Within the ambit of India’s overall defence-preparedness, an understanding of the prevailing state of India’s ‘naval’ preparedness requires considerable and consistent conceptual clarity. The succeeding paragraphs attempt to offer some brief examples of both, conceptual clarity (in which cases the Indian Navy has done well) and conceptual ambiguity (in which cases the Indian Navy’s contribution to overall defence preparedness has fallen short of the level expected twenty years after Kargil).
Basic Rationale of Naval Growth: Since successive governments of the Republic of India have consistently, consciously and deliberately abjured any formal military/naval alliances with other regional and/or extra-regional maritime powers, the Indian Navy is unable to afford (and has never been able to do so) to ape any of the ‘niche-navies’ of the world such as the British Royal Navy, or, for that matter, any of the navies of either NATO or the European Union. It has no option but to develop holistically, rather than being able to ‘specialise’ in one or another strategic or operational facet while leaving other facets to be dealt-with by some other navy.
Balance: As a consequence, the Indian Navy has always had to strive to attain at least three levels of balance in terms of its combatant and support platforms. The first is a balance between surface, sub-surface, aerospace and cyber capabilities. The second is a balance between its ‘brown-water’ (near-shore) capabilities and its ‘blue-water’ (distant, deep-water) ones. The third is a balance between its combat-capabilities at sea and its shore-support capabilities. Despite negligible funding support – especially in the immediate aftermath of the 1962 Indian military debacle against China – naval planners have always held firm to the developmental-axiom that it is only through such balanced development and deployment that the Indian Navy can remain relevant and significant across the entire spectrum of conflict.
Doctrinal Underpinnings: A major change over the two-decades that have elapsed since the Kargil Conflict is the far greater recognition of the criticality of providing an intellectual and doctrinal foundation upon which the organisational and material structure of the Indian Navy could be rationally built. In the intervening years since the Kargil conflict, it became widely acknowledged in naval circles that the acquisition and sustenance of the aforementioned ‘balance’ involves doctrinal and conceptual prerequisites that needed to be successfully completed before combatant-platforms – and the infrastructure required to man, equip, maintain and support them – could be sensibly and logically built / acquired and optimally deployed. Over the period under reference, it has become very nearly an article of faith that India’s ‘maritime strategy’ must necessarily be the plan or design by which the nation seeks to ensure that it is able to use the maritime space (the seas) in ways that are to its advantage while dissuading, deterring, and preventing others from using the seas in ways that are to India’s disadvantage. The reasons for India desiring to use the seas in ways that are to her advantage while denying others the ability to use them in ways that are to her disadvantage are collectively termed India’s ‘Maritime Interests’. These ‘Maritime Interests’ flow out of the country’s core national interest (i.e., to assure the economic, material and societal well-being of the people of India) and, in turn, the preservation, promotion, and protection of each of these ‘maritime interests’ in environmental conditions of peace, tension and conflict, feed back into the country’s core national interest.
However, India’s current military maritime strategy has a few significant – and tantalising – deficiencies in this regard. For one thing, it does not squarely articulate the ‘Naval Objectives’ that the Indian Navy must achieve in order to ‘preserve’, ‘protect’ and ‘promote’ each of the country’s Maritime Interest, in times of peace, tension, and, hostilities. As such, there is some loss of coherence between the parts and the whole. Another obvious error-of-omission is any mention of the Prime-Ministerial statement-of-intent for India to be a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond. This is a critical lack, because it misses the opportunity to spell out just how the Indian Navy — as the principal instrument of India’s maritime-security policy — would contribute to the provision of this net regional-security.
