On Saturday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh commissioned into service the Navy’s 15th conventionally powered, diesel-electric submarine, INS Khanderi. Built in Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) in technology partnership with French shipyard Naval Group, this is the second of six Scorpene submarines the Navy contracted in 2005 for Rs 18,798 crore.
Singh described the commissioning as “a proud moment for the nation, the Indian Navy and MDL”. In fact, INS Khanderi is being delivered more than six years late, well over cost and with several defects that remain to be resolved.
When the Khanderi first sailed out of Mumbai for sea trials on June 1, 2017, it was expected to join the naval fleet by end-2017. However, the trial team found dozens of shortcomings that MDL and Naval Group have grappled with for over two years. While the Navy’s vice chief, Vice-Admiral G Ashok Kumar, insists the Khanderi is now a “fully combat capable submarine”, Navy sources say it is being commissioned with several shortcomings still unresolved.
According to previous reports that there were 35 defects that still remained to be resolved. Of these, 29 could not have been resolved during the monsoon period, since they required testing in absolutely calm seas — or what is called “Sea State-1”.
Nor is the Khanderi being commissioned with a full complement of its primary weapon, the torpedo. This after the government cancelled the purchase of 98 torpedoes from Italian firm, WASS, because its group company, AgustaWestland, was accused of bribing Indian officials to win a contract for VVIP helicopters.
As an emergency stopgap, German firm Atlas Elektronik was contracted to modernise 64 torpedoes, bought in the 1980s and 1990s for the Navy’s four Shishumar-class submarines. This meagre quantity is now being shared with the Scorpene submarines being commissioned. By 2022-23, when six Scorpenes will have been commissioned to supplement the four Shishumar-class boats, there will be just six torpedoes for each submarine.Besides these, the Navy operates nine Russian-origin conventionally powered Kilo-class submarines, one nuclear powered attack submarine (INS Chakra) and a nuclear powered, nuclear missile submarine, INS Arihant. That is well short of the Navy’s assessed requirement of 24 conventionally powered submarines and six nuclear powered attack submarines.
Yet, there is delay and confusion in the proposal to build six more conventional submarines, with “air independent propulsion” (AIP) that would allow them to remain submerged for up to two weeks, compared to just 36-48 hours for a diesel-electric submarine. When a submarine is submerged, it is far harder to detect.
The new proposal, called Project 75-I, envisages selecting an Indian firm as “strategic partner” (SP). Chosen SPs will bid to build the six AIP submarines in partnership with a foreign “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) that offers a suitable submarine design and transfer of technology.
In response to a navy enquiry, five Indian entities have submitted Expressions of Interest (EoI) for being the SP in Project 75-I. These include MDL, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Reliance Naval and Engineering (RNaval), Hindustan Shipyard Ltd, Visakhapatnam (HSL), and a proposed special purpose vehicle (SPV) consisting of HSL and Adani Defence.
Navy sources say only L&T and MDL are realistic contenders, since financially stressed RNaval and HSL do not meet the financial criteria and the HSL-Adani SPV remains to be formally incorporated.
The more difficult choice is between the five firms that have submitted EoIs for selection as the chosen OEM. Rubin Design Bureau (Russia) has offered its Amur submarine, Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (TKMS, Germany) its Type 218 boat, Naval Group (formerly DCNS, France) its Shortfin Barracuda, Navantia (Spain) its S-80 and Daewoo (South Korea) its KSS-3 submarine.
Of these, only Rubin, TKMS and Naval Group are considered to have a chance. The Navantia S-80 is grappling with serious weight imbalance issues, while the Korean submarine is an untested design. Indian naval submariners are almost unanimously convinced of the superiority of the TKMS Type 218, the design of which is optimised for the shallow Baltic Sea, which has similarities with the Arabian Sea, where the waters 40 kilometres off Karachi are just 40 metres deep. The Type 218 is also reputedly the most silent design. However, it is probably the most expensive of the three.
The Shortfin Barracuda would be significantly cheaper, with the infrastructure having already been set up in MDL for building six Scorpenes. However, since the French Navy operates only nuclear-powered submarines, Naval Group builds conventionally powered and AIP submarines only as a commercial ploy to keep its submarine line active. The submarines themselves, like the Scorpenes, are less than cutting-edge.
The Russians are the dark horses, with naval planners wary of the tendency to submit low-cost tenders and then raise the price during construction, as with the aircraft carrier, Gorshkov (now Vikramaditya). Also going against Moscow is New Delhi’s concern that awarding Russia the Project 75-I contract might invoke sanctions from Washington under the 2017 law, Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.