Chi­nese sub­marines on the prowl in In­dian Ocean re­gion

China’s firstever de­ploy­ment of a Yuan class sub­ma­rine to Pak­istan ac­quires greater sig­nif­i­cance in the con­text of emerg­ing re­ports that China will be selling some eight Yuan class sub­marines to Pak­istan in the near fu­ture. Four sub­marines of this pro­ject


Re­cent re­ports of a con­ven­tional Chi­nese sub­ma­rine en­ter­ing Karachi har­bour in the last week of May and spend­ing one week for re­plen­ish­ment and lo­gis­tics turn­around has caused much con­ster­na­tion in the In­dian se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment. This was the sec­ond in­ci­dence of pres­ence Chi­nese sub­ma­rine in the backyard of In­dia, the first be­ing Chi­nese sub­ma­rine vis­it­ing Colombo cargo ter­mi­nal some nine months ago dur­ing Septem­ber 2014. The ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween the two vis­its was that in the first case In­dia could lodge an of­fi­cial protest with the Sri Lankan Gov­ern­ment for breach of a bi­lat­eral agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries. How­ever, in the in­stant case lack of sim­i­lar in­stru­ment does not of­fer any op­tion to In­dia.

From China’s mar­itime per­spec­tive the de­ploy­ment of a Yuan class 335 con­ven­tional sub­ma­rine, equipped with tor­pe­does, anti-ship mis­siles and the air-in­de­pen­dent propul­sion (AIP) sys­tem which en­hances the stealth fea­tures and un­der­wa­ter en­durance of a con­ven­tional sub­ma­rine, is of great strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance. China has been as­pir­ing to demon­strate its mar­itime ca­pa­bil­ity in the South China Sea, Malacca Strait, its ad­join­ing wa­ters and now the In­dian Ocean re­gion (IOR) through the Gulf of Aden in the garb of anti-piracy cam­paigns. In that con­text China now has its proven doc­trine. This is yet another in­di­ca­tor of the fast trans­for­ma­tion of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army-Navy, which op­er­ated close to its shores in the pro­file of Brown Wa­ter Navy, into a ‘Blue Wa­ter’ force with long legs that is ex­pand­ing its pres­ence in the IOR. China has claimed that such re­plen­ish­ment stopovers on way to the Gulf of Aden for es­cort and anti-piracy oper­a­tions were a ‘com­mon prac­tice’ for navies around the world. While there is no dis­pute over the claim, it is now an open se­cret that China is hon­ing skills of long-range de­ploy­ments of its nu­clear and con­ven­tional sub­marines.

How­ever, jus­ti­fy­ing such over­seas de­ploy­ments on anti-piracy mis­sions should be viewed as bla­tant dis­claimers of its ac­tual in­tent. China’s first-ever de­ploy­ment of a Yuan class sub­ma­rine to Pak­istan ac­quires greater sig­nif­i­cance in the con­text of emerg­ing re­ports that China will be selling some eight Yuan class sub­marines to Pak­istan in the near fu­ture. Four sub­marines of this pro­ject will re­port­edly be man­u­fac­tured in­dige­nously in Pak­istan. Fully loaded and equipped Chi­nese sub­ma­rine re­port­edly spent a full week in Karachi port in the last week of May with en­tire crew of at least 65 on board. While such de­ploy­ments are not un­usual, it cer­tainly ac­cen­tu­ates China’s in­creas­ing de­fence co­op­er­a­tion with Pak­istan.

In­dia presently has just 13 op­er­a­tional sub­marines as against China’s 60. Pak­istan, a much smaller coun­try, has eight op­er­a­tional sub­marines as of now. China is rac­ing ahead in adding more sub­marines to its fleet and should have 75 sub­marines by 2020. The emerg­ing de­vel­op­ments can only be coun­tered by In­dia re­ju­ve­nat­ing her own in­dige­nous 30-year sub­ma­rine ca­pa­bil­ity build­ing plan. The pres­ti­gious Scor­pene pro­ject is al­ready be­lea­guered and the first plat­form of the line is ex­pected to be de­liv­ered only to­wards the end of 2016. The de­liv­ery of the sub­se­quent sub­ma­rine is ex­pected at an in­ter­val of nine months each with the com­ple­tion of the pro­ject stretch­ing to 2020.

In the re­cent past the De­fence Ac­qui­si­tion Coun­cil has ap­proved a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion for six more con­ven­tional sub­marines with AIP ca­pa­bil­ity. Re­quest for pro­posal and ten­der­ing process is still far out on the hori­zon. The Pro­ject 75I sub­marines are ex­pected to be big­ger than the 1,800-tonne Scor­pene class cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion at the Mazagon Dock Lim­ited (MDL), Mum­bai. The AIP sys­tems will en­able greater un­der­wa­ter en­durance be­sides in­cor­po­rat­ing stealth, land-at­tack mis­siles ca­pa­bil­ity and other tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments. Op­ti­misti­cally speak­ing the first Boat of Pro­ject 75I could be avail­able not be­fore 2025. The gov­ern­ment has al­lo­cated $8.1 bil­lion for the six sub­marines to be ac­quired.

Re­cently, Cab­i­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity has ap­proved plans for the in­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment and con­struc­tion of six nu­clear-pow­ered sub­marines. The plan to add six nu­clear sub­marines is a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion taken last year for Pro­ject 75I. This ini­tia­tive is an amal­ga­ma­tion of six nu­clear sub­marines into 30-year sub­ma­rine force build­ing and mod­erni­sa­tion per­spec­tive plan.

Tak­ing se­ri­ous note of these de­vel­op­ments Ad­mi­ral Robin Dhowan, Chief of the Naval Staff, had re­cently said that the In­dian Navy was “minutely and con­tin­u­ously mon­i­tor­ing” the pres­ence of Chi­nese war­ships in the re­gion to as­cer­tain “what chal­lenges they could pose for us”.


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