FIGHTING THE INVISIBLE ENEMY

Sangram S Byce

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India’s geographical location, astride major sea lines of communications

(SLOC’s), makes her geo-strategic environment, predominantly maritime in

nature. The Indian Ocean, is rich in oil, natural gas, minerals and food, over

which, India has complete rights, within her vast Exclusive Economic Zone of 2.1

million square kilometers. Almost about 65,000 ships transit through these

SLOC’s each year, carrying a wide variety of goods, including strategic oil

supplies. Friendly nations, therefore, look up to India, to protect the freedom of

these sea lanes and to ensure safe, unhindered and free flow of oil and

international trade, through the SLOC’s. Hence, maritime dominance is vital to

India, for securing her strategic interests.

China’s energy demands, have grown exponentially over the last three decades,

and are expected to grow further. She is a net importer of oil. A majority of this, is

sourced from the Middle East, and passes through the Strait of Malacca, which is

an important choke point. The energy security implications of this geographical

vulnerability, is one of her serious concerns. This may drive China to increase

her naval presence in the Indian Ocean, with a view, to securing her energy

SLOC’s and preventing a possible energy blockade. It is therefore not surprising,

that in her defense modernisation process, China has accorded greater priority to

People’s Liberation Army (Navy).

In the past few years, the increase in China’s submarine force levels has been

unprecedented. Countering this rapid and phenomenal growth is an important

challenge for the Indian Navy.

Lack of transparency, makes it difficult to obtain accurate information about

Chinese submarines, particularly with regard to their numbers, class, material,

and state of combat readiness. However, most published sources put the figure

at about 55 Diesel electric submarines and 8 nuclear powered submarines and

more submarines are under acquisition.

NUCLEAR POWERED SUBMARINES:

Jin- Class (Type 094) SSBN – The first boat of this class is perhaps already in

commission and the second, expected to enter service by 2010. A total of about

six boats are planned to be inducted. They carry 16JL-2 nuclear tipped

submarine launched ballistic missiles, with a range of about 6500 nautical miles,

thus providing China with a credible survivable sea-based deterrent capability.

Xia Class (Type 092) SSBN – Only one boat of this Class is in the inventory of

PLA (Navy). It is a derivative of the Han Class SSN. It is armed with 12JL-1

SLBMs having a range of about 1200 nautical miles. It is believed that there

would be no more production of this class. Furthermore, the Xia is being retrofitted

with JL-2 in lieu of the JL-1. The submarine forms a part of the North Sea

Fleet and is home ported at Quingdao

Shang Class (Type 093) SSN- Two boats of this Class are already in

commission. A total of five such submarines are planned to be inducted in quick

succession. More are likely to follow. The Shang is an improvement on the earlier

noisy Han (Type 091) and is a derivative of the Russian Victor III SSN of mid

1970 vintage. Their primary weapon is an advanced anti ship cruise missile and

also a land attack cruise missile. The Shang Class, SSN gives China a nonnuclear,

power projection’ capability.

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Source: Military Today.com

Golf Class (Type 031) SSB - is a non nuclear powered experimental platform for

SLBM tests. It is not Combat capable. One boat of this Class is on the PLA

inventory.

Han Class (Type 091) SSN - These were the first Chinese designed and built

submarines that entered service in the mid 1970’s. Three of these boats are

currently in the inventory of PLA (Navy). They are noisy and their combat

systems are based on obsolete technology. These boats are expected to be

phased out as more Shang Class SSNs enter the service.

DEISEL ELECTRIC SUBMARINES

Advanced Kilo Class (Type 636) SS- Twelve (?) submarines of this class are in

commission. They are armed with wire guided and wake homing torpedoes and

Russian Anti-Ship Cruise Missile ‘KLUB’, probably with land attack capability.

These boats have significantly increased the war fighting capability of Chinese

Navy.

Kilo Class (Type 877) SS – There are just two boats of this Class. They are less

capable than the Advanced Kilo Class in that they do not carry an anti-ship

missile.

Yuan Class (Type 041) SS - These are Chinese designed and built boats

incorporating Russian Technology, including perhaps an air- independent

propulsion system (AIP). There are one or possibly two boats of this Class in the

inventory of the PLA (Navy).

