Alongside a three-year delay in adding six new Scorpene submarines to its depleting ranks, the Indian Navy faces an even more disquieting prospect - the Scorpenes will start joining the fleet in 2016 without their main weapon, the heavyweight torpedo.
Submarines carry two major weapons - missiles against ships and land targets, and torpedoes to sink enemy ships and submarines. Missiles can be intercepted by anti-missile systems; and they inflict less damage. Torpedoes are harder to intercept and they blast holes below the waterline that quickly flood their targets, sinking them.
Inexplicably, the ministry of defence (MoD) has failed to buy torpedoes to arm the Scorpenes it contracted for in 2005. In 2008, after a global tender, Italian company WASS was selected to supply their Black Shark torpedoes that were specifically engineered for the Scorpene. In 2011, a price was finalised: about $300 million for 98 torpedoes. Yet, even today, the contract remains unsigned.
Consequently, when the first Scorpene submarine is commissioned in 2016, it will be armed only with the Exocet anti-ship missile. Were it to be challenged by Pakistan's silent new Khalid-class submarines - the French Agosta-90B -the Scorpene will have empty torpedo tubes. Even if the new government signs the contract quickly, delivery would be unlikely before 2017.
The MoD did not respond to Business Standard's emailed questions.
A top-level navy planner laments the MoD's lack of accountability, contrasting it with how former navy chief, Admiral D K Joshi, took responsibility for warship accidents and resigned. Says the naval officer: "If a military person were responsible for commissioning a Rs 4,000 crore submarine without its primary armament, he would be charged with dereliction of duty."
The delay in signing the torpedo contract followed accusations that WASS had won unfairly, a tactic commonly used by arms vendors who are confident the MoD will suspend the contract and order investigations.
Eventually, Defence Minister A K Antony referred the matter to the Central Vigilance Commission, which found no indication of wrongdoing. Even so, the MoD continues to stonewall.
The prospect of an unarmed Scorpene has sent alarm bells through a navy that is down to just 11 submarines, against a minimum of 18 that naval planners require for safeguarding India's maritime interests.
Of 14 submarines in the fleet, three Russian Kilo-class vessels are unavailable: INS Sindhurakshak was destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion in Mumbai last August; INS Sindhuratna will take a year to repair after a fire in February. A third, INS Sindhukirti, was scuttled by Hindustan Shipyard Ltd, Visakhapatnam (HSL), which dismantled the submarine for refit in 2006 but cannot put it back together again.
The navy is furious that a Rs 1,500 crore frontline submarine was lost because the MoD insisted on providing work to HSL, a public sector shipyard without expertise in submarine repair.
Disregarding this experience, the MoD now insists that HSL builds one of the six new submarines being procured under the Rs 50,000 crore Project 75I. Cabinet sanction is being obtained for two to be built abroad and four in India - one in HSL and three in an unspecified shipyard, probably Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL).
A senior admiral observes wryly, "INS Sindhukirti has already been destroyed by HSL. Now let us see whether it reduces Project 75I from six submarines to five."
Building Project 75I in two Indian shipyards would also mean paying double for transfer of technology (ToT) -which includes supervisors, instructors, special tools, jigs, etc. In the Scorpene contract, MDL paid Rs 6000 crore for ToT. This would more than double if Project 75I is shared between two Indian shipyards.
Even so, the die seems cast. Navy sources tell Business Standard that former secretary of defence production, R K Singh, who became home secretary and then joined the Bharatiya Janata Party, insisted on HSL's participation as a condition for Project 75I.
The MoD took over HSL from the Ministry of Shipping in February 2010, a white elephant that the latter was glad to forego. The Rajya Sabha was informed on August 24, 2011 that HSL had accumulated losses of Rs 930 crore and a negative net worth of Rs 628 crore.
The MoD is stonewalling another measure that the navy believes essential for overcoming the submarine shortage. With the Scorpene and Project 75I delayed, the navy has proposed extending the service life and providing a mid-life upgrade to the existing submarines, which have exceeded the dives and hours of service that manufacturers prescribe. That proposal has lain with the MoD for six months now, while the submarine fleet becoming increasingly more hazardous to operate.