The state of the submarine arm of the Indian Navy is dismal. With a high of 20 vessels in its inventory in the 80s when the threats to the Indian mainland were minimal it is now down to 13 obsolescent boats when the Chinese are lurking in our backyard. Unfortunately some of the losses have been due to human error and breach of standard operating procedures leading to the resignation of a Chief of Naval Staff for the series of mishaps before and during his tenure.
The Indian negotiators preferred to install the AIP in the last two of the Scorpenes. It is a different, sadder, story that the Indian Scorpene project has still not fructified. Reports that even when the first of the Scorpenes will join the Indian fleet it will be without the heavy torpedoes required for the submarine hunter-killer role which is what it was bought for in the first place. The contract for the heavy torpedoes with an Italian firm has become embroiled in allegations of kickbacks.
This is a shocking lapse given the fact that the Indian Navy could not venture far from its home base in the western seaboard out of fear of a lurking Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi which it had acquired from the Americans. The loss of the INS Khukri to a Pakistani submarine (Hangor) in 1971 does not seem to have sunk into the consciousness of Indian policy makers.
It is being argued that these decisions were influenced by the Indian research and development project on AIP system. It is reported that an indigenous AIP has been developed that will allow an Indian submarine to stay submerged for about three weeks. If that is true is it sufficient to allow an Indian submarine operating out of Vishakhapatnam on the east coast to position itself outside Pakistani coastline at any point from Gwadar in the far western Balochistan coast to Pasni, Ormara (Pak submarine facility) and Karachi itself and blockade the most strategic target.
In the first flush of the heady concept of “Make in India” a second submarine production line has been created in a new submarine base outside Vishakhapatnam. Known as Project 75 I it is intended to produce six other French Scorpenes with AIP installed. It is a fact of life that naval projects take as much as ten years to fructify so one cannot use any sleight of hand to speed up the projects. There has to be steady growth and that is why it is imperative that if all the kinks in the first Indian nuclear submarine Arihant have been cleaned up during the harbor acceptance trials (HAT) and it is ready for sea acceptance trials the Ministry of Defence and Naval Headquarters should set a timeframe for the manufacture of the next in this class of submarines.
They must acquire and pre-position the special sheet metal and steel required to fashion the hull of the follow-on Arihant class nuclear submarines and coordinate the supply of systems and components for its fabrication within the public-private cooperation that has become the buzzword. The Arihant is armed with the K-15 nuclear-tipped missile which can obliterate Pakistan’s coastal infrastructure and leave it crippled for at least a decade. If this does not deter Pakistani and Chinese adventurism through terror operations against India nothing will. With a range of 750 km the K-15 can be launched from any point in the vast North Arabian Sea between Mumbai and the coast of Oman.
Given the geopolitical and the geo-strategic situation in the Indian Ocean littoral true submergence of its submarine assets will dictate India’s ability to defend and project its supreme national interests. Be it the Arihant class of nuclear submarines or the second line of AIP powered Scorpene vessels there should be an element of assured production within timelines if not of urgency.
The ten Kilo class conventional submarines have undergone midlife upgradation (as had the INS Sindhurakshak which blew up in Mumbai harbor) and the Navy must ensure that if new types of improved equipment have been installed then new standard operating procedures need to be applied stringently.
If the indigenous AIP has, indeed, become operational notwithstanding that it provides only three weeks of submergence it should be installed in the first lot of the Project 75 submarines instead of waiting for the last two of this project to become available. Three weeks submergence is sufficient to deal with Pakistan as well as handle India’s supreme national interest in the South China Sea on the Pacific seaboard. However, instead of being foolhardy and overconfident the nation should not further delay the project. This has happened in the case of one Kilo class submarine that has been lying disemboweled in Vizag for the last ten years waiting for some promised improvements.
India has acquired on a ten-year lease a Nerpa class nuclear powered submarine-submarine killer (SSK) vessel. It does not carry nuclear weapons on board but it has a large complement of conventional munitions like torpedoes and submarine-to-ship missiles.
Earlier India had taken on lease a Charlie class nuclear submarine from the former Soviet Union to help prepare the Indian Navy crew to operate it as a system and use it as a platform to deliver weapons. This was supposed to be in preparation for the advent of the “Advanced Technology Vessel”-the euphemism for a nuclear powered submarine-but the delay in launching the Arihant led to the loss of technical manpower and expertise in handling nuclear submarines. This is now being relearned on the second INS Chakra. Being nuclear powered the INS Chakra can supplement and complement the role of the INS Arihant if required.
Given that there are as yet only two such platforms with the Indian Navy there is an urgency to acquire one more nuclear-powered submarine from Russia.