Song Class (Type 039/G/G1) SS - These Chinese designed and built

submarines, are far more advanced than the older “Ming Class”. They are also

believed to be equipped with AIP System and are much quieter when

underwater. They are capable of launching cruise missiles when submerged.

Sixteen boats of this class are expected to enter the PLA (N).

Source: Google Images

Ming Class (Type 035) SS – There are eighteen of these older boats in the

Chinese inventory. The first boat of this Class entered service in 1976.

Production of these boats may have ended in favour of Song or Yuan Class.

Though obsolete in terms of modern submarine designs, they continue to be

useful for defensive patrols.

Romeo Class (Type 033) SS- These are copies of the old Soviet ‘Romeo’ class.

More than 80 boats were built of which about 60 continue to be in service with

perhaps 40 remaining nominally operational. Some limited life extension program

is believed to be on the anvil.

Under the military mordernisation program, it is very evident that China has

shifted focus to qualitative improvement of the PLA (Navy), particularly its

submarine force. In numbers too, if the present growth rate continues, the

Chinese submarine strength is soon likely to overtake that of US Navy. Though,

the older Ming and Romeo Class boats remain on the inventory of PLA (Navy),

the addition of more advanced boats, have substantially enhanced the Chinese

Navy’s war fighting capability. The older boats nevertheless, continue to provide

capability for defensive patrols, mine laying, intelligence gathering, special

operations, and more importantly being large in numbers, an ability to divert

and stretch Anti-Submarine Warfare ( ASW ) effort of their adversaries.

Hence the older boats also cannot be discounted.

The kind of ASW challenge that Chinese Submarines pose can be gauged from

a reported incident in 2006 when a Chinese Song Class submarine shadowed a

US carrier Strike Group undetected and then surfaced within torpedo firing

range of US carrier Kitty Hawk. In another incident, reported by CNN, a Chinese

submarine collided on 11 June 2009, with an underwater sonar array towed by

the destroyer USS John McCain. The moot question is whether, the US ships

were aware of the presence of these submarines. If the answer to this question is

in the negative, it goes to show a qualitative improvement in the newer Class of

Chinese Submarines over the older ones. It also goes to show that the current

class of Diesel electric submarines on the Chinese inventory are quieter and

stealthier and hence, more difficult to detect. But, more importantly, it shows

China’s intent to use her muscle.

Be that as it may, the Chinese submarines are by no means invincible for an

operationally sound ASW force. The material state of PLA (Navy), particularly the

older ones and the state of training of the crew remains a well guarded secret.

The action of the Chinese submarine in the USS John McCain incident was far

from professional. Further, in comparison to the past, Chinese attack submarines

are believed to have considerably increased the number of patrols undertaken by

them. For some inexplicable reason these patrols are too few when compared to

the number of submarines on their inventory. Perhaps, this may be indicative of

low operational ability, poor state of training or both. Moreover, as of now, the

Chinese Navy is heavily dependent on her diesel electric submarines, which

need to periodically snorkel (AIP notwithstanding).

At the present juncture of its modernisation programme, the Chinese submarine

force provides China with the following capabilities –

A credible, survivable, sea based strategic deterrent.

Power projection capability.

Sea denial capability

Land attack capability

Anti-ship capability.

Anti-submarine warfare capability

Mining capability

Special operations capability

Intelligence gathering and surveillance capability

Implications for India

The Strategic environment for India currently does not appear to be threatening.

Chinese priority in the near future will continue to be focused on Taiwan and the

South China Sea, where she has a number of claims, in terms of island territories

and Exclusive Economic Zone. There has also been a discernible improvement,

in India-China relations. But China’s claim on Indian state of Arunachal

Pradesh, Tibet issue and Chinese support to Pakistan’s nuclear and military

effort have the potential to lead to serious clash of interest.

Growth of the Chinese Navy has to be viewed in a larger geo-political context.

The long term aim does not appear, to be limited to securing her interests in

South China Sea alone. The spectacular increase in numbers and quality

indicates a link to her ‘energy strategy’ in the medium term and ‘global

maritime dominance’ in the long term.

