In a recent report tabled before the parliament, the ‘standing committee on defence’ has raised serious concerns about the Indian Navy’s underwater force. The submarine force of the navy is at the epicentre of the navy’s operations in the contested Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Under the navy’s command are just 14 submarines which are tasked with the crucial task of guarding India’s coastal waters and also the far flung maritime interest of the country.
Besides, the submarine force is also in-charge of maintaining a privy eye over multiple chokepoints along Strait of Hormuz and Malacca Straits in the Indian Ocean. The submarines are critical for India to impose and to repel any naval blockades along these vantage maritime strategic chokepoints. The effective management of these naval blockades will prove decisive in war-time.
The high-powered standing committee in its report has strongly noted that “It is very unfortunate that Navy has landed into such a critical situation where MRLC (Medium Refit Life Certification) of six submarines is the only available option. Even MRLC will be completed only by 2019. In such a dismal scenario, it is very difficult for Navy to be adequately prepared for any eventuality.”
The navy’s under-water force is composed of 13 conventional and 1 nuclear powered submarines which are all on an average aged between 16-30 years. A classified report prepared by the navy had stated that at any given time, a very minimal amount of the force is available for operations as most of the submarines are either under minor or major refitting programs.
The navy, in an effort to address the short fallings, had in 1999 drafted the 30-year submarine construction plan, under which navy envisioned to constructs 12 conventional submarines by 2012 in Phase – I and another 12 by 2024 in Phase – II. But after almost two decades down the lane, the navy has failed to induct even a single submarine to its force.
The Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) 2012-27, under which the navy’s modernisation programs are being floated, envisages a force level of at least 18 conventional submarines. The committee has raised concerns about the country’s efforts and capabilities to meet these ambitious targets.
The P-75 program under which six conventional ‘Scorpene’ submarines are being built by DCNS and MDL is at least four years behind schedule. INS Kalvari, the first submarine being constructed under the program, is expected to be commissioned only in mid-2017.
The Navy and MoD, in a written reply to the committee’s query in regard to answering the deficit in the force, have stated that there exists no solid procurement option. Further, they have observed that the lone viable option to pursue under current condition is to rely on Medium Refit Life Certification (MRLC) of submarines.
These demanding and costly MRLCs the navy says will increase the service life of every single submarine by at least 10 years. A single MRLC according to the navy will take at least 2-3 years and the program shall duly be certified by OEMs.
Way forward for re-energising submarine force of Indian Navy
The navy is currently modernising its submarine force under the ‘30 year submarine construction’ program and the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan 2012-2027. Accordingly, the navy will have to operate at least 30 submarines to counter balance the surging induction rate being followed by the hostile neighbours.
The navy is desperately waiting for the induction of the six ‘Scorpene’ diesel-electric submarines being built by state-run Defence PSU Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) in collaboration with French based DCNS under the P-75 program. The submarines under the program are delayed over four years and this is largely attributed to the development of indigenous technology.
INS Kalvari, the first of the submarine being built under the program, is slated to be commissioned by mid-2017, as the submarine has successfully completed all sea trials. INS Khanderi, second of the six submarines, was launched by MDL in February, 2017 and is expected to be commissioned in December, 2017. The rest of the four submarines are expected to be rolled out with a time gap of nine months between each of them.
The navy is said to be contemplating to order at least three more Scorpene submarines to meet the deficit in the force. MDL and DCNS have stated that possible construction of these additional submarines will incubate the construction line and facilities that were built under P-75 program. Further, the company has stated that the development period for these submarines will be less compared to the ones contracted under P-75 Program. The move is largely being viewed as a win-win situation for all stakeholders.
Another program the navy is pinning its hope on is the P-75I program under which six more AIP equipped conventional submarines are to be constructed. The program has been delayed even before its inception as the MoD is yet to release a RFP and this is attributed to the delay in notification of the much awaited ‘Strategic Partnership’ model.
Several global submarine manufacturers have made elaborate offers to the MoD and it is believed that the manufacturers are offering unmatched ToT (Transfer of Technology). Following its tryst with the Indian market, DCNS is expected to make the most economically viable offer. Further, the company already has established prerequisite expertise and infrastructure at MDL. HDW is offering its Type-214 submarine and Sweden based Saab AB is making an aggressive, unmatched and ‘no-strings attached’ ToT offer for its A-26 NG submarine.
With the planned involvement of private shipyards, the tender is expected to offer high stakes for foreign manufacturers in India’s lucrative defence industry. Much of the selection process will demand up on the financial and ToT offer made by the companies.
In February, 2015, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) cleared the construction of six nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN) at an estimated cost of over INR 50,000 crore. The submarines will be designed by navy’s Directorate of Naval Design and are to be constructed at the state-run Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), Vishakhapatnam. Sources have indicated that the submarine will be mainly based around the design of Russian origin Akula-class SSN. The design and development teams are expected to encounter no major hurdles as they have acquired prerequisite expertise following the successful construction of INS Arihant.
The navy will also be acquiring at least four Arihant-class nuclear powered ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines by 2022. These submarines are being constructed under the secretive Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project. INS Arihant, the first of the four SSBN, is rumoured to have already entered service with the navy. The addition of Arihant, if true, will provide the country with credible second strike capability.
Arihant-class SSBNs are armed with the 750-KM ranged K-15 ‘Sagarika’ Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) and the 3500+ KM ranged K-4 SLBM. These missiles comprehensively allow India to drastically boost its deterrence capabilities by several folds.
A combined and comprehensive effort by all stakeholders can alone boost the operational capability of the Indian Navy’s submarine force. A synergy between stakeholders will effectively pave way for the navy to receive several of the under-construction and planned underwater combatants at least by the next decade.
© Karthik Kakoor