Re­ju­ve­na­tion – A Cry­ing Need for In­dia’s Sub­ma­rine Fleet

Rear Ad­mi­ral Sushil Ram­say (Retd)


THE GOLDEN JU­BILEE yEAR of the in­dian navyÕs Sub­ma­rine Arm, is the most op­por­tune time to in­tro­spect its growth curve over the past fifty years. The in­duc­tion of first of Soviet ori­gin, Fox­trot Class, Diesel Elec­tric Sub­ma­rine, INS Kal­vari her­alded the birth of Sub­ma­rine Arm for In­dian Navy in De­cem­ber 1967. ini­tial years were eu­phoric as the planned in­duc­tion pro­gressed steadily un­der the time-tested Friend­ship Treaty with USSR. in­duc­tion of newer and advanced ver­sion of con­ven­tional sub­marines, 877EKM un­der the same ar­range­ments saw defin­ing edge added to the Force.

Clearly the fo­cused pri­or­ity was to go for the best of the of­fered plat­forms for the Fleet. This was ev­i­denced when new vis­tas were opened by not just in­duct­ing state of the art Ger­man HDW Sub­marines, but also for its in­dige­nous con­struc­tion. With much fan­fare, the sub­ma­rine pro­duc­tion line was es­tab­lished at Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) very suc­cess­fully. Af­ter ini­tial ju­bi­la­tions over a path-break­ing achieve­ment in in­di­aÕs in­dige­nous war­ship build­ing capabilities, the con­tro­ver­sies struck wide and deep, re­sult­ing in to­tal and ir­re­place­able loss in this vi­tal seg­ment of in­dige­nous sub­ma­rine build­ing in­fra­struc­ture, fa­cil­i­ties, capabilities, skill-sets, etc.

The col­lapse of the Soviet union dealt a se­vere blow to the prod­uct sup­port, sus­tain­ing maintenance fa­cil­i­ties and the av­enues for moderni­sa­tion of the ag­ing sub­marines. Hav­ing probed all other pos­si­ble sources, the In­dian Navy fell back on its time-tested ethos of self-re­liance through In­di­geni­sa­tion. The re­sult was a com­pre­hen­sive 30-years long term per­spec­tive plan for sub­ma­rine build­ing and moderni­sa­tion of the ag­ing sub­ma­rine fleet. The Ap­proval-in-Prin­ci­ple of the Gov­ern­ment was promptly en­dorsed in the year 2004. The hope of re­ju­ve­na­tion of the fleet was rekin­dled for a vi­able and tech­no­log­i­cally fu­ture ready force lev­els to be in place by the year 2025.

The tim­ing for the launch of per­spec­tive plan was most sig­nif­i­cant when China was still grap­pling with its own moderni­sa­tion plans for the Peo­plesÕ lib­er­a­tion Army (Navy). Had the suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments re­alised the strate­gic im­por­tance of the Per­spec­tive Plan for the re­ju­ve­na­tion of Sub­ma­rine Arm and sup­ported it to the hilt, the emerg­ing story would have been en­tirely dif­fer­ent.

Where Do We Stand Now!

War­ships and sub­marines de­sign­ing, de­vel­op­ment and con­struc­tion are ex­tremely in­tri­cate, com­plex and tech­nol­ogy in­ten­sive. The mag­ni­tude of im­pon­der­ables in the evolv­ing pro­cesses could be very un­pre­dictable and un­cer­tain, at times. The tech- nol­ogy im­plo­sion, how­ever, emerges as the pathfinder, pro­vided the de­ci­sion mak­ers, the bu­reau­cracy, as­so­ci­ated agen­cies, etc. re­pose trust and faith with the same in­ten­sity as the naval plan­ners do. Es­sen­tially it is the trust deficit and com­pet­ing de­mands which emerge as the ma­jor ob­sta­cles, in pur­su­ing a pro­found per­spec­tive plan.

The De­fence Pro­cure­ment Pro­ce­dures have un­der­gone nu­mer­ous mod­i­fi­ca­tions, up­dates, etc. The lat­est edi­tions were all fine-tuned to syn­chro­nise with the on­go­ing cam­paign of ‘Make in In­dia’. The In­dian Navy for the past fifty years and more al­ready has nu­mer­ous suc­cess­fully de­signed and ex­e­cuted in­dige­nous war­ship pro­grammes, ex­cept for some ad hoc out­right pur­chases/ac­qui­si­tions of plat­forms to bridge the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity gaps needed to meet emer­gent needs. How­ever, in­dige­nous de­signs and build­ing of con­ven­tional sub­marines for some rea­sons never flour­ished as well as many dif­fer­ent types and classes of sur­face ships have.

