The Indian Navy Has a Big Problem: The Subsurface Dilemma

November 4, 2014 Topic: State of the Military Region: India

The Indian Navy Has a Big Problem: The Subsurface Dilemma

While India's navy is certainly attracting lots of attention in the press, it faces a major challenge that might not be easily solvable. 

In the future, the Indian Navy might consider developing a more distributed undersea battle network, composed of smart mines, midget submarines, sensors and UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles), in addition to larger submarines, in order to help reconnoiter, and, if necessary, sanitize contested undersea environments. UUVs, in particular, are likely to fulfill an increasingly wide spectrum of tasks, ranging from mine warfare (MIW), to underwater intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR), and ASW. There have been reports that India intends to acquire up to six 150-ton midget submarines for its special ops MARCOS unit, as well as up to ten indigenously developed UUVs for littoral surveillance purposes. These are steps in the right direction.

India’s more long-term concern is related to Chinese submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean. Since December 2008, China has regularly rotated naval task forces in the Indian Ocean, ostensibly for anti-piracy missions. Indian observers, however, have expressed concern over the second-order effects of such deployments, noting that they have allowed Chinese naval intelligence units to better survey the Indian Ocean’s underwater topography and record bathymetric conditions. Similarly, Beijing also signed a contract allowing it to explore polymetallic sulphide ore deposits over a 10,000 square-kilometer swath of the Southwest Indian Ocean’s seabed. This has been perceived by India’s Directorate of Naval Intelligence as an excuse for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to map the region’s notoriously challenging undersea terrain, with future submarine operations in mind. In 2013, the Indian press leaked the findings of a classified Indian Defense Ministry report, which allegedly reported that Chinese nuclear submarines were “making frequent forays into the Indian Ocean.” These assertions have been partially confirmed by Lt. General Michael Flynn, the Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, who declared in February 2014 that China had “recently deployed for the first time a nuclear-powered attack submarine to the Indian Ocean.”

More recently, a Song-class SSK berthed in the Sri Lankan port of Colombo before heading out for escort missions in the Gulf of Aden. In the past, Indian naval officers had repeatedly asserted that the forward deployment of Chinese submarines—and particularly of Chinese SSNs—in the Indian Ocean would be cause for grave concern. Now that Beijing’s subsurface penetration of the Indian Ocean has been confirmed, it will be interesting to see how the Indian Navy chooses to respond to what, no doubt, constitutes an unwelcome new strategic reality.

The Importance of the P-8I:

India’s acquisition of eight Boeing P-8I (Poseidon) Neptune Aircraft—with an option for four more—constitutes perhaps one of the most encouraging developments, as it will significantly enhance the Indian Navy’s ability to conduct long-range maritime reconnaissance and ASW. The Poseidon’s Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) will also allow the Indian Navy to more easily detect diesel-electric submarines’ periscopes—a critical factor when addressing the Pakistani submarine threat. Presently based at Rajali, in Tamil Nadu, India’s P-8Is will eventually be deployed to India’s Eastern Naval Command. With a mission radius of 600 nautical miles for six hours on station and up to 1,200 nautical miles for four hours on station, India’s P-8Is will allow the Indian Navy to greatly enhance its maritime and littoral surveillance capabilities over the Bay of Bengal, as well as its ability for maritime interdiction and ASW.

There are concerns, however, over the security of the P-8I’s communications, as well as over its lack of electronic warfare self-protection abilities. Indeed, due to India’s continued refusal to sign the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), the P-8I was delivered without secure and encrypted communications, and satellite navigational aids. As a result, India’s P-8Is are slated to be equipped with an indigenously developed communications system, the Data Link-II system, whose reliability and effectiveness have been openly questioned by some Indian naval officers.

The Damaging Effects of Bureaucratic Dysfunction:

India’s growing challenges in the undersea domain are exacerbated by certain glaring capability gaps in its surface fleet’s ability to conduct deep-water ASW (anti-submarine warfare). As of now, India’s major surface combatants are only equipped with hull-mounted sonars. While observers have commented on the efficacy of these indigenously developed sonars in the higher thermoclines of the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy urgently requires new types of sonar in order to effectively address the growing threat posed by both nuclear and diesel-electric submarines. Active variable depth sonars (VDS) will be required to better monitor the movements of quiet diesel-electric submarines, while passive towed arrays will be needed to effectively detect the noise emitted by nuclear power plant machinery. Going forward, the best approach for the Indian Navy might be to pursue a VDS so as to address the diesel threat, and a multifunction towed array in order to both listen for the returns from the active VDS, and the noise continuously radiated by lurking nuclear submarines.[1] In short, acquiring a multifunction towed array would allow Indian surface ship commanders the operational flexibility to choose to remain silent and simply listen for the sounds of enemy submarines, or to “ping” active to bounce sound off the hulls of any subsurface intruders.

These hardware deficiencies can be attributed, as often in India, to the dysfunctional state of the nation’s higher defense management. Even though the Indian Navy has been trying to import advanced towed arrays for its ships since the 1990s, the Indian Ministry of Defense has, until recently, repeatedly blocked these attempts in favor of mostly fruitless indigenous efforts, such as the Nagan. There are indications that this bureaucratic obstructionism may soon dissipate, but it will take some time before India’s frigates and destroyers are equipped with more advanced sonar systems. Concerns over the vulnerability of India’s surface ships to subsurface attack have been compounded by the fact that the Indian Navy now suffers from an acute shortage in ASW helicopters. Indeed, it currently has only eleven aging Kamov-28 and seventeen Sea King helicopters to help screen a fleet of over 130 boats. Once again, the Indian Navy’s requests to move ahead with a contract for longer-range, and better equipped, helicopters have been met with an unsavory mixture of bureaucratic incompetence and political diffidence.

Earlier this year, India’s naval chief, Admiral DK Joshi, resigned after a series of dramatic accidents, two of which took place aboard SSKs and—in both cases—led to a tragic loss of life. In the course of a recent and much discussed interview, the embittered admiral deplored the difficulties he had experienced in obtaining timely repairs and refits of his vessels and drew attention to what he perceived as forming the true cause of India’s continued military dysfunction:

“The root cause is this dysfunctional and inefficient business model that we have (…) While professional competence, accountability and responsibility is with the service, this is not the case with authority. (…) For example, when it comes to changing submarine batteries, which are available indigenously, or commencing refits and repairs of ships, aircraft, submarines in Indian yards, the service (navy) does not have that empowerment. (….) Where there is authority, there is no accountability. And where there is responsibility, there is no authority.”

Until these larger structural and institutional issues are addressed, it would appear that—notwithstanding India’s beleaguered naval officers’ best efforts—the nation’s subsurface challenges are likely to grow, rather than diminish.

Iskander Rehman is a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Note: This article is adapted from a presentation the author made at the event “Warfare Beneath the Waves: The Undersea Domain in Asia,” held at the American Enterprise Institute on October 20th 2014.

[1] The author is grateful to his colleague Commander (Retd.) Bryan Clark for this point.