Over the Horizon

Growing threats and limited budget challenges the Indian Navy

Ghazala Wahab

Maps are fascinating. They conjure up a world of possibilities. Nothing seems too far or unattainable on its promising expanse of blue and green. Senior naval officers like looking at the wall to wall maps fondly, using brass-tipped wooden pointers to mark areas of responsibility, interest and possibilities. Maps are benign. The blue of possibilities sweeps over the red of challenges.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh onboard the INS Vikramaditya with the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Karambir Singh and senior officials of Indian Navy

The Indian Navy has been grappling with these overlapping circles of possibilities and threats. The growing economy till a few years ago had put wings on its plans to exploit the possibilities; but the present economy hit by speed breakers has put the challenges in sharp relief, especially when the purse has shrunk. As a result, the navy is now forced to reorient its maritime capability perspective plan to match the current realities – less money, diminishing possibilities and increasing threats.

“The challenge is holistic development,” says the navy chief, Admiral Karambir Singh.

Converting the concept into a doable policy implies going beyond the temptation of bean-counting and making the present assets count for more. Hence, the navy is looking at creating hardened networks linking up the last platform and the last man, in a manner of speaking. This is being done in a two-fold manner – through combat management system (CMS) and common operating platform (COP). Eventually, it should come to a stage where every platform, irrespective of the domain, air, ground, surface and sub-surface is able to talk with one another in almost real time.

“Real time can create surfeit of unnecessary data. What we need is interpretative data which is useful,” says a senior officer.

What about longer the network, greater the vulnerabilities?

“Of course, we are conscious about it.”

Consciousness is the first step towards amelioration. Just as the navy is acutely conscious of the lost opportunity in Chahbahar port of Iran. Clearly, it will have to remain a commercial port given that a mere 93 nautical miles away the Chinese naval vessels would be dropping anchor on a regular basis at Gwadar.

While the PLA Navy’s presence will be a ‘matter of concern’ that the navy will have to increasingly factor in, in its future planning, including in peacetime, Gwadar will give the longer legs to Chinese vessels, in sharp contrast to the Indian Navy. It would no longer be possible to take the home waters of Indian Ocean for granted.

Times are certainly tough. At one time, the navy was confident of three aircraft carrier. Today, even critical procurements are being rationed. Recently, the ministry of defence curtailed the Indian Navy’s demand for 10 additional long-range maritime patrol aircraft, Boeing’s P-8I, to six. By its own admission, the navy’s plan to acquire 124 naval multi role helicopters (NMRH) will have to take a backseat after the government-approved purchase of 24 of this class through a government to government deal for Lockheed Martin’s MH-60 Romeo.

The programme for 111 naval utility helicopters is dragging feet because it has been earmarked as a ‘Make in India’ programme under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model. While the model is in place, the partner remains elusive. Helicopters are not the only ones suffering this fate. Submarines are, to use the cliché, in the same boat.

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