Saturday, 18 October 2014

Nuclear-capable Nirbhay missile successfully test fired

Success proves Nirbhay sub-sonic cruise missile can strike 1,000 km into enemy territory

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Oct 14

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Friday, October 17, while the prime minister was exhorting an annual meeting in Delhi of top military commanders from the army, navy and air force to be ready for any call to arms, India’s newest missile blasted off from a road-mobile launcher at the Chandipur test range on the coast of Odisha.

This was the Nirbhay long-range cruise missile, which can be launched at a target more than 1000 kilometres away. Flying at treetop level and navigating its way through heavily defended enemy airspace where a manned fighter would be quickly shot down by anti-aircraft missiles and guns, the Nirbhay is better equipped to survive the flight to its target. Its relatively slow flight speed, just 1,000 kilometres per hour, allows it to navigate its way precisely to the target.

In Friday’s test, the Nirbhay demonstrated its entire bag of tricks. Launched from a canister, it blasted off vertically like a conventional rocket, then quickly levelled off into horizontal flight, or “cruise mode”. The solid rocket motor was quickly jettisoned and its second-stage, turbofan engine started up, propelling the missile forward.

Over the next 70 minutes, the missile navigated its way to 15 pre-designated “way points”, using a sophisticated inertial navigation system, which can take assistance from the GPS satellite network. Halfway through the test, the Nirbhay did a pre-programmed U-turn and headed back to Chandipur. After travelling 1,050 kilometres, the test was terminated and the missile splashed into the Bay of Bengal.

The Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) says the missile was monitored throughout its flight, including by an air force aircraft that flew above it.

“The missile maintained an accuracy better than 10 meters throughout its path and covered a distance of more than 1,000 km. The successful indigenous development of Nirbhay cruise missile will fill a vital gap in the war fighting capabilities of our armed forces”, said DRDO chief, Dr Avinash Chander.

This was the second test of the Nirbhay. Its maiden flight test, conducted on March 12, 2013, had to be terminated mid-way when the missile started deviating from its intended course.

The Nirbhay cruise missile is an Indian version of the American Tomahawk, which became an icon of high-tech warfare in the 1991 Gulf War through televised CNN footage of Tomahawks flying through the streets of Baghdad and precisely entering target buildings through open windows.

The Nirbhay has equally sophisticated facilities. It can “loiter” around a target, i.e. fly in circles until it is time to strike. Further, it can precisely distinguish its specified target within a bunch of similar targets.

Defence analysts have long speculated over whether the Nirbhay can carry a nuclear warhead. The missile tested today carried a warhead of 350 kilogrammes; that is the weight of a sophisticated nuclear weapon with a modern design.

The Nirbhay tested today was 7.5 metres long, which allows it to be configured for launch from land, sea, underwater and air. Submarines present the greatest challenge, since a submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) must be accommodated inside the cramped hull.

Indian submarines fitted with nuclear-tipped Nirbhay missiles would increase the versatility of the underwater leg of the nuclear triad.

A key hurdle to developing a long-range cruise missile like the Nirbhay is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which forbids signatory countries from assisting or providing technology to any other country developing a cruise missile with a range of 300 kilometres or more. India and Russia legally collaborated in developing the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile because its range was pegged at 295 kilometres, just below the MTCR limit. In building the Nirbhay, however, India has had to go it alone.

The key design challenge, which was to develop an air-breathing turbine engine that can propel the Nirbhay, was met by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Bangalore.

Pakistan, which has earlier tested and deployed the Babur (Hatf VII) cruise missile, is believed to have been supplied the engine by China, in violation of the MTCR.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Nirbhay cruise missile tested successfully


According to a DRDO press release, the Nirbhay cruise missile, with a range in excess of 1,000 kilometres, was successfully test-fired from the test range at Chandipur, Odisha, this morning. A video of the launch is placed above.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

India’s crown of thorns

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th Oct 14

Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) remains in the news, mostly for negative reasons --- the devastating flood and its aftermath; ceasefire violations on the border; and for what is shaping up to be a communally polarised election. With New Delhi failing to engage Srinagar meaningfully, resentful Kashmiris have dismissed its flood rescue effort as a self-serving gimmick, and blamed Indian bull-headedness for ceasefire violations. The forthcoming elections --- which New Delhi likes to hold up as Kashmir’s acceptance of democratic India --- will be dissed by Kashmiris as an Indian ploy.

