more than 50 per cent will consist of large-tonnage frigates and destroyers capable of multi-role operations against submarines, surface ships and anti-air elements.

The basic concept of this two-tier disposition is that the Indian Coast Guard should be effectively able to prevent any infiltration from the sea as happened in the two infamous events against Mumbai.

The Indian Navy would then be left free to be able to “show the flag” with aggressive patrolling in the vast open spaces that lie between the Indian subcontinent, the continent of Africa and South East Asia. New designs for surface ships are emerging. What will be the Indian choice remains to be seen.