Pro­ject 75, Scor­pene

The first pro­ject un­der the per­spec­tive plan was Pro­ject 75, Scor­pene for in­dige­nous con­struc­tion of six con­ven­tional stealth sub­marines un­der trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy ar­range­ments with Naval Group (for­merly DCNS, France). Af­ter the de­lay of more than a decade and nu­mer­ous con­tro­ver­sies the first of line of the pro­ject, INS Kal­vari, an at­tack stealth sub­ma­rine has been handed over by mDl to the in re­cently and is ex­pected to be com­mis­sioned shortly. While Pro­ject 75 Scor­pene marks a ma­jor mile­stone in in­dian navyÕs ef­forts to re-com­mence the in­dige­nous sub­ma­rine con­struc­tion line to rejuvenate its badly de­pleted sub­ma­rine fleet, as per avail­able reports the de­liv­ery of all six boats is ex­pected to be com­plete only by 2021.

Moderni­sa­tion Plan

Un­der the per­spec­tive plan, mod­erni- sa­tion and up­grad­ing of capabilities of 877EKM class and HDW, Shishu­mar class sub­marines were un­der­taken, de­spite the as­so­ci­ated de­lays and con­tro­ver­sies of dif­fer­ent kind. The moderni­sa­tion en­tailed ser­vice life ex­ten­sion of the ag­ing fleet as also up­grad­ing the capabilities of the rel­a­tively newer sub­marines of the class. For in­stance, retro-fit­ment of tor­pedo tube launched mis­sile sys­tem with anti-ship­ping and land at­tack ver­sions have pro­vided teeth to 877EKM sub­marines. Like­wise, all ma­jor ma­chiner­ies, aux­il­iaries, propul­sion sys­tem, sen­sors, etc. ei­ther un­der­went ma­jor over­haul or re­placed with ad­vance ver­sions to ex­tend the op­er­a­tional life un­til year 2025. All of these mea­sures were re­sorted to bridge the ca­pa­bil­ity gaps un­til the advanced and fu­ture ready sub­marines joined the Fleet.

In ad­di­tion to the fleet of con­ven­tional sub­marines, for strate­gic de­ter­rence In­dia needs at least six nu­clear pow­ered at­tack sub­marines (SSN) and at least four nu­clear pow­ered sub­marines with nu­clear-tipped mis­siles (SSBN). In Fe­bru­ary 2015, Gov­ern­ment of In­dia ap­proved the con­struc­tion of six nu­clear-pow­ered SSNs.

Pro­ject 75 (In­dia)

To give a par­a­digm boost to the in­dige­nous sub­ma­rine build­ing ca­pa­bil­ity to­wards self-re­liance, Pro­ject 75 (In­dia) was in­cor­po­rated in the Per­spec­tive Plan. This pro­gramme, a se­quel to Pro­ject 75 and struc­tured in con­so­nance of the es­tab­lished ethos of self-re­liance through in­di­geni­sa­tion prac­ticed by the In­dian Navy over 50 years should have been ac­corded the top­most pri­or­ity by the suc­ces­sive Gov­ern­ments. Sadly, this was not the case and the Pro­ject 75 (In­dia) was doled out the ig­nominy, it did not de­serve. At the long last, and af­ter un­jus­ti­fi­able and un­ac­cept-

able de­lay of more than a decade, Pro­ject 75 (In­dia) has been re­sus­ci­tated from the cold stor­age. The Gov­ern­ment has re­cently pro­mul­gated re­quest for in­for­ma­tion (rfi) which can be termed as the first Baby-Step to­wards launch of this mega Pro­ject. For a wider par­tic­i­pa­tion, global RFI was is­sued to France, Ger­many, Rus­sia, Swe­den, Spain and Ja­pan to par­tic­i­pate in build­ing six advanced stealth sub­marines at an es­ti­mated ` 70,000 crore ($10.9 bil­lion) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with an In­dian ship­yard.

Six global ship­builders to whom rfi was sent out were; Naval Group, France (for­mer DCNS), Thyssen Krupp Ma­rine Sys­tems, Ger­many, Rosoboronex­port-Ru­bin De­sign Bureau, Rus­sia, Na­van­tia, Spain, Saab, Swe­den and the Mit­subishi-Kawasaki Heavy In­dus­tries Com­bine, Ja­pan. Re­cent reports sug­gest that Mit­subishi-Kawasaki Heavy En­gi­neer­ing Com­bine, Ja­pan and Na­van­tia, Spain have pulled out of the race. The com­pe­ti­tion is now poised to en­ter the most in­tense phase with the re­main­ing four con­tenders; Scor­pene of Naval GroupDCNS, France, A26 of Saab, Swe­den, Amur of Roso­bronex­port-Ru­bin De­sign Bureau, Rus­sia and Type 214 of Thyssen Krupp Ma­rine Sys­tems, Ger­many.

based on the re­sponses to rfi re­ceived re­cently the in­dian navy will for­mu­late the naval Staff Qual­i­ta­tive re­quire­ments be­fore the for­mal re­quest for Pro­posal is is­sued to the re­main­ing four builders for sub­mit­ting their tech­ni­cal and com­mer­cial bids for eval­u­a­tion. In a par­al­lel process the in­dian ship­yards will be cho­sen to col­lab­o­rate with se­lected for­eign builders to ex­e­cute the pro­ject un­der newly ap­proved Strate­gic Part­ner­ship pol­icy by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia. As per avail­able es­ti­mates it might take two years to short­list the Builders-In­dian Ship­yard com­bine. There­after the tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion, com­mer­cial bids eval­u­a­tion, cost ne­go­ti­a­tions, con- tract fi­nal­i­sa­tion, etc. Hence, even with the ef­forts of fast-track­ing the Pro­ject, the first sub­ma­rine of Pro­ject 75 (In­dia) can­not be ex­pected be­fore the year 2027.

