On a dark moonlit night, an Indian warship pierced the waters of the South China Sea at a brisk 25 knots. (In pictures)
The only sound to be heard was of waves slapping the sides of her sleek hull.
To the untrained eye, she was all but invisible. Her sleek silhouette and her grey paint scheme ensured she blended in with the sea around her. And her distinct, angular lines were meant to make it difficult, if not impossible, for enemy radars to track her - she was, after all, a stealth warship.
But tonight would be different. Tonight, INS Kochi, a state-of-the-art Indian Navy destroyer, built in India over a decade, would be challenged by a worthy adversary. Another stealth ship - a Type 052D destroyer of the Chinese Navy, the Changsha.
Commissioned just a month ahead of the Kochi in August 2015, the Changsha represented the pinnacle of Chinese Naval design and engineering, carrying a world class load of surface to air and anti-ship missiles.
Inside the Kochi, there was tension. Men moved around purposefully and silently. They had been briefed about the situation they were in.
For several days, the Kochi and two ships of the Indian Navy including the frigate Shivalik and the fleet tanker INS Shakti had been repeatedly challenged. Unlike the Kochi and the Shivalik, the Shakti was not armed but her role in this mission was essential - she would refuel the Indian task force through the course of their journey.
"You have entered Chinese waters," said the radio transmission broadcast on an international maritime alert frequency. "Please change course. You are now in Chinese waters. Alter course now or you will be challenged."
And on the instructions of the Indian fleet Commander, an Admiral on board the INS Kochi, the Indian Navy had replied, politely but with a firm resolve.
"We are operating in international waters enroute to Japan for joint exercises It is our intention to remain on course."
But the Indian task force commander knew that he was being monitored. His long-range Russian-built surface search radar, had picked up intermittent contacts - at least two of the contacts matched the profile of Chinese warships. But no one could be sure.
The contacts were at the very end of the radar's range. For now, the Indian task force Commander would wait and watch.
Who would blink first in this game of high stakes Naval brinkmanship? The Chinese Navy, which considered much of the South China sea as its personal fiefdom, or the warships of the Indian Navy, now operating far from their own waters?
The answer would come soon.
Deep inside the Kochi, several decks below her bridge, her Commanding Officer, his XO (Executive Officer) and 15 of his most skilled weapons and sensor experts manned their stations in the Operations Centre of the 7,500-ton destroyer.
The Kochi was at battle-stations, alert to any hostile Chinese presence, her leading officers using radars and sonars to search for hostile contacts - enemy aircraft, missiles or submarines.
Spread across 17 metres, the width of the entire warship, the Ops Centre was the nerve centre of the Kochi, a rectangular, windowless, black room dimly lit by blue lights that added to the illumination of more than a dozen colour multi-function displays.
Officers scanning the airwaves for electronic emissions from enemy warships manned the Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. Equipped with an Indian EW suite called the Ellora, the Kochi's sensors mounted on her mast behind both sides of her Bridge had two primary functions - Electronic Support Missions (ESM) to try and detect faint radar emissions from ships in the area and Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) used to jam the signals of enemy aircraft, incoming anti shipping and cruise missiles if they were detected.
Next to the ECM crew, a gunnery officer was checking the status of his 16 anti-ship Brahmos missiles, among the fastest and most lethal weapons in its class - a missile designed to fly at close to three times the speed of sound to penetrate the defences of enemy warships 300 kilometres away.
With her massive warhead, a single Brahmos missile would blast through the hull of an enemy ship, causing an explosion which could sink a relatively large frigate or destroyer in minutes.
But at the moment, the Commander of the ship and his First Officer, monitoring all of the ship's sensors and systems from their station in the middle of the Ops Centre, had a more immediate concern.
Ellora, the Electronic Warfare suite, had picked up emissions from the same area where the Kochi's surface search radar had earlier detected a contact. And the news was getting worse. Ellora had classified the threat. It was indeed a Chinese Type-052 D destroyer, a ship of the same class as the Kochi and the pride of the Chinese Navy.
Seconds later, a loud buzzer sounded. "Incoming missile!" shouted 'SAMs' - the Officer manning the Surface to Air Missile console. Far above him, electronic beams from the Israeli built MF-STAR (Multi-Function Surveillance, Track And Guidance Radar) had homed into a clear and present threat.
