The challenges before the Indian Navy in retrospect
Adm. Arun Prakash (retd)
Our racial memory has, with good reason, always been obsessed by the perpetual threat of invasion from the Himalayan passes; the Pakistani marauders who came across Uri in ’47 and the PLA hordes who swarmed down the slopes of Tawang in ’62 only served to reinforce this historical and cultural fixation.
When India gained Independence, those charged with planning for the country’s embryonic maritime force were fortuitously, men of vision; and within six months had prepared a 10-year expansion plan for the consideration of the Government of India. The plan was drawn up around the concept of two fleets; one for the Arabian Sea and the other for the Bay of Bengal, each to be built around a light-fleet carrier to be later replaced by larger fleet carriers. This somewhat grandiose plan, which received the approval of both, the Governor General Earl Mountbatten and the PM Pandit Jwaharlal Nehru unfortunately failed to materialise. Hostilities with Pakistan in the state of Jammu and Kashmir barely two months after Independence focused the young nation’s attention as well as scarce defence resources towards the Himalayas rather than the oceans, and the naval plans were put on the back burner.
Subsequently, during the first few decades post-Independence, the IN existed in an environment of uncertainty. There was a time when we needed to justify, year after year, our plans, our acquisitions and often our very raison d’etre to a sceptical government. It was only in the 1980s that the navy’s potential as an instrument of state power began to dawn on decision-makers and found a permanent niche in their consciousness.
As the smallest of the three armed forces of a nation beset with a continental mind-set, the IN has faced numerous challenges from time to time. This article attempts to provide a ringside view from the higher reaches of NHQ, circa 2003-06, as well as some personal views and observations relating to force planning issues and processes.
Today, India’s emergence as an economic power of global significance and our essential reliance on the sea for energy, trade and projecting influence, is rapidly changing perceptions, and arousing the maritime consciousness of the intelligentsia. While India possesses all the attributes of a potential major power, an inherent cultural diffidence holds her back from assuming the mantle and responsibilities of a regional maritime power. The challenge thus clearly lies in our minds; and re-moulding of perception has been a consistent endeavour of the naval leadership.
Conventional deterrence and war-fighting are indeed the bread and butter of navies, but these remain essentially linked to threats, which inevitably tend to wax and wane cyclically with diplomatic activity. Such has been our naiveté and myopia in matters of national security that periodically there emerges a view amongst decision makers that with ‘peace breaking out’ all round, the possibility of conflict is diminishing and that defence spending needs to be cut back. On occasions in the past, just as this view was about to prevail, a security crisis has arisen to bring us back from the brink; and so regrettably, we have seen this farcical cycle enacted many times in our brief history.
Of all the armed forces, navies take the longest to build and consolidate; and a growing force like the IN cannot afford to remain hostage to fluctuating security perceptions. The challenge for us therefore lay in reducing emphasis on threat perceptions as the sole arbiter in the force planning process, and bringing opinion (within and outside the navy) around to focus firmly a la Disraeli, on India’s long-term permanent interests in this context.
A beginning was made in 2004 with the promulgation of the Indian Maritime Doctrine, but the strategic thought process, in order to attain continuity and critical mass, required a degree of institutional reinforcement. The establishment of the National Maritime Foundation (a navy supported non-governmental think tank) in 2005 was the first step in this direction. Subsequently, the creation of the Directorate of Strategy Concepts and Transformation, the Naval History Division both in NHQ, and the Flag Officer Doctrines & Concepts in Mumbai, have helped to craft an institutional continuum which will hopefully foster doctrinal debate and discussion on maritime issues.
With our maritime interests as the focal point, an exercise was undertaken in 2005 to prepare a Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan to prioritise the capabilities (as distinct from number of platforms) required to safeguard them in the context of predicted fund availability. It was followed in 2006, by the release of a document entitled, Freedom of the Seas: India’s Maritime Strategy. This has completed a trilogy of documents, which provides the intellectual underpinning for the navy’s plans and should help to crystallise informed opinion.
The Challenge of Obsolescence
We were fortunate that the seeds of a self-reliant blue water navy were sown by our farsighted predecessors when they embarked on the brave venture of undertaking warship construction in India four decades ago. Since then, our shipyards have done very well to have delivered more than 85 ships and submarines, many of Indian design, to the IN.
While the hull and even the propulsion machinery of a warship is meant to last for two-three decades, what naval planners dread most is the onset of obsolescence of weapon systems as soon as the ship is launched. This is a very real challenge because a ship may take anything between six-eight years to construct (in Indian conditions), and since the imported weapons/sensors when nominated for fitment were already in service, they would be 10-15 years (or more) old by the time the ship becomes operational. Thus when the ship completes just half her life, the on-board systems are already over 25 years old and rapidly losing efficacy against contemporary threats.
