modernizing India’s Submarines

Fleet of indigenous Scorpene-class craft headline celebrations

Sarosh Bana

It was a red-letter day for the Indian Navy as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of its submarine arm on December 8, 2017. Prime Minister Narendra Modi commemorated the event by commissioning India’s first indigenously produced Scorpene-class submarine, Indian Navy Ship (INS) Kalvari.

 Named after the tiger shark — the fearsome predator of the Indian Ocean — INS Kalvari is the first of six 61.7-meter, 1,565-ton diesel-electric hunter-killer submarines (SSK) being built by the Mumbai-based and government-owned Mazagon Dock Ltd. (MDL). The deal is occurring under a transfer of technology from French shipbuilder DCNS, now named Naval Group. Designated Project-75, the program started in December 2006, and Kalvari launched nine years later. Thereafter, the fit-out and trials took two more years.

Kalvari’s commissioning harks back to December 8, 1967, when its original namesake was delivered to the Navy. It was the first of eight Soviet Foxtrot-class diesel-electric patrol submarines that established the Navy’s submarine arm. Built at the Sudomekh yard in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), all eight have since been decommissioned. The second Scorpene was christened Khanderi, also after the second of the Foxtrots. It launched in January 2017 and is undergoing sea trials, while the third, Karanj, launched January 31, 2018. The remaining three submarines are in various stages of outfitting and will join the fleet by 2020. 

Ship reincarnation

The Indian Navy traditionally reincarnates decommissioned ships and submarines through their names. Officials decommissioned the first Kalvari in May
1996 after almost 30 years of service.

 Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, who is also supreme commander of the Armed Forces, presented the submarine arm with the President’s Colour, the highest honor bestowed upon any military unit. On May 27, 1951, the Indian Navy, which celebrated 2017 as the “year of the submarine,” was the first of the three services to receive the honor.

Indian Navy personnel stand on an Indian submarine during the International Fleet Review
in Visakhapatnam in February 2016. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Retired Commodore Rakesh Anand, MDL’s chairman and managing director, viewed Kalvari’s induction into the Indian Navy as a “game changer in the field of underwater warfare due to its superiority in all operational aspects.” Commending the completion of all weapon firings prior to the commissioning, he said the Scorpene’s state-of-the-art technology included superior stealth features such as advanced acoustic silencing techniques, low radiated noise levels, a hydrodynamically optimized shape and lethality through precision-guided torpedoes and tube-launched anti-ship missiles. 

Ministry of Defence and naval authorities have denied that the wide-ranging data leak on Project-75 by The Australian newspaper in August 2016 had undermined New Delhi’s sensitive submarine program or compromised national security. Downplaying the effects of the publicity, authorities contend the leaked documents — 22,400 pages in all — largely comprised generic data and information dating back to 2011 that had since been modified. Australia awarded DCNS (Naval Group) an AUS $50 billion (U.S. $38 billion) contract in April 2016 to build 12 submarines, and the leak was considered a consequence of corporate espionage. 

The submarine arm has been at the forefront of all offensive operations of the Indian Navy. It played a particularly stellar role in the 1971 India-Pakistan War, when four of its submarines deployed on both the eastern and western maritime theaters of operations in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, restricting enemy operations. Today, the Indian Navy has experience operating six classes of conventional and nuclear submarines, the submarines intrinsic to its maritime strategy of using deterrence to maintain peace. 

Overcoming hurdles

The 50 years of India’s submarines have not all been smooth sailing. Four years ago, the comptroller and auditor general reported that indigenous warship construction was constantly derailed by time and cost overruns. The country’s chief accountant singled out MDL for including costs for nonadmissible items. The report also faulted the lack of foresight and communication between the Ministry of Defence and the Indian Navy. 

Project-75 is running five years behind schedule, and its original contract cost of U.S. $2.63 billion has spiraled to U.S. $3.8 billion. INS Kalvari was to have been commissioned in 2012. Apart from the time and cost overruns, there is another major challenge. The Scorpenes were to be equipped with the air-independent propulsion (AIP) system under development since 2002 by the Defence Research and Development Organization, but AIP has not been added and the long delay now raises questions about its eventual production.

A DCNS employee looks at the propeller of a Scorpene submarine at the naval defense company, now renamed Naval Group, in La Montagne, France, in April 2016. REUTERS

AIP enhances underwater endurance of nonnuclear submarines three- to fivefold. A submarine without AIP can remain underwater for only two to three weeks. While conventional submarines now come with AIP, the lack of this vital capability poses an operational constraint for India. The Indian Navy is beset with a depleted fleet of 15 submarines, including INS Kalvari and INS Arihant, the first indigenously made ship — a nuclear-powered submersible ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) that was commissioned in August 2016. Some of the submarines are close to being retired, and up to 10 are operational at any time. Apart from Kalvari, Arihant and a nuclear-powered submarine leased from Russia for 10 years in a U.S. $900 million deal, the rest of the fleet consists of eight 3,100-ton Sindhughosh-class (Russian-origin Kilo-class) submarines, down from 10, and four 1,850-ton Shishumar-class German-origin HDW Type 209 submarines. While a submarine’s prescribed operational life is about 25 years, the eight Kilos are already 23 to 28 years old and the HDWs are 20 to 28 years old.

One of the newest Kilos, INS Sindhurakshak, commissioned in 1997, was wrecked by explosions at its moorings in Mumbai in the Indian Navy’s worst peacetime disaster that killed three officers and 15 crewmen in August 2013. 

Challenges remain

As a regional maritime power seeking to consolidate its reach across the seas from the Horn of Africa to the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, India wants to bolster its submarine force and expand its carrier battle groups. To ensure force levels, it targeted the induction of 24 new submarines by 2030 under a 30-year plan approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 1999. Half were to be constructed with foreign collaboration by 2012, with the remaining 12 built to indigenous design. 

