Hid­den Dragon on High Seas

China’s de­ploy­ment of a nu­clear at­tack sub­ma­rine in the In­dian Ocean sig­nals the be­gin­ning of strate­gic en­cir­clement of In­dia.

India Today - - INSIDE - San­deep Un­nithan

On De­cem­ber 8 last year, In­dia’s mil­i­tary at­taché in Bei­jing hur­ried out of the For­eign Af­fairs Of­fice of the Min­istry of Na­tional De­fence and drove to the em­bassy at Chaoyang. The Bri­gadier-ranked of­fi­cer was bear­ing an ur­gent mes­sage: China has just de­ployed, for the first time ever, a nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­ma­rine (SSN) in the In­dian Ocean. The sub­ma­rine, the of­fi­cer had been told, had sailed out a few days ear­lier to help with the People Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) Navy’s anti-piracy pa­trol in the Gulf of Aden and Bei­jing was now in­form­ing New Delhi of it “to demon­strate re­spect for In­dia”. The news trig­gered alarm in the high­est ech­e­lons of In­dia’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment; Bei­jing, it seemed, had fi­nally put steel into the string of pearls, a net­work of Chi­ne­se­built naval bases ring­ing In­dia that stretch from Myan­mar and Sri Lanka in the east to Pak­istan in the west. Re­ports by RAW, the De­fence In­tel­li­gence Agency and the Direc­torate of Naval In­tel­li­gence warned the govern­ment that the de­ploy­ment, “se­ri­ously ag­gra­vates In­dia’s se­cu­rity con­cerns”.

Though Bei­jing claimed the Shang­class SSN was part of a rou­tine an­tipiracy pa­trol—it re­turned to its base on Hainan Is­land in the South China Sea on Fe­bru­ary 20 af­ter two months in the In­dian Ocean—New Delhi read more sin­is­ter mo­tives. “Nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­marines don’t take part in anti-piracy pa­trols,” a se­nior govern­ment of­fi­cial tells IN­DIA TO­DAY. Naval an­a­lysts pre­dict it is a pre­cur­sor to the de­ploy­ment of a full-scale car­rier bat­tle group in the In­dian Ocean. The bat­tle group, a mo­bile force com­pris­ing at­tack sub­marines, war­ships, tankers and troop ships, will be cen­tred around two air­craft car­ri­ers cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion. Re­tired Rear-Ad­mi­ral Raja Menon says as much. “It was a re­con­nais­sance probe, the pre­lude to a full-scale de­ploy­ment.” BREATH­ING FIRE If, rather when, this hap­pens, it will pose a di­rect threat to In­dia’s se­cu­rity and eco­nomic in­ter­ests. In­dia claims

the re­gion be­tween the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Straits as within its sphere of in­flu­ence, one that is vi­tal for its mar­itime com­merce as 80 per cent of the coun­try’s en­ergy sup­plies, about 3.86 mil­lion bar­rels of crude oil per day, pass through it. And it’s largely to se­cure these wa­ters that the Navy has for years been de­mand­ing 25 per cent of the de­fence budget—it now gets 17 per cent— to ac­quire air­craft, war­ships and sub­marines. Naval plan­ners dis­miss spec­u­la­tion that this de­mand is driven by a de­sire to move into the South China Sea and em­pha­sise that the navy “has nei­ther the ca­pa­bil­ity nor the in­tent” to do so. “The In­dian Ocean re­mains our pri­mary fo­cus,” says a se­nior of­fi­cial in the de­fence min­istry. SHIFT IN BAL­ANCE OF POWER? Now, the Chi­nese have sailed in and al­tered the bal­ance of power in the In­dian Ocean. Un­like con­ven­tional sub­marines, nu­clear-pow­ered sub­marines such as the Shang-class boats can op­er­ate sub­merged and al­most un­de­tected. Sail­ing at over 30 knots, they can at­tack war­ships, mer­chant ves­sels and use cruise mis­siles to hit tar­gets on land. Chi­nese SSNs in the In­dian Ocean can, thus, wreak havoc with In­dia’s naval plans, which rely mainly on a fleet of con­ven­tional diesel-elec­tric sub­marines that are limited by range, en­durance and size. A fleet of four such boats on a ‘bar­rier pa­trol’ can choke In­dia’s en­ergy sup­plies, iso­late the An­daman and Ni­co­bar Is­lands and threaten the INS Vikra­ma­ditya car­rier bat­tle group. They can even im­pede de­ploy­ment of the slower Arihant nu­clear sub­marines from their base in Visakha­p­at­nam into the Bay of Ben­gal and be­yond. “In­dia has no strate­gic ca­pa­bil­ity yet to de­ter China,” says re­tired ViceAd­mi­ral K.N. Sushil, vet­eran sub­mariner and for­mer South­ern Naval Com­mand chief. “We are yet to sail the Arihant and are nowhere near start­ing our own SSN pro­gramme. We will, there­fore, be self-de­terred and with­out the ca­pa­bil­ity to re­tal­i­ate.”