ORBAT. Great caution must be exercised in reading too much or too little into the ORBAT of any given navy, and, ‘bean-counting’, per se, is mostly a meaningless activity undertaken by a few ill-informed members of the media. It nevertheless merits reiterating that compulsions of ‘balance’ shape the Navy’s present and future combat-holdings, as witness the following indicative ‘Order of Battle’ (ORBAT):
- 01 x Aircraft Carrier (+ 3 under construction / planned-induction)
- 10 x Guided-missile Destroyers (+ 4 under construction / planned-induction)
- 13 x Guided-missile Frigates (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
- 08 x Guided-Missile Corvettes (+ 07 under construction / planned-induction)
- 8 x Guided-Missile ‘Light Corvettes’
- 03 x ASW Corvette (+ 9 under construction / induction)
- 03 x ASW ‘Light-Corvettes’ (+ 16 under construction / planned-induction)
- 10 x Offshore Patrols Vessels [OPVs] (+ 5 under construction / planned-induction)
- 1 x LPD (+ 4 x LPD under procurement / planned-induction)
- 3 x LST (L)
- 4 x LST (M)
- 8 x LCU Landing Craft [Utility]
- 12 x Fast Attack Craft (FAC [G])
- 06 x MCMV Mine Counter-Measure Vessels (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
- 04 x Fleet Tankers (+ 05 under construction / procurement)
- 08 x Survey Ships
- 04 x CHSV Catamaran-Hull Survey Vessels
- 01 x Research Vessel
- 01 x Ocean-going Tug
- 01 X Training Ships (+ 3 under construction / planned-induction)
- 02 x Sail Training Ships
- Total Ships: 114 (+ 77)
- 02 x Nuclear-powered submarines (+ 5 under construction / planned-induction)
- 13 x Conventionally-powered submarines (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
- Total Submarines: 15 (+ 17 under construction / planned-induction)
- Shore-based Long-Range Maritime-Patrol [LRMP] & Anti-Submarine Warfare [ASW] Fixed-wing Aircraft: 17 (+ 10 under planned-induction)
- Shore-based Medium-Range Maritime-Patrol Fixed-wing Aircraft (Dornier): 40 (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
- Carrier-borne fixed-wing aircraft: 45 MiG 29K/ KUB (+ Tejas [Navy] aircraft that are under indigenous construction and planned-induction).
- Integral (Ship-borne) rotary-wing aircraft.
Force Multipliers. The two decades that have elapsed since Pakistan’s costly misadventure in Kargil have seen Indian naval-preparedness increase significantly through enhancements in ‘force-multipliers’ such as the indigenous Rukmini data-communication satellite (GSAT-7) dedicated for naval communications, UAVs and UCAVs — both indigenous and from abroad, offensive and defensive Information Warfare capacities and capabilities, Maritime Domain Awareness capacities and capabilities (ranging from the Information Management and Analysis Centre [IMAC]), mid-air refuelling (provided by the Indian Air Force) for carrier-borne fighter-aircraft, a steadily-accelerating process of ‘constructive engagement’ with other global and regional navies, and, perhaps most significant of all, the development of a vibrant and dynamic MSME Sector that is unafraid or pitting its technical and business acumen against established powers anywhere and everywhere on the planet. This last-named force-multiplier is often neglected but is actually a game-changing one.
To return to more conventional arguments, the Indian Navy’s ‘sea-control’ missions are largely predicated upon its established ‘blue-water’ capacity and capability. The Navy’s prevailing doctrine and strategy documents emphasise that in times of peace and tension, this capacity and capability involves ‘dissuasion’, ‘deterrence’, the ‘shaping of the probable battle-space’ through ‘perception-management’ and ‘presence’ missions, the maintenance of ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ (MDA) through direct as well as cooperative surveillance, the gathering and collation of intelligence on a regional basis, and, the efficient discharge of the ‘diplomatic’, ‘constabulary’ and ‘benign’ roles of the Navy. In times of active conflict, however, it implies the ability to routinely and efficiently mount and sustain naval operations-of-war at significant distances — of the order of several hundred nautical miles — from the Indian coast. Not only is ‘air power’ — or, given the contemporary technological context, ‘aerospace power’ — critical to sustain both ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ operations at these distances, but this air-power must be available both ‘here’ and ‘now’. For the most part, modern, technology-derived, shore-based airborne platforms such as air-to-air refuellers (tanker aircraft) have overcome the ‘here’ component of this twin requirement for the sustenance of blue-water combat-operations. However, the ‘now’ component requires aerospace power that is an ‘embedded’ or ‘integral’ component of fleet-capabilities at sea. This is why integral air-power, as embodied by the combat-component known as a ‘Carrier Battle Group’ (CBG) has long been (and remains) a central operational concept of the Indian Navy. This is a synergistic and mutually-supporting conglomerate of warships centred upon an aircraft carrier. The adjective ‘synergistic’ is particularly apt because the combat-capability of the group as a whole — which, for the most part, comprises an array of destroyers and frigates — is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, while critically analysing the strengths and vulnerabilities of a CBG, it is very important to bear in mind that it is the ‘group’ and not the aircraft carrier alone that must remain the central point of reference. Yet, aircraft carriers are so highly visible, so hugely symbolic, and, tend to attract so much attention, that many media-educated/informed analysts end-up developing sophisticated but nevertheless fallacious arguments relating to the real and perceived vulnerabilities of this single platform alone, without realising that the CBG is like a mathematical ‘integer’ that cannot be fractionalised. This is why analysing the growth-indicators of future inductions of destroyers and frigates — and their propulsion and power generation equipment, and, even more tellingly, their weapon-sensor suites — is quite so important.
