Paths of Doom

India should build modern MCMVs that remain relevant even in the future

RAdm. Sudarshan Shrikhande (retd)RAdm. Sudarshan Shrikhande (retd)

In land as well as sea warfare, mines have been called ‘weapons that wait’. Mines are relatively simple, comparatively cheap, easy to store and can have really long shelf-lives. This is true for navies as well as armies. There are some differences as well. On land, mine-laying, especially defensive mining, is more commonly understood and prevalent in many areas. Mines are easier to lay, but quite difficult to locate and clear (or ‘sweep’ to use a naval term). Landmines are commonly used by insurgents, militants and terrorists where the term IED (Improvised Explosive Device) is commonly used. Many IEDs, in fact, are mines with different actuation mechanisms.

In naval warfare, the use of mines as effective weapons has never really gone away. They have been one of the most cost-effective weapons of maritime warfare. A position paper from the US Navy highlights that since World War II, 15 American warships/ auxiliaries have been sunk/ damaged by mines and only one each to a missile and terrorists using a crash-boat. In all, a few dozen navies have access to around 2,50,000 mines. Analysing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other Chinese documents, the US analyst Erickson estimates PLA Navy holdings of old and several very modern mines to be about 1,00,000 and perhaps even higher. They also have a significant mine-laying capacity using submarines as well as aircraft, not to talk of surface ships and craft.

The INS Kozhikode (M71), India’s only minesweeper of the Karwar class

Pakistan is also said to have several thousand mines. A related aspect is the distinct possibility of mines held in Pakistani inventory being made available to non-state actors acting on behalf of the ‘deep-state’ and used against Indian shipping or warships. Given the resources that non-state actors have, marine IEDs could also be used. It might not be wrong to say that it is only a matter of when — not if — before an IED is used against an Indian ship or submarine target even in conditions of ‘no conflict’.

Not Ours the Fighter’s Glow…

A poem with the simple title ‘Minesweepers’ from World War I (see box) illustrates the roles, the criticality and the implied anonymity of minesweepers. The Indian Navy, however, always seems to have given due importance to having minesweepers. (Over the years, the term Mine-Countermeasure Vessels (MCMV) has started being used instead of the simpler minesweeper). Essentially, they still have one primary task: clear others’ path of doom! For almost 15 years now the Indian Navy has been trying to build replacement MCMVs in India given that the 12 older Soviet-procured ‘Pondicherry/ Karwar’ class ships were being decommissioned. It was not only the age of these ships that was the issue. There were limits to how much upgrading of MCM equipment they could be subjected to; the need to move away from ‘sweeping’ mines to ‘hunting’ mines; and finally, the realisation that MCM required extended time on task, something that the Russian vessels found difficult because of their engine fit.

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