When Prime Minister Narendra Modi today said no country will challenge India after the commissioning of INS Kolkata, he was only partially correct.
The fact is that the Kolkata, the largest destroyer built in the country, and the first of a class of three such ships, is not really complete. Several key weapon systems and sensors are missing, either being developed or yet to be procured.
While the INS Kolkata and its sister ships, the Kochi and the Chennai (still being constructed) may one day be genuinely world-class fighting platforms, they are not that today. In fact, the Kolkata is not fit for battle in its present state.
Consider this: the surface-to-air missile suite of the Kolkata, the Barak 8 missile, is still being co-developed with Israel and is several months, if not a year from being tested, proven, fitted on the Kolkata, and again tested at sea as part of user-trials. Without the Barak, which the Navy calls the LR SAM (Long Range Surface-to-Air missile), the Kolkata has no credible defence against modern incoming anti-ship missiles, the sort of missiles which equip Chinese destroyers and frigates which are no longer strangers to our waters. The Barak is meant to intercept incoming missiles and aircraft at ranges out to at least 70 kilometers.
Neither is the INS Kolkata equipped with a primary sensor to detect submarines, a towed array sonar. The towed array unit being developed in India did not pass muster with the Navy and the acquisition of a foreign system is still to be completed. Pitted against Pakistan's extremely capable Agusta 90-B submarines, the INS Kolkata will have to rely largely on her hull-mounted sonar, the indigenously-designed HUMSA-NG. But while the Navy may swear by the capabilities of the HUMSA-NG, the fact is that the Kolkata does not have the additional advantage of a long range towed array sonar which can detect enemy submarines at long ranges across various oceanic depths. Modern European or American destroyers of a similar displacement are equipped with a towed array sonar as standard fit.
Another area of huge concern is the primary engines of the Kolkata class, twin Ukrainian-built Zorya M36E gas turbine plants. Reliable and with long intervals between scheduled maintenance cycles, the gas turbines give the Kolkata class the power she needs, but with Ukraine being in a state of war, there are concerns that the long term supply of spares could be an issue. For the Navy, this would be the ultimate worst-case scenario. Not only do these Ukrainian engines equip the Kolkata and her two sister ships, they also power three destroyers of the Delhi class, the class of destroyers which preceded the INS Kolkata.
Still, there are areas where the Kolkata-class destroyers are genuinely world-class. Its primary sensor is the Israeli MF STAR, an advanced active phased array radar that can track incoming missiles and aircraft at ranges beyond 250 kms. The MF STAR, which can track hundreds of targets simultaneously, is meant to provide guidance to the Barak LR-SAM missiles which are presently missing. Analysts say the MF-STAR is in the same class as the US Navy's Aegis combat system and AN/SPY-1D radar antenna, which form the basis of their most advanced Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers.
But it's here that the INS Kolkata has a rather inexplicable design feature. At the moment, she is designed to carry only 32 Barak surface-to-air missiles, considerably fewer missiles than similar modern destroyers already in service in Europe and the US. Though the Navy says the number of missiles being carried is optimal, the lack of additional Barak missiles seems rather underwhelming considering the capabilities of the MF-STAR radar that the Kolkata class embarks.
It's like giving a soldier a brilliant new rifle but throwing in just a handful of bullets. Compare this with surface-to-air missile fits of comparable warships already in service: the Indian Navy's own considerably smaller Shivalik class frigates carry 32 Barak 1 surface-to-air missiles and 24 Russian Shtil-1 missiles. The even smaller Russian-built Talwar class frigates carry 64 missiles (24 Shtil-1 and 40 9M311 missiles). Internationally, the somewhat larger South Korean KDX-3 class destroyers are armed with more than 100 surface-to-air missiles. As a primary escort of India's aircraft carriers, the Vikramaditya, the Viraat and the under-construction Vikrant, which it is meant to protect from missile attacks, the Kolkata class, in its present configuration seems clearly undergunned.
Neither does the Kolkata possess a large calibre main gun. Its 76mm OTO Melara gun (license built in India) appears to be another compromise. No major destroyer of the class of the Kolkata operates a 76mm gun as its main gun. In fact, the Navy had wanted a 100 mm Russian gun, the deal for which was reportedly cancelled after several delays.
Where the Kolkata class does make a mark is in carrying 16 long range Brahmos anti-ship missiles capable of striking targets 300 kms away. An enormously successful Indo-Russian project, the Brahmos is one of the fastest missile systems in the world, has been repeatedly tested in India and is now progressively being inducted into several new classes of warship.
Another area of excellence is in the integration of systems from around the world. This is an area where the Mazgaon Docks Limited (MDL) has made an enormous mark. Not only has MDL, much maligned in the past for inordinate delays in warship construction, been able to built a warship to milimetre perfect specifications, it has integrated Ukrainian, Israeli, Italian, Russian and Indian systems into a warship designed by the Navy's own design bureau.
For the Indian Navy, the addition of new platforms, like the INS Kolkata, comes at a time when its primary adversary, the Chinese Navy is in the midst of a huge growth spurt. In March this year, the Chinese Navy commissioned the first of its Type 52D class destroyers, the Kunming. Also equipped with a phased array radar, the Kunming embarks 64 cells from which a wide variety of missiles can be launched. The Kunming also features a 130mm main gun capable of firing munitions to great ranges, a gun significantly more capable than what the Kolkata embarks.
With 40 ships and 6 submarines on order, the Indian Navy is looking to counter the growth of the Chinese Navy. With decades of experience in operating relatively capable platforms, the Indian Navy remains the dominant Navy in the Indian Ocean region for the moment. It's clear though the waters ahead appear choppy if the progress made in warship design and manufacture is undone by delayed weapons systems acquisitions or delays in acquiring sensors which give the Navy its fighting edge.
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