Sea patrol

The Indian Navy’s Sukanya and Saryu class of offshore patrol vessels give India a trans-oceanic capability of sea control, sea denial and protection of vital sea lanes of communications. With the recent acquisition of the Italian built replenishment ships capable of transferring large amounts of food, water, fuel and ammunition, the Indian Navy can maintain a presence in either the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean for considerable period of time.

Lightly armed as a matter of course, they can be brought to light frigate level of warfare platforms at short notice. How deadly they can potentially be can be gauged from the fact that two of the Saryu class of naval OPVs designed and built inhouse by the Goa Shipyards Ltd have been used as test beds for launch trials of the Dhanush, sea based derivative of the land based Prithvi 1.

Between them the Sukanya and Saryu class of ships give the Indian Navy the ability to project power and presence. One ship of the Sukanya class of OPVs was sold to Sri Lanka underscoring the economic potential and the ability to fulfill the naval requirements of nations on the rim of the Indian Ocean Region.  

Power projection

With an intrinsic range of more than 11,000 km these vessels can routinely patrol the chokepoints at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the Suez Canal route in North Africa and the Persian Gulf on the western Indian Ocean seaboard and the Malacca Strait and the approaches south of Indonesia in the east.

With the acquisition of two new fleet replenishment ships from an Italian firm and the possibility of acquiring five more “mother ships” the Indian Navy will be in a position to project its presence in the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean if required.

However, the more important point at the moment is that so much built in facilities have been created immediately after the Mumbai attack from the sea route in 2008 that it is imperative for the Indian Navy, which has been placed in overall charge of maritime security at all levels from the seaboard of the Indian peninsula to the bluewater expanses of the Indian Ocean, to ensure that the homeland is safe from further harassment.

Several untoward events have occurred that underscored the vulnerability of the Indian coastline irrespective of the arrangements that had been made since 26/11 that have tended to undercut the trust placed on the Indian security forces.

To name but a few: The MV Pavit abandoned by its crew as far away as Oman on the other side of the northern Arabian Sea had drifted unnoticed all along Pakistan’s Makran coast to Mumbai where it spilled the residual furnace oil and crude cargo that was on board-a totally unnecessary visitation.

It should have been intercepted on the high seas and dealt with in professional fashion. The Indian Navy was found wanting. More ominous was the failure to intercept (after due intelligence was provided of a hijacked vessel being used by Somalian pirates as a ‘mother ship’ for their nefarious activity) the ship in the mid-Arabian Sea. Gauging by capabilities of the ships under the control of the Indian Navy at the time it had become obvious that it had nothing in its armory to be able to swim across fast enough to be able to intercept the pirates.

It was from these kinds of experiences that the facilities in Goa Shipyard Ltd were put to use to create Offshore Patrol Vessels capable of being out at sea over long periods and being able to travel fast enough and over great distances to be able to cut off escape routes of ocean malefic elements. Initially orders were placed with a South Korean shipyard and then the Hindustan Shipyards Ltd began construction of these long-range naval OPV of which 15 were assessed to be required for the Indian security forces. So far pre-Mumbai attack seven of the Sukhanya has been completed (one sold to Sri Lanka) and three of the Saryu Class (all OPVs are named after noteable Indian women) have been handed over to the Navy. The rest of the nine OPVs that have been ordered will be delivered over six-month intervals.      

In its own assessment of the best means required by Indian maritime security forces to be able to do a creditable job within the mandate given them it has been found that no matter how fast Fast Attack Craft-waterjet propelled- or any other surface vessel with the Indian Navy travel they will never be able to intercept pirates and, increasingly, jihadis on freelance operations, unless they are deployed in a particular manner in mid-ocean over specified periods of time.

Selecting alternatives

STRATEGIC AFFAIRS has earlier published reports where it asked the government to look for all the other available options including flying boats. But nobody within the Indian Navy or the Government of India had looked at this most obvious solution.  It was only after the story published that the government of India and Naval HQ began to look at this option which affords swift interventions on an ocean-wide basis. Japan is one of the countries that uses flying boats on a regular basis and given the geopolitical situation in the Pacific Ocean, India thought it is appropriate to begin negotiations with Japan on how to exchange technology in flying boat construction. A joint working group has been in operation for some time now.

Given the better deployability that flying boats afford anywhere in the Indian Ocean region, the manner in which the naval offshore patrol vessels are home based gives a good idea of how they are utilized.

At the time of Mumbai terrorist attack three Sukanya class OPVs were based in Mumbai. Though intelligence reports were clear that they would be coming to attack via the sea, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard were unable to detect the intruders. The terrorists hijacked the Kuber fishing boat before shifting to rubberized boats on which they paddled their way close to Mumbai harbor. The rest is unforgettable history.

Two OPVs are home based at Kochi and two at Vishakhapatnam on the east coast. The new generation Saryu class OPVs are appropriately based in Port Blair in the Andaman group of islands situated strategically in the mouth of the Malacca Straits and well within reach of the southern approaches from the Australian side.

With the rest of the new class of OPVs joining the Indian Navy every six months it is possible that either Odisha or Kolkata will host them so that their logistics are ensured when they are required to put out to sea to execute their duties.

Much of how effective they are depends on the exactitude of the grid reference given to them to check on suspicious events but, equally important is how they are deployed. It should be remembered that their maximum speed is equal to 46 kmph and they will need time to give chase and catch up with the culprit. That is why while patrolling and surveillance is the appropriate role for the OPVs chasing and arrest must be the responsibility of the faster and airborne flying boats.