SMART and the Challenge of Submarine Hunting

The Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo tested last month might seem an impressive weapon on paper, but to make it an effective weapon, India will need drastically improve its ability to monitor the oceans depths.

The Government of India and DRDO announced on 5 October 2020 that they have successfully tested a Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo (SMART) system. The system has been dubbed a “game changer” in anti-submarine warfare, by the government.

The official statement claimed that all the mission objectives of the test launch were successfully met including: the missile reached the desired range, the nose cone separated, and the torpedo splashed into the water with the help of a velocity reduction mechanism.   The launch was also reportedly tracked by Land Observation and Tracking stations with Radar and Electro Optical Systems and down range ships (this is important to note since the system also boasts a two-way data link connecting it to a warship or an airborne submarine target detection system, which provided the exact location of the hostile submarine to the SMART projectile to correct its flight path at any point.)

SMART’s Lineage

As the name suggests the SMART platform is a supersonic hybrid platform which has separating  air and subsurface propulsion stages that decouple to deliver the payload to destroy a subsurface target located at relatively long ranges deemed beyond the capability of a surface or subsurface launched torpedo.

Although detailed spec sheets for the platform have not been released, the SMART system seems similar in  core principle to  the cancelled Boeing UUM-125 Sea Lance from the 1980s. The Sea Lance was supposed to be an evolution of ASW rockets that would carry nuclear depth charges as payload.

The SMART platform’s subsurface stage is most likely derivative of Sheyna Advanced Lightweight Torpedo system that can likely accommodate a 50 kg conventional high explosive warhead.  With a combined extrapolated maximum range of 600 km in the air and 30 km once it breaks the surface of the water, the weapon will far outclass a similar platform Yu-8 that China has fielded since the 1980s. Even on paper the SMART platform looks at best a tactical boost to India’s ASW strike capability. The real teeth belong to the sea launched or fixed wing launched elements that are tried and tested platforms.

India’s ASW Capabilities

India’s ASW capabilities have received a major boost with the acquisition of P8i Maritime Patrol aircraft which have proven ELINT/SIGINT and ASW capability. The aircraft packs a potent punch, with Harpoon missiles and MK54 torpedoes, a new batch order of which has also been cleared by US recently.

India’s surface fleet also has a serviceable ASW capability with Seaking ASW Helicopters and surface launched torpedoes alongside depth charges. The Seaking helicopter fleet is however nearing the end of its airframe life and efforts are already being made to acquire new MH60R ASW Helicopters to replace them. Three of the 21 ordered are arriving this year on a fast-track basis after the US Navy permitted the vendor Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin to supply the Indian Navy three airframes previously earmarked for the US.  It is imperative to stress that the number of ASW aircraft are still not adequate for a force the size of the Indian Navy or to support operations in its area of responsibility. With only 21 MH60R helicopters and 18 P8i (as acquisition plans announced so far reflect), India’s ASW capabilities  will be woefully stretched thin.

Does SMART Solve India’s ASW Problems?

India’s ASW capability has a two fold challenge. One is the strike element. While SMART provides a partial solution, the critical strike element for any subsurface fleet is a modern submarine-launched heavyweight torpedo. The Indian Navy has no concrete plan to acquire these in the short term, since the cancellation of the deal to acquire Blackshark Heavyweight torpedoes from WASS over allegations of graft.

Two, India still has some way to go in maritime domain awareness, despite the  acquisition of P8is.

SMART is being touted as a high-accuracy, long-range weapon. However, it can’t perform its intended function without a constant supply of navigational and targeting data. These are to come via the two-way data link between the SMART system and naval ships or other platforms

However, naval ships and shore-based sensors by themselves will not be up to the task of accurately directing the SMART system. To work,  SMART would need a constant data link with a highly sophisticated seabed sensor suite made up of hydrophones and sonobuoys that stretch the breadth and length of India’s area of responsibility. Investing in such a seabed sensor suite, commonly dubbed SOSUS, will be a huge boost to India’s ASW capability as a whole because of the sheer increase in levels of maritime domain awareness (MDA) that it will bring. Without such a wholistic approach that focuses on building both MDA and strike capabilities, SMART will be of little use in India’s arsenal.

“These are the author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Takshashila Institution.”