Acknowledging depleting levels, navy orders immediate relocation of two ships from the east; procurement procedures and navy’s lack of persistence blamed for the crisis
It has been extensively documented how depleting force levels have blunted India’s edge in critical spheres like submarines and aircraft carriers. Now comes proof of yet another aspect wherein the Indian Navy’s (IN) ambitions have come a cropper – detecting and hunting enemy mines.
Last week’s de-commissioning of the INS Ratnagiri, a 32-year-old Pondicherry-class coastal minesweeper, has left the navy’s western command with just one such ship i.e INS Allepey. In this situation, experts feel, we should thank our fortunes that we are not in a precautionary/war-like situation.
Even though the Naval headquarters, New Delhi has tasked two minesweeper ships from the Vizag-based Eastern Naval Command (ENC) to relocate and aid the WNC, it is learnt that this move may take months to achieve completion.
For a navy which concerns itself with a region as wide as the Indian ocean, from the Mallaca straits in the east to the strait of Hormuz in the west, why have things come to such a sorry pass in yet another area? Why was nothing done to augment force levels for over two decades after the last of minesweepers were inducted? Do we blame the usual procurement woes? Or did the navy not prioritise well-enough?
Trends, past and future
Underwater mining and counter-mining, an aspect which requires dedicated ships to tackle, is not new to India. In fact, the naval history of the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict clearly demonstrated Pakistan’s intent of using submarines for laying mines in harbours to attack and restrict major ships. In fact, Pakistan used submarines to attack India on the east as well as the west using subs acquired from France and the US. Today too, Pakistan, which directly faces the WNC, is relying more on submarines than anything else. Experts term it ‘sea denial’ strategy whereby a power opts for sabotage and hit-and-run tactics over direct confrontation. Given its bleak economic outlook, such a cost-effective strategy is expected to continue guiding Pakistan.
That apart, effective mining can also deal a body-blow to trade routes i.e routes at sea wherefrom a nation’s commercial cargo (oil, heavy machinery, arms imports etc in India’s case) moves in and out.
Said Commodore (retd) Shyam Kaushal, considered a veteran on the aspect of mining and counter-mining, “Typically, when a belligerent power faces a mightier adversary, mining is a cost-effective option. The cost of laying one mine is barely one to ten per cent of removing one. Speaking about the future, he said, “Mine warfare will have a very important role in the time to come.”
In absence of dedicated ships, the WNC has been forced to rely on the portable, ‘clip-on’ side scanners which can be mounted on any of the other ships to also perform minesweeping tasks. “They are good but they are alternate measures. Every ship has a task to do and by making substitutes, there is always an area that you are neglecting,” said an officer. He added, “Today, almost every procurement in our country stands delayed. Minesweeper ships are just one of them.” The last of these minesweepers were inducted in the late 80s. In the two decades which have gone by, there has been little thinking on replacing these ships.
“For every ship that gets decommissioned, there should be a replacement already inducted or about to be inducted,” mentioned an officer. Far from it, presently even the program for constructing newer minesweeper ships – a process which will take atleast three years, has NOT begun. “The proposal is awaiting clearance from the Finance ministry. We were expecting the clearance to come in the last financial year. But it did not. Hopefully, we should get it this year,” mentioned a senior official in the Defence Production department of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
There is unanimity that currently, India does not face a threat from mines. However, complacency could be suicidal, in case even a pre-war situation emerges. Mentioned Vice Admiral (retd) Sanjeev Bhasin, who has commanded the WNC, “It the primary responsibility of a service (navy in this case) to push its case as hell to conclude contract. But that’s not all. The typical Indian problem of lack of integration between the civilian and military functionaries ensures that cold water is poured over such enthusiasm.” He added, “For example, a secretary in the MoD is more often than not an outsider to defence matters. Thus when he/she raises even basic queries, which are often very easy to answer, it takes a long time for files to travel between MoD and the service hqs. And the more the queries, the more time it takes.” He further explained, “By the time issues are resolved, newer technologies come in whereby service wants to re-design its QRs (Qualitative Requirements). So all evaluations have to be re-done and costs re-worked. All this leads to ‘paralysis by analysis’.”
Additionally, it is not new for attempts to be made by commercial interests to disrupt acquisitions. “Even for the minesweepers, the moment we concluded the contract, we were flooded with anonymous letters alleging all kinds of kickbacks and bribes. Now we can neither ignore them fully or keep probing every allegation. Thus more checks are ordered and we face delays,” said an officer currently serving in New Delhi.
Further, it is also a question of prioritising your expenditure said another senior naval officer. “As an emerging nation, we have a basket which has very limited options. In that case, you can’t fault us for choosing an aircraft carrier or destroyer over a minesweeper,” he mentioned. He however added it was negligence of the navy that mine warfare did not get adequate attention for over two decades.
Most believe the answer lies in actual integration between services and MoD. “If uniformed officers are made to sit in MoD and civilian officers in service hqs, queries can be resolved quickly and greater synergy can be achieved. But the importance of this is just not understood. In fact, we had tried this at the level of Joint Secretary in the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) hqs but no IAS officer was ready to sit in our hqs. The MoD would half-heartedly send junior officers on additional duties,” added admiral Bhasin.
Navy’s minesweeping troubles don’t just end at numbers. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, in its previous year’s assessment had pointed fingers at the navy for not executing a Mid Life Upgrade (MLU) program of four minesweeper ships well. It alleged that delay ensured that vital Mine Counter Measure (MCM) suite and weapon systems worth Rs 170 crore were not fitted during upgradation. And with the limited residual life of the ships available after upgradation, benefits of any subsequent upgradation in MCM suite and weapons system will get nullified.
In an email response, the naval hqs mentioned:
“The reduction of the strength of minesweepers in the WNC is a known area of concern. Plans are already in place to bolster the strength of MCM vessels in WNC by re allocating a few ships from the Eastern Naval Command. This relocation of ships is already in the process of execution and should fructify in a few months.”
The navy further informed, “In so far as the long-term steps, please be informed that having identified MCM capability as an area requiring critical and focussed attention, the Indian Navy is at an advanced stage of processing a contract for 8 new MCM vessels in the XII plan period. Two of the eight ships are to be manufactured abroad and six will be built in an Indian shipyard.”
A senior official in the MoD mentioned that South Korea’s Kangnam corporation has been declared as the lowest bidder in the tender concerning the new mine warfare ships. Giving a peek into this next-generation ships, he informed that it will be a transfer of technology for construction of the ships. At 65m in length and over 700 ton displacement, these ships will usher in a new era as they will be among the few ships in the world with a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) component integrated.
“These will be non-magnetic hulls which can even withstand mine explosions. In fact, the Koreans are already using it. But before building it for us they will be required to prove it afresh,” the official added.