As stated earlier, India’s strategic geography, places her in a dominant position

astride important Sea Lines of Communications, in the Indian Ocean. The Strait

of Bab al Mandab, Strait of Hormuz, Malacca Strait and Sunda and Lombok

Straits are important to China, for her Trade and Transit. All these strategic

choke points, however, virtually lie in India’s backyard. Though India is a

peaceful country, which does not covet the territory of any other country, and is a

staunch supporter of free and unhindered flow of international trade, this

geographical reality, would be worrisome for China, in securing her energy

SLOCs and pursuing sea power. Therefore, in the medium term, it is highly

probable, that China will continue to rapidly build her naval forces, to a level from

where, she can compete with India, for supremacy in the Indian Ocean.

Construction of port facility by China at Gwadar, on the Pakistani coast, is a

step in this direction. Clearly, India’s strategic environment will become more

demanding in the years ahead.

Source: Google Maps

Whilst the existence of Chinese Naval capabilities by themselves, may not

presently pose a threat to India, it is important, that India builds her own force, to

be able to counter opposing capabilities, should the need arise. India should

have the capability to deter conflict and also to win militarily if forced into a

conflict.

‘Way Ahead’ for the Indian Navy (IN)

The massive presence of submarines in the region has created a security and

strategic dilemma that calls for a systematic and prioritised development of

Indian Navy’s war fighting capabilities. India must hasten her military

modernisation process, whilst China’s focus is still away from the Indian Ocean.

Presently PLA (N)’s concept of operation hinges on ‘sea denial’ and does not

encompass ‘sea control’. This should give India a major head start. The art of

Force Development is not just matching capability for capability. Such an action

could only result in an arms race with disastrous consequences. The force mix

should be such, as to enable exploitation of opponent’s weaknesses, whilst at the

same time, deter it from using its strengths.

Indian Navy’s existing capabilities along with those that are in the pipe line

provide a firm foundation on which to build further in the next 15 to 20 years.

India would have to develop an offensive capability, to search, locate,

identify, localise and prosecute hostile submarines. A greater thrust would

need to be given to Intelligence gathering and enhanced surveillance. In

order to enable IN units to operate freely in enemy submarine probability areas,

they should also have force protection capability, to evade and decoy hostile

submarines and weapons fired by them.

Anti - submarine warfare (ASW) is perhaps the most challenging and at the same

time the most fascinating form of warfare. A major challenge, faced by ASW

forces is posed by the medium in which the target submarine operates. In sea

water, which is saline & turbid, light and radio energy cannot be used as a means

of detection, since both suffer heavy attenuation. The most efficient form of

energy that can be used underwater for ASW operations is ‘sound energy’. The

vagaries of propagation of sound in sea water and the presence of a large

number of non submarine echoes are a major challenge for both researchers and

practitioners of ASW.

Remarkable advances have been made in both active & passive sonar (device

used for detection of underwater targets) systems. With advanced signal

processing techniques, detection and classification of a submarine by sonar

systems (‘Kitty Hawk’ incident notwithstanding), have greatly improved. The

presence of a large number of non submarine echoes however, still poses a

major challenge. Synergy between technology, tactics and sonar operating

skills is the answer to overcome this shortcoming. Surface ships and

submarines engaged in ASW operations would have to be made stealthier and

the sonar made capable of being operated from high speed platforms.

Since the medium in which the target submarine operates, plays such an

important role, a thorough knowledge of the hydrology of the area of operation is

sine qua non. An atlas containing the parameters that impact on propagation of

sound would have to be drawn up and maintained. The atlas should also

contain details of all non submarine contacts in the area. The process of data

collection being both sensitive and laborious, much of this activity would have to

be undertaken discreetly.

Whilst, low frequency passive sonar based systems have proved dependable

against submarines operating in open oceans, a more complex challenge is from

submarines operating in littoral waters (<200 meters), where ambient noise is

higher. Also, the sonar performance gets degraded in such depths due to

environmental and hydrological conditions. Future R & D emphasis would have

to be on developing technologies to evolve sophisticated systems, which can

extract weak and confusing acoustic signals through advanced processing

algorithms and new architecture. Shallow water performance of ASW torpedoes

and other underwater weapons also need to be improved. The answer perhaps

lies in sonar with wide bandwidth and high gain, operating on much lower

frequencies. Honing of operator skills and adopting electronic decision aids,

including man machine interface would enable better situational awareness in the

context of rapidly changing situations, where the best course of action may not

be obvious.