Clearly, the warships of the Indian Navy need to be assessed for their efficacy, efficiency, lethality, vulnerability and survivability not merely against the surface combatants of an adversary-navy but also against air threats (including anti-ship missiles), underwater threats (emanating from both, conventionally and nuclear-propelled submarines), and threats emanating from the electromagnetic spectrum (which includes the exploitation of thermal, optical and electronic signatures). There is little doubt that the optimal solution for the detection, localisation and prosecution of submarines operating in the vicinity of a fleet or warship-formation at sea is provided by manned multirole rotary-wing aircraft, i.e., helicopters. Helicopter operations are, in addition, integral to the complete gamut of maritime operations — ASW, amphibious operations, hydrographic surveys, Over-the-Horizon Targeting (OTHT) in missile-firings, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, etc.
Both, the Pakistan Navy and the Chinese Navy, realising the Indian Navy’s vulnerability to submarine-based attrition (resulting from grossly inadequate heliborne ASW capability), have concentrated on building and fielding submarines as the principal military threat to Indian maritime interests. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) within most parts of the northern Indian Ocean — most especially in the Arabian Sea — is adversely impacted by a ubiquitous negative temperature-gradient. This significantly shortens the detection range of hull-mounted sonars. On the other hand, as will be reiterated subsequently, towed-array sonars and ship-mounted variable-depth sonars impose often-unaffordable operational penalties in terms of manoeuvrability and speed – quite apart from a host of maintenance-related technological challenges that need to be wrestled-with.
Indian ship designers have been eminently successful in designing the Indian Navy’s guided-missile frigates (FFG) and destroyers (DDG) to have each such platform capably of the embarking and operating two 10-13 tonne multirole / ASW helicopters. This is no mean feat and ought to have given the Indian Navy a decisive edge over its potential adversaries. Indeed, a modern multirole/ASW helicopter, equipped with a variable-depth sonar with high-end processing capabilities, sonobuoys, a good EW suite, and weapon-stations optimised for anti-ship and anti-submarine prosecution, can do pretty much everything that a contemporary surface platform can. However, it lacks endurance and the logistic-support facilities that only a surface combatant can provide many miles to seaward of a friendly base or coast. Two such rotary-wing aircraft embarked on a given FFG/DDG provide a threefold increase in the warship’s efficiency, efficacy and lethality. By avoiding the need for the surface combatant to close an adversary to within its own weapon-sensor range, each helicopter minimises the man-o’-war’s vulnerability and hence enhances its survivability. While the physical ability to embark and deploy two 10-tonne helicopters remained a standard feature of indigenously designed and built frigates and destroyers of the Indian Navy, by the time that the Kargil conflict broke out, the Indian Navy had reached a stage of desperation in terms of the lack of rotary-wing aircraft that were integral to the Fleet. There were three principal reasons for this:
The first, which adversely affected the two Kamov variants (Kamov-25 and Kamov-28), was the break-up, in 1989, of the erstwhile-Soviet Union. Over the next several years, the aftershocks of this cataclysmic event put the entire supply chain management of spares for the Kamovs into total disarray. No longer was there a one-stop point (the Soviet Navy) for the facilitation and vetting of spares. Instead, there was a bewildering multiplicity of vendors distributed across the states of the erstwhile USSR, and later, grossly inefficient export-oriented entities such as Rosoberon Export. These interfaced with India’s equally ponderous bureaucracy in a manner reminiscent of the mating of giant turtles. The net result was that by the first decade of the 21st Century, only four Kamov-28 helicopters could be scraped together, that too after cannibalising requisite parts from the others as spares. The situation has improved only in the last couple of years when a contract worth over 2,000 Crores was signed in 2016, for the upgrade of all ten Kamov 28 aircrafts.
The second, which severely impacted the IN’s holdings of Sea King helicopters, was the fallout of the sanctions imposed by the USA’s Clinton administration in the wake of India’s nuclear tests of May 1998. This resulted in an acute shortage of critical spare parts for the already ageing Sea King fleet. This led to a policy of cannibalisation, wherein several aircraft were stripped of components, sub-assemblies and even entire assemblies, to keep at least a few Sea Kings in flying condition in the face of the protracted unavailability of spares.