The Chinese destroyer had fired a long range YJ-18 'Eagle Strike' missile directly at the Kochi. "Second missile incoming!" shouted SAMs, as the radar began tracking a second and then a third Chinese subsonic missile headed straight in Kochi's direction.
But INS Kochi had an answer - the Barak-8 LR-SAM, a long range Surface to Air Missile system jointly developed by Israel and India.
Kochi had 32 missiles onboard, missiles designed to deal with exactly this threat.
"Another missile inbound. That makes it four missiles inbound!" - this was a worst case scenario - a saturation attack. The fate of the 390 Officers and Men on the Kochi was now effectively in the hands of a highly-automated weapon system.
Now in full-auto mode, the first Indian Barak 8 blasted off its vertical launcher ahead of the bridge of the destroyer. Accelerating quickly to four times the speed of sound, the missile shot straight up before arching in a parabola in the direction of the enemy missile it was assigned to intercept. The missile was not flying blind.
Critical data indicating the direction, speed and location of the incoming Chinese anti-ship missile was being fed to the Barak, enabling it to lock on to the first Chinese missile precisely.
In the final few seconds of its flight, the Barak, now being directed by data from its own radar, dove down towards the Chinese missile. In moments, its warhead would detonate, activated by a proximity fuse triggered when the distance between the Barak and the incoming enemy missile was no more than a few feet. The first Chinese Eagle Strike missile had been destroyed more than 70 kilometres away from the Kochi.
But with the Chinese destroyer launching its missiles in quick succession, the second, third and fourth Eagle Strike missiles, some flying different trajectories than the first, closed in on the Kochi.
The Kochi kept firing as the incoming missiles closed in, the automatic system assigning two missiles each to the final two missiles.
Inside the Ops Centre, the Commander of the Kochi focussed straight ahead at a large LCD screen that dominated the Ops Centre. On it, critical data from 'SAM's' console was now being shown. And as they tried their best to focus on their individual systems, different officers manning other systems would glance up at the big screen to get an idea of what was happening. They all knew that this was life or death. And they all knew there was nothing really left for them to do. Unless they chose to deliberately intervene, the system was completely automated - Barak 8 surface to air missiles would keeping shooting off the fore and aft deck of the Kochi until every last incoming missile was destroyed. Or every last Barak missile had been fired.
And if the Eagle Strike missiles weren't intercepted, Kochi would still keep fighting. Two of four Russian-designed AK-630 anti-missile guns onboard the Kochi would collectively spew out 10,000 rounds per minute, creating a wall of lead between the Eagle Strike and the Kochi. The incoming missiles, it was hoped, would be obliterated as they tried to pierce this wall. And even as the missiles approached, there were other defensive systems on board the Kochi.
Ellora, the Electronic Counter Measures system would try and jam the radars of the incoming Eagle-Strike while 'Kavach', an indigenous system would fire aluminium chaff in the area to confuse the sensors of the Eagle Strike and make the missile veer away harmlessly from the ship.
In the end, none of this would be required. The Barak system was up for the challenge and every one of the subsonic Chinese anti-ship missiles were destroyed, the last one just 10 kilometres away from the Kochi, her explosion easily visible to the naked eye on this dark night.
This was now a Naval war. A frontline Indian asset had been attacked in international waters. The Indian fleet were bound to respond and that process had already begun.
As Kochi defended herself, critical targeting data was being constantly shared between Kochi and the Shivalik, the frigate accompanying her. They were linked through the Indian Navy's tactical network, a communications highway routed through the Navy's own satellite, the Rukmini.
For Indian ships deployed over large parts of the Navy's area of interest, the Rukmini gives a cohesive and heavily encrypted tactical picture - the location of other ships in their area, details of what their sensors are tracking, the ability to talk, transmit video and even access the internet. The two warships and also the unarmed fleet tanker accompanying them were sharing data of the battle through a secure tactical network operating through encrypted radio transmitters.
As she warded off the enemy missiles, the Kochi had provided Shivalik with the exact coordinates of the enemy Chinese warship, data which was fed into the Shivalik's Brahmos missiles, two of which were ripple-fired even as Kochi fought off the enemy missiles heading her way.
