The creation of naval infrastructure has been dogged by an absence of funding. While there are more than 40 warships in various stages of induction, the infrastructure by way of berthing and repair and maintenance facilities have been lagging behind because of the laxity in funding which has severely affected the Navy’s ability to maintain cost-effective maritime security.
Cost-effectiveness is the product of location and ease of access to areas of responsibility. Because the new facilities, as envisaged by naval planners have not fructified, patrolling and surveillance has to be done over longer routes from bases deep within the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea littorals.
The delay in the execution of the three-phase Project Seabird at Karwar (where the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya is now based) has affected the rationale for creating a new naval base midway along the West Coast.
Decongestion of the Mumbai port is still a half-measure and unless the full complement of ships intended to operate from Karwar are available its strategic intent too remains unfulfilled.
That there is no land left vacant for expansion of naval infrastructure in the current naval bases in Mumbai and Vishakhapatnam, every effort ought to have been create the projected facilities on time and Mumbai decongested as planned.
Though not all the series of naval accidents have occurred within the Mumbai naval facility or on the approaches to the harbor, the consequences of accidents has tended to have a collateral effect which would have been avoided.
The main example being the fire hazard posed to a submarine berthed close to the INS Sindhurakshak when it exploded and burst into flames. The damage to the second submarine, though described as minor, cannot but have curtailed its next assignment till the damage had been repaired and tests conducted to ensure its seaworthiness. The sinking of the Leander class frigate after a collision with a container ship could also have been avoided.
The Karwar project Seabird has been running late by as many years as a decade. By now it should have been able to take the full complement of 50 surface warships and a dozen submarines (the Scorpene submarine project for which Karwar was to be the home base has also not fructified, not one Scorpene has come out of the dry dock in Mumbai to date.)
Project Seabird was to cater to the handling of 50 warships, undersea pens for about a dozen submarines, munitions depot, hospital and a naval township in the hinterland spreading over more than 11,000 acres across a 26-km sea front.
Phase I opened the base in 2007, with space for up to 11 front-line warships and 10 smaller FIC-type boats. Key facilities include the 10,000 tonne, 175 m x 28 m ship lift and ship transfer system for dry docking at the Naval ship Repair Yard. A new hospital, INHS Patanjali, had an initial capacity of 141 beds, upgradeable to 400.
The channel is one of the deepest and widest in India and that was why Karwar was chosen to be home base of the ex-Russian aircraft carrier. The Phase IIA is in the initial stage of commencement and at the end of Phase IIB it is designed to take 50 surface ship and ten fast interceptor craft under the control of the Sagar Prahari Bal which is responsible for the inshore defence of the coastline.
The endemic behavior of our defence planners can also be seen in the Seabird Project with cutting, chopping and changes which has seen the home state Karnataka’s dream of having a full length airstrip capable of taking the Airbus dashed with the Navy’s decision to have only a helistrip.
On the eastern seaboard also the Vishakhapatnam naval base INS Rambili which was to have undersea pens for India’s growing fleet of nuclear powered and nuclear weapons armed submarines has come up against environmental restrictions particularly because the hillocks under which the construction were to take place are crucial part of the ecosystem of the area. They are the catchments for the runoff which refills the underground aquifers currently used for agriculture in the villages around.
While the role and responsibilities of the nuclear submarine arm is not one of guarding the chokepoints but to position themselves at the most appropriate point in the sea to be able to launch their nuclear missiles if India is attacked. They are part of the deterrence capability of the nuclear arsenal and are considered to be the most important of the three modes of delivery of nuclear weapons because of the difficulty in locating and neutralizing them in the open oceans.
They constitute the retaliatory strike component of India’s nuclear policy. It is incumbent on the Government and the Ministry of Environment and Forests to expedite clearances in keeping with the exigencies of environment protection. Other sites must be explored to make sure that the project is completed as soon as possible instead of suffering the unnecessary delays of Karwar on the western seaboard.
Last year on the eve of Navy Day the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command had mentioned the offer of the Cochin Port Trust of 650 acres of land at Fort Kochi where it is executing the outer harbor project. The CPT had suggested a cost-sharing basis and the idea was forwarded to the Ministry of Defence.
As part of the Maritime Infrastructure Development initiatives of the Southern Naval Command, he had also disclosed a proposal for 500 meters of berth and 25 acres of land at Vizhinjam has been forwarded for approval by Defence Ministry. Vizhinjam lies at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and dominates the Indian Ocean and is close to the Hambantota base that China has created in south Sri Lanka and the Chinese facility in Maldives.
The Chinese attempt to create a “String of Pearls”-a euphemism given by western observers of the Chinese attempt to set up naval and political contacts all across the Indian Ocean littoral (stretching from the Myanmar owned Coco Island where it has set up an electronic listening post to the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan coast)–has prompted India to pay more attention to its maritime defences.
Among the earliest signs of this orientation was the creation of the Tri-Services Command in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The more recent was the commissioning of the naval air station INS Baaz at Campbell Bay. Some doubts have been raised about the efficacy of this facility by the failure to detect the Malaysian aircraft as it flew close to Indian air space by diverting from the south-north axis to the east-west route over the Malacca Straits and into the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean.
It is possible that IAF air control radars had been switched off to prevent the Chinese from reading and recording the wavelength at which the radar operates. This became clear when India refused China permission to send ships to search for the wreckage of the Malaysia aircraft to prevent them from fishing for intelligence around Indian naval facilities.
Apart from this existential danger there is another aspect that the Navy needs to keep in mind. That is, that being in an earthquake prone zone there is always imminent danger of a tsunami hitting the naval base and inundating it as happened to much of India’s offshore islands on the eastern seaboard in 2004 when waves rose to 50 ft. The Air Force base was completely destroyed.
Plans for the creation of naval facilities in the Lakshadweep group of islands make eminent sense. The requirement has gained urgency by the discovery of Somalian and east African pirates very close to this island group.
Situated about 300 km from the mainland it can be used as an operational turnaround station for the Indian Navy. Nonetheless, the first requirement would be to raise the level of the island by at least 15 ft to obviate the tendency to flooding after earthquakes as far away as Sumatra. The 2004 tsunami affected coastlines as far away as South America. Even Canada saw the waves rise.