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The Indian Navy will have to soldier on for the foreseeable future with a glaring capability gap in detecting and countering naval mines, even as Chinese submarines regularly patrol the waters of the Indian Ocean and could potentially deploy said weapons that would prove to be a danger for the country’s sea warriors.
The government has scrapped the Rs 320-billion (Rs 32,000-crore) project to build 12 advanced minesweepers at the Goa Shipyard in collaboration with South Korea, at once striking a blow to both the Navy and its own ‘Make in India’ plans in the defence sector, as per a media report published on Monday. The Navy began the process of acquiring these vessels more than a decade ago in July 2005 and it still needs 24 mine counter-measure vessels (MCMVs) to safeguard the country’s east and west coasts, the report said, adding that the defence force, however, is carrying on its duties with only four 30-year-old minesweepers.
MCMVs, the report explained, weigh close to 900 tonnes and are specialised warships employed to detect and destroy underwater mines, which can render harbours and offshore installations unsafe for use, thereby disrupting shipping and commerce.
Citing unnamed sources, the national daily reported that the government has directed the Goa Shipyard to begin the entire process from scratch. “Goa Shipyard has been asked to issue a new global expression of interest (EoI) for the MCMVs. The fresh RFP (request for proposal) or tender will follow thereafter,” the sources told the national daily.
Why was the already long-delayed project dealt another blow? According to a source quoted by the report, South Korean shipyard Kangnam, which was part of the project, wanted deviations from the original RFP, which resulted in final negotiations getting stuck for a long period. Further, the source said that certain problems regarding cost and transfer of technology had also marred the project.
However, Goa Shipyard Chairman Rear Admiral Shekhar Mital (retd) supported the government’s move and told the national daily that the decision to issue a fresh RFP would result in the project moving at a “very fast” pace “as all intricate technical details and specifications of the MCMVs have been finalised over the last two years”. The EoI, the report added, would be issued to Kangnam, Italy’s Intermarine, and other foreign shipyards specialising in building MCMVs soon.
The Indian Army is looking to shut down the Rs 50-billion (Rs 5,000-crore) ‘high-tech soldier’ programme called the Battlefield Management System (BMS) project, as reported in December last year.
Cancelling the project would be a “blow to the oft-stated plan to build indigenous defence systems through the ‘Make’ category of procurement”, defence analyst Ajai Shukla explained while reporting the development.
This project was meant to network the Army’s combat units and digitally interlink fighting soldiers, “providing them a common tactical picture in the battlefields of the future”.
While the BMS project entails a smaller kitty for the concerned companies and entities involved in the project, at least when compared to the MCMV procurement, its scrapping would be particularly damaging to the government’s Make in India plans in defence. As Shukla explained, as of December 1, 2017, project BMS stood as “one of only three ongoing ‘Make’ category procurements, in which chosen Indian firms design and develop strategic, high-technology platforms”.
In fact, according to Shukla’s report, at a defence industry workshop in Delhi in October last year, top industrialists described the “Make” category as the “soul of indigenisation” while interacting with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. In fact, the concerned industrialists had recommended launching 8-10 “Make” projects every year to build Indian capability in the sector.
However, just a few days later, the Army formally recommended scrapping the project. In November last year, the Defence Production Board agreed in principle with the Army.
“If the BMS project is closed, no private industry will participate with any conviction in any subsequent ‘Make’ project. If you are looking to build a military-industrial complex, killing the BMS is the worst possible step,” the chief executive officer of a private firm involved in defence production had told Shukla back in December last year.
As reported earlier, as of November last year, not a penny was spent on “Make” projects in two years (2012-13 and 2015-16) and the highest allocation this category ever received was in 2016-17: Rs 1.84 billion, or just 0.25 per cent of the capital Budget. This dearth of funding, according to Shukla, highlights “the lack of defence ministry commitment to the ‘Make’ procedure that was first proposed by the Kelkar Committee in 2005-06″.
Even as certain defence projects face hurdles, the indigenously designed and built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) appears to have received a boost.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has put in a formal request to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for an additional 83 Tejas Mark-1A LCA, a government official informed news agency in December last year.
