It has been almost a decade now that India has been trying to either acquire or construct a Polar Research Vessel (PRV), commonly referred to as an icebreaker ship, but the goal, unfortunately, remains unmet. India currently maintains two operational polar scientific research stations in Antarctica, named Bharati and Maitri. India’s only Arctic research station Himadri is located at Ny-Ålesund in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway. To date, India has undertaken 40 expeditions to Antarctica and has sent 13 expeditions to the Arctic. All these polar expeditions have been carried out by chartering foreign PRVs. Melting of the polar ice sheets and their scientific inter-linkages to Indian monsoons and overall weather phenomenon in the South Asian region, necessitate India to undertake scientific studies in the Arctic and Antarctica. Moreover, the pace at which the Arctic, in particular, is witnessing geopolitical and geo-economic transitions, it is significantly critical for India to have its own independent PRV.

By Bipandeep Sharma

India’s Acquisition Plan for PRV

The main challenge faced in the construction of a PRV is that the Indian shipbuilding companies do not possess the required capabilities. In fact, very few companies in the world have expertise in constructing PRVs. The only viable options for India are therefore, to either directly purchase such a vessel or enter into a joint venture. Under the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ Polar and Cryosphere Research (PACER) programme, the Goa-based National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) was tasked with acquiring a PRV. In October 2014, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) allocated Rs 1,051. crore and made NCPOR, an implementing agency. Accordingly, in 2017, NCPOR floated global tenders inviting expression of interests from global ship construction companies, but cost escalations, design changes and technicalities have significantly delayed India’s acquisition of the PRV. Noting India’s scientific and research operations in the polar regions, India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on ‘Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change’, recently called for preparing a realistic plan to expand India’s Polar Research in the next five years. Also taking strategic account of China’s investments in terms of infrastructure development in polar regions, India’s Parliamentary Committee has called for allocating required capital expenditure to fulfil India’s scientific infrastructural and strategic needs in the polar regions.

Scientific and Strategic Significance

China currently maintains two large PRVs with advanced icebreaking capabilities and sophisticated scientific instruments onboard. Its MV Xue Long is an ice-strengthened cargo ship purchased from Ukraine in 1993. The vessel has been modified and refurbished as per China’s operational requirements in polar regions. China’s MV Xuelong 2 or ‘Snow Dragon 2’ is a domestically-built ‘Polar Class-3’ vessel10 with advanced icebreaking capabilities. It can attain the maximum speed of 15 knots and can break ice of 1.5 metre thickness. The vessel is also equipped with a hangar and a landing platform for two helicopters. China is currently constructing its third nuclear-powered icebreaker ship. With a length of 152 meters, the vessel is to be powered by two 25 MW nuclear reactors with a thermal power output of 200 MW. In a recently released policy note by China’s Ministry of Transport, there are also plans of developing new heavy icebreaker ships along with 1,00,000-ton semi-submersible heavy lift vessels in the country’s next five-year development plan.

In 2020, at a maritime trade fair in Shanghai, the Chinese state-owned shipbuilding companies also displayed model designs for a large ice-capable liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier and a specialized model of a heavy icebreaker. The LNG carrier is a 300-meter long and 49.8-meter wide vessel with a capacity of 1,75,000 cubic meters. The vessel is designated as Arc7 ice class-notation as per the Russian classification system and it demonstrates ship operations independently in moderate ice conditions. The proposed vessel is expected to break ice up to 2.1 meters in thickness. The second design model for special heavy icebreaking operations was outlaid by the Marine Design & Research Institute of China (MARIC). Brief specifications of the vessel enlisted it as a 26,000 ton with an ice-breaking capability of 3 meters at a speed of 2 knots with a crew-carrying capacity of 180 people. MARIC has labeled it as “one of the strongest icebreakers in the world”.

Way Forward

An independent PRV with required icebreaking capabilities will be an important requirement for India not only in terms of scientific research but equally for economic and strategic interests in the Arctic. First, the PRV will significantly reduce India’s dependency on foreign charter vessels for logistic supplies and scientific needs. Second, the PRV would enhance the skills and technical expertise of Indian sailors and crew members in polar waters. Third, an independent PRV could make India’s polar missions independent and self-reliant amongst Indian scientists. Fourth, such a vessel would further enable the year-round presence and movement of men and material at the country’s polar bases. Fifth, with the advent of emerging new technologies (such as Unmanned Underwater Vehicles [UUVs], Submarine Cable Networks, and deep-sea submersibles) and their reach in polar waters, acquisition of PRV for India would become a necessary asset for undertaking the country’s future deep-sea research missions in polar waters. Finally, in terms of strategic context, PRV would enhance the Indian Navy’s operational reach in polar waters. Analyzing China’s approach of ‘great leap forward’ style developments in polar infrastructure, it can be argued that it is the right time for India to have a PRV. It is important to mention here that India’s acquisition of its first PRV should not be seen in comparison to other emerging states’ polar infrastructural developments. India’s needs are specific and should be understood from its scientific, economic, and strategic perspectives in the polar regions.

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