If Prime Minister Modi is to drain the Kashmiri ulcer, he cannot be deterred by the strident, pro-azadi rhetoric, which reflects just one side of the Kashmiri brain. Instead, he must reach out to the other side, launching a serious initiative to convince Kashmiris that their future lies with India. New Delhi’s shabby practice for winning Kashmiri hearts has traditionally been to throw money at the valley through leaky schemes that benefits only the venal political-contractor lobby that is India’s constituency in the valley. Most Kashmiris find this practice deeply offensive, yearning as they do for political solutions to the 25-year-old armed uprising and the six-decade-long political struggle.

Mr Modi must, therefore, reach out to the valley with eye-catching political concessions. The obvious, low-hanging fruit waiting to be plucked is the Jammu & Kashmir Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1990 (AFSPA), the emergency law that legally empowers the army to search, apprehend, destroy property and shoot to kill on suspicion. The generals insist they need the protection of AFSPA in an environment in which militancy has taken control of the judiciary. In 2011, when J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah, proposed revoking AFSPA in the districts of Srinagar, Budgam, Jammu and Samba, the army’s top commander in the valley, Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain --- an officer acclaimed for his outreach --- flatly rejected the idea as premature.

Hasnain offered a comprehensive rationale for retaining AFSPA. He argued that the peace of 2011, coming after three straight years of mass street agitations across Kashmir, was a separatist strategy to rest, regroup and recruit; before resuming the agitation in 2012. Declaring that Kashmir presented not just a law and order problem but also an existential threat to India, Hasnain said the army’s road lifelines to its defences on the Line of Control pass through Srinagar and Badgam. He pointed out that the air approaches to Srinagar airfield, used by civilian airliners and military aircraft, needed to be secured by the army, as did the Srinagar cantonment, from where war with Pakistan would be directed. Underlying the army’s reluctance to forego AFSPA is the conviction that, once lifted, its reintroduction would be politically impossible, even in a crisis. Neither the central, nor state, governments have reassured the army on this account.

The army steadfastly rejects the proposal to withdraw AFSPA from Srinagar and Badgam, even though the J&K Police and the Central Reserve Police Force protect these districts, neither of which are covered by AFSPA. The generals argue that police and CRPF protection is just one layer of security. As important for keeping these districts safe are “area domination” operations by army columns to keep militants at bay. These operations, says the army, must be covered by AFSPA.

So far the army’s apprehensions have proved to be unfounded. The years since 2011 have gone by without renewed street protests. Now a new spectre has been raised --- the army says the NATO drawdown from Afghanistan at the end of this year could bring jihadi hordes flooding into Kashmir. Next year the bogey could be The Islamic State. One Kashmiri has asked me whether complete, global peace is a pre-requisite for lifting AFSPA and restoring normalcy in Kashmir.

Thinking strategically, rather than merely tactically or operationally, it is hard to dispute that AFSPA has emerged as a potent symbol of oppression, the disadvantages of which transcend any protection that it might once have provided the military. The army understands that, in battle, when a defensive position is under overwhelming attack, it is time to withdraw to a fallback position. Yet the generals have not translated that battlefield common sense to an identical situation on the psychological and perceptual plane. Defending AFSPA is simply too damaging for the army’s own image. It is time to fall back to the next position, by devising operating procedures that do not require the protection of this draconian law.

Criticism of AFSPA, which resonates worldwide, is embarrassing for New Delhi. In 2005, the Jeevan Reddy Committee, established to review AFSPA, termed it “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.” In 2013, the Justice J S Verma Committee, which was set up to examine criminal law relating to sexual assault, sharply criticised AFSPA and recommended its immediate repeal. Last year, the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission, mandated to examine extrajudicial executions in Manipur, noted that AFSPA had made “a mockery of the law”. International criticism has been as sharp with several UN special rapporteurs, and international human rights bodies urging New Delhi to repeal the law.

