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PM talks tough, but new warship lacks teeth

No country will dare to challenge India after the commissioning of INS Kolkata, declared Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, while commissioning what is touted as the navy’s newest and most capable warship.

“INS Kolkata will send a message around the globe”, he added.

In fact, the disquieting message from Saturday’s hyperbole-filled ceremony at Mumbai is that India’s prime minister and top security officials are backstopping tough talk with a warship that is not yet operationally ready.

The 6,800-tonne guided missile destroyer, INS Kolkata, has been commissioned by the prime minister without two key weapon systems – the Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM) that shoots down incoming anti-ship missiles at ranges out to 70 kilometres, well before they strike the ship; and the Advanced Towed Array Sonar (ATAS), which detects enemy submarines trying to sneak into torpedo range.

Until these systems are fitted on INS Kolkata, the destroyer cannot provide security to the fleet. Instead, it will rely on accompanying warships for protection against anti-ship missiles and submarines.

Project 15A was originally sanctioned with a budget of Rs 3,500 crore for building three destroyers. That cost has more than tripled to Rs 11,662 crore. Meanwhile the delivery date has slipped by four years from the originally scheduled 2010.

“INS Kolkata is entirely built in India and it is a symbol of our self-reliance,” said Prime Minister Modi at the commissioning.

In fact, while briefing the media on Aug 13, a senior naval officer had stated that only 60 per cent of the destroyer is currently built in India. This percentage will marginally rise for INS Kochi and Chennai, the successors to INS Kolkata, but is unlikely to cross 70 per cent.

Foreign components include the Russian steel from which the vessel is built, its four Ukrainian engines, Russian propellers and shafting, and significant components of the LR-SAM and other weapons systems.

More worrying than foreign systems in INS Kolkata are systems that should be there but are not. Crucial for battle-effectiveness are two multi-role helicopters, which must fly in often blustery, rainy conditions to look out for enemy submarines and aircraft. With the navy running out of its vintage Sea King helicopters, INS Kolkata has been equipped with single-engine Cheetahs that are utterly inadequate for the job. Meanwhile, the long-running procurement of a “naval multi-role helicopter” from the international market has dragged on for years.

The Indo-Israeli project to jointly develop the LR-SAM for both navies began in 2006 and was to be completed in 2012 for three Project 15A destroyers – INS Kolkata, INS Kochi and INS Chennai. Delay dogged the LR-SAM and, in 2014, with INS Kolkata four years late already, it was decided not to wait for the LR-SAM missile.

The LR-SAM’s guidance radar – the Israeli MF-STAR – has been built into the ship, as have the “vertical launch units” that will carry 32 LR-SAMs. What remains is the missile itself, which the navy claims will be done within “a couple of months”.

Business Standard learns, however, that the LR-SAM will not be available for at least 6-9 months, or even a year if glitches turn up in testing. The potential for hiccups is evident from the fact (Business Standard, August 11, “Indian missiles languish in South Korea due to Gaza conflict”) that four LR-SAM rocket motors that were despatched to Israel for testing remain stranded in Seoul, since cargo delivery to Israel was suspended due to the Gaza conflict.

Meanwhile the failure to develop or import an ATAS, means that the Kolkata remains a sitting duck for enemy submarines that can hide behind the peculiar temperature gradients in the warm, shallow waters of the Arabian Sea. The Kolkata shares this vulnerability with every one of India’s warships built since 1997.

Since the mid-1990s, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) worked fruitlessly on building an indigenous ATAS called Nagan. In 2012 that was declared a failure and shut down, and work began on another ATAS called ALTIS.

Meanwhile, German company, Atlas Elektronic emerged as frontrunner in a global tender to supply cutting edge ATAS to the navy. Predictably, allegations of corruption were raised against Atlas and the import was put on hold. On Aug 5, the defence minister told parliament that the complaints were being examined. Once completed and with all systems functional, Project 15A destroyers will be – tonne for tonne – amongst the most heavily armed warships in their class anywhere. Its 32 LR-SAMs will provide unprecedented missile defence cover, which experts say could be the best in the world. Critics point out that current destroyers carry 64 missiles; yet, none of those missiles have capabilities that match the LR-SAM. In case an incoming missile evades the LR-SAM, it will be engaged by a 76 millimetre super-rapid gun mount (SRGM), and the AK-630 close in weapon system (CIWS).

In addition, Project 15A destroyers carry 16 Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles that strike ships or land targets at ranges out to 295 kilometres. They engage enemy submarines at ranges out to 100 kilometres with heavy torpedoes fired from an indigenous twin-tube torpedo launcher (ITTL); or with rockets fired from an indigenous rocket launcher (IRL) built by Larsen & Toubro.

Project 15A will be followed by Project 15B, in which Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai, will construct four more destroyers for Rs 29,325 crore. The first Project 15B destroyer is scheduled to be delivered in July 1918, with the three subsequent ships following at two-year intervals, i.e. July 2020, 2022, and 2024.

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