This de­spite the fact that de­ploy­ment of the Chi­nese SSN in In­dia’s back­yard was not en­tirely un­ex­pected. Naval watch­ers were well aware of the three-phase strat­egy of mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion, pro­pounded by PLA Navy chief Ad­mi­ral Liu Huaqing in the late 1980s—up­grade the navy into a blue wa­ter force or one ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing be­yond ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters; de­ploy in the In­dian Ocean be­tween 2011 and 2020; and un­der­take global op­er­a­tions some­time be­tween 2021 and 2049. The PLA Navy has since ad­vanced this time­frame. Us­ing piracy as an ex­cuse, it has de­ployed war­ships to pro­tect its mer­chant ves­sels and sailors in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. “For China, piracy has come as a huge op­por­tu­nity,” an In­dian ad­mi­ral told IN­DIA TO­DAY late last year. “Now they will con­tinue their de­ploy­ments on some pre­text or the other.” NO SUC­CES­SOR TO JOSHI No won­der, the mood in the In­dian naval head­quar­ters in South Block has turned from blus­ter to be­wil­der­ment. That China’s move comes amid a cri­sis in the In­dian Navy has only made mat­ters worse. The Navy is head­less since Ad­mi­ral D.K. Joshi quit on Fe­bru­ary 26 in the wake of a string of ac­ci­dents be­gin­ning with the Au­gust 14, 2013, de­struc­tion of the sub­ma­rine INS Sind­hu­rak­shak. The govern­ment has dithered over choos­ing Joshi’s suc­ces­sor. The Navy’s sub­ma­rine arm is in a rut. It has not ac­quired a new con­ven­tional un­der­sea plat­form in 14 years and just half its fleet of 13 age­ing con­ven­tional sub­marines are op­er­a­tional. It op­er­ates a

soli­tary nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­ma­rine, the INS Chakra leased from Rus­sia in 2012, even as it strug­gles to put the first indige­nous nu­clear-pow­ered bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­ma­rine to sea. And this is not for want of funds. The coun­try has spent more than $6 bil­lion over the past decade on build­ing con­ven­tional and nu­clear sub­marines. But the project has been crip­pled by a lack of long-term strate­gic vi­sion within the Navy, and bu­reau­cratic de­lays. AL­LAT SEA Months be­fore the INS Sind­hu­rak­shak ex­ploded and sank in Mum­bai har­bour, the navy had pro­posed life-ex­ten­sion of its fleet of 14 sub­marines. Re­fits would ex­tend lives of older sub­marines by seven years—a sub­ma­rine has an aver­age life span of 25 years— but this plan is yet to be ap­proved. Even if the up­grade rolls out, it will come with dis­ad­van­tages: A re­fur­bished sub­ma­rine will be avail­able only 10 days a month while as a new boat is avail­able for 20 days. New sub­marines are what the Navy doesn’t have. The six Scor­penes bought from France in 2005 were to join the fleet in 2012 but “pro­ce­dural de­lays in fi­nan­cial sanc­tions” caused by the bu­reau­cracy have de­layed in­duc­tion till at least 2017. The shrink­ing fleet, mean­while, has led to a glut of per­son­nel. If 150 of­fi­cers manned 12 sub­marines a decade ago, there are 700 of­fi­cers for seven op­er­a­tional sub­marines now. Sub­mariners thus have to con­tend with shorter sea tenures, which ad­versely im­pacts their train­ing and ef­fi­ciency. Be­sides, such wor­ries may have clouded as­sess­ment of the loom­ing threat from China and, worse, even in­jected a sense of com­pla­cency.

In con­trast, China has em­barked on the world’s largest mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion. Only last week, it in­creased its de­fence budget by 12.2 per cent from last year to $40 bil­lion—the ac­tual budget may be 40 per cent higher—to fund, among other things, con­struc­tion of a fleet of over 20 nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­marines. On the other hand, In­dia will spend $6 bil­lion on de­fence this year. Still some in In­dia’s de­fence es­tab­lish­ment are not wor­ried. A se­nior sub­mariner says he is un­ruf­fled by PLA Navy’s SSN de­ploy­ments be­cause “their re­li­a­bil­ity to de­ploy be­yond their sub­ma­rine bases is not es­tab­lished yet. There’s a ques­tion mark on the abil­ity of their SSNs to op­er­ate un­hin­dered.”

That may be so. But it’s no­body’s case that In­dia can af­ford to be lax as for as de­fence pre­pared­ness goes. The coun­try has strug­gled with a three-decade-old project to field a small force of three indige­nous 6,000tonne nu­clear-pow­ered sub­marines fit­ted with nu­clear mis­siles. The first sub­ma­rine, Arihant, was launched in 2009 but is yet to be­gin sea tri­als. The govern­ment is also yet to clear a clas­si­fied 2010 naval pro­posal to build a fleet of four ves­sels like the Shang­class SSNs. The navy, mean­while, is push­ing hard to get more con­ven­tional sub­marines —top of its list are six Project 75 ‘In­dia’ sub­marines, which come at Rs 3,000 crore a piece and are big­ger than the Scor­penes— never mind they will have limited util­ity against Chi­nese SSNs. The pro­posal has been blocked by the fi­nance min­istry cit­ing the ex­or­bi­tant cost. In all, the Navy wants to add 24 con­ven­tional sub­marines to its fleet, at a cost of Rs 76,000 crore.

This makes lit­tle sense to an­a­lysts such as Rear Ad­mi­ral Menon, who say the navy must scrap all its plans for con­ven­tional sub­marines and re­make it­self into an all-nu­clear navy like those of the United States, France and the United King­dom. What’s the Navy think­ing on this? A naval of­fi­cer says the chang­ing strate­gic sce­nario in the In­dian Ocean could force them into leas­ing a sec­ond nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­ma­rine. Just an­other tac­ti­cal re­sponse to an­other strate­gic prob­lem.

SAU­RABH SINGH Graph­ics by

SHANG-CLASS SSNS AT THE PLA NAVY BASE IN HAINAN IS­LAND

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