Repealing this law is essential for enhancing India’s moral stature and that of the army. It would substantially defang the criticism of human rights groups and that of Kashmiri separatists. Finally, it would send out an unmistakeable signal that New Delhi is ready for a political dialogue with Kashmir, a prerequisite for restoring normalcy to that troubled state. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Amnesty changes its style, seeks cooperation with New Delhi

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13 Oct 14

For decades, Amnesty International has been New Delhi’s gadfly in Kashmir, its crusading officials seldom questioning local accounts of human rights (HR) violations, compiled into reports that shone a bleak light on the Government of India.

On March 20, 2005, while US President Bill Clinton was visiting New Delhi, unidentified gunmen massacred 35 Sikhs in Chittisinghpura village in Kashmir. Amnesty International, as was its practice at that time, made a few phone calls and put out a report that suggested that Indian soldiers has staged the massacre.

Amnesty’s fanciful report said, “Several witnesses have said that about 20 men, clad in olive green combat fatigues, arrived in the village at 7.15 p.m. They told the people that they were Indian soldiers, and ordered the men out to be questioned…. As they started firing, the gunmen shouted 'Jai Mata Di' and 'Jai Hind'. In theatrical fashion, one of them took swigs from a bottle of rum (liquor popular with the army) even as the killing went on. While leaving, one of the men called out to his associates: "Gopal, chalo hamare saath" ("Gopal, Come with us").”

Since then, numerous analysts, including former CIA official, Bruce Riedel, have been convinced that the Laskhkar-e-Toiba conducted the carnage. Yet, Amnesty’s report still resonates. Most Kashmiris still believe the Indian Army killed the innocents of Chittisinghpura during President Clinton’s visit to highlight Pakistan’s meddling in J&K.

After decades of slamming New Delhi with such poorly sourced and inadequately verified reports on HR violations in Kashmir, Amnesty International has realised that it had marginalized itself in the world biggest democracy.

Since 2010-11, Amnesty --- which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and has 4.6 million members worldwide today --- has overhauled its structure and style, seeking to work with, rather than talk down to, New Delhi.

Since it was founded in 1961, Amnesty was controlled from London, since a majority of its donors are from wealthy western democracies --- the so-called “Global North”. Now Amnesty wants to extend its influence to the “Global South” --- the less developed countries (LDCs), and growing powers like Brazil, China, India and Russia.

“We want to be taken seriously in India. So we decided to be Indian in character, obtain funds from Indian donors, and be led by an Indian. Amnesty India’s business strategy aims to be fully self-reliant by 2019”, says V Shashikumar, who is joint head of Amnesty India, along with V Anantapadmanabhana.

This new approach has disconcerted Kashmiri separatists who have long been accustomed to pliant HR reportage. When an Amnesty team visited Srinagar in 2012, local newspapers complained that a “compromised Amnesty” could not be fair. Separatists like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik told the delegation that only foreigners could be trusted.

The militants, including Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin, were even more scathing, declaring that Amnesty worked “hand-in-glove” with New Delhi.

“They (Amnesty) are shedding crocodile tears to mislead people. Tell me how many times they have taken the issue of atrocities on civilians in Kashmir by forces to international forums” Salahuddin told Srinagar-based Kashmir News Service (KNS) over the phone on April 7, 2013,

Amnesty India is now a 50,000-member organisation that no longer relies on London for direction or funding. Its team of 80 workers reach out to potential Indian donors and members through a sophisticated social media campaign.

“We have told the government that we are eliminating any dependence on foreign funding. That means laws like the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA) will no longer be a bugbear”, says Shashikumar.

Yet Amnesty intends to continue its “campaigning” approach, releasing reports publicly, and goading New Delhi to act. This contrasts with the “advocacy” approach of other HR bodies like Human Rights Watch (HRW), or the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, which work behind-the-scenes with the government.

In 2011, Amnesty published “A ‘Lawless Law’”, a report on the draconian J&K Public Safety Act, 1978, under which Amnesty says 8,000-20,000 citizens have been detained without charge or trial over the last two decades.

Amnesty is also campaigning against the Armed Forces Special Powers (Jammu and Kashmir) Act, 1990, especially Section 7, which mandates prior permission from the central government to prosecute a member of the military in areas where the AFSPA is in force.

