Submarine acquisition

Indian Navy’s declining submarine strength, which has been reduced to 13 in addition to one nuclear powered submarine leased from Russia called INS Chakra, has received a much delayed boost after the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security approval  in mid February to build six more nuclear powered submarines in India.

There has been deepening concern in Indian naval headquarters and Indian strategic community over Government’s decision paralysis regarding the acquisition of submarines and other advanced weapon systems and platforms. With Chinese Navy holding a strength of over 60 submarines and occasionally making deep forays in the Indian Ocean the Indian Navy’s rapidly declining underwater capabilities has remained a subject of discussion among strategic circles.

Earlier last October the government had cleared the much delayed plan to acquire six additional diesel electric submarines to be built in India for which a shipyard was to be selected within three months of the decision. However, the government is yet to finalize the shipyard. Private sector Pipavav and Larsen and Toubro was in strong contention for this but the choice has not yet been declared. The entire process seems to be extremely time consuming and arduous, and only after the selection of the shipyard the government will move ahead with the selection of the particular brand of the submarine.

Presently, the Russian Amur and the French DCNS made Scorpene are the strong contenders, but the government has indicated to the Japanese submarine manufacturer to produce their latest Soryu class submarine in India. The feelers for this were given during the Prime Minister Modi’s trip to Japan last year.

Slow pace

These nuclear and diesel (six + six) submarine sanctions in last three months will only replace the ageing 13 submarines when they retire from the service by early next decade, the six new nuclear submarines are to be built in the Vishakhapatnam shipyard, where the first Nuclear Submarine Arihant has been rolled out and now undergoing sea trial.

The second nuclear submarine is also under construction at the shipyard. However the government has given a final clearance for the construction of a total of six nuclear submarines. Considering the pace with which the present six Scorpenes are under construction, one will have to imagine the time period the six diesel and nuclear submarines may take. The MoD has indicated the project cost for the six diesel submarines to be made in India as Rs 50,000 crores, while the government has maintained silence on the expenses on the indigenous construction of nuclear submarines.

The Defence Minister Parrikar had explained in the Parliament that the difficulties faced by MDL, Mumbai, during the course of the procurement of materials from foreign vendors had mainly led to the delay. The original delivery schedule of the first submarine was December 2012 and has since been revised. The inordinate delay of three years has caused deep concern in Indian navy headquarters. According to Parrikar DCNS deputes its consultants to guide the construction of the submarines as per the collaborative agreement.

The navy has been sanctioned 30 years submarine construction program by the end of last century in the aftermath of the Kargil conflict for raising the underwater arms strength to 24. However the present 13 diesel electric subs, four of which are the German Type 209 and nine Russian Kilo class have already started ageing, though the Kilo class subs are receiving mid life refits, they will have to be retired by the time the proposed six diesel electric and six nuclear powered submarines may finally join the club.

Depleting fleet

But the Indian Navy submarine strength will only remain in the range of a dozen submarines a decade later. Thus plan to maintain two dozen submarines by the end of next decade can be achieved only after India orders a dozen more diesel electric submarines on an emergency import basis. The Defence Minister Parrikar had to accept this fact on the floor of the Parliament that at present number of conventional diesel electric submarines in India Navy is less than the numbers envisaged as per Naval Perspective Plan, partly due to delays in indigenous construction of submarines.

Since the hands of Indian public sector shipyards MDL and Vishakhapatnam will remain full till the foreseeable future, the government will have to select a private sector shipyard, which will have to acquire expertise from a foreign shipyard for assembling the submarines. It will naturally take several years to actually hand over the submarines to the Indian Navy.

Till now the MoD has been talking of issuing a global RFP for acquiring six submarine, out of which two were proposed to be imported directly while rest four to be built/assembled in India. However under the Make in India program of Prime Minister Narendra Modi the Defence Acquisition Council headed by the Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar decided to manufacture them all in India with the help of foreign partner. The new subs to be manufactured in India will have air-independent propulsion technology facility which will be a new feature for Indian submarines. This will enable the submarine to have extended submergence in the waters, a minor percentage of a capability  found in nuclear submarines.

Meanwhile the Defence Ministry has also given instructions for the building of  two midget submarines, weighing less than 150 tons, also known as “manned torpedoes” in India. This will be a super-special project through which the navy can deliver and recover commandoes in twos and threes, for which a fund of Rs 2,000 crores will be provided. Called the SOB/SDV ( Special operations boats / swimmer delivery vehicle), the navy wanted them to acquire after the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai, but it took seven years for the MoD to decide on this.

The underwater capabilities of the Indian Navy thus need immediate attention of the decision makers to meet the emerging challenge of the Chinese Navy, who are casting an eye on the Indian Ocean.