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Deployment of maritime surveillance aircraft P8Is in the Himalayas opposed

TOP NEWS-ENG-13-06-2020

P-8I maritime aircraft of Indian Navy

India is planning to use the maritime surveillance aircraft P-8I in the Himalayas and the Thar Desert. But navy veterans feel that it is an absurd decision.

"A US-made Poseidon P-8I or a Japanese Shinmaywa made US-2 are highly expensive defense platforms inducted or to be inducted into the Indian navy for intensive maritime surveillance across the country's huge coastline and to project Indian military power in the Indian Ocean region. They are force-multipliers, useful for island operations, and are strike assets when weaponized. But using them on land is just preposterous," said a retired Vice-Admiral.

He argued that there were 'other options' available where one may need to dominate or operate on expansive water bodies like the Pangong Tso in Ladakh, scene of a recent stand-off with China.

Also Read: Indian Navy inaugurates complex to house submarine rescue system

'One could use fast patrol craft like the Chinese are using, heavy-duty helicopters, unarmed or armed drones and much else, but using P8I or US-2, in that terrain is absurd and can only happen if the decision-makers have no knowledge of the navy," he added.

Defense insiders told South Asian Monitor that India's Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat, in consultation with other top officers in the armed forces, decided to deploy the state-of-the-art naval surveillance aircraft for air reconnaissance in the Himalayas.

In line with this proposed "doctrine" that emphasizes jointness, plans are afoot to move the entire fleet of the Indian navy'sP-8I aircraft, eight in all, from their base in Arkonam in Tamil Nadu, to the Northern Command on a "permanent basis", highly-placed Indian Air Force (IAF) sources said.

Rawat's decision followed his praise for the US-made Poseidon P-8I in February this year when he publicly said that the aircraft were used to keep a watch on Chinese troop movements during the 73-day Doklam standoff in 2017. 

Rawat has the support from the Army which insists that air assets of all three services are for mutual use on a priority basis."That is the basis of jointness as a principle. There is nothing wrong in using the P-8I on a temporary and one-off basis at Doklam or Ladakh because the principle for using such air assets is maximum and optimum use and not keeping them idle with sole focus on primary use," said retired Brigadier J M Devadoss, a specialist in amphibian operations.

Devadoss said these aircraft could provide in-depth aerial coverage over Tibet behind the battle lines in Ladakh or Sikkim."That is what is important, a clear idea of the concentration of forces behind the frontlines and if we have a clear picture of those, it surely helps in fine-tuning our response," he told SAM in an interview. 

The Indian Navy became the first international customer for the P-8 aircraft with the conclusion of the nearly US$ 2.1 billion contract on 01 Jan 2009 for outright purchase of eight aircraft. The first aircraft arrived in India on the 15 May 2013 and all eight aircraft have been inducted and fully integrated into the Indian Navy's operational structure. They are based at INS Rajali at Arkonam near Chennai in Tamil Nadu state and are operated by Indian Naval Air Squadron 312A. Four more of them are likely to be inducted within 2020. 

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The P-8I aircraft is a variant of the P-8A Poseidon that Boeing developed as a replacement for the US Navy’s ageing P-3 fleet. With a maximum speed of 907 kmph and an operating range of over 1,200 nautical miles, "with four hours on station", the P-8Is will be able to detect "threats" and neutralize them if required long before they come anywhere near Indian shores.

Its communication and sensor suite includes indigenous equipment developed by defense Public Sector Undertakings and private manufacturers. Equipped with foreign and indigenous sensors for maritime reconnaissance, anti-submarine operations and electronic intelligence missions, the aircraft is fully integrated with state-of-the-art sensors and highly potent anti-surface and anti-submarine weapons.

Armed with the deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges, these aircraft are the country's "intelligent hawk eyes" over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) that is increasingly getting militarized. The P-8I aircraft has achieved a number of operational milestones which include participation in the search for the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370, the first successful firing of air-launched Harpoon Block II missile in the world, torpedo firing and active participation in major naval exercises.

Rawat, whose elevation from army chief to CDS was intended to push for jointness in the country's military structure, is believed to be the chief advocate of an "integrated theatre command" in the north, comprising army, naval and air force assets. 