The latest warship delivered to the navy, INS Beas, is stated to be 85 per cent indigenous in content and this is indeed heartening news. But we must face the stark reality that the remaining 15 per cent consists of weapons, sensors and combat management systems, which define the fighting potential of the ship. These systems not only constitute the most expensive component of a warship, but are also most susceptible to obsolescence and have so far remained beyond the capability of DRDO as well as the Defence PSUs to design or produce.
It is in a desperate effort to beat obsolescence that the Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) are often pitched at levels considered ‘unrealistic’, and then not frozen till as late as possible. This has been termed as the classic struggle between what is termed the ‘good enough’ and the ‘best’.
Dependent as we have been, to a very large extent, on various constituents of the former USSR, our shipbuilding endeavours have remained hostage to their opaque, unresponsive and sluggish system of negotiations, contract and supply. This reliance introduces an element of grave uncertainty into the construction schedules and is the single most common cause for cascading time and cost overruns that we have faced in our recent shipbuilding programmes. While the Ministry of Finance may well heap scorn on NHQ and MoD for what it considers ‘poor programme management’, they completely overlook the courageous leap of faith that the navy has taken by shunning the easier import option and going down the thorny road of indigenous warship design and construction.
Alleviation of this problem has been engaging the attention of the navy for a considerable period, and certain measures have been evolved to reduce its impact. For one, a hard decision had to be taken that the SQRs should be made more realistic, so as to accept current systems, which are ‘good enough’ to counter extant threats. As a corollary, on the day a unit (ship, submarine or aircraft) enters service, it would be assigned a date for a mid-life update or MLU a decade or more down the road. This period would permit adequate time for the ‘best’ contemporary systems to be developed and made available for the MLU.
The ultimate and the only acceptable solution is, of course, to become self-reliant and design our own systems, and that constitutes the next challenge.
The Hurdles to Self-reliance
If there is one lesson that the Indian armed forces should have learnt during the past few decades, it is about the hazards and pitfalls of depending on foreign sources for defence hardware (which invariably comes with embedded software). The days of ‘friendship prices’ are now well behind us, and no matter what the source, we are paying top dollar for everything that we buy in the ruthless international arms bazaar. We must remain acutely conscious of the fact that every time we contract a weapon system or platform of foreign origin, we compromise a little bit of our security because:
We become dependant on a foreign power for yet one more combat system/platform for its complete life cycle.
The equipment manufacturer will progressively keep hiking the price of spare parts and overhauls without any rationale or explanation.
The availability of product support (including spares) will keep declining, till it begins to affect our combat readiness.
Unless adroitly negotiated in advance, the software source codes will be kept out of our reach to hamper in-house repairs.
Apart from all these we have now repeatedly been witness to the disheartening spectacle of overseas defence purchases being used as political boomerangs and bringing the acquisition process to a grinding halt; thereby affecting the combat capability of the armed forces.
The obvious panacea for this serious challenge is to encourage our indigenous R&D as well as industry and to become self-reliant as soon as we can. The navy’s recently established Directorate of Indigenisation has made a good start by focusing on the local production of systems and sub-systems of the Scorpene and the aircraft carrier projects and the response from the industry has been most encouraging. But the path of self-reliance is neither easy nor free of pitfalls, as we have learnt from experience.
Over the years, our DPSUs have been manufacturing many systems under so called ‘technology transfer’ agreements with foreign firms, but these have resulted only in transfer of ‘screwdriver technology’ and the assembly of CKD or SKD kits, with little or no value addition. That is the reason one has rarely heard of a DPSU producing an improved version of a product after paying huge sums for transfer of technology.
At the other end of the spectrum, the DRDO has often struggled for years at great expense to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when technology could have been acquired quickly and more economically from other sources. Time overruns and performance shortfalls in many of our indigenous programmes have led to upsets in our force planning process and created operational voids.
In a recent path-breaking initiative, the navy and DRDO have signed a tripartite agreement with Israeli industry for the joint development by Indian and Israeli scientists, and subsequent co-production of a futuristic weapon system for our destroyers of Project-15A. The development cycle of the systems and delivery schedule of the system is planned to coincide so that these front-line ships would be commissioned with a weapon system, which is contemporary and state-of-the-art worldwide.
An inherent conflict of interest arises from the fact that the DRDO tends to devote much greater resources to technology development and demonstration than to the urgent operational needs of the armed forces. This has often resulted in a mismatch between our critical needs and the priorities of DRDO; driving us towards the import option. There is obviously a need for much better alignment between the aims and objectives of DRDO and the operational missions of the armed forces. In 2004, the navy had drawn up, mainly for the benefit of DRDO, a 20-year Roadmap attempting to forecast the technology requirements that its operational commitments would demand in all three dimensions of maritime warfare. It would be appropriate for the DRDO to take such requirements into account and plan its budget outlay in consultation with the Service HQs.
