The Indian Navy Project 17 frigate Sahyadri operating with the Project 28 corvette Kamorta in May 2017. Both ships are amongst the newest of their types in the Indian Navy but new designs are in preparation.
The last year has continued to see the Indian Navy’s ambitious plans for enhancement and expansion held back by a number of familiar problems. These have included an inadequate – and declining – budget for naval modernisation; a strong emphasis on local shipbuilding in spite of a poor track record of executing programmes on time and to budget; an over-reliance on defective Russian-supplied equipment; and ongoing mishaps attributable to human error.
India’s 2017–18 defence budget estimate amounted to INR262,390 crore (US$41bn) excluding pensions, a year-on-year increase of 5.3 percent. This rate of growth is slower than in recent years. One consequence has been a rise in the proportion of the budget allocated to revenue expenditure to the obvious detriment of modernisation accounts. With much capital consumed by Indian Air Force requirements, the navy has been suffering. The 2017–18 naval modernisation account was INR18,750 crore (US$2.9bn), a twelve percent reduction on the previous year and totally inadequate to support expansion efforts.
A further problem relates to the wisdom with which money is being spent. With the exception of the strategic missile submarine Arihant, only one major warship has been commissioned into Indian Navy service in the last twelve months. This is largely a reflection of local industry’s inability to deliver new ships in accordance with the navy’s expectation. The extent of the problem was revealed in a ‘Performance Audit on Construction of Indigenous Aircraft Carrier’ published by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in July 2016. This revealed there was complete disagreement between the navy and builders’ Cochin Shipyard as to when the new carrier, Vikrant, was likely to be delivered. Whilst the Indian Navy is holding to a schedule requiring delivery of the ship by December 2018, the shipyard now believes that 2023 is a more likely estimate. The end result is likely to be India having to rely on just one operational aircraft carrier for an extended period in spite of a long-stated aim to have three in commission.
Whilst the performance of the Indian shipbuilding sector has been far from stellar, reliance on Russian industry has also proved problematic. The CAG report referred to above makes frequent references to delays in the receipt of Russian design documentation and equipment. It also highlighted a host of problems with respect to the Russian MiG-29K/KUB strike fighters acquired for both Vikrant and the existing Vikramaditya. These were riddled with defects relating to their airframe, engine and fly-by-wire system, resulting in serviceability as low as sixteen percent.
Meanwhile, on 5 December 2016, the navy suffered the latest in a series of mishaps to impact the fleet when the frigate Betwa fell over onto her side whilst the cruiser graving dock in Mumbai Dockyard was being flooded-up. Two sailors were killed in an incident that left the ship with significant damage. Betwa was subsequently righted in February 2017. Repairs are expected to take around twelve months to complete.
The table below suggests that there has been very little change in the overall structure of the Indian Navy year-on-year. The formal decommissioning of Viraat (the former HMS Hermes) on 6 March 2017 – she had already effectively been out of service for around a year – leaves Vikramaditya as the navy’s sole aircraft carrier. The surface fleet welcomed the final Project 15A Kolkata class destroyer, Chennai, which commissioned on 21 November 2016. Her arrival was balanced by the withdrawal from active service of the Project 16 Godavari class frigate Ganga, which undertook her last operational voyage on 27 May 2017. She will be formally decommissioned later in the year. Godavari ended her service life in December 2015 and Gomati, the third member of the class, is also expected to leave the fleet soon.
Construction of major surface combatants encompasses three programmes. The most advanced is that for four Project 15B Visakhapatnam class destroyers, which are based on the previous Project 15A design. Builders Mazagon Dock Ltd launched Mormugao, second of the class, on 17 September 2016. Deliveries are scheduled to take place every two years from 2018, although this seems ambitious on past performance. Mazagon will also undertake construction of four of the seven Project 17A stealth frigates derived from the Shivalik class. The joint programme shared with Kolkata’s Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) should enter the production stage in the next twelve months. A third programme involves the licence-built construction of Russian-designed Project 1135. Talwar class frigates. This project – which was initially reported to include transfer of some of the similar Russian Admiral Grigorovich class frigates currently laid up in a half-completed state at the Yantar yard due to nondelivery of their Ukrainian gas turbines – has seemingly been allocated to Goa Shipyard. It seems that the plan is to acquire four frigates, taking the complete class up to ten ships.
There has been little material change to the composition of the balance of the surface fleet. Two Project 28 Kamorta class corvettes remain under construction following a decision to redesign their superstructures around a carbon-fibre composite structure to mitigate top-weight issues found with the earlier pair. It was originally envisaged that more ships of the type would be built to a slightly improved Project 28A design. However, this plan appears to have been overtaken by the issue of a request for information in October for seven ‘Next Generation Corvettes’. The 120m ships will be larger and more heavily armed than the Kamorta class and have a more general-purpose orientation than the anti-submarine focused Project 28 design. There is also a requirement to replace the smaller corvette/fast attack type vessels of the Soviet-designed Veer and Abhay classes, which are starting to decommission. Discussions have been held with industry around next generation missile ships and smaller shallow water anti-submarine vessels but there has been no confirmation of any orders to date.
There is also an urgent requirement to recapitalise the mine-countermeasures fleet. This has now been reduced to just four vessels following the decommissioning of two of the remaining Pondicherry class minesweepers on 5 May 2017. The remaining ships – all around thirty years old – are also expected to retire shortly. They will be replaced by a new class of mine countermeasures vessels being licence-built by Goa Shipyard under a controversial deal with South Korea’s Kangnam Corporation. However, construction has yet to begin and there will therefore be a considerable gap before the new ships are delivered. Progress has also been slow with plans to order four new LPD-type amphibious transport docks under a programme estimated to amount to around US$3bn. Two shortlisted local private-sector yards – allied with DCNS and Navantia – have been asked to resubmit bids for the project after plans to involve state-owned Hindustan Shipyard in construction were reversed.
Developments with respect to the submarine force have been somewhat more positive. The unconfirmed entry of Arihant into service is a major step forward for the navy’s strategic ambitions whilst good progress with trials of the lead Project 75 ‘Scorpène’ type boat Kalvari has been followed by the maiden voyage of the second member of the class, Khanderi, on 1 June 2017. It has now been decided not to fit an indigenously-developed air-independent propulsion (AIP) system on the last two members of the class, potentially speeding their completion. Current plans envisage submarine production switching to a new Project 75I class boat when the six ‘Scorpènes’ have been completed. However, a builder has yet to be selected. The ‘Scorpène’s’ designer DCNS had hopes that the delay might result in an interim order for a further batch of boats but the leak of over 22,000 pages of technical information on the design to The Australian newspaper has considerably reduced this prospect. The Indian Navy hopes to transition to constructing a class of nuclear-powered attack submarines after the Project 75I boats but this is some distance in the future. In the interim, it appears that a second Russian ‘Akula II’ type boat will be acquired on lease once the current arrangement with respect to Chakra expires. The agreement could see Indian technical experts involved with completing the boat, therefore helping pave the way for its own programme.