Blasting off her launch tubes on the deck of the Shivalik, the Brahmos missiles quickly accelerated to Mach 2.8 and headed towards the Changsha nearly 300 kilometres away.
Ill-equipped to take on a weapon as fast and maneuverable as the Brahmos, the Chinese destroyer fired off her defensive guns, and her own chaff-dispensers.
But by then, it was too late. The writing was on the wall.
The scenario described above is not entirely unrealistic.
In 2011, INS Airavat, an Indian amphibious assault ship was challenged by the Chinese Navy at a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea by a caller identifying himself as Chinese Navy. The Airavat continued on course, ignoring the challenge which said, "You are entering Chinese waters."
India continues to have significant commercial interests in oil and gas in association with Vietnam, one of the countries involved in a heated maritime dispute with Beijing. And Vietnam, incidentally, has close Naval ties with India, which is known to have trained Vietnamese sailors.
And this is where a ship like the INS Kochi comes in. The second of a class of three advanced 'Kolkata' class destroyers, the 7,500 ton Kochi is a perfect example of how the government's mantra of Make in India can be realised.
The product of decades of experience in Naval ship design and manufacture, the Kochi, which is being commissioned into the Indian Navy on September 30, incorporates the best Naval technology available anywhere in the world, technology customised and delivered to the state-run Mazgaon Docks Limited (MDL), Mumbai, which has integrated these systems onto an Indian-built hull.
Unlike most other warships of its class in the Indian Navy, the Kochi is large. There are no cramped gangways here, typical of other warships.
There are abundant spaces and crew comfort, unlike in the past, is a real priority. 'Hot bunking' where sailors share the same bunks as colleagues when they are on another shift is a thing of the past.
Instead, every sailor has a bunk and adequate locker space. The sailor's dining area is large and the galley is highly automated and includes, among other systems, an automated dosa maker.
The Kochi can speed along at more than 30 knots, close to 56 kilometres per hour, and be deployed in the open seas for several weeks if need be. Her Indian-built generators provide enough power to run a small town indefinitely. The generators are crucial in powering the air-conditioning systems on board. The Kochi needs 200 tons of cooling to ensure that her delicate electronics and weapon systems remain operational in our intensely hot and humid conditions.
While Machinery Control Rooms (MCR) of previous warships featured manual controls and analogue dials, the MCR onboard the Kochi is completely automated. Officers here monitor firefighting systems, propulsion and auxillary systems, power generation, the ship's stabilisers, her airconditioners and four large Reverse Osmosis Plants that provide the ship and her crew with abundant fresh water.
The data provided by the MCR's systems are part of the Ship's Data Network (SDM), the backbone of what is an information highway onboard the ship. Data from the SDM can be tapped across the ship on a need to know basis. A key part of the Ship Data Network System is the Combat Management System (CMS) which processes data from the sensors (radars, sonars and electronic warning systems) and the weapon systems. All of this is primarily routed to the Operations Centre of the warship, though in the event of damage to the Ops Centre during a battle, can be accessed from several stand-alone consoles spread across the ship.
Though she is being commissioned, the Kochi and her sister ship the Kolkata are yet to become battle-worthy. The Long Range Barak 8 surface to air missile, one of her primary weapons is presently being tested on board Israeli warships. NDTV has learned that there are no major hurdles in the development of this new generation weapon which will be installed on the INS Kolkata, the INS Kochi and their yet-to-be-commissioned sister ship, the INS Chennai within the next few months.
Captain Gurcharan Singh, the man who runs the Kochi, has a glint in his eye when he tells us that he has been lucky enough to have been a part of the commissioning crew of three warships entering the Indian Navy, a rare feat for any sailor anywhere in the world.
At 46, he has the awesome responsibility of commanding 40 officers and 350 sailors onboard the Kochi. According to the Captain, "Its a wonderful experience. For us as a commissioning crew, its a great opportunity to take charge of a warship. We are very proud of the ship for two reasons. For one, the ship is a very potent and powerful platform and secondly, this ship is an outstanding example of our indigenous ship-building capability."
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