Navy's minesweeping capability – Going kaput

February 5, 2018 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


Military strategy demands the ability to present adequate force wnenever and wherever threats emerge in quick time. Ironically, India appears happy with moving from crisis to crisis. Amidst all the perception building about India's Indian Ocean Policy and proactive ocean diplomacy, the Indian Navy received a blow in January this year with the government scrapping the 32,000 cr project to construct 12 minesweepers or mine counter-measure vessels (MCMVs) at Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL) in collaboration with South Korea.

This needs to be viewed in the backdrop of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Defence pointing out last year that the Indian Navy will soon reach a point of near zero mine-sweeping capability when the existing six vessels are de-commissioned by end 2018. According to Manohar Parrikar, Goa Chief Minister, who appears to have become MoD's mouthpiece and who recently questioned why the Naval HQ was located at Delhi, the deal was scrapped because "There was some difference between the request for proposal floated and the quote given by the Korean company, some lacuna". Earlier, Parrikar had stated that the talks with the South Korean firm were cancelled since "certain terms and conditions set by the Korean company, were beyond the scope of the tender". The MCMVs are around 900-ton specialized warships that detect, track and destroy underwater mines laid by enemy to choke harbours and offshore installations, disrupt shipping and maritime trade. The issue to note here is that the Indian Navy began the acquisition process for minesweepers 12 years back in 2005, requiring 24 MCMVs to guard the east and west coasts. Presently, the Navy is reduced to six-30 year old minesweepers that are to be decommissioned in end 2018. Given the emerging criticality, their life will probably extended, even as their actual operational capability due to their age may be kept ambiguous. The tragedy in this affair, as many more in the same category is that just no one is responsible for such criticalities. Government will blame the 10 years neglect of defence during UPA II rule, but what has been the urgency of the Defence Minsters under the present government on this particular criticality, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused on to the Indian Ocean from the very beginning of his premiership? With all the hype about simplified procedures, why after three years and half years of government rule we have landed up cancelling a 'Make in India' project. Manohar Parrikar has shrugged off the issue by saying that GSL will continue to build the 12 minesweepers after floating fresh request for proposal (RFP) seeking new technology partner. Of course GSL will do so after having already invested 700 cr in infrastructure for the MCMV project but then, issue of fresh RFP and re-tendering will further delay development. As per sources, first MCMV under 'Make in India' will unlikely see the light of the day before a decade.

Compare our Navy's predicament with China having some 100 minesweepers, its conventional and nuclear submarines prowling Indian Ocean, and Chinese capacity to lay mines. Mines that cost few hundred dollars can cause immense damage to a navy or sea-borne trade. Mine warfare and mine counter measures are critical to naval capability and port and harbour defence since mines at sea whether floating or laid on the seabed, have a high index of lethality and can cause unacceptable levels of damage to a warship / commercial ship at very low cost. Technology has improved the lethality or destructive potential of sea mines and their covert employment, with ambiguous signatures or without any signature s are very much part of hybrid warfare and covert operations. Clearly we are laying ourselves bare against such enemy actions ignoring the China-Pakistan anti-India nexus and China's growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean. Wonder if the ministers in-charge of shipping, and of commerce have ever even thought if our ports and harbours can be shut down, for whatever duration, because of mine threat. The blame for any such accident will be placed on the Navy since Coast Guards though directly under MoD officially aren't supposed to have minesweeping capability.

Naturally, both Pakistan and China would be ecstatic with our Navy denuded of minesweeping capability. What government is going to do is anybody's guess but leasing two-three minesweepers may hardly suffice. Purchasing a few may have to be resorted to, which has always been the bureaucratic game – delay acquisitions, create criticalities, followed by bulk purchase for obvious financial gains. Wonder if the government realizes that we are time and again landing in such critical situations because we have not defined a national security strategy, not undertaken comprehensive defence review, and don't have military professional in MoD since the past 71 years. Ironically, the present government too has made no such move in this direction. Last year, the Niti Aayog stated that the new 15-year long-term vision being worked out would also include defence and internal security. How the Niti Aayog does so in absence of a national security strategy, comprehensive defence review and sans military professionals remains mystery. Clearly the Modi Government has much sorting out to do. As for Make in India projects, they sure need time to take off, but the cancellation of the MCMVs under Make in India is a huge blow to India defence, which probably could have been avoided with streamlined procedures and showing urgency. The recurrence of such situations has seen questions being raised periodically by scholar and media whether such actions are deliberate. Is there a game plan to keep the defence of India retarded? Are we taking anty action to address the "enemy within" inside the defence sector? The downing of INS 'Sindhurakshak' and INS 'Sindhuratna" indicated MoD doesn't take any responsibility, and cannot be held accountable anyway with Services HQ being "attached offices". The Defence Minister needs to address these issues as well, aside from the looming near-zero minesweeping capability in face of the aggravating situation in the Indian Ocean.