It may be argued, that shallow waters also degrade a submarine’s sonar

performance. This is true. However, a submarine can optimise the conditions by

operating at most favourable depths or by entering ‘sound channels’. ASW

force can counter this by deploying variable depth sonar/array. A useful tactic

would be to use a submarine in the ‘hunter-killer role’.

In order to optimise available ASW effort and to counter large numbers of

opposing submarines, coordinated ASW operations would have to be

undertaken. The coordinated ASW force should comprise, surface ships,

submarines and aircraft (fixed wing, helicopters and UAVs) both integral and

shore based. Considering the magnitude of the ASW task, the IN would need to

considerably augment its force levels and adopt innovative tactical measures. A

shift from platform centric ASW to network centric ASW would lead to greater

coordination and synergy. This would involve networking of command, control,

communications, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance

(C4ISTAR), for developing a common digital picture of the battle space, thereby

facilitating real time targeting, sensor to shooter links and precision ASW attacks.

Since ‘Information Warfare’, is an important component of China’s military

modernisation programme, IN would need to adopt measures, to maintain

complete network security.

The strategic geography of India is ideally suited for laying a network of seabed

listening arrays, using Low Frequency Analysis and Ranging (LOFAR) technique,

which is a powerful tool for increasing signal to noise ratio. A LOFAR barrier and

long range maritime aircraft can combine to locate, identify, localise and

prosecute a target submarine. This combination is also well suited for strategic

ASW role of destroying SLBM launchers, or destroying a missile immediately

after its launch. For tracking a SSBN in its deployment area, the use of a SSN in

coordination with a LOFAR barrier and a long range maritime aircraft would be

highly desirable. The SSN would then maintain a continuous contact with its

target. India needs to acquire sufficient number of SSNs for this purpose. The

SSNs should also have the capability to launch land attack cruise missiles and

an ability to deploy and recover Special Forces.

To effectively utilize LOFAR technique for hunting submarines using passive

array, it is important to create and maintain a library of target submarine

signatures. These signatures are a unique blend of narrow and broadband

sound at varying levels for each class of submarines and more often for each

individual submarine. Prior knowledge of these signatures is fundamental to

LOFAR strategy and is applicable to all LOFAR devices whether laid on the sea

bed or arrays deployed from surface ships, submarines or sonobuoys.

Submarines are eminently suitable for collecting this data with respect to

opposing submarines. Seabed arrays can also be used for intelligence gathering.

Secrecy of location and capability of an ASW barrier is of paramount importance

for its success.

To operate freely and unhindered in a submarine probability area, ASW forces

would have to be well equipped to detect and neutralise weapons fired by

opposing submarines. For avoiding detection and attack, ASW forces can resort

to dispersal, signature control, cooperative deception, and mobility in addition to

material countermeasures. The IN would need to continually develop new tactical

and material countermeasures that would be effective against modern

submarines and sophisticated weapons fired by them. Both ‘soft kill’ & ‘hard kill’

measures would need to be adopted. Additionally, the units must have protection

against nuclear weapons including EMP hardening.

Chinese submarines have the capability to lay effective minefields. This poses

another challenge for IN forces. Mine Countermeasures (MCM) operations are

laborious and time consuming. There is a need for IN to augment her MCM

capabilities and develop more effective countermeasures against modern mines.

On the other hand, IN must develop offensive mine warfare capability and use

it effectively to frustrate the plans of an attacking force.

As stated earlier, success in war lies in exploiting the weakness of an opponent.

PLA (Navy), in its incremental growth strategy has concentrated mainly on

enhancing its submarine force, leaving capability gaps in many other areas of

maritime operations. The IN would need to develop a balanced force capable of

sea control’. In order to exert maritime leverage, the force must have global

reach and flexibility to rapidly forward deploy. The ability to conduct and support

land operations, would enhance India’s influence and lead to greater stability in

the region.

India is on the threshold of acquiring ‘great power’ status. Though she has not

yet been recognised as a nuclear weapon state, this is a geo-political reality and

underpins the strategic decision making of her competitors for power. One of the

most important aims of force development is to deter conflict from a position of

strength and have ability for power projection. India must in the very near future

acquire a credible, survivable, sea based strategic deterrent capability, which in

addition supports her stated nuclear doctrine of ‘no first use’.

(The author is a former Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command

and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Defence and Strategic Studies).