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Ajai Shukla: Building a submarine fleet

The Indian Navy makes do with 14 old-style, diesel-electric submarines, of which just seven or eight are operational at any time

Ajai Shukla 

The Indian Navy has acted decisively over the years to create the capability and infrastructure needed for building surface battleships, but it has dithered in setting up an industry that could build submarines. Consequently, even as India’s 140-ship surface fleet is an imposing presence across a swathe of the northern Indian Ocean Region (IOR) from the Gulf of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, its 14 diesel-electric submarines hardly provide a matching underwater capability. Meanwhile, China, with at least 53 conventional and seven nuclear attack submarines (SSNs), poses a viable threat to our waters. Even Pakistan is boosting its submarine fleet to 11 vessels, of which nine will have air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems that are superior to anything in the Indian Navy.

What makes submarines so important? Naval warfare is about gaining “sea control”, or dominating an operationally important tract of water. In a war with China or Pakistan “sea control” would enable the Indian Navy to bottle up enemy warships in their harbours; prevent seaborne operations by the enemy; and block commercial vessels from resupplying those countries. Sea control is a rich man’s game, requiring the deployment of naval assets in multiple dimensions: underwater, surface, aerial and space. India can hope to gain sea control only in its vicinity, ie the northern IOR.

Then there is “sea denial”, a less force-intensive, spoiler’s option in which a navy deploys submarines and lays mines to deny the enemy sea control. For example, three or four Pakistani submarines lurking off India’s west coast would tie up Indian naval assets in locating and neutralising them, diverting those Indian vessels from the task of sea control. The longer a submarine can lurk underwater, ie “remain on patrol”, the longer it ties down enemy assets. Diesel-electric submarines like the Indian Navy’s must resurface periodically to charge their batteries, giving away surprise. In contrast, submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP), and SSNs, can remain submerged far longer.

The Indian Navy, which aspires to “blue water” capability, must be capable of sea control in certain sectors, as well as sea denial further away, for example, at the choke points leading into the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea. That requires at least 24 conventional submarines for our coastal waters; and at least five to seven SSNs that can carry out sea denial for extended durations at very long ranges.

Unfortunately, the building of such a submarine force has been beset with blunders. The Indian Navy makes do with 14 old-style, diesel-electric submarines, of which just seven or eight are operational at any time. Six Scorpene submarines are currently being built under Project 75, but when they come on stream by late 2018 an almost equivalent number will have retired from the current fleet.

The ministry of defence (MoD) and the navy are aware of this crisis. In 1999, the Cabinet approved a 30-Year Submarine Construction Plan, for constructing 24 conventional submarines in India. Two simultaneous construction lines were to build six submarines each. One line was to use western technology; and the other Russian know-how. Based on this experience, Indian designers would build the next 12 submarines.

Twenty years after the plan was finalised, in 2019, India will have built just six Scorpene submarines. The reason is as simple as it is astonishing: with Indian shipyards competing to build tens of thousands of crore rupees worth of submarines, the MoD has failed spectacularly to bring any order to this melee. Instead of adjudicating decisively, setting up design and construction partnerships, and placing orders in good time, the MoD has – in typical Antony style – avoided a decision. Instead, it has set up committee after committee to identify which shipyard should get the orders. The latest, the Krishnamurthi Committee, has submitted split findings, setting the stage for Mr Antony to launch a fresh round of doing nothing.

It is time to thin out the crowded field of aspirants. Within the public sector, only Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) has built submarines. Its ongoing Project 75 to build six Scorpene submarines should be extended by another three vessels. Of these nine vessels, the last six must have AIP and the ability to fire missiles, changes that can be made easily. This should be India’s west coast production line.

On the east coast, L&T (which has gained experience building India’s nuclear submarine, the Arihant) should be permitted to join hands with Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL), the MoD’s new shipyard in Vishakhapatnam, for building a second line of submarines with Russian technology. The L&T-HSL JV should also be designated the node for developing and building a line of SSNs, which remains a glaring hole in India’s defence capabilities. Every other country with nuclear submarine capability first built SSNs before developing the technology for SSBNs, as nuclear ballistic missile submarines are called. India alone has begun with a complex SSBN (the INS Arihant) and is continuing building more SSBNs without taking on the simpler design challenge of SSNs. Now, having leased the INS Chakra, an Akula class SSN, from Russia for the next ten years, India must integrate these experiences into an indigenous SSN line.

Meanwhile, the MoD must ensure that the expensive (Rs 6,000 crore) technology that it bought for the Scorpene, and will buy for the Russian submarine line, fructifies into a world-class indigenous design. This will require close involvement from the navy’s integral design establishment. A concurrent role must be allocated to NIRDESH, the newly set up National Institute for Research and Development in Defence Shipbuilding. 

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First Published: Tue, August 23 2011. 00:07 IST