A golden opportunity to co-develop and co-produce an indigenous option has been lost; the MoD, instead of choosing an imported option that offered to share high-end technologies decided instead to go with the lowest bidder (the L1 syndrome)

by Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)

In the contemporary maritime battle space, undersea warfare has been gaining in prominence. Submarines with their inherent advantage of stealth and concealment, the advancements in underwater defence technologies like air independent propulsion (AIP) and the lethality of modern underwater weapons and sensors have made them the platform of choice. In the Indo-Pacific itself, 15 navies are now operating submarines and at least three extra-regional navies have a permanent submarine presence. The relative transparency of the surface vis-à-vis the opacity of the undersea domain has made large surface forces vulnerable to the improved means of surveillance from space, air, surface and sub-surface elements, thus restricting their manoeuvrability and freedom of operations.

The Indian Navy also has a potent undersea warfare capability. It has a sizable submarine force and a credible multi-dimensional Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability in the air (the P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft, the recently contracted Sikorsky MR-60 Multi-Role helicopter and the old warhorses, the Seaking MK42B and the Kamov-28 helicopters), on the surface (most of the major frontline surface combatants) and underwater (all submarines). Each of these platforms is equipped with a range of weapons and sensors to detect, track, attack and inflict damage on the adversary.

Not Keeping Pace

Indigenisation and self-reliance (Atmanirbharta) is the new mantra. The Prime Minister has directed that the country’s defence requirements are to be met through indigenous production. The Indian Navy’s indigenisation drive, in fact, predates the Prime Minister’s call by almost six decades. However, while all naval platforms are now being built in India and in the underwater domain, many sensors are now being developed and built indigenously, underwater weapon development has not kept pace. This is not for want of effort but more due to the lack of cutting-edge technologies and the inability of the Indian R&D establishment and industry to make the large investments required for this.

The solution therefore lies in co-development and co-production of underwater weapons in collaboration with foreign partners in India. The success of the Indo-Russian Brahmos missile, arguably the most advanced missile of its type in the world, is a testament to this.

Underwater weapons consist of ship-launched heavyweight and lightweight torpedoes against submarines, submarine launched heavyweight torpedoes and anti-ship missiles with ground attack capability, aircraft launched lightweight torpedoes, anti- submarine rockets and the low cost but effective mines, etc.

India has been slow off the block in the indigenous development of underwater weapons. Heavyweight torpedo development over the last four decades or more has resulted in the production of a ship-launched heavyweight torpedo called Varunastra and a lightweight ship-launched torpedo called Tal, both of which are now being supplied to Indian Navy ships. Both these torpedoes lack many contemporary ‘smart’ technologies and are at least one generation behind, if not more than comparable weapons in the west. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also developing a submarine launched wire-guided heavyweight torpedo but that seems a few years away from getting operationalised.

Lost Opportunity

India is therefore still dependent on imports for its submarine launched ‘smart’ wire guided wake homing torpedoes with contemporary technologies. A golden opportunity to co-develop and co-produce an indigenous option has been lost; the MoD, instead of choosing an imported option that offered to share high-end technologies decided instead to go with the lowest bidder (the L1 syndrome) with technology induction being the biggest casualty. For reasons best known to it, the DRDO too remained strangely silent.

Heavyweight torpedoes are lethal weapons; a single torpedo can break a large warship into two causing it to sink within seconds. It is therefore imperative that Indian Navy submarines are armed with the best because in undersea warfare, there are no second chances; the moment a submarine fires a torpedo, it has given its position away and if the torpedo is unsuccessful in destroying the target , it is subjected to an intensive counter-attack. Hence, it is not only the weapon hitting the target that is important but so is the distance and accuracy from which it is fired to give the submarine a chance to avoid a counter-attack; therefore the torpedo’s range, speed and homing capabilities are critical factors.

India has also yet to develop an aircraft launched torpedo. Its Boeing P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft is equipped with the US made Mk 54 and the Russian IL-38 with a weapon from its country of origin.

A Decisive Factor

Most modern submarines are also armed with torpedo tube launched anti-ship and land attack capable missiles that can be fired from longer ranges than torpedoes and can also attack targets deep inland with unerring accuracy. Indian Navy submarines too are missile armed with both Russian and western weapons. It is understood from media reports that work on a torpedo tube launched Brahmos missile is in progress and a mock-up model was exhibited at a defence expo some years ago. Brahmos missiles have been fired successfully from a vertical launcher underwater since March 2013. A torpedo tube launched version is keenly awaited, as it will provide a formidable addition to the country’s submarine warfare capability.

India’s SSBNs are presently equipped with the 750 km K-15 ballistic missile and media reports suggest that a 3,500-km ballistic missile, the K-4 is at an advanced stage of acceptance with numerous successful firings from underwater launch platforms behind it.

Mine warfare is the most underrated and non-glamorous element in undersea warfare but constitutes an effective low-cost capability to contain and restrict the enemy’s ability to manoeuvre either in its own waters or in the enemy’s. An indigenous option has been in service for some years now.

Undersea warfare is going to be the decisive factor in the future maritime battle space. As India embarks on a renewed thrust on indigenisation and self-reliance in the defence sector, the government must take an objective view of the current shortcomings and ensure that contemporary technologies are inducted through co-development and co-production unlike the ‘screwdriver’ transfer of technology that exists at present. This will require a willingness to invest in long term gains – cutting- edge technology will not come cheap. Foreign defence manufacturers are conscious of the size of the defence market and are willing to support India’s efforts but the lack of an enabling policy environment and an indifferent establishment discourages them from going that extra mile. The bottom line is that the combat capability of the armed forces cannot be compromised under the garb of indigenisation and brave promises and they need to be equipped with the best.