Sunday, August 31, 2014

First P-15A / Kolkata Class Destroyer Commissioned in India

The Indian Navy has commissioned the first of its latest P-15A class destroyer, the INS Kolkata. Two more, the INS Kochi and INS Chennai, have been launched to make a total of three units for the P-15A class, with the P-15B class in the works.

The P-15A class has been plagued by numerous delays and cost overruns. The Kolkata itself was laid down back in 2003 and launched in 2006. This gives the P-15A class the distinction of having one of the most drawn out development ever witnessed for a surface warship.

Further more, despite being formally commissioned into service, the ship still has yet to be fully fitted. Among other things, it still lacks the Barak 8 surface-to-air-missile that is being jointly developed by Indian and Israel and which also has seen extensive delays during development.

Even so, the introduction of the P-15A class marks a major milestone for the Indian Navy as it gives it capabilities that it did not possess before. This is sorely needed as India comes up short in terms of warships, both in terms of quantity and quality.

After the induction of the three P-15 / Delhi class destroyers during the nineties, the Indian Navy has had to be content with the additon of six Talwar class frigates from Russia, three domestic Shivalik class frigates and several other smaller warships.

While both the Talwar and Shivalik class are relatively capable ships if used for what they were designed to do, they are not comparable to the modern destroyers that other navies have or are in the process of receiving, such as the British Type 45 class or the Chinese Type 052D class.

The Indian Navy is one that currently has two aircraft carriers with more on the way and capable escorts are needed to protect them. The P-15A class, once it's fully fitted, will have the sensors and other equipment to fulfill that role, something that none of the other ships now in Indian service can do adequately.

P-15A / Kolkata class versus other contemporary warships

The P-15A class joins a long list of new destroyer designs that have been introduced around the world since the start of the new millennium. Compared to other designs, there are a couple of things that stand out about the P15A:
  • While the P-15A class is a multirole design, it's one slanted towards anti-surface warfare. The P-15A class comes with 16 Brahmos (PJ-10) supersonic long-range anti-ship missiles, which makes it one of the most heavily armed warships in this area. In fact, with the exception of the much larger Slava class and Kirov class in Russia, which entered service decades ago and in Soviet times, no other modern surface warship anywhere comes equipped with so many heavy anti-ship missiles.
  • On the other hand, it's relatively under-equipped for area air defense, even though it comes with a modern AESA radar from Israel. Not only are the Barak 8 missiles shorted ranged than its peers from other navies, the P-15A class only carries 32 of them. Moreoever, the P-15A class carries four AK-630 6-barrel 30 mm guns as close-in weapon systems that are capable, but it's the least capable system out there and a notch below more modern systems present in other navies, such as the European Goalkeeper, the American RAM, the Chinese HHQ-10 / FL-3000N and so on.
  • All in all, the Kolkata class puts the emphasis on ASuW over AAW, which is the exact opposite of other navies that tend to prioritize AAW over ASuW. This is notable, since area defense is something that the Indian Navy is quite deficient in and a more pressing weakness than ASuW, for which India already has a number of platforms. An argument could be made that the two Indian aircraft carriers in service are very vulnerable at this moment to an air strike and need much more protection than is currently available to them.
  • Also worth mentioning is the fact that the P-15A class carries its AESA radar high on top of its mast, similar to European designs such as the British Type 45 and German F124 Sachsen class. In other ships, such as the American Arleigh Burke and Chinese Type 052D class, the radar arrays are mounted lower to avoid some of the constraints posed by a higher radar. By mounting the radar as high as possible, you can, for instance, increase the distance at which low-flying objects can be detected compared to radars that are mounted lower.
  • However, putting a lot of weight high on top of the mast can, among other things, negatively affect the stability of the ship. To compensate, the radar arrays and related equipment tend to be made smaller, lighter and less capable than their lower-mounted peers, which usually have more raw power in ships, assuming both are ships with roughly the same displacement.
  • What can also be done is to make the beam of the ship design wider to improve stability. That does tend to increase drag, which in turn can decrease range and so on. In the case of the P-15A, its design is long and narrow with a beam-to-length ratio of more than 1:9. By comparison, the Type 45 destroyer with its wide beam has a ratio of roughly 1:7. The relatively narrow hull should help the P-15A achieve higher speeds and/or range with less engine power, but it may also be more vulnerable with its radar mounted high to toppling over in extreme weather or when sea state is high compared to say the Type 45.
The P-15A class seems to be a transitional design with a blend of old and new. The fact that the successor of the P-15 / Delhi class is much delayed is reflected by the combination of an old hull design with modern systems that have become available in the intervening years.

The P-15A is probably not the ideal solution for the Indian Navy and only three are to be inducted eventually. Parts of the P-15A don't really fit with one another and the overall design and equipement fitted is not a good match for what India really needs. An updated P-15B design will likely rectify some of the rough edges that are now present in the P-15A as currently designed / fitted.

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