Needless move

There is no objection to that but moving the P-8I to land is seen as needless move, “a waste of a highly specialized platform,” the retired Vice-Admiral told SAM.

Gen. Rawat's insistence on using the P-8Is on land and in the Himalayan ranges has not gone down well with the IAF and Navy brass.

"They were used at Doklam but we are not sure about the quality of surveillance they performed. But if they are not used for purpose they were purchased, which is long-range maritime reconnaissance, then it is not worth spending so much of taxpayers’ money for such state-of-art equipment. You don't use horses to lift logs and elephants to run races," he said.

While the concept of a theatre command on Chinese lines is considered effective in achieving jointness, that very concept is often undermined by the continued single service approach of senior military leaders or the turf wars between the services.

"The decision to use P8I for land surveillance may trigger such a turf war because Rawat's decision may be interpreted as the Army dominating the military structure at the expense of the Navy and Air Force and forcing them to part with key assets," said a former senior IAF Air Marshal, again on condition of anonymity.

He told SAM that P8Is were brought to boost India's naval dominance in the Indian Ocean, which is why India's first tri-services command was set up in the Andamans. "But that objective has not yet been achieved."

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Agrees Anit Mukherjee, a former Indian army colonel turned defense academic whose recent book "Absent Dialogue" is considered a classic in the study of civil-military and inter-military relations in India. 

"Inter-services rivalry and the lack of jointness is a key inhibitor of India’s growing military power. For instance, many view India’s activities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as crucial to its effort to attain a position of ‘eminence in the Indian Ocean.’ Chinese analysts have portrayed these islands as a “metal chain” that could lock shut the Malacca Strait. However, the ‘joint’ Andaman and Nicobar command has been considerably undermined–in terms of assets and capabilities, by inter-services rivalry," Mukherjee wrote in a recent article. 

Denying Navy and Air Force the Poseidon P8I and such other aircraft and using it for inland surveillance, which could be done by other assets, is a "classic case of Army calling the shots," said the retired IAF Air Marshal. 

A former defense scientist, again wishing to remain anonymous, said turf rivalry within the services must be curbed. He said that the whole jointness doctrine is now being questioned over the Poseidon's induction in Northern Command because the P8Is are not optimized for surveillance in mountainous terrain.

Many serving Navy officers echoed the sentiment and say they are worried over the question about what naval assets will now be used to maintain surveillance on the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Most importantly, the sources said, P-8Is are primarily used for anti-submarine warfare. They carry torpedoes that are mainly used against submarines. In fact, the US navy operates 120 Poseidons from aircraft carriers. 

According to Boeing's Indian arm, the P-8I is "designed for long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.”

The manufacturer says that the aircraft "gives India's maritime warriors a significant edge in the strategically important Indian Ocean region...The P-8I is not just responsible for coastal patrolling but is also used for other critical missions like search-and-rescue, anti-piracy, and supporting operations of other arms of the military".

US-2 from Japan

India has also been in negotiations with Japan to purchase more than a dozen US-2 amphibious aircraft for the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Considered the world’s best amphibious aircraft for short take-off and landing, with a range of up to 4500 km., these flying boats are used for surveillance by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Also Read: Indian Army's 'Tour of Duty' proposal is both wasteful and counter-productive

Yet the deal did not make much progress until 2017 due to high costs and, more importantly, Japan’s reluctance to transfer technology and agree to India’s insistence on joint production. But after the 2017 Japan–India annual leadership summit in India, the Japanese aircraft giant Shin Maywa, manufacturer of the US-2, and India’s Mahindra Group, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to set up maintenance, repair, and overhaul of services in India, as well manufacturing and assembly of structural parts and components the aircraft. 

While the deal is between two commercial companies, collaboration in defense-related fields, especially joint production, requires government blessings."The deal is a result of long and persistent negotiation between the two sides, and opens a new chapter in India-Japan relations. It also allows Japan to venture into defense collaboration outside existing frameworks with the US," said defense writer Purnendra Jain.

Japan removed its decades-long self-imposed ban on arms exports in 2014. 

The India-Japan partnership in defense manufacturing feeds into Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “free and open Indo-Pacific”, in which Tokyo considers New Delhi a crucial strategic partner.