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Destroyer ready for PM photo-op, not fighting fit

The INS Kolkata

New Delhi, Aug. 7: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated to commission the Indian Navy’s “most powerful” destroyer, the INS Kolkata, in Mumbai on August 16 in a photo-op that gels with his powerful image.

But the warship is riddled with crippling inadequacies that fall grossly short of the demands placed on it.

First, even on the day the ship flies the Indian Navy ensign for the first time declaring she is ready to go into battle, the Kolkata will not have the underwater protection and the overhead defences that it was designed for.

Information available from the navy says the 6,800-tonne ship was being given an “updated weapons package and new-look exteriors and improved stealth (making it difficult to detect)”.

However, about half of its 64 anti-air missile launchers would be empty or would be occupied by an older generation of missiles. They were to be armed with the Barak NG (next-generation) missiles that were to be supplied through a $350-million co-development arrangement between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israel Aircraft Industries.

The Barak NG was the ship’s — and when it is part of a flotilla, the armada’s — main long-distance missile defence system. It is designed to detect an incoming missile at a range of 70-100km and intercept it up to a range of 500 metres. But the DRDO has failed to produce viable boosters to propel the missile that was initially said to be capable of a top-speed of 2 mach (twice the speed of sound). This makes the Kolkata a more vulnerable target than it should be from aerial attacks.

The navy has decided that till the Barak NG is available, it will continue to rely on the Israeli Barak I missile — which arms most of its warships in any case. But the Barak I’s range is shorter — up to 12km.

The Kolkata is also set to be declared combat-ready without a main underwater submarine detector — an active electronic towed array sonar (ATAS). The ATAS emits low frequency waves that are designed to detect enemy submarines.

“(A) few complaints for the irregularities in technical evaluation and procurement of ATAS for the Indian Navy are under examination,” defence minister Arun Jaitley said in Parliament on Monday.

The second, and potentially greater, problem for the Kolkata is that it is powered by Zorya/Mashproekt M36E gas turbine plants from Ukraine. With unrest sweeping the erstwhile Soviet Republic, there is a question mark on the supplies of spares and maintenance of engines.

The first in its class, the Kolkata, a destroyer, was to be followed by the Kochi and the Chennai later in the year. The plan for the three ships — called Project 15A — began in 2000 but has been plagued by time and cost overruns.

Earlier this year, an officer, Commander Kuntal Wadhwa, was killed and some workers injured in an accident during an inspection when the Kolkata was still in the Mazgaon Docks in Mumbai.

Third, there is serious concern over the reliance on foreign companies stained by corruption charges.

The Kolkata’s main gun on deck is now called the SRGM but it is really an Oto Melara. Oto Melara is owned by Finmeccanica, the Italian conglomerate that is at the centre of the scandal over the procurement of VVIP helicopters.

The Kolkata has on board a landing deck and a hangar for two helicopters. It is the first to be fully armed with anti-ship and land-attack Brahmos missiles.