Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Hilarious Event, Albeit Tinged With The Indian Navy’s Realism

The customary annual press briefing on the eve of Navy Day, given this time by the Indian Navy’s (IN) Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, on December 2 did not contain any new revelations as far as the on-going or future force modernisation plans of the IN are concerned. The briefing, instead, was a hilarious event, thanks to the never-ending idiotic queries put forth by India’s Delhi-based ‘desi’ press corps, whose members seemed to be quite pissed off by the absence of a free luncheon at the IN’s expense, this being due to the on-going 7-day mourning period declared by the Govt of India in the aftermath of the passing away of former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral. What follows below is a list of the most prominent idiotic queries raised yesterday.


A former Indian Army officer, who is presently both the Publisher & Editor of a monthly military affairs magazine, stood out as a pathetic example of an ill-informed journalist who is totally clueless when it comes to naval matters. For instance, consider the following questions posed by him: 1) What did the CNS have to say about the IN’s depleting submarine force-levels? 2) What happened to the IN’s plans for procuring one fleet of SSKs of Western design and another fleet of SSKs of Russian design? 3) Why can’t the three armed services chiefs publicly declare their wealth/assets on an annual basis just like Ministers of the Union Cabinet and Judges of the Supreme Court? 4) Why did the CNS not interact with the ‘desi’ press corps on a regular basis?

And this is what the CNS, himself an anti-submarine warfare specialist, had to say:

1) Contrary to popular perception, the IN’s undersea warfare capabilities have increased exponentially over since 2001, with all nine Type 877EKM SSKs and four Class 209/Type 1500 SSKs have been subjected to ‘deep’ upgrades in successive tranches. Consequently, the former can now launch both Novator 3M54E Club-S 220km-range supersonic ASCMs as well as 290km-range 3M14E subsonic land-attack cruise missiles. The four Class 209/Type 1500 SSKs on the other hand have the same on-board sensors and combat management system as those on board Class 214 SSKs. As for the six CM-2000 Scorpene SSKs on order, the first vessel will be ready for commissioning by August 2015, with the remaining five entering service at successive nine-month intervals, with the last SSK due to enter service by May 2019.

2) The CNS confirmed that there was never any plan or directive from anyone from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to procure two types of SSKs of Western and eastern design, and he asked the journalist from where one got wind of such wrong information.
3) The CNS disclosed that every year all senior officials of the IN were mandatorily required to fill up two forms that contained a detailed listing of all financial accounts and assets (like real estate), which were then submitted to the MoD. The CNS also aptly returned fire by asking the journalist that if he (the journalist) was so supportive about the concept of public declarations about wealth, then why did he (the journalist) not set the example by declaring his own wealth and assets to the public?
4) The CNS replied by saying that in case he interacted as a matter of routine with the country’s press corps, then he would have nothing new to say during his annual Navy Day-eve press briefings, nor would anyone even bother to attend such briefings.
Needless to say, the last question was posed by this magazine Publisher-cum-Editor in an effort to try and secure ‘EXCLUSIVE’ interviews for his magazine on a regular basis so that such interviews could be used as leverage when soliciting for advertisement revenues from India-based and foreign OEMs that are now hawking their wares and services to the IN. Incidentally, this magazine Publisher-cum-Editor had earlier this year embarked upon a self-proclaimed crusade to ‘educate’ India’s parliamentarians about India’s national security imperatives by trying to solicit from the MoD and the three armed services HQs a long-term magazine subscription deal that would guarantee his magazine’s direct-sales revenues for the next three years. 
Then there was a female freelance news reporter (who functions as a stringer for some US- and UK-based aerospace magazines) who asked the CNS if there were any plans for licence-assembling the eight MRMR/ASW aircraft that the IN planned to procure. She obviously was unaware of the fact that for an aircraft licenced-assembly line to be raised, it requires a minimum of 65 aircraft to be procured to reach financial breakeven point!
There were several ‘desi’ journalists that repeatedly posed the same kind of questions about the IN’s ability to project its seapower in the South China Sea and whether whether the IN would provide protection to ONGC Videsh’s assets in the South China Sea. In response, the CNS explained that though India was not a direct claimant to any maritime territory in the South China Sea, its primary concern was the freedom of navigation in international waters (inclusive of a country’s EEZ). “It is not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently, but whenever the situation required, with the country’s interests at stake—for example ONGC Videsh has three offshore oil exploration blocks there—we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that,” Admiral Joshi said while clarifying that any kind of naval force projection inj such areas would require government approval. What went totally unnoticed by the ‘desi’ press corps was the fact that of the three offshore deepwater blocks on the southern Vietnamese coast that were given by Hanoi to ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL)—the wholly-owned subsidiary of Oil and Natural Gas Commision (ONGC)—India had last April itself decided to retreat from the disputed Block 128 area in the South China Sea while claiming technical problems, while OVL had relinquished Block 127 in 2009 itself. In 2006, OVL had signed a contract to jointly explore Blocks 127 and 128 together with Vietnam Oil and Gas Group. Despite ongoing maritime sovereignty disputes and protests from China, it began test drilling in September 2009. Since then, the company has invested US$46 million in equipment and manpower but has not achieved any meaningful results due to repeated failures to drill through the dense seabed. On April 10 this year, India’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas had sent a letter to India’s Ministry of External Affairs in which it said that OVL had decided to retreat based on technological and business concerns. In other words, India has given credence to China’s statement that India’s exploration activities in Blocks 127 and 128 were ‘illegal’ and has therefore decided to retreat for good reasons.

