It is a low which is hard to parallel, coming at a time when India’s defence ministry has seen its longest spell of stability under its longest-serving Defence Minister. India’s biggest warships, including the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, have been left with nearly no protection against enemy submarines.
If not having a new Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) for more than a month was not embarrassing enough, Indian Navy (IN) is now staring at the ignominy of seeing its biggest warships including a bunch of top destroyers become virtually defenceless against the ever-growing submarines fleets of the navies of Pakistan and China. The cause for this is the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which has been dithering over the navy’s plea seeking an urgent go-ahead for an upgrade of Kamov 28 Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters.
Of the ten Kamov28 helicopters that were procured from the then USSR in the mid-80s, only four are in flying condition today and the remaining have been mothballed for spares, it was learnt.
“The navy is today being asked to make do with four Ka28 helicopters which have the technology of mid-80s for training pilots, doing ASW roles against modern submarines for the five Rajput class destroyers as well as the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya,” said source.
The case for the Mid Life Upgrade (MLU) was moved by the navy in 2008, bids for which were opened in 2012. It was for the first time that the naval helicopters of Russian origin were to be married with western sensors, making the Ka28s state of the art. The Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Rosoboronexport and Finmeccanica had tied up and IN’s Ka28s were to be the first aircraft to get this with the total project costing over Rs.2000 crore, thereby requiring a Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS) nod. Having secured the approval, the MoD and navy painstakingly processed the case and even concluded Contract Negotiating Committee (CNC) with the parties involved. However, following the VVIP helicopter scandal of last year which had Finmeccanica’s AgustaWestland 101 helicopters at the heart of the matter and Finmeccanica’s involvement in the Ka28 upgrade, the MoD sought a clearance from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Subsequently, a team from the MoD had provided to the CBI all the details of the case and had even got a go-ahead. However, for over a month now, the navy is yet to hear from the Defence Minister’s office. Only once the Defence Minister accepts the navy’s case can the file be sent to the CCS for vetting.
A request sent last week to the MoD’s public relations wing for an official response on this went unanswered however sources pointed out that with the upcoming elections, ‘shutters are being downed and things are moving slower, if at all.’
For a surface ship, the biggest threat emanates out of sub surface ships or submarines. While every ship has hull-mounted sonar for tracking sub surface threats, experts believe that for neutralizing enemy submarines, few can match the potency of an ASW helicopter. It is also the case that in the waters of Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the larger Indian Ocean, due to composition and currents, hull-mounted sonar often lose their edge, a point where ASW helicopters with their dunking sonars come in.
The other helicopter that the navy has for ASW roles is the Seaking Mk.42B which is rapidly ageing and is stretched with existing ship-based duties as well as guarding the other aircraft carrier, INS Viraat. Efforts are on deploy them on INS Vikramaditya too but being a western platform, marrying it to a Russian ship will at best be make do.
Devoid of helicopters, the navy will deploy more number of ASW ships for the job as well as further stretch its Seaking fleet, which again is a luxury few believe the navy can afford at present.
Amit Cowshish, former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), MoD: “If the processes are done, then the delay is inexplicable. Nothing stops the MoD from attending to the urgent and genuine needs of the armed forces merely because elections are around the corner. I’d say even the services need to push harder.”
Vice Admiral (Retd) KN Sushil: “What makes a submarine vulnerable to an ASW helicopter is the fact that the submarine can’t detect it. The integral sonar onboard a ship has a limited range which is normally less than the weapon range of a submarine whereas an ASW helo can operate beyond the range of the ship, protect better and is able to react much quicker than a ship.”