The third is an old and well-known story. Bureaucratic ineptitude in the maritime domain is staggering, as are the lack of accountability for decisions taken (or not taken) and the general sense of nonchalant apathy. These factors, coupled with a marked inability on the part of India’s procurement agencies and processes to keep pace with a fast-moving and strongly capitalistic global defence market that is characterised by frequent mergers and acquisitions, and, a characteristic proclivity to take no decision at all rather than have decisions subjected to the Torquemada-like inquisition procedures of central vigilance, have made for a lethal combination.
Only in the area of Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters is there some cause for quiet satisfaction. In the opening decade of the current century, the Indian Navy inducted first nine and then another five Kamov-31 helicopters from Russia for AEW. Four more Kamov-31 aircraft were inducted in 2013 and this helicopter is, today, the mainstay of integral Fleet surveillance-operations. They are deployed upon the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, as also upon frigates of the Talwar Class, six of which have been built in Russia specifically for the Indian Navy (four additional Talwar Class FFGs are understood to be under procurement). However, they are a poor substitute for fixed-wing AEW aircraft such as the E2C Hawkeye and, consequently, AEW capacity-building remains work-in-progress.
The bottom line of this somewhat depressing saga is that the hugely expensive and complex frontline warships of the Indian Navy may well be formidable in terms of their surface-to-surface and surface-to-air capability, but they are vulnerable to a submarine threat — and this is predominant threat posed by both, the Pakistan Navy and the Chinese Navy. There is simply no way around this morass without an adequate number of 10-12 tonne multi-mission-capable (multi-role) helicopters. For us to exploit the design advantage provided by Indian Naval ship-designers, every indigenously built FFG and DDG must routinely deploy its full capacity of two such helicopters. This is essential to develop the procedures and processes required for the realisation of combat potential and includes such capabilities as Helicopter In-Flight Refuelling (HIFR), Recovery Assist, Secure and Traverse System (RAST), and air-stores/weapon-loading and handling skills relevant to torpedoes, missiles, depth charges, sonobuoys, chaff, etc.
Obviously, not everything that a balanced navy plans-for or does lies within ‘blue-waters’. Indeed, there are a host of combat missions that must, of operational-necessity, be executed within ‘brown waters’ and, as such, a very large number of brown-water forces have both substantial (i.e., ample) and substantive (i.e., meaningful) offensive and defensive firepower (along with associated surveillance-chains) in multiple dimensions — surface, sub-surface, air and cyber-space — and some even extend these capabilities to space-based surveillance! Likewise, ‘Coastal Security’ encompasses a variety of operational missions that lie squarely within ‘brown’ or ‘green’ waters and also incorporates significant organisational and training activities that are designed to provide or enhance requisite capability. The Indian Navy’s concentration upon the issue of seaborne-trade is driven by the fact that India and China both have an unusually high openness-of-trade ratio — i.e., the ratio of their respective overseas trade to their respective GDP values (India has a decadal average of some 36%, while the decadal average in respect of China is even higher, at 42.7%!). All this, in aggregate, is what drives the demand for ‘blue-water’ assets as well as ‘brown/green water’ ones.
The Chinese SSN-Threat: At the operational level, China’s submarines – especially nuclear-powered ones (SSNs) – increasingly prowl the inky depths of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the SSN may well be considered to be the operational-level centre-of-gravity of the PLA Navy operating in the Indian Ocean. Chinese SSNs, sailing for combat patrols from their underwater tunnels from the Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island, remain submerged right from their point of departure onwards. They are, thus, largely impervious to detection. However, to effect a transit from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean, a submarine must necessarily use one or another of the four narrow choke-points that connect these two oceanic spaces – the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Sunda-Bangka, the Strait of Lombok-Makassar, and the Strait of Ombai-Wetar. Indonesia sits astride all four and this gives that archipelagic nation an enormous degree of strategic significance. While any of the chokepoints under discussion may be used by a submarine that is proceeding on the surface, three of the these four are unavailable for a large SSN wishing to undertake a submerged transit. The shallow-depths that obtain in the Strait of Malacca, along with the high density of shipping traffic, do not permit a large SSN to effect a submerged-transit through this strait. Farther south lies the Sunda Strait. Here, too, however, the abundance of navigational hazards and the presence of strong underwater currents preclude an underwater-passage of a large SSN. Continuing south-eastward, the Strait of Lombok, which is located east of the island of Bali, is capable of being used by diesel-electric submarine (i.e., an SSK), but not by large SSNs. The latter, while submerged, can only use the Strait of Ombai-Wetar, which is the southernmost of the four choke points.