New Delhi remains suspicious. An Intelligence IB report, prepared soon after the Narendra Modi government came to power, has painted foreign-funded NGOs as encumbrances to India’s economic growth --- responsible for a presumptive loss to India's GDP of 2-3 per cent. The report named several NGOs including Greenpeace India, Amnesty and ActionAid, accusing them for stalling industrial projects, such as those floated by POSCO and Vedanta, by operating through local organizations such as PUCL and Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

After a decade of calm, army gears up for active border

"Our forces will make the cost of this adventurism unaffordable," said Jaitley on Thursday"

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Oct 14

After almost a decade of relative peace on the Line of Control (LoC) --- the mountainous, 776-kilometre-long, de facto border between Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the rest of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) that remains with India --- early-2013 saw a resumption of firing and aggressive patrolling of the LoC from both sides. Sporadic flare-ups since then have been mostly controlled without significant casualties.

This week, however, has seen firing spread from the LoC to the plains sector of Jammu, along the border between J&K and Pakistani Punjab. Media reports are erroneously calling this the “international boundary” or IB.

In fact, the IB --- promulgated by Sir Cyril Radcliffe on August 17, 1947, and accepted by both India and Pakistan --- runs between the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab, and the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab. Since the 1971 war, India and Pakistan have never exchanged fire across the IB.

The on-going firing involves Indian posts and villages in J&K, which begins near Pathankote and runs north for 200 kilometres to Akhnur, where the LoC begins. Pakistan calls this the “working boundary”, since it is contested like the rest of J&K. By firing here, Pakistan demonstrates that it remains unsettled.

On Thursday, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said, “The International Border has never been an issue at all and most of these violations are occurring at the IB.” In fact, for Pakistan, the “working boundary” is a part of the J&K dispute.

Targeting civilians in the plains sector, at villages like Arnia, gives Pakistan a softer option than tangling with India on the LoC, where Indian military posts are well fortified; and even mortars and machine guns cause only limited damage. Rather than facing robust Indian Army retaliation on the LoC, Pakistan is targeting the BSF, and villages along the “working boundary”.

Since Wednesday, firing has died down along the LoC, but continues along the so-called “working boundary”, where both sides have reported civilians killed. Each side has evacuated some 20,000 border villagers to safety away from the border.

This is not unprecedented. Prior to the LoC ceasefire of November 2003, both sides would target border villages, causing casualties to civilians. Border villages take survival cues from the military, often building underground bunkers next to their homes, into which they scurry when firing starts. Even so, civilians sometimes get caught in the open when enemy guns first open fire.

Senior Indian commanders assess that the Pakistan Army is activating the border to rally support at a time when nationalist and Islamist groups are protesting the army’s attack on North Waziristan, accusing it of acting at America’s behest. Pakistan’s military is also taking flak for recent drone strikes on militant targets.

“Pakistani generals want a mildly activated border to keep alive the India bogey. Strong army chiefs like (General Pervez) Musharraf and (General Ashfaq) Kayani did not need to whip up the India bogey. But the current chief, General Raheel Sharif, needs to play the India card. I think we will have to live with a more active border,” predicts a top Indian general.

Furthermore, India’s suspension of the dialogue process has reduced Pakistan’s incentive to keep the peace. When the dialogue process was under way, even if sporadically, ceasefire violations incurred a cost--- firing on the border disrupted the dialogue. With dialogue suspended, there is no diplomatic cost to ceasefire violations.

New Delhi, therefore, must now rely on imposing a military cost, through strong retaliation against Pakistani posts and villages. With Indian posts on the LoC better constructed and more heavily armed than Pakistan’s, an escalation of firing imposes disproportionate costs on the Pakistan Army. The BSF too has been instructed to retaliate strongly. New Delhi’s decision not to call for a flag meeting underlines its conviction that the military cost will soon become too high for Pakistan.

Top operational commanders from both sides --- the directors general of military operations, or DsGMO --- spoke briefly on the telephone earlier this week. Each side accused the other of violating the ceasefire. However, neither side requested for a flag meeting, where de-escalation is normally initiated.

"Pakistan, in these attacks, has clearly been the aggressor… If Pakistan persists with this adventurism, our forces will make the cost of this adventurism unaffordable," said Jaitley on Thursday.

