India Quietly Deploys Huge Spy Ship Designed To Track Nuclear Missiles: US Media
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India Quietly Deploys Huge Spy Ship Designed To Track Nuclear Missiles: US Media

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Large Ocean Surveillance Ship VC-11184 with bulbous radar dome departs on harbour test (since commissioned as INS Dhruv) during harbour test in January 2019

India’s Economic Times revealed Tuesday that last October the Indian Navy secretly commissioned a large high-tech surveillance ship formerly only known by the code designation VC-11184.

In addition to maritime surveillance and missile test monitoring missions, the 17,000-ton INS Dhruv allegedly could be used to provide early warning of attacks by ballistic missiles launched from Pakistan and China.

Despite the secrecy cloaking the vessel, general information on the Ocean Surveillance Ship’s capabilities and characteristics has circulated on Indian media and the vessel has been widely photographed at the shipyard in recent years.

Floating out of VC11184 ocean surveillance ship at Hindustan Shipyard Limited, Visakhapatnam

VC-11184 was laid down June 2014 under a covered drydock in Visakhapatnam by government-owned Hindustan Shipyards Limited. After some delays, it was delivered in 2018 and completed sea trials the year after. The ship, measuring nearly the length of two football fields long at 175 meters, has a crew complement of 300, and reportedly cost 1.5 million rupees crore ($206 million) in total.

The Dhruv’s huge radar domes includes an X-Band radar, a class of sensor apt for focused, precision scans, and a longer-range S-Band radar (or some sources claim an L-Band) useful for scanning large areas. Both are Active Electronically Scanned Array systems, the most advanced type of radar in use due to their higher resolution, jamming resistance and ability to maintain many tracks simultaneously.

As far the author knows no performance data has been made public for the radars, nor even their designations, though the long-range radar is allegedly based on the L-band Multi-Object Tracking Radar used by the Indian Space Research Organization. The sensors are apparently so powerful that the ship mounts three auxiliary power generators to supplement the electricity generated by its two combined diesel engines, bringing total power output to 14 MW.

The Dhruv also reportedly incorporates a command, control and communications (C3) systems, as well as electronic support measure antennas (ESMs) allowing it to spy on electromagnetic emissions generated by other country’s ships and aircraft—a capability known as electronic intelligence, or ELINT.

Other reported equipment includes acoustic sensors (including hydrophones), and a landing pad and hangar facilities on the vessel’s stern which can support a single Chetak or Dhruv utility helicopter.

Multiple reports claim that the vessel will host personnel from India’s National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) that will report directly to India’s National Security Advisor. That supports the notion that vessel could play a role in helping detect strategic attacks on India.

Eyes At Sea To Aid India’s Missile Shield?

The Dhruv is described as capable of performing a number of missions. For one, it will likely serve as a missile test range instrumentation ship. That means it sensors would be used to collect data from tests of India’s land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which New Delhi continues to develop for greater range to threaten more of Chinese territory.

India’s Secret Missile Unveiled

India tested K-4 nuclear capable Intermediate-range submarine-launched ballistic missile. The missile has a maximum range of about 3,500 km. This nuclear capable missile will now be deployed on INS Arihant, India’s locally made N-powered submarine. India became the fifth nation to have this potent technology by which it can stealthily hide its nuclear weapons deep in the ocean and strike at will. India calls these Weapons of Peace. It is an intelligent missile.

Furthermore, several reports stress a maritime domain awareness role for the vessel, indicating it radars and ELINT capability would be used to monitor the movements of ships and aircraft in the water surrounding the Indian subcontinent—an important mission as China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy increases its presence in the Indian Ocean.

A source quoted by the Hindustan Times claims the vessel’s systems would serve as a “force multiplier” for the Indian Navy, assisting in planning “subsurface [submarine], surface, and aerial” offensive operations.

Nonetheless, the vessel’s possible application to the missile defence role has received the most attention.

New Delhi has spent several decades assembling the components of a ballistic missile defence apparatus to protect against the formidable long-range missile arsenals of China and Pakistan—both conventional and nuclear-armed. Though India’s “missile shield” currently will protect only a few major cities (currently New Delhi and Mumbai, though others may follow), it remains a capability possessed by only a handful of other countries.

Currently India’s BMD system relies on satellite-based sensors to detect the flash of a missile launch combined with huge Swordfish surveillance radars to acquire tracking data which can be used to cue two layers of interceptor missiles—the high-altitude, long-range Prithvi Air Defence missile and the lower-altitude, shorter-range Advanced Air Defence missile.

By providing an additional long-range radar system scanning from a different vantage than India’s land and space-based sensors, the Dhruv could theoretically both extend the missile defence system by providing earlier warning and targeting data, as well as “thicken it” by transmitting additional targeting data improving the accuracy of interceptor missiles launched to shoot down incoming strikes.

The U.S.’s own national missile defence system relies on a gigantic Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX-1) to improve sensor coverage in the Pacific and provide high-quality targeting data needed for interception of incoming missiles.

Despite that potential, it’s far from clear to what extent the Indian Navy may use Dhruv’s missile tracking capabilities operationally, instead of just for testing purposes and surveillance of its neighbour’s missile tests.

One issue is that the Dhruv, like any other ship, cannot remain at sea indefinitely and must periodically return to shore to resupply and refuel and undergo upgrades and overhauls. Continuous early warning coverage therefore would require one or two more Ocean Surveillance Ships to rotate onto station. That said, a second, smaller (118 meters long) surveillance vessel possibly specialized in tracking cruise missiles was earlier reported under construction at the Cochin shipyard.

The Dhruv’s survivability in a conflict context is also an issue, as it is not known to carry any weapons. Remaining on the move (sources variously reports its maximum speed to lie between 21 and 26 knots) could protect the vessel somewhat, but the Dhruv’s powerful sensors might act as beacon, making its movements easier to track. That implies if deployed operationally, the Indian Navy might need to assign escorts to provide anti-air and anti-submarine defence.

It thus remains to be seen whether India’s huge but mysterious surveillance ship assumes operational roles in a maritime surveillance and/or missile defence capacity, or in practice sticks to specialized tasks as a missile test range instrumentation ship.

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