Wednesday, September 2, 2009

India Struggles to Keep Navy Afloat

Siddharth Srivastava

India's defense procurement and modernization processes are infamously slow, and mired in red tape, corruption, and lack of long-term strategic planning. One prominent result has been the country's unsuccessful quest to either procure aircraft carriers internationally or build them at home.

The delays have forced India to refit its sole aircraft carrier -- the 50-year-old INS Viraat, which according to earlier plans should have been junked by now -- to operate for five more years, by which time India hopes to have procured more.

The irony is that, over time, Viraat's air fleet has also been substantially depleted due to accidents, which makes the ship essentially a "toothless tiger," as an anonymous army official was recently quoted as saying. In the 1980s, the Indian navy inducted roughly 30 British Sea Harriers for the 28,000-ton Viraat. More than half have been lost to crashes, with the latest going down in August in Goa, killing the pilot and resulting in the grounding of the jets pending an inquiry.

Viraat, a Centaur-class aircraft carrier, was originally commissioned in the British Royal Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959. The Indian navy acquired the platform in 1987.

Sources say that the vessel's 18-month refitting schedule would probably have taken even more time had it not been for the November Mumbai terror attacks, in which militants used a sea route from Pakistan. Since the 40,000-ton carrier being built at Cochin Shipyard will not be ready before 2015-2016 due to years of political and bureaucratic indifference, the need to keep Viraat operational became more urgent.

Despite India's efforts to hasten the procurement of the refurbished 44,570-ton Admiral Gorshkov from Russia, that ship -- currently undergoing a refit at the Sevmash Shipyard in North Russia -- will only be available by 2013, assuming existing differences are sorted out. India and Russia have yet to work out the final cost of the Gorshkov's refit, with Moscow wanting nearly $3 billion, while India hopes to spend a little more than $2 billion.

Indian navy commanders have long tried to impress the political leadership about India's need for at least three aircraft carriers to secure strategic interests that stretch from Africa's eastern coast to the Malacca Strait, in order to assure that two remain active -- one each for the eastern and western seaboards -- even if the third must be refitted and upgraded.

A growing rivalry has emerged between India and China to control the waters of the Indian Ocean. China has spoken of developing three ocean-going fleets, to patrol the areas of Japan and Korea, the western Pacific, and the Malacca Strait and Indian Ocean region.

On paper, at least, manning the seas is a crucial element in India's ongoing defense modernization exercise, estimated at over $100 billion. The Indian Navy is looking to produce at least 25 submarines valued at $20 billion to meet challenges across the Indian Ocean. The government also has plans to invest more than $15 billion over the next 10 years on warships.

There has been some progress as well, especially in efforts to meet heightened threats from Pakistan and to balance the advanced military capabilities of China. The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India has reported that over the three years from 2004-7, India has spent $10.5 billion on military imports, making it one of the largest arms importers in the developing world.

India launched its first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, the INS Arihant, for trials in July. Part of a $3 billion plan to build five such submarines, the Arihant would complete the triad of nuclear launch capability from air, land and sea platforms. The project, conceptualized in the late 1970s, is already long-delayed. Built under the Advanced Technology Vessel project with Russian help, Arihant is expected to be commissioned around 2012, making India the sixth country -- after the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain -- to possess a nuclear-powered submarine.

Meanwhile, the construction of the highly advanced Scorpene submarine is progressing at the upgraded Mazgon Dock in Mumbai, under a $3.5 billion deal for six such French vessels.

India has also developed a submarine-launched supersonic missile using a modification of the BrahMos cruise missiles, a capability limited so far to advanced nations such as U.S., France and Russia. Ship- and land-launched versions of the BrahMos cruise missiles are also being inducted in the navy and army. The state-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization is also undertaking a joint development project with Israel Aerospace Industries for a surface-to-air missile for use from land and ship.

In early 2007, India purchased the 36-year-old 16,900-ton warship U.S.S. Trenton -- re-christened INS Jalashwa -- for $50 million. Trenton is the first Indian warship purchased from the U.S., and the second-largest that India now possesses, after the Viraat.

In addition to expanding its naval capabilities, India is also intent on improving its air force. Trials began in August for India's largest-ever defense deal, the $12 billion contract for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MRCA). Lockheed Martin and Boeing (U.S.), Dassault's Rafale (France), Gripen (Sweden), MiG (Russia) and Eurofighter Typhoon (a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies) have begun presenting their fighter jets for flight testing by the Indian air force.

The new MRCA fleet will replace the shrinking MiG-21 interceptors, filling the gap between the more powerful Russian Sukhoi-30MKIs and the low-end indigenous Tejas LCA lightweight fighter.

The question of India's aircraft carriers, however, remains caught in a time warp.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist covering foreign and strategic affairs, security, politics, defense, business and lifestyle issues. He has been a correspondent for the Times of India and is widely published in newspapers and magazines in Asia, Europe and America. His Web site can be found here.

2 comments:

The author completely neglects or is unknown about India's own indigenous Aircraft carrier. What a shame. This article is a propaganda, and deliberately keeps away the Vikrant class AC's, Kolkata class destroyers, Shivalik and the follow on P17A class frigates. P28 and follow on corvettes, new patrol crafts etc. A pessimistic view is presented by the author whereas the reality is totally different.

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