It has been speculated that Pakistan has stepping up cross-border firing to infiltrate militants into J&K before the winter snows block the passes from POK. In fact, the infiltration routes around Poonch, Rajauri and Naushera --- in the lower-lying Jammu Sector --- remain open around the year.

Nor is it likely that Pakistan has activated the border to disrupt India’s counter-infiltration grid. The Indian Army prefers an operating environment where fire can be opened quickly on suspected infiltration. The ceasefire restrains India’s posts as much as Pakistan’s. If there is no de-escalation soon, infiltrating militants will face a more hostile reception at the LoC than they have since the ceasefire of November 2003. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Only baby steps forward in US-India defence ties

Diplomatic subterfuge makes it seem like defence pact is agreed. In fact, it has only begun negotiation

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Oct 14

The US-India defence relationship may turn out to be fruitful in the middle-to-long term, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington this week has more intentions than tangible outcomes.

Without any high-visibility signings of agreements and contracts, the two sides apparently resorted to diplomatic subterfuge to make an agreement under negotiation appear like a major step forward.

The US-India joint statement “welcomed the decision to renew for 10 more years the 2005 Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship”. No new agreement has been negotiated so far; this is only a decision to renew the old agreement that expires on 27 Jun 2015.

The renewal of a framework agreement is, in fact, a routine matter. In 1995, Washington and New Delhi signed an “Agreed Minute on Defence Relations”, which was valid for ten years. When that expired in 2005, the two sides signed the “New Defence Framework Agreement”. With that expiring next year, negotiations are under way on a new 10-year pact that will run till 2025.

The decision to renew the pact, and even the negotiation of a draft, began well before the prime minister’s visit to the US. As reported in Business Standard (“Belying optimism, US-India defence cooperation struggles”, September 26), New Delhi had kicked off negotiations in August by initiating a draft that proposed the wording of the new agreement.

The US has responded, with wording of its own. Business Standard learns from sources close to the negotiations that there are significant differences over the draft agreement. While India proposed that the new framework agreement should use very similar wording as the 2005 agreement, Washington is loath to sign an agreement without guarantees of delivery.

The 2005 agreement enjoined both sides to collaborate in 13 specific areas, including: participation in multinational operations; expanding two-way defence trade; expanding collaboration on missile defence; conducting exchanges on defence strategy; and increasing intelligence cooperation. Much of this was anathema for the United Progressive Alliance defence minister, AK Antony. Consequently, chunks of the 2005 agreement existed only on paper.

Responding to frustration within the Pentagon, Washington has signalled it wants a realistic agreement, including a schedule for reviewing outcomes.

There is frustration that the Defence Policy Group --- an apex US-India body that is co-chaired by the US defence secretary and India’s defence minister --- has not met since February 2012. Washington and New Delhi had an understanding that the DPG would meet at least annually.

The DPG is now scheduled to meet in the fourth week of October, with the draft agreement included on the agenda. However, this meeting too has the threat of cancellation looming over it due to Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s illness.

Jaitley’s visit to Washington this week, in his capacity as finance minister, has already been cancelled.

There is scepticism too over the joint statement’s intention to “reinvigorate the Political-Military Dialogue and expand its role to serve as a wider dialogue on export licensing, defense cooperation and strategic cooperation.”

For years, the Antony defence ministry had refused to take ownership of the political-military dialogue, palming it off to the ministry of external affairs (MEA). For the last several months, the MoD has had no joint secretary in charge of international cooperation --- the chair remains empty even today.

On the positive side, there is reaffirmation that both sides would “treat each other at the same level as their closest partners.” America’s defence relations with country partners vary, depending upon the categorisation allocated to that country. Pakistan, for example, is a “major non-NATO ally”, which allows it to receive various categories of defence equipment from the US.

New Delhi’s aversion to alliances has defied easy categorisation of the US-India relationship. It has been affirmed that India will enjoy the status of America’s closest allies, like the UK and Australia, but without being categorised as an ally.

Hopes for rejuvenating the US-India defence relationship centres mainly on the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Under this, the Pentagon has made a dozen proposals to the MoD, offering to co-manufacture and co-develop modern defence equipment with India. During Modi’s visit to Washington, the two sides decided “to establish a Task Force to expeditiously evaluate and decide on unique projects and technologies which would have a transformative impact on bilateral defence relations”.

