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The Indian Navy – Transition from ‘Buyer’s’ to ‘Builder’s Navy’

The expansion of the Indian Navy and its process of modernisation has been part of regular discussion. The Chief of the Naval Staff’s recent statement regarding induction of 56 new warships and eight new submarines has drawn attention of many on the essentiality of the procurement. The expenditure to be incurred for the procurement of these 56 warships and six new submarines is an important issue, however, it will be prudent to understand and analyse the rationale of the decision against the backdrop of the prime influencing factors.

India exists in a hostile neighbourhood. Looking back at the history, the naval assets during partition got divided between India and Pakistan which included the warships, the training establishments, depots and the dockyards for repair and maintenance of the ships. The bases and the shore facilities by default became part of the respective territories; the division of the ships was on the basis of two-thirds of the fleet to India, one third to Pakistan. The security of India’s vast coastline, in excess of 7500 kms including the security of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as compared to only 1046 kms of Pakistan’s coastline posed a challenging task with the depleted force strength. The strength of the fighting platforms (surface, sub-surface and air) were progressively augmented by procurement form the United Kingdom and other European countries, later from Russia.

Understanding the need for a future expansion and periodic modernisation of the Naval Fleets, the Indian Navy very sensibly developed its own ship design bureau for design and construction of warships. It is a matter of immense pride that the Indian Navy has transformed now from ‘Buyer’s Navy’ into a full-fledged ‘Builder’s Navy’. This has brought self-reliance in warship production with the modern and the state-of-the-art technologies. The Defence Shipyards (GRSE, MDL, GSL and HSL) have also been developed with the modern ship building facilities. The key and critical technologies ranging from marine grade steel to weapons and sensors have been developed in-house or acquired for indigenous production by the PSUs and Private Industries. The Indian Navy, within its own resource, has also developed the facilities, technology and capability for system integration for interface of weapon, equipment and sensors of different make and origin, for centralised command and control onboard the warships. This has helped the Indian Navy to select technology and hardware of its choice (of different make and origin) and then integrate for a hybrid configuration and seamless operation.

The role of the Indian Navy is broadly defined as “application of maritime power in both offensive operations against enemy forces, territory and trade, and defensive operations to protect own forces, territory and trade”. The rationale for induction of new warships and submarines are manifold. Maintenance of a credible force level all the time with combat-worthy platforms is vital for the country’s maritime security. The aging warships would need to be replaced phase-wise with new warships with new generation sensors and weapon fit. The aging warships require frequent and more maintenance, which besides leading to increased expenditure in maintenance, depletes the desired force level for immediate deployment for operations. Deterioration of the ships’ hull plates in the corrosive marine environment over decades of exploitation makes them unsafe for sailing after a certain point of time; this is the prime contributory factor for decommissioning of ships. The challenges arising from technology obsolescence or hardware being sentenced obsolete / end of production are countered with retro-fitment of new weapons and sensors subject to the condition of the ship’s hull.

Further, increase in the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region and around the Indian subcontinent, protection of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC, the primary maritime routes between ports, used for trade and logistics) from the menace of piracy extending from the Somali basin, growing commerce and diplomatic ties have increased the maritime role and area of influence of the Indian Navy forcing it for a restructuring of the force level.

Growth and expansion of the Indian Navy has thus become inevitable. Induction of the 56 new warships can be viewed as part of the replacement process of the aging platforms along with a planned expansion to maintain the essential force level. All of them, however, may not be capital warships (Aircraft Carriers, Destroyers or Frigates); it will also include the smaller specialised Corvettes, Mine Sweepers and the Fast Attack Crafts. Augmentation of the submarine squadrons has been a long pending issue and induction of these six new submarines is a welcome step towards ensuring the Indian Navy as a dominant regional maritime power.

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