On Sunday, the Indian Navy commissioned its tenth destroyer, the Indian Naval Ship (INS) Visakhapatnam, built by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited in Mumbai. The Vishakhapatnam is a 7,500-tonne warship whose main offensive armament is the BrahMos surface-to-surface missile, eight of which will be clustered in two quadruple vertical launch systems. With a range of 290 km, supersonic speed and pinpoint accuracy, it can be fired against both ships and land targets, making it a fearsome weapon.
Against submarines, it has Indian sensors guiding the Indian-built Brahmastra heavyweight torpedo and long-range anti-submarine rocket launchers. It also carries the famous Israeli Barak anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, probably the best in its class in the world. Its sensor suite is world-class, as even a glance at its photograph will confirm, and it can direct our own fighter aircraft by means of a long-range aircraft direction radar. Fitted with the most modern Indian-Israeli electronic warfare suite, it can conduct soft kills on enemy sensors.
In a nuclear age and the decreasing probabilities of open conventional war, a factor that contributes to being a successful warship is its longevity. Things look good for INS Visakhapatnam, for an earlier class of destroyer fitted with similar gas turbine main engines is still going strong in their fourth decade. However, the most potent weapon onboard the ship may not be the BrahMos missiles, but the single package helicopter, fitted with submarine search sonar and anti-ship missiles.
Observers with nautical scientific knowledge would have grasped that although the BrahMos has a range of 290 km, the range of the ship’s own search radar is limited by the curvature of the earth to a maximum of 100 km. So, without what is called over the horizon targeting, the full range of the BrahMos cannot be exploited. That is where pairing the ship with its own helicopter or another search aircraft makes the Visakhapatnam a formidable fighting platform.
Normally it would form part of the escort screen around the aircraft carrier, adding enormously to the defence in depth of the capital ship. But it would also be the leader of a formidably independent task group on a search and destroy mission. It is currently equipped with the Seaking 42B helicopter, but that will be replaced by the new arrival Seahawk helicopters from the US. The ship will inspire Naval Headquarters to expedite the formulation of a new maritime strategy, to replace the dated Mahanian concept of sea lane protection and convoy escorting.
Naval theorists are giving finishing touches on an aggressive grand strategy where the army holds the Chinese at the Himalayan border, while the navy goes on the offensive in the Indian Ocean. Irked by the questions that were raised in the national media during the Galwan crisis as to what could the Navy do to offset Chinese aggression on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), maritime strategists have been working overtime to provide an answering strategy in the Indian Ocean.
China has the advantage of geography in Tibet, which is a plateau. With its huge infrastructure budget, it has been easy to build an intense road network facing the border with India. As a result, it has a six-lane highway connecting its offensive posts opposite Arunachal Pradesh right up to Daulat Beg Oldi and beyond to Xinjiang. The Chinese Army has consequently been able to maintain an offensive strategy against India despite downsizing their army to 9,75,000 — almost 2,50,000 less than the active-duty strength of the Indian Army. Yet, by moving altitude acclimatised troops laterally on the highway, Beijing is able to overwhelm Indian defences, numerically at any point of their choosing. Not any more, after the new maritime strategy is executed.
China’s only Achilles’ heel is its dependence on oil imports and commodity export on Indian Ocean lanes. However, its naval forces are tied down in the South China Sea by the overwhelming presence of the US 7th fleet, and soon by Australian nuclear submarines. This compulsion leaves very few Chinese naval escorts to defend their sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. In any case, India has immensely favourable geography in the Indian Ocean, while China is greatly disadvantaged by the constraints of the Malacca Straits.
On India suffering casualties in the Himalayas, the Indian Navy will swing into action, after a due diplomatic warning and ultimatum. The Quad’s air search assets will be leveraged to keep the Indo-Pacific under minute scrutiny, while naval ships will quarantine China-bound tankers and cargo ships in the Nicobar Islands. With information dominance in the South China Seas and the Malacca Straits, a geographically constrained ‘killing zone’ will be set up in the Straits, to any intervening or reinforcing Chinese naval units. This is where the 400-km kill range of Visakhapatnam’s BrahMos and its search helicopter will be deployed.
China’s geographical advantage against the valiant Indian Army in the Himalayas will, at last, be neutralised by our advantage in the Indian Ocean. The more ships Beijing sends to intervene, the worse their casualties will be. For the first time, we are utilising a truly tri-service strategy against an aggressive Chinese hegemon, intent on blocking the rise of an Asian competitor. With the use of the Car-Nicobar airbase, the Malacca Straits can become a truly India-dominated battlespace.
The writer, a former Rear Admiral in the Navy, is the author of ‘A Nuclear Strategy for India’. Views expressed are personal.