In fact, by stating that “not only us but everyone is of the view that they [the disputes] have to be resolved by the parties concerned, aligned with the international regime, which is outlined in UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]; that is our first requirement,” the CNS clearly and correctly displayed his wise appreciation of the prevailing situation—something that the ‘desi’ press corps has not bothered to comprehend or contextualise (as was evident in the press reports they subsequently filed yesterday afternoon). Here’s what has been happening since the mid-1990s: Originally, China had offered to claimants such as Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, The Philippines and Vietnam a series of bilateral deals (like the ones struck by Malaysia and Thailand in the early 1980s) that called for jointly developing and exploiting the offshore oil/gas exploration blocks straddling the disputed Spratlys and Paracels. However, egged on by the US and Japan, the 10-member ASEAN economic grouping rejected China’s offers and instead decided to adopted a united stand by deciding to negotiate as a grouping. Beijing consequently embarked upon unravelling one of Zhuge Liang’s famous 36 stratagems over the next 15 years whose sole agenda was to develop deep fissures within the ASEAN grouping so that countries like Vietnam and The Philippines would be forced to adopt the bilateral approach toward conflict resolution. China began implementing this stratagem by first befriending Cambodia, then Myanmar, and followed by Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. Consequently, today, all these countries have signalled their intention to secure bilateral/joint development deals with China, leaving Vietnam and The Philippines cornered.

Explaining the IN’s plans for acquiring air-independent propulsion-equipped SSKs, Admiral Joshi disclosed that the Navy would like to equip its last two CM-2000 Scorpenes with AIPs developed by the DRDO’s Defence Research & Development Organisation’s Naval Materials Research Laboratory (NMRL) at Ambernath in Maharashtra. However, if the AIP systems are not available by 2017, then the two CM-2000s will forego the AIP option. What needs to be understood here (something the CNS ought to have explained in greater detail) is that it takes at least a decade of sustained R & D to develop customised AIP solutions. NMRL, on the other hand, began R & D work on an AIP system prototype using phosphoric acid fuel-cells only in August 2010. This prototype, which will be developed till 2015, is unlikely to become mature enough to graduate into an engineered, operational AIP system over a two-year period (i.e. by 2017) since any AIP system—in order to be operationally qualified—has to be subjected to several tests and trials inside a SSK for at least two years, and not at a land-based facility. Given the fact that neither the DRDO nor the IN has any SSK that can be spared for use as a platform for validating the NMRL-developed AIP system’s seaworthiness, it will be wholly unrealistic to expect any of the IN’s six CM-2000s to have NMRL-developed AIP systems on-board.

