The Indian Navy and the ‘Battleship’ Debate
Image Credit: Indian Navy

The Indian Navy and the ‘Battleship’ Debate

 
 

The Indian navy recently unveiled the INS Kochi – the second ship of the Kolkata class guided missile destroyers at Mumbai. At a displacement of 7500 tons, the Kochi is one of largest guided missile destroyers ever assembled by an Indian shipbuilding yard. Its cutting-edge weapons and sensors suite – comprising Brahmos cruise missiles, long range surface to air missiles (LR-SAM), surveillance and fire-control radars and a towed array sonar – makes it one of the most sophisticated surface combatants to have graced the Indian Navy’s fighting fleet.

This is the second big Indian destroyer to have been commissioned in the past fourteen months. In August last year, INS Kolkata, the lead ship of the P 15-A class, joined the Indian Navy’s Western fleet. The excitement surrounding the two war vessels followed the enthusiastic averments of India’s political leadership and strategic experts, who sought to portray them as India’s battleships, meant to assert strategic dominance in the Indian Ocean.

While branding them as “battleships” might border on hyperbole, the commentary surrounding the new acquisitions has certainly triggered a debate in Indian strategic circles about the desirability of building big warships. Following the Kochi’s commissioning, critics of big ship construction raised doubts over the economic logic of acquiring expensive naval behemoths. High cost, time delays, expensive maintenance schedules, and superfluous capability add-ons, they pointed out, makes the construction of large warships a particularly profligate activity. With a construction cost of over Rs 40 billion ($617 million), skeptics wondered if the new class of ships could deliver value for the money spent, particularly when the Indian navy is vulnerable to the vagaries of budget cuts and in no position to build more expensive combat platforms.

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The critics make a valid point. With a peacetime mission comprising primarily constabulary, humanitarian assistance, and diplomatic flag flying, the Indian Navy is unlikely to find ships of the size of Kochi of much use for the missions it is required to perform in the Indian Ocean. With the bulk of its operational energies spent in conducting coastal security and non-combatant evacuation missions – such as the operation in Yemen earlier this year – the Navy already has a problem of sophisticated warships carrying out low-end constabulary and benign tasks. The suggestion then that instead of large redundant war-vessels, India must focus on building light frigates, patrol boats, and utility craft for surveillance and constabulary duties does appear to have some merit.

Navalists, however, summarily reject the critics’ projection of future peacetime roles and the big warship’s lack of utility therein. Large warships, proponents of big-ship construction claim, go well beyond fighting decisive battles in conflict. By their very nature, they are also a political tool in peacetime. Besides fighting enemy ships in a conventional far-seas face-off, “battleships” are meant to signal political resolve by assuming a forceful posture in distant maritime theaters. By virtue of their sophisticated design and fearsome looks, large modern warships have the ability to project both fire and fear at much greater distances. Their appeal lies in the fact that besides serving as an effective strategic bulwark, they can absorb more punishment than any other naval platform. The thick armor-plating, combined with greater stealth features makes them infinitely more survivable than smaller war vessels.

Indispensable Assets

For classical naval thinkers, large warships are indispensable assets in modern day warfare because of their unique capacity to efficiently integrate the foremost innovations in naval technology involving sensors, cruise missiles, unmanned drones and directed energy weapons. These latest innovations are extremely power intensive and can only be mounted on large platforms. Moreover, large ships offer greater protection to sophisticated armament and sensors. Unlike smaller vessels, they do not just depend on maneuverability and close-in weapon systems for defense. Their superior anti-missile capability ensures a higher order of survivability from incoming missile strikes.

The more interesting tactical argument in favor of large-vessel construction is the protection such ships afford to onboard sensors and machinery. Large warships have a protective shield that limits the damage to key components from missile and torpedo attacks to a small area surrounding the point of contact. This ensures that a direct hit does not debilitate the entire combat machinery of the ship. By contrast, an attack on a vessel without adequate protection could impact sensitive, deeply integrated technology systems onboard, resulting in a complete shutdown of the command and control systems. Larger vessels also have a greater capacity to accommodate critical passive systems that are invaluable for fleet protection in an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD).

