Thursday, 22 August 2013

India's newest ships underline serious remaining obstacles

Two events this month outline India’s growing maritime focus, while soberly reminding the country of the significant obstacles lying ahead in its search for a modern navy.

India launched its first homegrown aircraft carrier and its first nuclear submarine in August, both intended to impress the world – and especially China – by proving India finally has the ability to project force into its near abroad. But so far, China has remained unimpressed – or at least it has publically – and for good reason.

Those joyous events were quickly overshadowed by an accidental explosion on a non-nuclear submarine which killed 18 sailors while the vessel was docked in Mumbai. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged the disaster crushed any celebration around the country’s achievements.

A fire apparently ignited the warheads of two torpedoes, sinking the boat in minutes, while being televised around the world via onlookers’ cell phones. Unfortunately for New Delhi, the accidental sinking of the vessel might have received more international attention than the launching of their two newest ships.

The submarine which sunk was the Sindhurakshak, the most modern of India’s fleet. According to reports, the vessel had just been overhauled and inspected and was considered sea-worthy. So as far as bad publicity goes, there are few things more damaging to a nation’s military image than their equipment failing so spectacularly.

India’s concentration on upgrading its naval capacity from a coastal force to a true blue-water fleet is clearly a work in progress. The two new ships released this month are another certain step in this direction.

China’s naval expansion is a challenge to India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean basin and increasing India’s naval capability will help New Delhi to better deter the threat of conflict between the world’s two most populous nations.

If India can bring its new carrier and submarines online within the decade, they could create a proper blue water fleet. India plans to have a fleet of three or four aircraft carriers and several nuclear submarines, but the obstacles of cost overruns, corruption, and technological development are plaguing the program.

For instance, India says their aircraft carrier will only be operational by 2018. But already the ship is four years behind schedule after consistent delays and is only approximately 30% complete. If those delays continue, there is every chance they will miss the 2018 true commission date as well. It is difficult to see why New Delhi felt it important to launch the carrier at such a premature stage.

Projects never quite go to plan, but the new Indian carrier is getting the blunt end of the stick in more ways than one. Every day it spends in dry dock fitting its propulsion system and equipment is another day it won’t be patrolling the seas and supplying crucial carrier experience for pilots and crews.

To cover this gap, New Delhi is refitting its existing carrier to potentially serve for the rest of the decade. More unexpected costs will need to be sunk into this project to maintain Indian presence on the waves, but it doesn’t help their efforts. India is bizarrely already planning for a second new carrier with even greater capabilities without fixing the problems burdening their unfinished ship.

China has derided the new carrier, saying the ship is far from truly Indian because it is using significant portion of components imported from abroad. This is more than slightly ironic given that China’s new aircraft carrier is built from a decommissioned Russian hull.

For countries around India which have bought in to New Delhi’s “Look East Policy”, the delays in the carrier program casts doubt over whether India can live up to its potential and deliver on its security promises. Countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam are looking to India as a counterpoint to China presence in the Indian Ocean Basin.

Beijing’s increasingly well-equipped navy has been sailing further from its home waters, with craft venturing into the Somali waters to assist in anti-piracy missions and in the East China Sea near Japan. While India is not directing its policies against any particular country, at least not publically, members of ASEAN are keen to move closer to India as a strategic partner.

So long as India can overcome its many obstacles glaring down at the naval program, New Delhi might be able to meet the security requirements of its neighbours and completing the group of carriers would give it entry into an exclusive international club of accomplished nations with a competent carrier force. But those obstacles are still significant and India’s navy will remain heavily constrained despite its progress. 

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