Article by Shantanu K. Bansal
The development of INS Dhruv (earlier known as the Project VC 11184) is a great breakthrough in several aspects. Not only in terms of aiding India’s own missile development programme as the ship shall provide crucial data on strategic missile tests to be performed by us in future, it shall also enable India collecting data on missile tests to be conducted by other countries.
The ship is manned by personnel from National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) which is country’s premier TECHINT organisation. The Ship features the most sophisticated SIGINT apparatus on its deck for intelligence gathering. As we know, the Indian Ocean Region accounts for the most busiest sea supply channels on earth and the region have become a hub for most of the international Navies to operate, especially the sudden increase of Chinese Naval ship floating across the region ever since 2009.
The ship can also track satellites in the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO); hence it can actively contribute to the Indian space missions and also can provide crucial inputs when it comes to Anti-satellite (ASAT) operations.
It is significant also in terms of augmenting India’s Multi-layered Ballistic Missile Defence programme. The importance of this vessel can be understood by the fact that India has two hostile neighbours armed with lethal nuclear arsenal. Therefore, strategic surveillance becomes a great priority!
The concept of Missile Tracking Ship (MTS) or better known as Missile Range Instrumentation Ship (MRIS) isn’t new it is in limelight since the pre-cold war days and most of such ships started coming in existence 1960s onwards with Russia and U.S. leading the innovation. Therefore, one may question that after being living under constant nuclear threat by the neighbours, why India hasn’t opted for such ship long before? One of the main reason could be the lack of technical ‘know-how’.
Scientists at the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) didn’t have the requisite experience in building such large and complex radar systems. We only gained this experience once we bought the Swordfish radar from the Israel in 2002-2005, with a tracking-range of about 600-800Kms.
After receiving these radars India started making advance version of the Swordfish radar known as the Super Swordfish Long-range Tracking Radar (LRTR) with a said tracking-range of 1,500Kms. Now, some unconfirmed reports say that the LRTR has been further developed into Very Long-range Tracking Radar (VLRTR) with a tracking-range of 2000Kms, the unconfirmed reports cannot be trusted much.
Since being a highly classified project, it has not been disclosed that what is the tracking-range of the INS Dhruv but based on above calculations one can safely predict that its tracking-range could be 1500Kms.
At first glance, compared to other existing platforms like this around the world the INS Dhruv is still seems to be under-equipped but there has been given adequate space on deck for to carry out further upgradations and adding extra missile tracking antennas.
China 2 years back unveiled that it has made a ship based Over the Horizon (OTH) Radar, it’s tracking range can exceed that of Indian landmass is said to be more than 3000Kms. Though OTH radars have many limitations for E.g. it shall require ionospheric data and curvature of earth also affects its operations but overall the system is best suited for prior warning for any incoming aircraft, missile and other threatful trajectories so that Air Defence (AD) mechanisms can be activated in the limited time period. Probably, it will not work as an isolated platforms but will be part of the PLAN aircraft carrier fleet in future.
Compared to the land-based Long-range Target Acquisition and Fire Control (TAFC) radar like the LRTR the sea based Missile Tracking Ship (MTS) has an edge because since Long range TAFC are generally immobile in nature and hence can be easily targeted by the hostile forces with help of precision/surgical strikes. However, it would be wrong to say that all TAFC are immobile exceptions shall include U.S. AN/TPY-2 Radar with surveillance range of 2,900 Mi. Some visuals of the Indian upgraded LRTR also suggest that it shall be based on a mobile platform.
It should be noted that the INS Dhruv is not a stand alone platform it will work with DRDO LRTR deployed across the territory (as of now 2 such platforms will be deployed), hence augmenting the overall surveillance reach. However, mere single such ship in the arsenal would not suffice the need for continues year-round missile surveillance capability. For achieving it, we may require at least 3 such ships.
In a real-time scenario, one large ship like the INS Dhruv which is also counted among the largest ship produced in India cannot be at service 24×7. As any other naval ship, it has to sail to dock very frequently for variety of reason to count- major re-fits, supplies, crew exchange, and what not. Therefore, at least 3 ships would be required to reach the service target as one ship would probably go for re-fit or get damaged in a real war scenario, the other 2 would still be operational. Also considering ths long coast which makes the boundary on both Western and Eastern side of India require at least 2 such platforms to guard India against such threats.
It is also to be noted that given the strategic importance of INS Dhruv, the logistics and ship maintenance should be at par best making it operational in shortest possible timeframe.
Will the DRDO TDV be Second of INS Dhruv? No.
The DRDO is also working on one more MRIS known as Technology Demonstration Vessel (TDV) which is much shorter than the INS Dhruv and the ship design is said to be like any other civilian ship. Reports says that the ship would be equipped with a smaller version of the Multi-object Tracking Radar [MOTR], known as the M-MOTR, as well as X-band active phased-array precision-tracking radar giving tracking-range of somewhere 500Kms. These facts are based on open source analysis.
Therefore, this ship is being specifically designed for monitoring the flight trajectories of long-range subsonic and supersonic land-attack cruise missiles, especially during their terminal phases of flight. As notable, the NTRO has not been involved in development of this ship therefore it is probable that the ship will sans any intelligence related operatives and hence is been developed to fully cater to the testing requirements as India enters the all new phase of missile development with numerous new missile projects coming-up in near future.
Besides developing sister ships of INS Dhruv, India must also dwell on developing other ways of tracking strategic missile trajectories including both active and passive surveillance systems. The active systems shall include developing sea based X band floating Radars, increasing range of existing LRTR radar, making radar platforms mobile (E.g. AN/TPY-2 Radar) and developing Ballistic Missile tracking satellite constellation. The passive systems shall include OTH platforms or longer range S band radars like the Long Range Discriminating Radar (LRDR) system for holistic BMD capabilities. Also, upgrading the overall Command and Control systems specifically known as Command, Control, Battle Management, and Communications (C2BMC) for the Integrated Ballistic Missile Defence operations.