Supporters also offer a more convincing strategic rationale for building large warships. Big war-vessels, they aver, facilitate a quantum of power projection that small ships cannot ever hope to match. This is especially true in a globalizing environment where powerful nations seek to influence regional perceptions through hard-power posturing. Indeed, despite an expanding global interconnectedness and the shrinking space for conventional conflicts, navies have consistently engaged in hard-power signaling in critical strategic spaces. In East Asia, for instance, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. have deployed powerful naval contingents on a regular basis, often on the pretext of carrying out benign patrols. The South China Sea is, in fact, the most revealing example of a strategic build-up involving economically interdependent states, occurring in a perfectly globalizing space.

Maritime disputes in Southeast Asia also illustrate the enduring nature of geopolitics. No matter what the economic context, national maritime forces must perform strategic game-plays to maximize geopolitical gains. But the preservation of political influence in the maritime littorals, supporters argue, needs more than a fleet of small specialist vessels. It requires a powerful navy – with aircraft carriers, submarines, and big warships – to both project power and protect the fighting fleet from enemy attacks. Indeed, the general consensus in India’s maritime fraternity is that today’s naval arsenals, specifically ASCMs, are far more dangerous than the weaponry of yore. Chinese ASCMs – capable of being fired from sea, air, or land and traveling at supersonic speeds – can easily target Indian naval assets operating in the Indian Ocean. The makes the case for bigger, sturdier and stronger ships even more compelling.

The second argument in favor of large warships concerns national brand-building. The big and burly INS Kochi is a poster-child for indigenization and the Narendra Modi government’s mantra of “Make-in India.” The ship has been designed by the Navy’s in-house organization – the Directorate of Naval Design – and constructed in the Mazagon Dock Shipyard in Mumbai. But supporters point out that India isn’t the only Indo-Pacific power investing in big ships. The U.S. is building expensive carriers, littoral combat vessels, and other ships, and the Chinese have undertaken construction of two aircraft carriers, whilst significantly expanding their big amphibious ship program. Meanwhile, Japan and Australia have placed large helicopter carriers at the center of their maritime military strategies.

The Indian Navy is not the only maritime force to face huge cost and time overruns in acquiring its big warships. The U.S. Navy, the PLAN, and the Royal Australian navy have all been victims of the same malady. Picture this. After building the big and expensive aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford – the first in class of three ships – the USN undertook the construction of the large Zumwalt class. Exorbitantly priced at $4.3 billion apiece, the eventual projected cost of these ships is about 50 percent higher than that originally estimated a few years ago. This doesn’t include the mind-boggling figure of $9.1 billion spent on research and development for the overall project.

The debate over the Zumwalt in U.S. maritime circles, in many ways, mirrors the discussions in India over big warship building. The new destroyer has an awkwardly shaped hull that tapers up to the deck, making it harder to detect on enemy radar – a design feature that now has analysts worried over its seaworthiness. In like fashion, some Indian observers have questioned the INS Kochi’s survivability in conflict, an inevitable consequence of its restricted maneuverability on account of its heavy armor. Yet arguments seeking to negate the logic of large ship production seem misplaced. None of them address core strategic concerns that have led the Indian Navy to acquire a greater number of large combat oriented naval vessels.

Finally, nothing conveys strategic intent as effectively as the big conventional warship. The mere presence of powerful destroyers and frigates brimming with cutting-edge armament and sensors can provide a navy with a decisive psychological advantage in strategic scenarios. It isn’t sheer happenstance, navalists point out, that China has been deploying Type 054A guided-missile frigates (equipped with the YJ-83 anti-ships missiles) and submarines for anti-piracy duties in the Indian Ocean. By sending its most modern combatants for low-spectrum security tasks, Beijing has sought to stamp its political will on the South Asia littorals. By the same token, the U.S. has been unapologetic about deploying its aircraft carriers for humanitarian assistance duties in the Western Pacific, even as it has chosen to deploy its littoral combat ships for functional tasks that can be performed by smaller assets

India’s maritime managers realize that in the new world, regional perceptions define maritime strategy. Since perception management is a key ingredient of maritime diplomacy, the Indian navy must rely on aircraft carriers and large destroyers for power-projection in the Indian Ocean. This includes capabilities that are used more to attain strategic leverage than actually fight full-scale wars. Given the fractious nature of geopolitics in maritime Asia, big warships aptly exemplify India’s growing geopolitical ambitions. Regardless of what the skeptics might then say, the super destroyers are here to stay. 

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