Since the process of tracking a submarine can only begin once the submarine has been detected, the central combat-question for the Indian Navy is how this detection is to be achieved in the case of a Chinese SSN that began its transit (ex-Yulin) entirely submerged and which will undertake its entire patrol-mission underwater.
Sound waves, rather than electro-magnetic ones (e.g., radar, light, etc.) are the option of choice for detection of objects within the underwater medium. Often, searching for submarines is done by surface-combatants, simply because of the long endurance of the latter. While the Indian Navy, in conjunction with the DRDO and industry, has developed a whole series of technically-advanced sonars and associated signal-processors, and has fitted them aboard its various Classes of warships, hull-mounted sonars suffer from several disadvantages, not the least of which is that the signal-interference caused by surface weather and the noise that the ship itself generates tend to obscure faint noise signals being received from distant submarines. One solution, which the Indian Navy, like many of the world’s leading navies, has attempted is for the warship to tow or trail a hydrophone array at some distance behind it and at a predetermined depth, thereby removing the deleterious effect of the ship’s own propeller-noise and machinery noise, as also the interference caused by weather conditions at the sea-surface. However, the operation of streaming and trailing these towed arrays carries significant technical penalties and imposes severe limitations upon the ship’s speed and manoeuvrability. These limitations notwithstanding, specialised warships of the Indian Navy are, indeed, deployed specifically to monitor low-frequency sound, using towed sonar-arrays. The attempt is to place the towed sonar-array within the SOFAR channel (an abbreviation for Sound Fixing and Ranging channel). The SOFAR channel is a horizontal layer of water in the ocean, which acts like a waveguide for sound. Within the channel, low frequency sound waves that are generated by submarines may travel thousands of miles before dissipating. This sort of mobile system is typified by what is known as SURTASS (Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System), which has the advantage of enabling the warship being able to get close to possible contacts and to thereafter follow them, but it can only be in one place at a time, and must eventually return to port.
In recognition of the formidable challenges of trying to search for a submerged submarine in a large area of the ocean, the option of mounting ‘patrols’ rather than ‘searches’, is often preferred. The essential difference between a ‘search’ and a ‘patrol’ is that in a search, the scout goes out to search for the object that is sought, while in a patrol, the scout waits for the object to come to it or to cross one or more pre-determined lines, known as ‘barrier lines’. The ‘barrier-lines’ are patrolled in such a manner that a submarine cannot cross a barrier-line without being detected. SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) is an example of a remotely-monitored, unmanned-patrol of a barrier line. SOSUS comprises a chain of linked hydrophones that are laid upon the seabed to act as listening posts for low frequency sounds emitted by submarines. The sound-signals received by the hydrophones are transmitted by underwater cables to distant locations ashore, where they are monitored and analysed. In general, the lower the sound frequency, the longer it travels underwater without serious attenuation. Thus, hydrophones that are designed to receive low frequency signals may reasonably be expected to be capable of long-range detection of submarines. SOSUS-development began in 1949 and was initiated by the US Navy to counter the threat posed by the former Soviet Union’s large fleet of diesel-electric submarines. Since the early 1950s, SOSUS chains placed on the seabed of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have become commonplace, although the focus has steadily shifted away from the detection of SSKs and towards that of SSNs and SSBNs. The Indian Navy is striving manfully to develop this sort of capacity, but it is not quite there yet — even two decades after Kargil, largely because it has not adequately invested in developing its potential in terms of capability, and has largely remained mesmerised by ‘capacity’ alone. It is very important for India and its Navy to remember that ‘capacity’ is not the same as ‘capability’. ‘Capacity’ is a term relevant to ‘material wherewithal’ — i.e., the provision of hardware. This could include platforms, infrastructure, equipment, or spares, any or all of which might be provided to entities that have a need to develop a certain capacity to undertake one or more maritime (or naval) role or mission. ‘Capability’, on the other hand, is the creation of requisite skillsets through organisational, administrative, training, and, the development and exploitation of human skill-sets. The Indian Navy may well have shortfalls in terms of capacity, but its inability to leverage its abundance of ‘capability’ – especially in respect of its technical personnel – represents a serious deficiency, whose costs will be increasingly hard to bear as we shift our focus from Pakistan to China.
