Time to prepare for a Transformed PLA Navy
The Indian Navy unveiled its Mission Based Deployment (MBD) plan in 2017 and provided a glimpse of how it intends to maintain 24x7 round the year vigil over the Indian Ocean. Under the MBD, nearly 15 warships of the Indian Navy are deployed at any time in different sea areas i.e. from the Persian Gulf to Straits of Malacca and from Northern Bay of Bengal to Southern Indian Ocean to East coast of Africa, (Table below). The deployments are for three-month duration after which another warship takes over duties.
MALDEP An IN ship is permanently sailing near the mouths of the Straits of Malacca.
NORDEP Patrolling of the North Bay of Bengal, in waters north of the Andaman and the coasts of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
ANDEP Patrolling between the North Andaman and South Nicobar.
GULFDEP Patrolling of the North Arabian Sea and the approaches to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.
POGDEP Anti-piracy patrolling of the Gulf of Aden.
CENDEP Patrolling in waters south of India, off the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
IODEP Patrolling in the South Indian Ocean, off Mauritius, the Seychelles and Madagascar.
The warships are also supported by Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft such as Poseidon 8-I and the smaller Dornier air planes. The Indian Navy’s dedicated geostationary satellite Rukmini, with a footprint of 2,000 nautical miles, is also integrated into the MDB and offers a variety of services for communication, surveillance, networking and data transfer. Apparently, it can network about 60 ships and 75 aircraft seamlessly and can monitor maritime/naval activities from Straits of Malacca Straits in the east and the Hormuz Strait to the west.
A senior Indian Navy official stated “We have the Indian Ocean covered...From GULFDEP to MALDEP, we can see every Chinese vessel, most certainly,” and in April 2018 Indian Navy tweeted “50 ships on vigil 24X7 keep our Area of Responsibility (AOR) safe. @indiannavy and Anytime, Anywhere Everytime @nsitharaman.” This was in response to the sighting of the PLA Navy’s 29th Anti-Piracy Escort Force entering the Indian Ocean Region through the Lombok Straits.
The above is laudable and merits accolades; however, the Indian Navy must prepare for a transformed PLA Navy which has now integrated a variety of disruptive technologies for maritime surveillance, naval combat and logistic support operations. It is investing in acquiring weapons such as the Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG), Solid State Lasers (SSLs) and other systems and sensors. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) enabled technologies such as autonomous air and underwater drones and miniaturized assault boats would soon be part of its force structure. At another level, it has graduated from platform-centric to network-centric and is now on its way to embracing autonomous warfare clearly suggesting its fascination for disruptive technologies that are at the core of the ongoing transformation.
Further, it is quite plausible that the PLA Navy may have begun to conduct exercises based on AI and ML and assimilated commonly used and commercially available communication devices such as smart phones, tablets and hybrid devices into its naval strategy.
In this context the PLA Navy offers different challenges, and mere reconnaissance, surveillance and detection of Chinese warships and submarines by the Indian Navy could be termed as ‘business as usual’. The Indian Navy needs a new strategy which is both transformative and tailored to respond to newer war fighting tools unleashed by fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). At least three new capabilities of the PLA Navy are discussed below and merit the attention of the Indian naval planners.
First, the Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG) which can augment ship defence against incoming missiles, high speed projectiles and unmanned vehicles/drones. The Chinese Type 072III-class landing ship Haiyang Shan is now fitted with an EMRG. Media reports note that by 2020-2025, the second batch of the Type 055 destroyers will likely feature 32 mega joule EMRG capable of launching a ten-kilogram projectile over 100 nautical miles distance in less than 90 seconds giving these ships a new combat capability. Each shot fired from the Railgun costs between US $25,000- $50,000 each, which is cheaper that the cost of launching a U.S. Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile that can cost as much as US $1.4 million.
Second, is laser weapons; early this year, there were reports about military lasers being flashed at US’ aircraft in Djibouti. The US Air Force reported that its C-130s were flashed by high-powered Chinese military lasers while operating in the country. The crew had suffered minor eye injuries but the Chinese quickly denied such an attack and clarified that “China always strictly abides by international law and the law of the country of residency and is committed to maintaining regional security and stability,” The US once again complained that its planes were targeted by the Chinese lasers while operating in the Pacific Ocean and there were 20 incidents recorded since September 2017. Apparently, in the Pacific Ocean, laser attacks originated “from a range of different sources, both ashore and from fishing vessels.”
The Chinese are reported to have developed/developing different types of laser weapons including high-energy strategic weapons system and low-power laser guns such as the BBQ-905 Laser Dazzler Weapon, WJG-2002 Laser Gun, PY132A Blinding Laser Weapon and the PY131A Blinding Laser Weapon. These are essentially meant for ‘dazzling or blinding the enemy from a short range, or to damage the enemy's night-vision devices.’
Third, China is a leader of the commercial drone industry and also has some advantages in other unmanned systems. It has invested in a number of swarm drone technologies and these potentially offer asymmetric capabilities against the United States or when the PLA Navy task forces operate far from shores in areas such as the Indian Ocean. The drones offer a cheaper and disproportionate advantages during an unsuspected weakness when confronted with a powerful opponent which is in a position to exploit the home advantage.
In the past, Chinese have showcased to the international audience examples of hundreds of drones launched in the air and making them dance to a mesmerized audience. More recently, Yunzhou Tech Corporation, a Chinese company, released a video of at-sea demonstration of a swarm of 56 small unmanned boats clearly illustrating the capabilities being developed. It not beyond the stretch of imagination that these anodyne displays of AI enabled platforms can be quickly armed with ammunitions/explosives and serve as a deterrent against a force with unequal combat advantage. According to a Chinese naval analyst, “Once equipped with weapons, unmanned small combat vessels can attack the enemy in large numbers, similar to drones,” Apparently, the PLA Navy conducted an exercise in the South China Sea using these unmanned assault boats targeted at Taiwan.
It is useful to mention that China is competing with the US in the UAV market and its Wing Loong II, a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is comparable to the US’ Predator, at least in price. Chinese origin drones are finding favour with a few Indian Ocean littorals (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt) and the choice for Chinese UAVs is driven by the fact that it is easily available, and China is not bound by the Missile Technology Control Regime which prohibits sale. According to media reports, Wing Loong II customers could include Pakistan and Myanmar.
The above Chinese investments are indeed transformative and the PLA Navy may substitute the composition of the future task forces bound for the Indian Ocean. These would be seeking naval dominance and upset the force advantage enjoyed by the Indian Navy. It is quite plausible that in future PLA Navy may even conduct UAV/drone swarms led exercises operated and supported from friendly Indian Ocean military facilities. This will only add to the increasing challenges already posed by the Chinese advantages in space and cyber capability. Indian naval planners may have to develop new strategies and fleet architecture that integrate emerging technologies of the kind discussed above. These plans are sure to impact on ship design, budgets and concept of operations.