October 14, 2015

The China Factor: Why India's Once-Secret Sub Will Join War Games Today

It has been called a "hole in the water," a submarine so quiet that detecting it is often impossible for even the most advanced navies.

For years, the Russian designed 'Kilo' class submarine was the ace in the pack of the Indian Navy. It would stealthily monitor warships traversing the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

And for years, the Indian Navy flatly refused to give foreign forces a chance to train against the 'Kilo' class, nine of which are in service. Doing so would have given them a chance to potentially detect and record the elusive sound profile of the submarine, data so precious that it is considered the equivalent of a gold-mine in Naval intelligence circles. Because knowing the sound that a 'Kilo' class makes while underwater, would give warships and foreign submarines the ability to instantly classify the sound. In other words, if there was a 'Kilo' class submarine out there, foreign navies could detect its presence.

Now, in a clear sign of the enormous trust that exists between the armed forces of India, the United States and Japan, the Navy will deploy a 'Kilo' class submarine in the ongoing Malabar series of exercises in the Bay of Bengal for the very first time.

The tactical significance of this is enormous. China, which poses a naval challenge for all three countries, presently operates 12 'Kilo' class submarines, 10 of which are advanced variants of the version the Indian Navy has had in service since 1987. Training with the Indian Navy will give the US and Japanese navies the opportunity to know exactly what they may be up against in the waters of the Pacific or the South China Sea.

All of these ships and aircraft will have clear orders - "there's an 'enemy' sub in these waters, get him before he gets us." For the captain of the sub, this will be an ultimate test. He will need to creep in to torpedo or missile range undetected before simulating an attack on an 'enemy' ship.

What the Indian commander does have on his side is deep knowledge of the conditions of the Bay of Bengal. The Sindhudhwaj, based in Visakhapatnam, regularly operates in these waters and her commanding officer would look to take advantage of the salinity, variable temperatures and current patterns of these waters which often make submarine detection extremely challenging.

He also has a superb Indian designed and manufactured sonar system at his disposal recently fitted on his upgraded submarine. In June this year, the crew of the Sindhudhwaj, using their USHUS sonar, had with great accuracy, locked on to signals from the emergency locator beacon of a Coast Guard Dornier that had crashed. Search aircraft and other ships had picked up sporadic pings but were unable to pinpoint the specific crash site in the Bay of Bengal.

But anti-submarine exercises are not all that have been planned. Warships of the three Navies will be firing their quick reaction close-in-weapon systems (guns) to try and destroy 'expendable aerial targets,' which simulate subsonic anti-ship missiles. They will also be firing their main guns against targets which are towed by other ships at sea.

The exercises also include damage control drills, mine disposal training, and air defence training against the Indian Navy's Hawk jet trainer aircraft. Significantly, Indian and US crews, who both operate the Boeing P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, will be able to share notes on how to best use the platform.   Also participating in these exercises is the 104,000-tonne US nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, effectively a floating airfield which embarks as many as 90 aircraft - fighters, helicopters, airborne early warning aircraft and transports. Accompanying the Roosevelt is the USS Fort Worth, among the newest ships in the US Navy meant specifically to defend island territories, the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy and a Los Angeles Class nuclear attack submarine. Japan, for its part, has brought in a very new warship, the guided missile destroyer Fuyuzuki which entered service in 2012.The exercises come at a time when the US is in the process of a strategic tilt to the Asia-Pacific region. Both Japan and the United States are opposed to Chinese naval expansionism in the Pacific and the South China seas where Beijing has been creating artificial islands with runways and ship facilities. India, for its part, is worried about the deployment of Chinese nuclear powered submarines in the waters of the Indian Ocean.
 At the inaugural US-India-Japan trilateral ministerial dialogue in New York last month, all three sides "highlighted the growing convergence of their respective countries' interests in the Indo-Pacific region. They also underscored the importance of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes; freedom of navigation and overflight; and unimpeded lawful commerce, including in the South China Sea."

Whether these Malabar Exercises pave the way for a new naval alliance in the Asia-Pacific region is unclear but what is clear is that India, Japan and the United States are now engaged in the highest possible level of naval exercises, not just in terms of the complexity of the war games but also in terms of the willingness of all sides to expose sensitive naval technology to one another.
NDTV has learned that as part of the exercises that commence today, the Indian submarine INS Sindhudhwaj will be tasked to intercept ships and submarines of a combined US-Japanese-Indian fleet operating within a designated zone. It's a war game that will test the skills of a young Indian Captain commanding a small submarine against the combined might of shore-based maritime surveillance aircraft, anti-submarine helicopters and the sonar systems of some of the world's most advanced warships.


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