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Decked for battle, not dressed to kill

Visakhapatnam, Aug. 23: In the sailors’ galley of the INS Kamorta missile corvette, the menu for today - the day it has been commissioned offers routine Indian cuisine.

Idli, sambar, coconut chutney, tea and cake for breakfast; peas pulao, egg curry, masala mixed vegetables, dal tadka and paneer masala for lunch with curd and sai kheer for dessert; ginger tea for the late afternoon; and a dinner of tandoori roti, steamed rice, chicken curry, vegetable “chops”, vegetable curry, dal masala, fresh fruit and coffee.

The chef, Petit Officer Dharampal Singh, says the new galley --- packed with machines that mix the dough for the rotis, pressure cookers that steam the rice, choppers that slice vegetables into pieces and an assortment of microwave ovens --- will produce the meals for the crew of 1,073 sailors in good time.

Outside the galley, a full-length mirror at the door to the laundry - also packed with washing and ironing machines - has a banner over it that asks: “Are you dressed correctly?”

Full-length mirrors asking the same question are placed strategically all along the length of the ship, on each of its decks.

Mister “Are-you-dressed-correctly?” keeps watching as you duck under CFL bulbs, wires, metal boxes, cables and fire-extinguishing systems to traverse the innards of the ship on its microtek floor. The flooring is a glistening-black anti-corrosion layer speckled with something that looks like shimmer but isn’t quite it.

Amid the maze of compartments, somewhere in a clearing in the belly of the ship, made in Calcutta and the latest to join the navy’s fleet, is another banner: “This war machine has cost the nation Rs 1,900 crore. Learn to take care of it.”

The question remains: Is it dressed correctly, dressed for war?

Like the INS Kolkata, commissioned in Mumbai by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the INS Kamorta lacks crucial equipment for its designed role in anti-submarine warfare. Chiefly, it lacks an active towed array sonar or ATAS, a sensor to detect submarines that is tethered to the aft of the ship.

For a submarine hunter-killer in the 21st century joining a navy in a disturbed neighbourhood -- as defence minister Arun Jaitley described the Indian Ocean Region -- that is a crucial lacuna.

For the men on board the ship, though, it’s par for the course.

“Say, I need a suit to go out to work. Should I take one that costs Rs 20,000?” Captain Manoj Jha, the commissioning commanding officer of the Kamorta, says.

“Maybe with half my month’s salary I can afford it, but do I need it when a suit worth Rs 5,000 can do some of the job?”

Jha and his men cannot afford to feel that the warship they run is anything but indomitable. The space under the heli-deck in the aft of the ship is vacant now, in the hope that the government will somehow be able to overcome its troubles and acquire the system the warship sorely needs.

For now, Jha’s “Rs 5,000 suit” is the HUMSA NG (hull mounted sonar --- next generation), made by defence public sector Bharat Electronics Limited and trusted to detect submarines.

With the Kolkata and the Kamorta, the navy has commissioned two warships that lack the equipment for their roles in hostile situations. The Kolkata even more so, because it does not have the missile defence system a multi-role destroyer like it is supposed to have.

Apart from the ATAS, the Kamorta is also hard pressed to find an ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopter that is supposed to be embarked on it. Its hangar is equipped for a Sea King 42 Bravo that is designed to dunk sonobuoys into the sea to detect submarines and, on spotting the enemy, kill it by firing depth charges and torpedoes.

Vice-Admiral Satish Soni, chief of the Eastern Naval Command, however, says the commissioning of ships with incomplete systems would not impact their operational roles to a great degree because, for the time being, other ships will complement them.

“It is not a capability gap, I would say. It is a dilution of a capability in a particular ship in a particular sphere. If, for example, Kolkata is not commissioned with an AMD (anti-missile defence) system, there are many such systems in the fleet,” he said.

“When the fleet is moving together, Kolkata is used for ASW functions. It is a multi-role ship. We will not say that Kolkata cannot be exploited. I would not be overly worried about this because this is the price that you pay if you are going in for high-tech, state-of-the-art systems.”

What the Kamorta does have, apart from plusher interiors, is what the navy says is an atmosphere simulator for battle in nuclear/biological/chemical warfare conditions. Even the modern machines for cooking in the galleys are a testimony to the improved quality of life for the ship’s company of 1,073 sailors and 13 officers.

In the bridge of the ship - the command post - the seats for the commanders can rival the comfort of posh cars driven by or for billionaires.

A bulbous antenna in the ship’s stern is capable of connecting it seamlessly to the navy’s Rukmini satellite, through which it can receive and transmit data to all other vessels in the fleet in real time.

What the last means, says another officer, is that if the Kamorta, for example, has detected a submarine but does not have the helicopter to go after it, it can inform another warship in its flotilla and give the coordinates so that it may complete the job.

Should the question that the mirrors in the Kamorta ask of its crew be asked of the ship itself, the only answer can be a Woody Allen quip: “Eternal nothingness is fine, if you happen to be dressed for it.”