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INS Vela: Late and over-budget, fourth Scorpene submarine enters water

The first Scorpene (French for Scorpion), INS Kalvari, was commissioned into operational service by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 14, 2017

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

INS Vela
INS Vela Photo: Ajai Shukla

(INS) Vela, the navy’s fourth Scorpene submarine, was launched into the water in Mumbai today. Mazagon Dock Ltd is assembling six in partnership with French shipbuilder, Naval Group (formerly DCNS).

The first Scorpene (French for Scorpion), INS Kalvari, was commissioned into operational service by Prime Minister on December 14, 2017. The second and third, INS Khanderi and Karanj, will join the fleet soon, after completing their on-going sea trials.

The remaining two boats (as submariners refer to their vessels) are at an advanced stage of outfitting and would be delivered by mid-2021.

“[INS Vela] will undergo rigorous tests and trials, both in harbour and at sea, before delivery to the Indian Navy,” announced the defence ministry after the launch.

Naval operational planners are welcoming the Vela, given their dire shortage of submarines. Against a requirement of 24 conventional submarines, the navy makes do with just 13, which include four HDW German-origin, Shishumar-class boats that are in their fourth decade of service. There are also nine Russian Kilo-class boats, some of them older than three decades.

This shortfall of submarines is exacerbated by the six-year delay in Project 75, as the Scorpene programme is called. The contract in 2005 required all six Scorpenes to be delivered by 2015. Navy sources say even 2021 is an optimistic target now.

Time overruns are accompanied by cost overruns. The original Rs 18,798 crore cost of six Scorpenes has now gone up to Rs 23,562 crore.

In wartime, the navy’s surface warships – aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes – obtain “sea control”, by dominating the ocean with superior numbers, sensors and firepower. Meanwhile the submarine fleet engages in “sea denial” by preventing enemy warships and submarines from leaving harbour, or entering the waters in India’s vicinity.

In a hypothetical conflict with China, would block the Chinese navy from crossing from the South China sea into the Indian Ocean by interdicting the major south east Asian straits – Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Ombai Wettar.

In a war with Pakistan, the Scorpenes would operate in the shallow Arabian Sea, where large submarines cannot move freely. They could blockade Pakistani harbours, or prevent shipping from West Asia from entering the Arabian Sea.

A submarine’s key attribute is stealth, since it can be torpedoed once detected. Stealth comes from reducing noise from the engine and the boat’s internal systems. The Scorpenes have a quiet “Permanently Magnetised Propulsion Motor” that drives it underwater at 20 knots (37 kmph), or 12 knots (22 kmph) when surfaced.

Confusion has attended the purchase of torpedoes, the Scorpene’s primary weapon. The navy had chosen the Black Shark torpedo, built by Italian firm, WASS. But the defence ministry banned contracts with Leonardo group companies (including WASS) after Italy began investigating corruption by (a Leonardo company) in selling VVIP helicopters to India.

INS Vela Photo: Ajai Shukla

Photo: Ajai Shukla

Consequently, the Scorpenes make do with the old, Surface and Underwater Target (SUT) torpedo, acquired in the 1980s for the four Shishumar-class submarines.

Besides the outdated SUT torpedo, the Scorpenes carry MBDA Exocet SM39 missiles – a deadly option for striking ships and targets ashore.

There were plans to equip the last two Scorpenes with “air independent propulsion” (AIP), allowing them to remain underwater for much longer, making them harder to detect. But, with the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) late in developing an indigenous AIP, the plan has been pushed back to the next six submarines that will be constructed under Project 75-I.

Naval tradition holds that warships inherit names from earlier, illustrious vessels. The Scorpenes have taken their names from the Foxtrot-class submarines that India bought from the Soviet Union, which were decommissioned at the turn of the century. The first four Foxtrots, commissioned between 1967-1969, were INS Kalvari, Khanderi, Karanj and INS Karsura. The second batch, commissioned between 1973-1975, included INS Vela, Vagir, Vagli and Vagsheer.

First Published: Tue, May 07 2019. 22:11 IST