To return to SSN-detection, geography and hydrography play very important roles in determining where best to site these SOSUS arrays. Conscious of these imperatives, the USA and Japan have jointly developed and deployed a new string of SOSUS chains. The colloquial name for this network – ‘Fish Hook’ – is derived from its shape. Complementing and extending Japan’s older SOSUS chain across the Tsushima Strait that separates Japan from South Korea, the new chain begins near Kagoshima in the south-west part of Japan’s Kyushu Island (the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan). It then runs down Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, where it is joined by a branch running from the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, before proceeding across the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Luzon (Philippines). Within the Philippines, it from off Subic Bay to Balabac Island (east of the Spratly Group), before emerging again from the southern tip of Laut Island, located off Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province of Borneo. It moves due south, fencing in the Java Sea before curving westwards to the north-eastern tip of Java. The curvature of the fish-hook covers the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, from where the general alignment is intended to move from northern Sumatra towards India’s own Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is widely expected that the data generated by this ‘fish-hook’ of SOSUS sensors will be networked with the Indian Navy’s Gurgaon-based Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC). The IMAC is the hub of the high-bandwidth National Command Control and Communications Intelligence network (NC3I), set up under the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) project.
The SOSUS option is critical to the success of Indian endeavours to track Chinese submarines, and New Delhi needs to consider the straits of Lombok and Ombai-Wetar as the Indo-Pacific equivalent of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap of the Cold War era. Towards this end, it is important to bear in mind that advancements in SOSUS arrays have been continuous over time. These include the augmentation of arrays that are themselves mounted upon the seabed with vertically-arranged arrays that are inherently buoyant but are moored (anchored) to the seabed by a suitable tether. Likewise, there have been very large improvements in the physical (cables) and electronic means in which data from individual SOSUS arrays is communicated to shore-based monitoring and analysis stations located several hundreds of miles away. Current efforts are geared towards a new system called DRAPES (Deep Reliable Acoustic Path Exploitation System) which, like SOSUS, will be a fixed passive listening system with a new and state-of-the-art communications capability to transmit its data. While in the US Navy, these monitoring and analysis stations are known as Navy Operational Processing Facilities (NOPFs), the Indian Naval one would probably have to be the IMAC. Apart from undersea cables, communications satellites have also been pressed into service for the rapid transmission of data. However, the most significant advances have been in signal-processing techniques and the incorporation of very high-speed computing.
Fixed systems like SOSUS, and now DRAPES, are integrated with SURTASS and other tactical towed arrays, as also with aircraft and space-assets and this integrated system is generically known as an Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS). In practice, SOSUS/DRAPES have the advantage of providing permanent coverage over target areas and then ‘cueing’ a mobile sensor capability, like a ship or aircraft, to zero in on a submarine it detects.
However, no single sensor/platform combination provides all the answers to the problem of submarine detection and tracking. Every sensor has its limitations. As a result, each application usually involves a suite of sensors, platforms and computer-based models. Thus, the Indian Navy needs to expend considerable effort in the field of non-acoustic submarine-detection, bearing in mind that satellites, in particular, are making a real and meaningful impact. Over and above their proven efficacy in enabling near-instantaneous transmission of large volumes of data from SOSUS/DRAPES sensor-arrays to the NOPFs, ocean-surveillance satellites can track submarine wakes, which are persistent and stretch out for miles. Of course, they cannot do so continuously and not in all underwater environments. Nevertheless, with the Chinese ‘Gaofen-4’ ocean surveillance satellite building upon the successes of the earlier ‘Haiyang’ and ‘Yaogan’ series, space-based maritime surveillance has become a top priority for the Chinese Navy. The Indian Navy needs to follow suit.
The foregoing issues offer strong strategic reasons for Indian Naval advocacy and pursuit of an India-US-Japan-Australia-Indonesia alignment. Such an alignment holds out tremendous promise in a host of newer anti-submarine technologies, including the joint development of submarine-tracking unmanned, surface-drones such as the Sea Hunter and underwater ones such as the SHARK Class. Indian naval investment in underwater drones is an imperative that ought to have been pursued with vigour. Big data is another Indian strength-area and needs to be exploited. For instance, it with the right algorithms and adequate computing-power, it is possible to refine a fuzzy picture to the point that low-frequency sonar becomes tactically useful.
So, after all is said and done, how does the India Navy’s defence-preparedness report card read? Middling Fair, I would say. There is much ground that has been covered and there is much that needs to be covered. As one of the only Trump-ian statements worthy of being quoted has it, “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”
(Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd) is
Director General, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of July-August 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)