While the media has recently had a field day lambasting the DRDO (using an equal mix of hyperbole and facts), the navy has traditionally maintained a symbiotic relationship with this organisation through the three dedicated ‘Naval’ laboratories to immense mutual benefit. The fact that today the navy deploys DRDO designed sonars, radars, torpedoes, mines, ESM, ECM and communication systems, is ample proof of this. We are also funding and supporting the development of the LCA (Navy). However, we have only scratched the surface of the problem and have considerable ground to cover in the arena of self-reliance.
In this context we need to clearly understand that India’s claim to being a great power or an industrialised nation one day, will ring hollow unless we can acquire the competence to design and build our own ships, submarines, fighters, tanks, missiles and satellites etc. We also need to accept the likelihood that the first attempt at each of these undertakings may be flawed or even a failure. But had we never attempted to produce a fourth generation fly-by-wire fighter, an advanced light helicopter, a main battle tank or an intermediate range ballistic missile (or had we abandoned the projects half-way) it is unlikely that we could have bridged the huge resulting technology gap ever thereafter.
Therefore, a sensible and pragmatic option for the Service HQs today may be to accept the Tejas, Dhruv, Arjun and Agni in their present versions (with certain shortcomings) and dub them ‘Mark I’. Then the Services should demand that the DRDO produces “Mark II” versions of each of these systems and insist that those meet or exceed the SQRs in every respect.
Running the Procurement Gauntlet
Even though it may not appear so, one of the crucial factors impinging on the force planning process is the efficacy of the existing procurement procedures. The absence of a national security doctrine, as well as long term funding commitment are, by themselves debilitating factors for coherent defence planning in India. But an intractable and ponderous procurement procedure can have a significant impact not just on current, but also future force accretion plans. Witness the stark void in fighter capability, which is currently facing the IAF.
The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has undergone a series of evolutionary changes ever since its inception in 2002 and Shri Pranab Mukherjee released the definitive document in mid-2006. While the DPP has organised and streamlined the processes involved and served to make them as transparent as possible, only time will tell if following these procedures adds to the acquisition time-cycle instead of reducing it. One of the possible pitfalls in this context could be the 30 per cent offset clause, which has been made mandatory for all contracts above Rs 300 crores. Identification of offsets by the bidders and comparison of competing offsets by MoD could both be complex exercises.
A factor, which creates serious impediments in the procurement process, is the current procedure, which subjects each case to the scrutiny of four layers of bureaucracy; the Service HQs, the department of defence, the department of defence finance and the ministry of finance. After this some cases need CCS approval. With many queries to be answered, and every file movement taking weeks, if not months, one financial year is simply not enough for most cases to be cleared. Financial authorities have unfettered freedom to examine and re-examine issues, but no corresponding accountability for delays in procurement, which have a cost in terms of national security, lives of troops in the field or monetary loss to the exchequer.
This system defies all logic and it has often been suggested that file movements need to be replaced by a culture of ‘collegiate functioning’. Functionaries should process cases by discussion on the phone, walking into each other’s offices and calling for regular meetings and discussions. The important observations and decisions can finally be endorsed on file for record.
Choking on Integration
Such a culture of collegiate function can come about only if the wall, which has circumscribed the Service HQs (by terming them first ‘Attached Offices’ and now ‘Integrated Headquarters’ of the MoD), is demolished. The key to efficient functioning lies in bringing the Service HQs inside the MoD and involving them in the national security decision-making process.
Looking at the future, we need to clearly recognise the deep impact that the changing nature of warfare is inevitably having on the force planning process. At the lower end of the spectrum, we need to cater for asymmetric warfare, while simultaneously preparing for conventional conflict. The higher end of the spectrum requires us to plan for credible nuclear deterrence, many elements of which will sooner or later come within the ambit of force planning. It will become increasingly difficult to meet the demands of such planning unless the Service HQs are completely integrated with MoD.
Finally, an essential requirement of long term force planning is the reconciliation of conflicting inter-Service demands, prioritisation of intra-Service plans, and evolution of joint synergies. This may often require adjustments and compromises, which could create controversies. These are best handled within the armed forces by a joint staff with a duly constituted head. The issue of a Chief of Defence Staff continues to remain wide open, but whether or not the government puts a CDS in place, the Services will need to re-engineer themselves to fit into a mould of ‘Jointness’ otherwise they would have forever abdicated crucial decision-making powers to the MoD.
(December 2006 )