Time and cost overruns with the Scorpene project show the target remains distant. The slow pace of development could have strategic implications for India, which has a vast coastline of 7,615 kilometers abutting the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. One of its island enclaves, Andaman and Nicobar, is closer to Burma, Thailand and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland. With more than 90 percent of its international trade by volume carried over the seas, the country has tasked the Indian Navy with securing its vital sea lines of communication.

The INS Arihant, developed and built at home at a cost of U.S. $2.9 billion as the first of a series of three such nuclear-propelled boats, was conceived in 1998 but launched only in July 2009 and commissioned over seven years later. Russian designers have assisted in the project, which is based on a modified Akula-1 submarine design. The 6,000-ton INS Arihant has been made through a public-private partnership, its 83-megawatt reactor having been designed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, its hull crafted by Larsen & Toubro Ltd., and the assembly undertaken by the Ship-Building Centre of the Directorate General Naval Projects at Visakhapatnam.

INS Arihant is armed with 12 of the indigenous Sagarika K-15 ship/submarine-launched ballistic missiles that have a 700-kilometer range and can carry 1-ton nuclear warheads. The 110-meter-long Arihant’s 100-strong crew has been trained by Russian specialists.

For experience in operating and training on a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), the Indian Navy took delivery of an Akula II-class boat from Russia in April 2012 on a 10-year lease. Manned by a crew of 73, the 8,140-ton submarine has been rechristened INS Chakra II and deployed at Visakhapatnam, which is also the base of the flag officer submarines. While the boat has an endurance of 100 days and can attain 30 knots and dive to a depth of 600 meters, it cannot carry nuclear warheads as per the lease accord, though it is equipped with eight torpedo tubes. The then-Soviet Union had similarly leased to the Indian Navy an Akula I-class SSN, renamed INS Chakra, from 1988 to 1991.

Regional buildup

India finds a dire need to keep pace with developments in its littoral, with the steady buildup in undersea combat capabilities by Pakistan and China, both neighbors with which it has been at war in the past. With one of the largest fleets of attack submarines comprising four balistic missile, nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSBNs), six SSNs and 53 SSKs, Beijing is deploying a powerful sea-based nuclear deterrent through long-range nuclear-armed submarines. According to the Pentagon, a fifth SSBN may eventually be built, each of the five armed with 12 JL-2 missiles that can deliver 1-ton nuclear warheads at a range of 8,000 kilometers.

China is also selling submarines to Pakistan and Bangladesh. The eight being sold to Islamabad at a total cost estimated between U.S. $4 billion and U.S. $5 billion are the S20 diesel-electric submarines. The first four will be built by China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., which will also set up a training center in Karachi, and will be delivered by 2023, while the remainder will be assembled at the Karachi Shipbuilding and Engineering Works by 2028. The Pakistan Navy already operates three Agosta 90Bs (Khalid class) submarines purchased in the 1990s and two older Agosta 70s (Hashmat class) dating from the late 1970s. 

Bangladesh is procuring two Type 035G Ming-class diesel-electric submarines from Beijing in a U.S. $193 million deal. These will be the first submarines in the Bangladesh Navy and, as Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted in March 2014, will transform the service into a “three-dimensional” force. “The issue of construction of a submarine base is under process,” she added, according to the Dhaka Tribune, an English-language newspaper.

The INS Kadmatt, a multirocket, anti-submarine launcher, prepares to dock in Manila, Philippines, during a four-day goodwill tour that also included Vietnam and Singapore in October 2017.

Tardy decision-making also thwarted the buildup of India’s expertise in submarine construction. In the earlier program concerning the four Shishumar-class HDW submarines, the first two were built by HDW at Kiel and delivered to the Indian Navy in 1986, while the other two were built at MDL and commissioned in 1992 and 1994. MDL had invested U.S. $18 million in creating the submarine construction infrastructure, which fell into disuse after 1994. Also lost over the years were the training and skills imparted to Indian personnel, many at the HDW facility in Germany, and to Indian naval architects and overseers. The yard had to begin anew after it secured the contract to build the Scorpenes in 2005. 

To augment production capacities for integrated construction that reduces build periods, MDL’s U.S. $130 million Mazdock Modernisation Project of 2014 created new facilities and additionally set up a U.S. $35 million subsection assembly shop for the simultaneous construction of two lines of submarines.

Project-75 prospects

Project-75 India is worth U.S. $12 billion, and its cost may climb higher depending upon the extent of offsets and transfer of technology from the foreign collaborator.

The request for information issued by the Indian Navy has elicited responses from Naval Group, for a modified Scorpene; Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems pushing for its Type 214; Sweden’s Saab Kockums ab, for its A26; and Russia’s Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering for its Amur 1650. Spain’s Navantia, which was expected to offer its S-80 class, and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which jointly produce the Soryu submarine, were initially considered contenders, but backed off.

Project-75 India requires the six SSKS to be constructed at a domestic public or private shipyard with the potential to build modern conventional submarines in collaboration with a foreign technology partner. These submarines are to be equipped with AIP, armed with land-attack cruise missiles, and be compatible with indigenous weapons and sensors. Technical parameters will be defined based on the responses of the four companies, which will need to submit their technical and commercial bids after a formal request for proposal is issued. 

The selection process will take about two years, with the first submarine expected to be launched eight months after the deal is finalized. The technology transferred will augment indigenous design capabilities at the Naval Design Bureau as well as at the shipyard. The submarines likely will be a derivative of existing designs while incorporating changes and modifications made to suit the Indian Navy’s operational requirements.

Though India is striving to regain its undersea reach, it will require much more effort, political will and the requisite funding to bolster its submarine fleet to the essential levels.  

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