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Maritime Surveillance Aircraft P8-Is Redeployment In The Himalayas?


In a decision that has caused much flutter in military circles,  India seems to be planning to use maritime surveillance aircraft P-8Is  in the High Himalayas and the Thar Desert.

Navy veterans in India feel it is an ‘absurd decision’ and one veteran submariner said that ‘this was just unthinkable’.”

“A US-made Poseidon P-8I or a Japanese Shinmaywa made US-2 are highly expensive defence 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 strike assets when weaponised, but using them on land is just preposterous,” the retired vice-admiral said.

He argued that there were ‘other options’ available for use on land where one may need to dominate or operate on expansive water bodies like Pangong Tso in Ladakh, scene of a major continuing stand-off.

‘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 navy,” the former vice-admiral said.

Defence insiders said that  India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, in consultation with other top officers in the armed forces, have reached the decision 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 Indian navy’sP-8I aircraft,  8 in all from their base in Arkonam on the TamilNadu coast to the Northern Command on a “permanent basis”, highly-placed Indian Air Force (IAF) sources revealed to SAM.

Rawat’s decision followed his wholesome praise for theUS-made Poseidon P-8I in February this year when he publicly said that the aircraft, originally optimised for sea surveillance, were used to keep a watch from the skies 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 this writer  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 Arkonam east of 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. 

The P-8I aircraft is a variant of the P-8A Poseidon aircraft 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 — far before they come anywhere near Indian shores.

Its communication and sensor suite includes indigenous equipment developed by defence PSUs 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 deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges, these sensor and radar-packed aircraft are the country’s “intelligent hawk eyes” over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) that is increasingly getting militarized.TThe P-8I aircraft has achieved a number of operational milestones which includes participation in the search effort for 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  “integrated theatre command” in the north, comprising army, naval and air force assets. 

There is no objection to that but moving the P-8I to land is seen as needless move , ‘ a waste of a highly specialised platform.’

The retired vice-admiral told SAM that Rawat’s insistence on using the P-8Is on land and inthe 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 taxpayers money for such state-of-art equipment,” he said.

“You don’t use horses to lift logs and elephants to run races.” 

While the concept of a theatre command on Chinese lines is considered effective in achieving jointness,  the 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 turf wars 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 P8I were brought to boost India’s naval dominance in 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.”

Agrees Anit Mukherjee , a former Indian army colonel turned defence 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 academic 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 defence scientist , again wishing to remain anonymous , said turf rivalry within the services must be curbed — or else, jointness remains elusive.

He said the whole jointness doctrine is now being questioned over the Poseidon’s induction in Northern Command because the P8Is are not optimised 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 , 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.

A true multi-mission aircraft, it is defined by a unique combination of state of the art sensors, proven weapons systems, and a globally recognized platform”. 

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”.

India, realising the country’s ambition to dominate the Indian Ocean, 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 kilometres, these flying boats are used for surveillance by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force.

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.

After the 2017 Japan–India annual leadership summit in India, i Japanese aircraft giant ShinMaywa, 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 defence-related fields, especially joint production, requires government blessing. 

“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 defence collaboration outside existing frameworks with the US,” said defence writer Purnendra Jain.

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

The India–Japan partnership in defence 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.

 The proposed deployment of the P8I in Rajasthan may have sent Pakistan in a tizzy because Pakistan’s submarine fleet deployed in Karachi harbour would come within the strike range of the ASW specialist Poseidons. 

Late night on Tuesday this week , panic gripped Pakistan after several social media users tweeted that the Indian Air Force fighter jets had crossed the Line of Control and flew over Karachi, leading to authorities in Pakistan enforcing a black-out in the port city.

Various social media users took to Twitter to warn of another Indian Air Force action inside Pakistan. According to the local residents of Karachi, the city was put under ‘blackout’ after rumours of Indian Air Force fighter jets went close to Karachi and other parts of Sindh.

Pakistani journalist Wajhat Kazmi, took to Twitter to express his fear after social media users pointed out that Indian fighter jets were hovering around the port city of Karachi. Kazmi said that it was after 27th Feb 2019 – the night of Balakot airstrike, he was hearing PAF jets patrolling the sky and hoped that situation was not serious.

Wajahat’s tweet

Salman Manzoor, a Karachi resident also shared a video on Twitter claiming that Pakistan Air Force had begun “JF17 Thunder” and Mirage” patrolling over Karachi and the border areas of Sindh after the formation of Indian jets was identified near LOC.

Similar videos from Karachi have emerged on social media platforms claiming that IAF jets had indeed crossed LoC and flew over Karachi, which resulted in the blackout of the city.

However, Pakistan Armed Forces has remained tight-lipped over the issue and its propaganda arm ISPR has yet to put any official statement over rumours of Indian Air Force jets crossing the LoC and the subsequent patrolling of PAF jet over Karachi and other parts of Sindh. The Indian Air Force has denied any such activity. In fact, it seems that the Pakistanis mistook PAF aircrafts for IAF aircrafts.

Meanwhile, social media users in India did not leave the golden opportunity to take a dig at Pakistani citizens. Ever since Balakot strikers occured, the Pakistani citizens have begun to be fearful of another action by the Indian Armed Forces, which was evident by their reaction on social media on Tuesday night following the rumours of IAF jets crossing LoC.

Many netizens from the country took to Twitter to share their thoughts on the Tuesday’s ‘blackout’.

A user named Rahul reminded Pakistan of its bravado by posting a tweet put out by Pakistani Air Force just a day before the Balakot airstrikes, that stuck deep inside the Pakistan.

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1 Comment
  1. Vinod Singh says

    All this drama will finally conclude in more such aircraft purchase.

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