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Asia Pacific

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

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The Indian Navy has suffered an important set-back in its efforts to become the dominant force in the Indian Ocean. The INS Sindhurakshak, a Kilo-class diesel submarine, sank at its moorings after a devastating explosion rocked the boat on Wednesday. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, and while nothing is being ruled out, the early speculation is that a loading accident in the torpedo compartment detonated the ship’s ordinance[1]. The ship was scheduled to depart on a routine patrol with a full load of ordinance, which explains the magnitude of the explosion; but not what the initial cause as torpedoes and missiles are loaded with safeties on to prevent precisely such accidents. Only the sub’s duty watch was on board at the time of the accident, 15 sailors and 3 officers, but Navy divers have detected no signs of life in the sunken ship and all hands are feared lost.[2]

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This is not the first accident suffered by the INS Sindhurakshak. In 2010, a fire broke out in the boat’s battery compartment when a faulty seal allowed highly inflammable hydrogen to enter the compartment. One sailor was killed in that incident. The sub was sent back to Russia to be repaired and completely refitted, at a cost of US$80 million. The sub was officially handed back to the Indian Navy in April and sailed back to Mumbai without incident.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

This disaster comes hard on the heels of two critical milestones for India. The first was the announcement that the nuclear reactor on board the INS Arihant had successfully “gone critical”, i.e. was fully operational[3]. Although numerous trials remain before the indigenously built nuclear submarine enters into commission in the Navy, this was a critical step. India is now one of six nations with the capability to build a nuclear submarine as well as one of the same six nations to operate a nuclear ballistic missile submarine.

The second announcement was the launch of the INS Vikrant, India’s second aircraft carrier, but the first built entirely in an Indian shipyard. The Vikrant will replace INS Viraat, formerly the HMS Hermes (1959), now the oldest aircraft carrier in active service. India has purchased the Vikramaditya, formerly the Soviet Navy Baku. This represents a considerable upgrade in capabilities:  the Viraat displace 29,000 tons, while the Virkamaditya displaces 45,000 tons and the Vikrant, 40,000 tons. The Viraat carried up to 30 V/STOL fixed wing aircraft (e.g. Sea Harriers) while the newer carriers can carry 16 or 12 respectively of the far more capable MiG-29K’s.

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These three events are revealing. They show a nation which is striving, and succeeding, to develop the autonomous military capabilities of a Great Power. On top of everything else it has accomplished already, India has developed an indigenous class of stealth frigate, the Shivalik-class; has developed, tested and is ready to field the K-15 Sagarika, a short-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for the Arihant-class; and has developed an indigenous multi-role fighter in both land and naval variants, the HAL Tejas.

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 The Indian Navy is still not in a class with the U.S. Navy of course – no one is – but the Indians do not view the USN as a potential adversary (or at least not as a likely one). India is much more concerned about the Pakistani Navy, which it exceeds quantitatively and qualitatively; but increasingly by the Chinese Navy, which is expanding its blue water capabilities, developing its own aircraft carrier capabilities, and expanding its strategic and military relationships in the Indian Ocean with traditional allies, like Pakistan, as well as with new friends, like Myanmar and potentially Iran. The Indians view these primarily anti-American moves as Chinese encroachment in their backyard. Added to the simmering tensions over the Line of Actual Control in the disputed Himalayas frontier, and there is every possibility of an arms race between the two Asian giants.

At the same time, the accident reveals the flip side of India’s success: it is not only technologically challenging to build advanced military capabilities at home, it is extremely expensive. These big strategic projects can consume large percentages of the defense budget, which leaves little left over for maintenance of current equipment, training, personnel, replacement munitions, base maintenance… all of the mundane, unglamorous, but absolutely essential tasks that a modern military must undertake in order to be effective.

The Indian Navy currently has 15 submarines in commission, including the ill-starred Sindhurakshak. There are 14 diesel electric boats in commission, 10 Russian Kilo-class (like the Sindhurakshak) and another 4 German Type 209 boats. The Russian subs were built between 1986 and 2000 and the German subs were built between 1986 and 1994. In a typical rotation, the Indian Navy would have less than half of their sub fleet operation: the other boats would be in training cycles or docked for maintenance. With the loss of the Sindhurakshak, India would have only 4 subs available for deployment: perhaps less, since the Navy will undoubtedly want to inspect the remaining Kilos as well as review the training and procedures of the boats’ crews.

The Indian submarine force is frankly getting old. A submarine has a useful life of 25 years; with complete refits, that period could be extended. Even so, 9 of the 14 diesel boats will be at the end of their service life by 2015; curiously, the Sindhurakshak was the second youngest of the sub fleet, as well as having been recently refitted completely; this lends credence to the belief that human error was responsible for the tragedy.

The Indian Navy has bought the license to build six French-designed Scorpène-class diesel electric boats at the Hindustan Shipyards in at Visakhapatnam, Mumbai. The first of these is due to enter into commission at the end of 2016, with the completion of the one additional submarine each subsequent year until 2021. Until these modern boats are commissioned, the Navy will find it difficult to maintain an adequate patrol force; and by 2021, it will be necessary to have replaced the other 9 diesel boats.

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The Indian Navy is a powerful and stabilizing force in the Indian Ocean. As its capabilities grow, it will be able to assume ever greater responsibilities for maintaining the peace of the region as well as assisting with the perennial piracy problems in the Horn of Africa. It is in the interest of the United States to continue to develop and deepen the relationship of cooperation and mutual respect between the two armed forces. As the power of the traditional, European democracies continues to wane – which seems inevitable at this point, regardless of the admonitions of the Americans and the self-interest of the Europeans – the US will have to rely on the growing power of younger democracies like Brazil, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and, of course, India. The continued strength of the alliance of liberal democracies, led by the United States, is the best guarantee against the future resurgence of authoritarianism.

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