Tactical surveillance

Growing need for anti submarine warfare capability

With the arrival of three of the 12 Poseidon P-8I maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft, the Indian Navy would be closing gaps in its ability to trace and track both inimical surface threats as well the lurking danger of submarines in the vastness of the Indian Ocean-Arabian Sea-Bay of Bengal region.

The very scale of the requirement of surveillance of such huge stretches of water is daunting and it is understandable that eventually the Indian Navy would have a fleet of 24 Poseidon to identify dangers before they arrive within striking distance of the long Indian peninsular coastline.

The Poseidon will replace the existing Russian Tupolev Tu-142 and the Ilyushin Il-38 maritime warfare aircraft. Hopefully the avionics and surveillance suite in the Poseidon is adequate to look for submarines using the thermal layers in the waters surrounding India to seek out and hunt the enemy.

The P-8I aircraft

In the context of the range of the aircraft the Poseidon falls way below that of the Il-38 which is 9,500 km or the 6,500 km of the Tu-142 which enabled these aircraft to patrol all the chokepoints leading towards India and be able to trace and track enemy submarines returning from a visit to home base for repairs and half-life upgradations.

The range of the Poseidon is only 2,220 km and a mission endurance of four hours on station. It carries bladders for in-flight refueling but it can only be done with the help of the boom and not with the probe-and-drogue that India has chosen for its in-flight refueling operations. Does this mean that India will also have to purchase the boom operating refuelers just as it may have to acquire the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV),  tools that are a system by themselves that feed submarine information to the P-8Is?

As things stand, however, at least for the next ten years or so there will be a dual set of maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft in the Indian Naval Air Arm. The Tupolevs and the Ilyushins have just undergone midlife upgradations and their range of operations will still be available with the P-8Is patrolling the lesser distances. That is the reason why the option to acquire 12 more Poseidon at a later date has been incorporated in the deal. When the Tupolevs and the Ilyushins complete their designed lives the Poseidon fleet would be expanded and the Indian Navy will have an all-American anti-submarine fleet. An idea of what has been done will be available with the factoid that the Brahmos has become standard equipment in the refurbished fleet.     

The US was unwilling to part with some high-technology items without India signing the commitment allowing US inspectors’ direct and unrestricted access at short notice. India felt that it would compromise the Indian Navy’s tactical deployment given the secret relationship between the US CIA and the Pakistan Army Inter-Service Intelligence on Afghan-Pakistan issues.

So Bharat Electronics Ltd was asked to provide the Data Link II communications technology for the P-8I. The equipment was delivered to Boeing in April 2010. The communications system will enable exchange of tactical data and messages between Indian Navy aircraft, ships and shore establishments. The Identification Friend or Foe system is also a BEL product. India bought the AGM-84L Harpoon Block II Missiles and Lightweight Torpedoes for the P-8I.

Anti-submarine systems have become integral to almost every kind of surface vessel in the complement of helicopters they carry. India has introduced twin helicopters on its ships. They are used to look out for submarines in a wide arc ahead of the surface ship/aircraft carrier with dunking sonars. As part of double insurance all surface ships also carrying trailing acoustic sonars.  

In fact anti-submarine warfare and surveillance has an airborne aspect as well as an underwater dimension. The former is represented by airborne platforms like the Poseidon P-8I which use dunking sonar equipment and monitor the subsequent transmissions to gain information about a submarine’s location.

India’s concern

From India’s point of view the Malacca Straits and the passage south of the Indonesian archipelago are important as this international route is overcrowded and require surface vessels to drop speed. The southern route is however much longer and adds to the freight on board (fob) price of goods.

However, it is not the commercial aspect that India is concerned but the use of these passages by China to deploy its nuclear-powered and nuclear armed submarines into the Indian Ocean. More particularly long range maritime strike aircraft would be required to patrol the shortcut proposed by China at the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand which will cut travel time for Chinese goods and naval vessels between the Indian Ocean and the Vietnam waters. China is also seeking a land route across Myanmar to get to its Chengdu province

The reason why it is important for India to be able to make early detection of Chinese nuclear submarines at these chokepoints is that once within the Indian Ocean they can get lost more easily by diving deep, restricting speed to avoid detection of the wake of the vessel and positioning themselves at a point where nuclear missiles can hit selected targets on the mainland.

Because the whole of the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands is just 60 km from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia it is advantageous for India. The exit from north of the Andaman’s chain can be monitored in much the same way as China has set up an electronic listening post on the Coco Island on lease from Myanmar. India should create a submarine monitoring post on the island of Narcondom which it owns.

While trailing Chinese vessels and submarines may be feasible, it is an unnecessary irritant in peacetime when information like the acoustic signature of the engines and propellers would help in identifying and locating the presence of that particular target. It is possible to do this by laying an array of underwater sensors in sea lanes of communications that the submarines may have to traverse to or from homeports.

India has security relationships with several Indian Ocean island-nations like Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius which can help set up such arrays. However, as in the case of Seychelles it is possible to count the fishes in the crystal clear seas around this island chain and it will not take long for everyone to suspect that something is up. But it can be tried and the US has some considerable expertise in it.