Our harbours may be vulnerable for 20 years, and Indian Navy can’t do much: Admiral Arun Prakash

Even as India worries about ‘barbarians’ at our northern and western gates, we need to focus sharply on the ‘enemy within’.

This enemy is a pernicious system, which has brought the process of equipping our military almost to a grinding halt. The mainstay of this ‘system’ is the politician who is indifferent to national security but focused on political survival. This politician uses foreign arms purchases as the ‘golden-goose’ for election-funding, as well as for settling political scores.

The pernicious system’s other prop is the ministry of defence (MoD) bureaucracy, which is unconcerned and unlettered about matters of security and defence, but vested with unfettered decision-making powers.

In this context, the tale of Indian Navy’s ‘missing minesweepers’ may be an apt metaphor.

Energy and trade are the lifeblood of India’s economy, and an overwhelming proportion of both travels by sea. India consumes 4.5 million barrels of oil a day, requiring three-four giant oil tankers, termed ‘very large crude carriers’, to discharge at an Indian port every single day of the year. Each day, the country’s top 12 ports handle 2.5 million tonnes of cargo, including coal, fertilizer, petrol, food and containers of general merchandise. This trade is carried by 150-200 merchant-ships that enter and leave Indian harbours every day.

Even a brief interruption in the smooth entry and departure of the shipping traffic in any one of these ports would have serious repercussions on India’s economy, industry, security and the common man’s daily life. Such a possibility is rarely contemplated in land-locked New Delhi where ‘sea-mines’ is a term, perhaps, unheard of.

A sea-mine is a large, self-contained explosive device, placed in a focal shipping area, to inflict damage or destroy ships that pass in its vicinity. Today’s ‘smart’ mines may lie dormant for months, till activated by a timer, and thus constitute an unseen and insidious menace to shipping.

While navies use ships, submarines or aircraft to lay mines, the same task could be performed clandestinely by merchant ships, fishing boats or even dhows in an unguarded port. A mine explosion (or even the rumour of mining) in a harbour could paralyse shipping traffic and send marine-insurance rates skyrocketing till the harbour is ‘swept’ of mines and declared safe for shipping.

The Persian Gulf has, in recent times, seen two modern US Navy warships – a frigate in 1988 and a cruiser in 1991 – suffering serious damage from primitive mines deployed by Iran and Iraq. Mine-sweeping and mine-hunting (collectively termed ‘mine counter-measures’ or MCM) thus remain of critical importance for the navies. Older wooden-hulled MCM ships have been replaced by ships that seek and destroy mines via remotely controlled vehicles.

A prudent Indian Navy (IN), cognisant of the vulnerability of Indian shipping and harbours, has, from its earliest days, maintained an adequate MCM capability on both coasts. The first minesweepers, acquired from the UK in the 1950s, were supplemented by some home-built craft and Soviet vessels, which lasted us till the 1970s.

Aware that the Pakistan Navy had a sizeable stock of Chinese mines (one of PNS Ghazi’s tasks in 1971 was to mine the Vishakhapatnam harbour), the IN, during the 1980s, acquired two squadrons of six modern Soviet MCM vessels (MCMV) each to safeguard the western and eastern seaboards against mine-laying.

With these ships rapidly approaching obsolescence, the Indian Navy initiated in 2005 a case for indigenous construction of 12 MCMVs equipped with modern mine-detection and destruction devices, with the option for 12 more to follow. The proposal envisaged the project to be undertaken by the small but highly efficient and proven Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL). A request for proposals (RFP) was initiated, and bids were expected from Russian, Italian and South Korean shipbuilders. All that remained was for the Indian Navy to exercise an option between a non-ferrous metal or composite-material hull, and the requisite technology would be transferred to GSL for serial production of MCMVs.

Imagine one’s dismay on seeing a June 2018 news headline announcing: “RFI for Rs 32,640 crore minesweepers may be issued in four weeks”.

A post-mortem of what transpired between 2005 and 2018 would be tedious, but if the news report is indeed true, it may be a decade before the first new MCMV enters the IN service. Since the Indian Navy’s sole remaining MCMV is due for de-commissioning soon, India’s shipping lanes as well as its 200-plus major and minor harbours will be vulnerable to mining for nearly two decades.

So, what’s new? Nothing. Similar examples abound of jet trainers, artillery guns, submarines, fighters, carbines and bullet-proof jackets taking 15-20 years for the MoD to acquire vitally required military hardware. Does anyone care? Journalist Vir Sanghvi recently tweeted the answer: “No voter cares about defence deals; this is an issue only for the Delhi media.” 

What’s the bottom line then? Looking back, it is incredible, but true, that of India’s 29 post-Independence defence ministers, none has shown the will, vision or intellect to reform the system and to sow the seeds of military self-reliance. The MoD has become a labyrinth of Kafkaesque complexity, where the bureaucracy – ignorant about arcane areas of capability acquisition and weapon procurement – uses the Defence Procurement Procedure as a talisman to stall and impede military modernisation.

One can only hope that sooner than later the voter will start ‘caring’, and national security will become an electoral issue. Till then, we will continue to live in a parlous security environment, being pushed around by all our neighbours – small and big.

Admiral Arun Prakash

Tag:- Admiral Arun Prakash, Indian Navy, MCMV Minsweepers, Goa Shipyard