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That sinking feeling: Navy struggles to bridge its capability gaps

Hurdles faced by projects include technology transfer, partial ban on vendors, a fund crunch, as well as delays caused due to some of them being re-launched under the Make in India plan.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2016 07:42 IST
Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh
Hindustan Times
Indian navy,naval fleet,tendors for naval vessels
Russian-origin MiG-29Ks are riddled with engine and airframe problems, deficiencies in fly-by-wire system and often require maintenance.(HT File Photo)

“Do we build a spa there?” asked a senior navy officer, pointing towards the empty bow gun deck on the pencil drawing of an Indian destroyer.

The point he is trying to make is that no decision has been taken on guns to be fitted on 12 major warships being built in the country. Italian company Oto Melara was short-listed to supply the guns but the project has been in limbo following corruption allegations against its parent firm Finmeccanica in the VVIP chopper deal, he said.

British, Korean and Israeli firms could provide an alternative but floating a new tender would delay the project by several years. “The deck design is modelled on the Oto Melara 127 mm gun specifications,” he said. Besides being dogged by capability gaps in its submarine fleet, navy officials said other worries include ship-borne utility helicopters, multi-role choppers for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, weapons, maritime fighters and minesweepers.

Former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash (retd) said, “Lack of decision making is a major flaw and that coupled with frequent corruption charges is creating voids in India’s military capabilities.”

Hurdles faced by projects include technology transfer, partial ban on vendors, a fund crunch, as well as delays caused due to some of them being re-launched under the Make in India plan. “There have been some delays but it’s not as if things are not moving,” said navy spokesman Captain DK Sharma. He said the force was working on “mitigating capability gaps” but it would take time as “complex acquisition programmes” were involved.

The August revelations about the secret capabilities of Scorpene submarines being built in India couldn’t have come at a worse time for the navy. Already grappling with diminished fighting capability, it is struggling to assess the impact of the data leak. Even before the leak, India’s underwater capabilities were a cause for concern, the officials said. The navy operates 13 ageing conventional submarines and an Akula-II nuclear-powered attack boat leased from Russia, but not all are battle ready at any given moment.

“The deeper malaise of obsolescence has afflicted the military for over a decade, and the situation hasn’t changed in the last two-plus years,” said Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (retd), director, Society for Policy Studies.

The first of the six Scorpene submarines being built under licence from French firm DCNS was to be inducted in 2012 but will now join the fleet only next year, thanks to problems relating to transfer of technology.

Efforts to build six more next-generation submarines have not taken off. Comparatively, China’s sub-sea warfare capability is superior – it operates 53 diesel-electric attack submarines, five nuclear attack submarines and four nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

Also, the navy is unsure about which torpedoes will arm the Scorpenes, the officials said. Just like the naval gun deal, a proposal to equip the submarines with Black Shark torpedoes is stuck as the weapon was to be supplied by Whitehead Alenia Sistemi Subacquei, again a Finmeccanica subsidiary. India imposed a partial ban on Finmeccanica two years ago. Older German SUT torpedoes will be used for upcoming trials.

The helicopter fleet is another headache as there’s no indication when the navy will get new choppers. “The majority of our 139 warships are without choppers. If one deal is stuck at the contract negotiating stage, the tender for another has been withdrawn,” the officials said. The navy needs a mix of 242 helicopters for different roles. Navy sources said delay in placing orders for the long-range surface to air missile (LR-SAM), co-developed by India and Israel under a Rs 2,606-crore project, had upset the calculations of maritime planners. “Three of our warships have the LR-SAM but we need 13 more sets for new platforms,” the sources said.

The missile should have been delivered in 2012 but was test-fired for the first time last December. The retirement of INS Viraat has left India with just one aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. Not everything is hunky-dory with the newly-acquired MiG-29K fighter planes on board the second-hand Russian carrier, as revealed by the Comptroller and Auditor General in July.

The CAG report said the MiG-29Ks had engine and airframe problems, deficiencies in its fly-by-wire system and often required maintenance.

The deficiencies in the maritime fighter have compromised its battle-readiness. The report said the availability of the single-seat MiG-29K for missions ranged from an unimpressive 15.93% to 37.63 % while that of the twin-seat trainer MiG-29KUB hovered between 21.3% and 47.14%.

The navy operates six Soviet-origin mine counter-measure vessels bought in the late 1970s, against a requirement of 24. Twelve minesweeping ships are to be built locally in collaboration with a South Korean yard under a Rs 32,000-crore Make in India project. The vessels are scheduled to be inducted only by 2026.

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First Published: Sep 29, 2016 07:05 IST