The In­dian Navy has jus­ti­fied that the six diesel-elec­tric sub­marines con­ceived un­der Pro­ject 75 (In­dia) to be fit­ted out with land-at­tack cruise mis­siles, air-in­de­pen­dent propul­sion for greater un­der­wa­ter endurance, and the ca­pa­bil­ity to in­te­grate in­dige­nous weapons and sen­sors as and when these are de­vel­oped.

Nu­clear-Pow­ered Sub­marines

In ad­di­tion to the fleet of con­ven­tional sub­marines, for strate­gic de­ter­rence In­dia needs at least six nu­clear pow­ered at­tack sub­marines (SSn) and at least four nu­clear pow­ered sub­marines with nu­clear-tipped mis­siles (SSBN). In Fe­bru­ary 2015, Gov­ern­ment of in­dia ap­proved the con­struc­tion of six nu­clear-pow­ered SSNs. Re­port­edly, the first in­dige­nous nu­clear-pow­ered sub- ma­rine that can launch bal­lis­tic mis­siles (SSBN), INS Ari­hant was com­mis­sioned in 2016. Un­der a clas­si­fied pro­gramme three more SSbns are sched­uled to be in­dige­nously con­structed. The time­lines for the in­dige­nous pro­gramme for six SSns and ad­di­tional three SSBNs are not avail­able.

In ad­di­tion, INS Chakra a Rus­sian nu­clear-pow­ered sub­ma­rine has joined the In­dian Navy on lease for 10 years in 2012 to train the sub­mariners on the skills to op­er­ate nu­clear pow­ered sub­marines. Fur­ther, there are reports to sug­gest that the lease for se­cond SSN from Rus­sia for 10 years un­der $1.5 bil­lion deal is also in the pipe­line.

Power Bal­ance

Un­doubt­edly the lack­adaisi­cal pur­suance of in­dige­nously shoring up the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of In­dia’s sub­ma­rine fleet has left wide gaps when com­pared to most ef­fi­ciently ex­e­cuted moderni­sa­tion plans of the Peo­ples’ Lib­er­a­tion Army (Navy). The ac­count­abil­ity for the cur­rent dwin­dling force lev­els of in­di­aÕs sub­ma­rine fleet can be at­trib­uted else­where but not on the in­dian navy and its proac­tive force level plan­ners.

China’s sub-sur­face fleet al­ready boasts of five nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­marines and 54 diesel-pow­ered at­tack sub­marines which by 2020 are likely to grow be­tween 69 and 78 sub­marines, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon’s lat­est report on China’s mil­i­tary. With set­ting up first naval base at Dji­bouti at the western end of the In­dian Ocean, re­cent sales of sub­marines to Pak­istan and Bangladesh and a visit last year of a Chi­nese nu­cle­ar­pow­ered sub­ma­rine to Karachi are the live ev­i­dences of the grow­ing in­flu­ence of China in the In­dian Ocean re­gion (IOR).

Com­ment­ing on the emerg­ing sit­u­a­tion in IOR, David Brew­ster, a Se­nior re­search fel­low with the na­tional Se­cu­rity Col­lege at the Aus­tralian na­tional univer­sity in Can­berra said, “Sim­ple ge­og­ra­phy gives in­dia a huge strate­gic ad­van­tage in the In­dian Ocean. And al­though China has been send­ing in sub­marines, you have to un­der­stand they are prob­a­bly decades away from be­ing able to se­ri­ously chal­lenge In­dia there, es­pe­cially while the United States is present.”

Con­sid­er­ing the se­vere im­bal­ance in power equa­tion in the sub-sur­face fleets op­er­at­ing in the re­gion, re­ju­ve­na­tion is a cry­ing need for In­dia’s sub­ma­rine fleet. The 30-years long term per­spec­tive plan for build­ing sub­ma­rine force lev­els and its moderni­sa­tion en­tails 18 diesel-elec­tric con­ven­tional sub­marines, six SSNs and four SSBNs to emerge as a force to reckon with in IOR. There is an emerg­ing view that de­spite the ap­proved pro­grammes for re­ju­ve­na­tion, In­dia is un­likely to have a cred­i­ble sub­ma­rine fleet by 2030 to match the emerg­ing prow­ess of China in this seg­ment of mar­itime power.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: In­dian Navy

INS Sind­hughosh

Sind­hughosh class sub­ma­rine

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