It’s been a heady past week for the Indian Navy as it said goodbye to its iconic Tu-142 maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. It was also time to celebrate its modern and far more capable replacement, the Boeing P-8I, which has been operational with the Navy for some time now.
In moments of such sepia-toned nostalgia though, one must remind ourselves of a black chapter of India’s military history, when the only Indian Navy ship to be lost in combat was to a submarine. This is because notwithstanding certain new inductions the Navy faces rapidly deteriorating anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.
Yes, the P-8I has significantly better ASW technology - sonobuoys and acoustic signal processing capabilities - than the legacy Soviet/Russian platforms in Indian inventory. The trouble is with only 12 P-8Is currently contracted that isn’t even a 1:1 replacement for the 13 aircraft (8 Tu-142s + 5 IL-38s) it intends to replace.
Also while unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can plug some of the gaps in the maritime patrol role, they can’t kill submarines.
So what about the new towed array sonars on the latest ships like the Kolkata-class which promises radically improved detection ranges of hostile submarines? Embarrassingly, if these ships were to detect one at distance, they would not have an onboard ASW helicopter to kill it.
It is our botched procurement of ASW helicopters to both replace and expand the existing fleet that is at the crux of the ASW crisis. Purchases of 16 Sikorsky S-70B are stalled due to price escalation issues and a larger tender for multi-role helicopters capable of the ASW role stands derailed partly due to the Agusta scandal.
The lack of shipborne ASW helicopters is especially crippling in what is termed as “Blue water ASW” - when ships operate far away from territorial waters in international, and in times of war also enemy waters. Being far from their own bases limits the availability and time land-based aircraft like the P-8I can actually spend hunting for enemy submarines (“time on-station”).
The Navy recognised the importance of shipborne ASW helicopters way back in the 1970s when designing the Godavari-class frigate. It specified that the ship carry not one but two of the type, if so required. This requirement continued with the Delhi and Kolkata-class destroyers.
|It is our botched procurement of ASW helicopters to both replace and expand the existing fleet that is at the crux of the ASW crisis.|
Major navies like ours have long held that the best way to hunt submarines - arguably the toughest mission in naval warfare - is through a complex choreography of planes, shipborne helicopters and surface ships with the odd submarine thrown in. By our procurement bungling however we have taken out a key member from the submarine killing team and shifted the odds decisively in the enemy submarine’s favour.
More intangible but equally damaging is the loss of proficiency in ASW among the naval personnel who are unable to train due to lack of modern ASW helicopters. Most analysts miss out on the skill erosion aspect, assuming that capabilities are purely a function of hardware and that personnel can be trained in a flash in this most specialised of disciplines.
The cold reality is that even if miraculously dozens of ASW choppers would be procured within the next couple of years, it would take the better part of a decade for the operators to reach the desired level of proficiency.
As many as 18 officers and 176 sailors went down with INS Khukri. It never had a fighting chance. Let’s not tempt fate in a future conflict.