New Delhi has signalled an unusually forthright convergence with Washington in the Indo-Pacific. The joint statement cites India’s “Act East” policy and America’s “rebalance to Asia”, and “affirm(s) the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”

Tantalisingly, the two sides “agreed to upgrade their existing bilateral exercise MALABAR (sic).” It remains unclear whether the “upgrade” would be in purely military terms, or a political upgrade with the bilateral Malabar exercise taking on a multilateral character. In 2007, China had objected when four countries --- Australia, India, Japan and the US --- had participated in Malabar.

The US committed to facilitating India’s admission into all four global technology control regimes --- the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. The joint statement says, “The (US) President affirmed that India meets MTCR requirements and is ready for membership in the NSG. He supported India’s early application and eventual membership in all four regimes.”

There remains a key divergence: New Delhi believes its impeccable non-proliferation credentials merit simultaneous membership of the four regimes. Washington, however, continues to adopt a step-by-step approach.

However, the right buttons were pressed for New Delhi with the statement, “The (US) President reaffirmed his support for a reformed UN Security Council with India as a permanent member.”

Thursday, 2 October 2014

A powerful surface navy lacks submarine punch (Part 2 of a two-part series on naval analysis)

The defence minister visiting the first Scorpene submarine being built at Mazagon Dock, Mumbai

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Oct 2014

Naval warfare experts agree the Indian Navy is capable of obtaining “sea control” --- or domination of waters and airspace --- in the Arabian Sea in a war with Pakistan. Equally, India can dominate China’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) through the Indian Ocean, cutting off trade, oil and commodities. This ability stems from India’s aircraft carriers and the proximity to naval and air bases on Indian territory. (See Part 1 of this series: “Indian navy: strong on aircraft carriers, short of submarines”, September XX)

Yet a bleaker picture emerges of the navy’s ability for “sea denial” --- bottling up enemy shipping in a particular area; or blocking it from moving through a passage; or preventing the enemy from using the seas freely. Submarines are vital for sea denial, lurking unseen, menacing enemy shipping.

India’s fleet of 14 submarines is too small to blockade Pakistani ports and interdicting its SLOCs at the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Aden; while also blocking China’s navy --- the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N) --- from crossing into the Indian Ocean through the narrow straits that provide access from the South China Sea. These include the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombei Wetar.

For all this, India can muster just 8-9 submarines, given the on-going need for maintenance and refit. Submarine availability was further damaged on Aug 14, 2013, when a Kilo-class vessel, INS Sindhurakshak, blew up in unexplained blast in Mumbai. Another, INS Sindhukirti, has been in refit since 2006 in Hindustan Shipyard, Visakhapatnam.

Meanwhile, even as India’s surface fleet grows, new submarines are not coming fast enough. Six Scorpene submarines that Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) is building under Project 75 will only roll out in the second half of this decade. Another six submarines being acquired under Project 75I will join the fleet only in the next decade. By then, today’s ten Kilo-class and four HDW submarines would begin retiring, with many having exceeded 30 years of service. The fleet will plateau at about 20 submarines, if more are not quickly bought or built.

In contrast, the PLA(N) has 53 conventional submarines, the majority capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles, according to the latest estimate from the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Furthermore, China is developing the new Type 095 submarine that can also strike land targets. Meanwhile, its fleet of five nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) is being expanded to 16-20 vessels.

Pakistan’s submarine fleet is growing too. China is selling Islamabad six Type-041 Yuan-class submarines to supplement its five existing submarines, which include three advanced Agosta 90B vessels, with air independent propulsion. AIP makes a submarine more dangerous than the diesel-electric variety, which must “snorkel” more often --- or come up to the surface to recharge its batteries. India will get its first AIP submarines only in 2018-19, when the Scorpenes start being built with this new-generation propulsion system.

New Delhi worries about this imbalance. Naval planners remember a debacle in 1971, when an otherwise outclassed Pakistan Navy sneaked in a submarine --- PNS Hangor --- that sank an Indian warship, INS Khukri, killing almost 200 Indian sailors and scoring an important moral victory.