What was also unsaid by the CNS and was never touched upon the ignorant ‘desi’ press corps was the future status of Project 75I SSK procurement programme, which calls for the procurement of six single-hulled SSKs all powered by AIP systems. The programme, expected to reach the contract negotiations stage only by 2014 (meaning the RFP will be issued by the first quarter of 2013), calls for the procurement of SSKs fitted with a ‘proven’ (i.e. already operational with one or more end-user) AIP system. Once the winning design is selected, the first two SSKs will be imported off-the-shelf from the foreign OEM, while three more will be built by the MoD-owned Mazagon Docks Ltd at a brand-new submarine fabrication facility (for which MDL in the 1980s had acquired a 16-acre plot of real estate, adjoining MDL’s existing facilities in Mazagon, Mumbai, from Gujarat State-owned Alcock Ashdown Shipyard), with the last SSK being built by the Vizag-based, MoD-owned Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. What can be inferred from all this is that A) MDL, teamed with Pipavav Offshore Defence Ltd, will get the contract to become prime industrial contractor for the Project 75I programme. B) MDL, and not Larsen & Toubro, was chosen due to its familiarity with the CM-2000 SSK’s construction intricacies and the ready availability of a pool of skilled and type-proficient workforce that would not have to be retrained for fabricating an all-new-design SSK, thereby ensuring adherence to timely and on-cost delivery schedules. C) All this in the end pointing toward the S-80 Super Scorpene from Spain’s NAVANTIA emerging as the favourite contender for winning the contract. It also needs to be noted that of all the contenders (from Germany, Russia, Italy and Sweden), the S-80 is the only contender that is not only in series-production, but it also features an open-architecture design, meaning it can accept any type of proven AIP system—factors that will be crucial to the IN when evaluating the various RFP responses.   
Given below are some other tit-bits that emerged out of the CNS’ press-briefing:

1) The IN’s first of three projected SSBNs—Arihant—has completed its harbour acceptance trials, and its on-board PWR will go critical at low power later this month (this is the good news that the CNS had hinted at yesterday’s press briefing would “soon come”) and be gradually worked up to higher power to enable the SSBN to go to sea. When this happens, INS Arihant will report ‘Underway on Nuclear Power’. The next phase of trials and evaluations will include sea-trials on surface at various speeds, and when the confidence of the crew complement rises, the SSBN will carry out its first shallow dive by the latter half of next year, going deeper progressively at various speeds. On return from every diving trial, several mandatory structural checks on the hull and PWR performance will be carried out by Indian and Russian specialists, and the final deep dive to maximum operating depth will culminate in the SSBN embarking upon Phase 3 of its sea trials schedule, this involving weapons-firing trials. Only after all three phases of trials are completed will the Arihant be commissioned sometime before 2014.
2) Despite persistent delays, India’s first Project 71 indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1), being built at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), should be ready for sea-trials by 2017. A new set of RENK-built gearboxes have already been delivered to CSL by Elecon Engineering, since the first set of gearboxes had to be written off due to extensive damage suffered by them during a roadside accident at Khopoli in 2010.  
3) INAS 303 ‘Black Panthers’ squadron, equipped with 12 MiG-29Ks and four MiG-29KUBs, will be commissioned later this month.
4) The IN’s first 105-metre NOPV, built by Goa Shipyard Ltd, will be commissioned by the middle of next year, after having undergone successful contractor’s sea-trials at the hands of the IN’s Warship Overseeing Team. The NOPV now awaits the arrival of its commissioning crew complement. Commissioning of INS Kolkata, the first of three Project 15A DDGs, will take place in the latter half of next year due to the delayed arrival of the warship’s commissioning crew complement (this being because the IN is faced with a shortfall of trained naval personnel).

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