India’s navy is beginning to see the end product of decades of confusion and a continuing neglect of strategic planning. This year, with the decommissioning of INS Viraat, India is down to a single aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) of China will soon have two of these — its existing Liaoning, and the Shandong, which is to be officially launched shortly. China, which already outclasses India in terms of the number of its submarines, will soon have more aircraft carriers, too. China has clearly learned from India’s worrisome carrier-first strategy. Putting so much energy into carriers has not exactly paid off for India. Recently, the Navy indicated that the indigenous light combat aircraft, Tejas, was not suitable for carriers because it was “too heavy”. But the MiG-29s Indian carriers house are known to be problematic and unreliable. Meanwhile, India overpaid Russia for INS Vikramaditya; and INS Vikrant is eight years behind schedule. It will only be fully operational by 2023 when it was supposed to be completed by 2015. Worrisomely, it has been reported that the Indian Navy nevertheless intends to commission INS Vikrant by 2018 – but without its “aviation complex”, or flight operations control. Indeed, it might not even have LR-SAM anti-ship missiles at that point. Launching an aircraft carrier without crucial offensive or defensive weaponry is a truly mystifying decision.
It is an error that India has made before, however. Two new Scorpene submarines — INS Kalvari and INS Khanderi — made in Mazagon Docks, are to be launched this year. Both are undergoing sea tests. But they have essentially no anti-sub torpedoes, since the Black Shark systems they were supposed to be fitted with are made by a Finmeccanica subsidiary, and the Italian conglomerate has been blacklisted. The fate of the 98 Black Sharks to be bought continues to be uncertain. The Scorpenes themselves have come under a cloud after essential data was reportedly leaked last year that may make them easier to identify. Meanwhile, it is also being reported that none of the six Scorpenes planned will have air-independent propulsion, which extends endurance. The last two were supposed to have it, but the Defence Research and Development Organisation, or DRDO, missed its deadline for integration. The level of the crisis should be clear from the fact that India has only 13 conventional submarines in service, of which 11 are older than 25 years. As for nuclear submarines, India is living essentially on loans from Russia; the Akula II-class INS Chakra is leased for 10 years, till 2022.
There are gaps across the board. China may have about 70 submarines, as compared to India’s 15; but India’s fleet is short even of anti-submarine helicopters. Over two dozen ships have only 26 obsolete medium multi-role helicopters. The light utility helicopters, Chetaks, also need to be replaced in their dozens. In yet another example of India sending out incomplete hardware, the destroyer
INS Kolkata was commissioned in 2014 without Barak-8 air defence missiles and towed array sonars. Fixing these gaps is not just a question of money, but also of careful thought and planning. But clearly this is not a priority for the government – after all, there isn’t even a full-time defence minister.