Desperate Navy opts for anti-mine clip-ons

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Desperate Navy opts for anti-mine clip-onsNEW DELHI: Continuing delay to even kick off the long-pending Rs 32,000 crore project to construct 12 advanced minesweepers with foreign collaboration has forced the Navy to go in for emergency procurement of clip-on suites that can be fitted on small boats to tackle underwater mines.

The Navy has inked a Rs 306 crore deal with Thales Australia for eight “mine counter-measure clip-on influence sweeps” to “mitigate” the critical capability gap of not having advanced minesweepers. The Navy will equip its fast-interceptor crafts with these suites, which have “state-of-the-art infrasonic advanced acoustic generators”, when they are delivered in 2021-2022, say sources.

But these suites are just an interim measure till the Navy can get advanced minesweepers or mine counter-measure vessels (MCMVs), which are around 1,000-tonne specialised warships to detect, track and destroy underwater mines laid by enemy forces to choke harbours and offshore installations, disrupt shipping and maritime trade.

Alarmingly, the Navy is currently making do with only one old minesweeper, INS Kozhikode, at a time when Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines, which can quietly lay mines, are regularly coming on patrols to the Indian Ocean Region.

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The Navy does have some “organic sweeps”, which can be mounted on patrol vessels, but requires 24 MCMVs to effectively guard the east and west coasts. But the acquisition case for MCMVs, which began way back in July 2005, is still to take off at the Goa Shipyard despite minesweepers along with submarines and multi-role helicopters being among the Navy’s top three critical operational requirements.

As was first reported by TOI in January 2018, the defence ministry had scrapped the Rs 32,000 crore project to construct 12 MCMVs at Goa Shipyard in collaboration with South Korea firm Kangnam after negotiations remained deadlocked on costs, technology transfer and build strategy. “Not much progress has been made in restarting the project afresh till now. It will take a decade to build the MCMVs once the contract is finally inked,” said a source.

The MCMV project was strongly backed by Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar when he was the defence minister but the story in the indigenous defence production sector has remained worryingly similar.

No major “Make in India” project in fields ranging from fighters and helicopters to infantry vehicles and submarines has taken off the ground in the last five years due to the lack of requisite political push and follow-through, bureaucratic bottlenecks and long-winded procedures, commercial and technical squabbles.

There have been a few exceptions. Under the Rs 4,366 crore deal Larsen & Toubro and its South Korean partner Hanwha Tech Win in 2017, for instance, the first lot of the 100 K-9 “Vajra” tracked self-propelled artillery guns are now being delivered to the Army. But clearly much more is needed.