Former navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, points out that enemy submarine strength is not countered by acquiring more of ones own. Instead, submarines are countered by building anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability --- which consists of specialist vessels; ASW capability on regular warships and helicopters; and maritime reconnaissance aircraft that can locate, pinpoint and destroy submarines.

Submarines, when submerged, are detected mainly by sonar equipment. This emits sound waves into water, and listens for reflections from the hull of any submarine in the vicinity. Once located and identified as an enemy submarine, it is destroyed with torpedoes or depth charges.

Here lies the navy’s most critical vulnerability. As this newspaper first reported (“Warships in peril as defence ministry blocks sonar purchase”, May 16, 2014) every Indian warship built since 1997 lacks advanced towed array sonar, or ATAS, crucial for detecting enemy submarines in the peculiar temperature and salinity gradients on our western seaboard. Since the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) was developing an indigenous ATAS, the defence ministry blocked its purchase from the international market. In the absence of ATAS, undetected submarines can pick off Indian warships with heavy torpedoes from 50-80 kilometres away.

On Aug 30, after a firestorm of media criticism, the defence ministry cleared the procurement of ATAS from the international market. Even so, the procurement process, supply and fitment would take several years more.

Another critical ASW vulnerability is the shortfall of multirole helicopters, which operate from warships to detect enemy submarines with “dunking sonars” that the helicopters lower into the sea. India has just a handful of these helicopters in service, but the purchase of replacements has remained stalled for years. Last month the defence ministry cleared an initial purchase, but the helicopters will take years to materialise.

The only bright spot in India’s ASW capability is the induction of state-of-the-art long-range maritime patrol (LRMP) aircraft that are effective submarine hunters. India will have eight Boeing P-8I LRMP aircraft (possibly 12 if an options clause is exercised) bought from the US to supplement eight ageing Russian Tupolev-142s (Pakistan uses the P3C Orion). LRMP aircraft patrol vast swathes of ocean, dropping “sonobuoys” into the water where a submarine presence is suspected. The sonobuoys detect submarine movements and relay its location to the LRMP aircraft, which then destroys the submarine with depth charges or torpedoes. Alternatively, it can direct a strike by another warship, submarine or aircraft.

Submarine experts like Rear Admiral Raja Menon (Retired) argue that India must develop indigenous, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), which can remain submerged almost indefinitely and, therefore, have longer mission endurance. India has already overcome the major technology challenge --- i.e. miniaturising a nuclear reactor --- while developing INS Arihant, the first of its planned fleet of six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).

To be sure, the US Navy --- the world’s most advanced --- operates an all-nuclear submarine fleet. Yet, India’s geographical and operational circumstances demand a mix of conventional and nuclear submarines. The Bay of Bengal, on India’s eastern seaboard, has a continental shelf that drops steeply from the coast, the deep water making it suitable for operations by bulky SSNs, most of which displace 7,000-13,000 tonnes.

On the west coast, the continental shelf tapers gradually into the Arabian Sea, with the shallower water unsuitable for SSNs. Here, the smaller conventional submarines --- India’s Kilo-class displaces 3,000 tonnes, and HDW submarines less than 2,000 tonnes --- can move more freely, especially in coastal waters. They are also quieter than SSNs, making them suitable for sea denial.

This is not to say that, SSNs cannot be employed in the Arabian Sea. Far out at sea, they are ideal for protecting the flanks of a carrier battle group (CBG). They would lurk at a distance --- operating submerged for indefinite periods --- to warn of approaching enemy warships and submarines.

India has no official project to build SSNs. Even so, the on-going Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project, under which India’s SSBN fleet is being built, is gaining the technological expertise needed for an SSN project in the future. Meanwhile, operational expertise and experience is being accumulated on a Russian SSN --- a 12,770-tonne Akula II submarine, named INS Chakra --- taken by India on a ten-year lease in 2012 for $900 million.

Senior admirals, keenly aware of the navy’s shortfalls in sea denial and anti-submarine capabilities, put on a brave front, arguing that effective sea control also creates sea denial. True, a CBG exercises sea control over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. But there are always crucial areas, far away from the CBG, where sea denial is essential.