Real Transformation
Aircraft carrier, new ships, fighter aircraft and the SSBN
By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The Indian Navy is on the threshold of real transformation. This will not be about the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that is underway in the three defence services since 2004, where in addition to an assured defence of own territorial integrity, the emphasis is on strategic reach called out-of-area operations in military parlance. The RMA refers to speed in the tempo of operations. This is possible by higher levels of situational awareness, network centricity through broadband connectivity to circulate this awareness to commanders at all levels in real-time and technical innovations in sensors and shooters to expend ordnance faster, more accurately and decisively. Regarding maritime warfare, it involves three technology competencies: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Interoperability (C4I); and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM). This RMA with a few nuanced variations is similar for the air force and army as well, and is being called ‘transformation’, which it is not. Transformation should be sudden and spectacular. The RMA instead is incremental. By government’s announced timeline it is expected to be accomplished fully by the end of 12th defence plan (2012-2017). Given the track-record, it may finally happen only in the 13th defence plan (2017-2022).

The real transformation will be the acquisition of nuclear powered submarine (SSBN) and submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) by the Indian Navy in 2009. What this means is that the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) will finally be handed over by the DRDO to the navy (expected by Republic Day 2009) for sea trials that are expected to happen in phases and should be accomplished in maximum two years. It will be up to the navy to commission the SSBN anytime during the sea trials. As for the SLBM, it is ready to be fitted on the SSBN. The SLBM has two variants, one is ready and the capability exists for the other. Once this happens, the Indian Navy will become the second navy in Asia after the PLA Navy to acquire this capability. This transformation will mean various things to different constituencies. For the navy, two things will happen: One, its nuclear deterrence role will take centre-stage relegating its others roles relatively. The challenge for the naval leadership will be to balance this role in terms of operational planning, acquisitions and budgeting with the other military, diplomatic, constabulary and benign roles. In all probability, the government would need to consider separate budgeting for the navy’s nuclear deterrence role. And two, there will be a profound psychological impact on the navy once it is catapulted from being a Cinderella service to one with an assured and credible deterrent capability.

This transformational development will impact significantly on the present chain of control for nuclear delivery as well. Once the deterrence at sea is established, the other two nuclear weapons delivery vectors will lose sheen. Notwithstanding the need for a triad as mentioned in the official draft nuclear doctrine, the aircraft as a vector will become unnecessary. This vector has two shortcomings: One, a single nuclear mission requires a total of 15 to 20 aircraft that includes escort aircraft in air defence role, as Electronic Counter Measures aircraft, and those meant to suppress enemy’s ground based air defence systems and so on. This is not all. At least two to three decoy missions with similar numbers of aircraft would be required taking the total to nearly 60 aircraft for the nuclear delivery role. Given that the air force has limited assets, which is why aircraft have not been physically transferred to the Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command but remain as dual-tasked assets, and that the daily sortie rate will continue to diminish as war progresses, the air force will find it extremely difficult to provide aircraft on nuclear delivery mission. And two, the severest limitation of employing aircraft for a nuclear role is that it may not eventually get through into enemy airspace or may get shot down. The aircraft as a nuclear vector was attractive only in the Eighties when ballistic missiles and sea-based deterrence was unavailable. Regarding ballistic missiles, while the scientists find this an attractive vector as they exercise control till the last minute, it has numerous operational limitations in our dispensation which need not be discussed here. Extremely reluctant to hand over the nuclear weapon to the user, at present, the scientists are allowed beyond the Forward Site: the FS is the point in the operational area beyond which civilians are not permitted.
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