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Great Game of Underwater Subterfuge

Thursday, January 12, 2017
By Bharatkumar Raut

Great show of Chinese might vis-a-vis nuclear-powered submarines emphatically proves that China has joined Pakistan as a threat to the Western coastal line

Utter vigilance is considered to be the price of freedom and national security. And living up to the expectations and confidence, the Indian Security Forces - Army, Navy and the Air Force, have been keeping utter vigil on the nation’s borders. So long we were under the impression that while the Western borders are under threat from Pakistan and northern from China. The Western coastal line was considered to be relatively safer as only Pakistan has a nearby presence in the Arabian Sea. However, there seems to be cause of concern off late as Pakistan does not seem to be the singular threat in the Arabian Sea. Now it seems to be joined by China, though it has no direct relation or connection with India's Western maritime borders. A Chinese nuclear attack submarine docked in the harbour in Karachi in May last year, shows an image on Google Earth, proving that Beijing might be scrutinizing Indian warships' movements far more closely than earlier.

Nuclear-powered submarines, unlike conventional submarines, have an unlimited range of operations since their nuclear reactors rarely require to be refueled. This means the submarines, which are armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles, can be deployed underwater for extended durations where they are difficult to track. The Karachi image, spotted first by a satellite imagery expert (Twitter handle @rajfortyseven)  appears to show a Chinese Navy Type 091 'Han' class fast-attack submarine, the first class of nuclear powered submarines deployed by China. The image, shown here, can be accessed by clicking on the historical imagery icon on Google Earth and scrolling back to May, 2016.

‘Shang’ class Submarine
Quoting Indian naval experts, ND TV said they have however not ruled out that the submarine shown could be the far more capable Chinese Type 093 'Shang' class, far quieter and tougher to detect and equipped with newer weapons and advanced technology including its nuclear reactor. The presence of Chinese nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean reinforces Beijing's aggression in competing with India for dominance in a region strategically vital to India's security.

In this context, it is worth taking note of statement made by  Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba last month. He had said, "As far as People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships and submarines are concerned, the Indian Navy keeps a close eye and monitors their movements. We launch surveillance missions in the form of aircraft and ships to keep a track of them." The range of operations of nuclear submarines is often limited only by the amount of food and supplies that can be carried onboard for the crew and the mechanical reliability of the vessel itself.  Nuclear submarines are also considerably faster underwater than conventional diesel powered submarines which rarely operate on missions longer than a few weeks.

For the last few years, the Indian Navy has been convinced that the presence of Chinese nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean is part of a carefully-choreographed exercise to expand Beijing's military presence in the region. NDTV spoke to senior Navy officers. They rejected China's earlier assertions that its submarine deployment has been in aid of the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. It means what China is claiming is an utter lie and the intention of its exercise is different than what it claims all through.

What is clear is that a great game of underwater subterfuge, a feature of the Cold War, is presently underway in the Indian Ocean. To operate in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines need to sail through either the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits where the shallow depth of the waters international regulations mean that they have to remain surfaced or visible. This gives regional navies, including the Indian Navy, the ability to monitor the movement of Chinese submarines before they can dive to depths where tracking them is far more difficult. Indian Navy officers say that the induction of the US-built P8-I anti-submarine warfare jets have been a game-changer for the force and a key asset in tracking Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. A replacement for India's ageing Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-142, the P8-I comes equipped with state-of-the-art sensors meant to detect the sound radiated by submarines underwater. Once a submarine is detected, the P8-I can either engage the submarine with weapons or use its data-link to pass on the exact location to other naval assets including friendly warships and submarines operating in the area.

To worsen India's fear of Chinese intervention over the last decade, Pakistan has strengthened its naval links with China, its biggest international partner. In August last year, Pakistan State Radio announced a deal to acquire 8 Chinese Yuan-class conventional diesel-electric powered submarines. The first four submarines are expected to be delivered by the end of 2023 while the others will be assembled in Karachi by 2028. Perhaps most significantly, China has access to Pakistan's strategic Gwadar port, central to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is under development, in addition to its own recently constructed naval base in Djibouti situation in the Horn of Africa.

Maritime Security
What has further aggravated India's concerns about its maritime security in the East, South and West is that China with its advanced war equipments, coupled with under-cover terrorists' activities in the remote north-eastern regions of the nation, and could develop a plot to destabilize India from outside and inside. China's on ground activities in Arunachal Pradesh, where it has started its claim over the land mass of the state and has started asking for independent visa for the people of the state. On the other hand, the Bodo rebels Naxalite activities in the North-East are also on the rise of late. This only proves that China is in a mood to challenge India's supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region.

Presence of the Nuclear-armed Submarine near the Karachi Port is just one symptom. What is assuring and thus heartening is that Indian Security Forces, coupled with the high-level political bosses of the nation are on alert. Every Indian thus feels confident about their safety and security. Only thing to be worried about is the short-sighted political community that does not see beyond its petty short-term gains. If these elements are controlled and silenced, the morale of our forces will remain ever high. That is the need of the hour.

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