Chinese naval forces may be ahead of India, but our ships hold key in Indian Ocean region

The Indian Navy’s warships, though lesser in number than that of PLAN, have ensured that in the event of a face-off either on land border or at sea, China’s Malacca dilemma becomes its Indian Ocean dilemma

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha November 19, 2021 18:28:55 IST
Chinese naval forces may be ahead of India, but our ships hold key in Indian Ocean region

Chinese naval ship.

Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) handed over the first Project 15B ship of Visakhapatnam Class to the navy last month in Mumbai. It will be a few months before she is commissioned and joins the fleet. On commissioning she will be christened INS Visakhapatnam, to be followed by Mormugao, Imphal and possibly Porbandar.

Visibly, the ship doesn’t appear to be much different from her predecessors of project 15A ships (Kolkata, Chennai and Kochi); however, there are many upgrades that make the ship more potent and less visible to enemy radars.

The backbone of the electronics will ride Ethernet base affording the systems a much higher data rate for weapon systems and therefore greater accuracy. Electronic warfare systems have been upgraded to state-of-the-art and so has been the Combat Management System [indigenous].

These are indigenous, in addition to surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. While Brahmos are a standard SSM fit, the LRSAM has an extended range built jointly with Israel. The surface search radar of yesteryears, Garpun, has been replaced by an indigenous radar built by the private sector.

A closer examination of the upper deck will reveal a number of stealthy features. The superstructure is more compact with improved area ruling. The helicopter hangar to has modifications, the helicopter traversing gear is railless. The deck protrusions have been designed for radar signature suppression. Even the heavy machine gun mounting on the deck is electro-optically controlled, thereby reducing the devices which needed mechanical and large fittings.

How does it alter the power equation in the Indian Ocean Region [IOR] or the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China?

CCP’s Navy is larger than the US Navy; China’s aim is to replace the US from its position as the unipolar hegemon of the world. China’s economy, which is five times larger than India’s, has recently overtaken the US as the largest economy in the world in GDP terms. When it comes to military technology, the US is likely to remain in leadership position for the foreseeable future. China is catching up quickly.

In US congressional hearings, the American generals and admirals have warned that China has overtaken the US in the areas of cyber, space and artificial intelligence. The recent test by China of sending a hypersonic missile around the globe and then targeting a predesignated zone on the surface of the earth has sounded warning bells in the Pentagon. China has also established its own space station, Tiangong, positioned in low earth orbit between 340 and 450 km above the earth’s surface. This station gives China the ability to research and explore outer space and possibly provide guidance to space-based weapons.

Therefore, India is not in military competition with China. While China has global ambitions, India sees its role in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific for specific tasks in partnership with the US, Japan and Australia. The destroyers of 15B Class add to the maritime muscle of India in the IOR. Geography favours India in the IOR, with its long peninsula penetrating right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Chinese maritime assets have a long distance to travel from Chinese ports to operate in the Indian Ocean, making them vulnerable to interdiction. China’s nearly 80 per cent energy is sourced from Gulf, Africa and South America; all of which has to traverse the Indian Ocean and finally pass through the choke points in Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits, making it susceptible to blockade.

The US has made it amply clear that no single Navy can ensure maritime security in the vast Indo-Pacific and therefore this congregation of Quad countries comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US. Indian Navy has a stated policy of its MBD (Mission Based Deployment) at seven sensitive locations in the IOR. The naval assets are so deployed 24x7 to link up with the Fusion Centre of IOR located in Gurugram, affording very robust Maritime Domain Awareness, key component of maritime security. This too is a cooperative architecture in which over 30 countries are participating. Five countries have positioned their naval liaison officers to the centre. White shipping data is shared by all participating countries and the fused picture is shared with all of them. It alarms the participants of any unauthorised presence of an unidentified vessel that could become a threat. The destroyers have the ability to traverse at high speeds and close the vessel for further action.

Present-day destroyers have multiple capabilities. In addition to long-range strikes against surface targets by their 16 Supersonic Brahmos missiles, they also have a credible defence against air or missile attack with their 32 long-range Barack Ng surface-to-air missiles. In addition, these ships are fitted with one of the best SONAR systems in the world, Humsa Ng, which is indigenous. The fire control system is wired with powerful anti-submarine rockets and torpedoes leaving little chance for the adversary’s submarine to escape. The electronic warfare suites make the ship capable of jamming opposition radars and active homing missile warheads.

The close-in weapon systems are very unforgiving. With Delhi Class and Project 15A ships, Visakhapatnam and follow on ships make the fleets very potent. These ships are comparable to the best in the class anywhere in the world. The majority of ships built in India are the best examples of ‘aatmanirbhar’ India.

Warship building in India is very advanced. Having begun in the late 1960s with Leanders, today we build world-class ships. India has exported ships to friendly foreign countries. The ecosystem associated with shipbuilding has established a number of MSMEs, which serves as a source of employment. Being the largest and strongest resident Navy in the IOR, India is a preferred partner of the majority of countries in the IOR. Therefore, the handing over of this destroyer also reflects India’s industrial prowess.

Unfortunately, China does not enjoy this reputation. It has few friends which leave it virtually fighting its own battles in the oceans. Cooperative arrangements amongst navies are necessary for maritime security of the oceans.

Chinese leader Hu Jintao had spoken of China’s Malacca dilemma because of its dependence and vulnerability on this strait, so very essential for its energy security. China has been creating alternate routes overland by laying pipelines and offloading its crude in ports from where it can be transported over land and thereby reducing the passage of crude carriers through Malacca and other straits in Indonesian waters. The Indian Navy’s warships, though lesser in number than that of PLAN, have ensured that in the event of a face-off either on land border or at sea, China’s Malacca dilemma becomes its Indian Ocean dilemma.

The writer is former Commander-in-Chief of Western Naval Command and Trustee, India Foundation. Views expressed are personal.

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