The observation by a parliamentary panel that the Indian Navy (IN) will soon reach a point of near zero mine-sweeping capability when the existing six vessels are de-commissioned by end 2018 is yet another reminder – if such were needed – about the dysfunctional state of higher-defence management in the country.
Mines at sea, whether floating or laid on the seabed, have a high index of lethality and can cause unacceptable levels of damage to a warship at very low cost. Thus mine warfare and mine counter measures are integral to naval capability and port/harbour defence; and most major navies have ensured adequate capability for keeping their vital harbours open for men of war as well as merchant shipping traffic.
Technology has improved both the destructive potential of the mine as also the counter-measure technology and the use of mines as part of covert warfare in the maritime domain is very much the emerging challenge.
The cost of a mine — which can be a few hundred dollars — and the damage it can cause to a navy or the sea-borne trading efficacy of a nation are inversely proportional and even the most powerful navies are vulnerable.
It may be recalled that towards the end of the Cold War (1988) and in early 1991 when the US had embarked upon Operation Desert Storm (the War for Kuwait), helicopter carrier Tripoli and the guided-missile cruiser Princeton, front-line warships of the US Navy were severely damaged by floating mines in the Persian Gulf. This experience served as a wake-up call and most navies invested in the mine protection domain that had lain dormant since the end of World War II.
The IN was cognizant of the need to acquire appropriate mine counter measure capability and 12 vessels were acquired from the former USSR in the period 1978 to 1988. It is instructive that despite the Navy having prioritized this platform as an operational imperative, no new mine-sweeping vessel was inducted since 1988. Bureaucratic delays and the inability of the higher-defence management matrix to comprehend the strategic salience of the issue (the dysfunctional trait ) resulted in a situation where it took almost 15 years years for the government of the day to initiate a new acquisition from a South Korean entity. This was the NDA I period.
Desultory attempts were made to have a tie-up with a credible foreign supplier and the process that began in 2008 concluded the price negotiations in 2011. A South Korean firm was identified but in keeping with the Indian penchant to cancel or freeze any defence deal if there is a whiff of fiscal transgression, a charge levied by an Italian competitor saw the entire acquisition project being referred to the CVC (Central Vigilance Commission). The BJP then in opposition went for the Congress jugular and in short, India’s zero-sum electoral rivalry laid the perfect ‘political’ mine for the IN’s mine-sweeper acquisition plans to remain still-born. It is now 2017 and the navy has a shrinking mine-sweeping capability and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Buying these platforms outright from a foreign supplier or building them in India with a foreign supplier are time-consuming and as the Parliament panel pointed out, the earliest induction is a good five years away. Till then the ships that enter and leave Indian ports including front-line naval ships will be vulnerable to the lethal mine. The navy needs a minimum of 30 such vessels for the major ports and the grim reality is that it will soon have none.
An immediate option is to explore the possibility of leasing these vessels from navies that have excess capability – and both the USA and Japan could be potential suppliers. India has recently concluded substantive defence cooperation agreements with these countries and some innovative fast-track agreements need to be initiated on a war-footing. The parliamentary committee has alerted the executive and the citizen. India’s vulnerability in the mine counter measure capability should not go down the Bofors route.