The official said the RFP for the supply of 83 indigenous LCAs had been received by HAL. The IAF wants 73 Mark-1A upgraded versions of the combat aircraft and 10 trainer versions.
HAL, according to reports, would respond to the RFP in three months.
An ‘acceptance of necessity’ for 83 Mark-1A LCAs, at a cost of Rs 500.25 billion (Rs 50,025 crore), for the IAF was cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council in November 2016.
Damaged INS Arihant has not sailed for more than 10 months as after ‘accident’
Indigenous nuclear submarine INS Arihant has suffered major damage due to ”human error” and has not sailed now for more than 10 months, say sources in the Navy. Arihant is the most important platform within India’s nuclear triad covering land-air-sea modes.
Arihant’s propulsion compartment was damaged after water entered it, according to details available. A naval source said water rushed in as a hatch on the rear side was left open by mistake while it was at harbour.
Since the accident, the submarine, built under the Advanced Technology Vessel project (ATV), has been undergoing repairs and clean up, the sources said.
Besides other repair work, many pipes had to be cut open and replaced. “Cleaning up” is a laborious task in a nuclear submarine, the naval source said.
The Arihant issue rose soon after INS Chakra, the Nerpa class nuclear submarine leased from Russia, was reported to have suffered damage to its sonar domes while entering the Visakhapatnam harbour in early October. However, INS Chakra has only a peripheral role in the nuclear triad, for both training and escorting, and Arihant is the one that will carry nuclear missiles.
The absence of Arihant from operations came to the political leadership’s attention during the India-China military standoff at Doklam. Whenever such faceoff takes place, countries carry out precautionary advance deployment of submarine assets. Arihant (Code name S2) came into the limelight on July 26, 2009, when Gursharan Kaur, wife of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, broke a coconut to mark its launch in Visakhapatnam.
After that, the submarine was towed to an enclosed pier for extensive harbour trials from the dry docks at Ship Building Centre, away from public view. Arihant was quietly commissioned into service in August 2016 and its induction is still not officially acknowledged. It is powered by an 83 MW pressurised light-water reactor with enriched uranium.
Senior naval sources maintain that Arihant has faced problems from the start. Initial delays could be just teething trouble, glitches at various stages of getting the reactor to go critical and during harbour trials; major differences between the Russian-supplied design and indigenous fabrication are said to have left many issues unaddressed satisfactorily.
Arihant , the country’s only operational Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) asset, can stay undetected deep underwater for long periods, range far and wide. It is the most dependable platform for a second strike, given the country’s “no first use” on nuclear weapons. The other options, land-based and air-launched, are easier to detect.
The submarine is manned by 100 men with extensive training from the School for Advanced Underwater Warfare in Visakhapatnam and further hands-on training on INS Chakra.
The second ballistic missile submarine, Arighat, was launched on November 19 for sea trials. The launch was kept a low-profile event, attended by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and senior Navy officers.
A high-profile launch, to be attended by the Prime Minister, was put off.
Key to nuclear triad
Arihant and other nuclear launch platforms are operationally handled by the Strategic Forces Command, and report to the Nuclear Command Authority chaired by the Prime Minister.
However, the over 100 nuclear warheads are not mated with missiles or bombs and remain in civilian custody of the Atomic Energy Department and the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
Ambitious plan to build SSBN fleet
India has an ambitious plan to build a SSBN fleet, comprising five Arihant class vessels.
The naval sources say the plan hinges on Arihant’s success. It has taken 30 years to build it, at a high cost. “It was initially estimated to cost about Rs. 3000 crore for three boats — now the cost of Arihant itself seems to have gone over Rs. 14,000 crore,” a former high-ranking naval officer said.
The Eastern Naval Command plans to operate its nuclear sub fleet from an independent Naval Operational Alternative Base (NOAB) being constructed on 5,000 acres at Rambilli, for direct access to the sea. The base is located about 50 km from Visakhapatnam, and jetties are under construction.
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