Indian navy, a formidable regional naval power in the Asia-Pacific waters, is in-charge of keeping a privy eye over some of the most contested waters in the Asian region. Changing geopolitical situation and increased enemy naval footprint close to its territorial waters has led the navy towards a path of rapid modernization.

India has enjoyed traditional control over the criss-crossing sea lanes of communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Also, the Indian navy has ambit control over several strategic choke-points through which almost 90% of the oil traffic between the West and East traverses. A naval blockade imposed up on one of these points will choke hostile Eastern countries off their essential supplies.

To enforce a fool-proof naval blockade any navy has to posses three main assets – Surface and under-water combatants and aerial platforms. The Indian navy under its command has 140 front-line battleships which it aims to gradually boost to 200 by 2025. The navy under its command has some of the most advanced and capable surface and aerial platforms.

On the underwater front, however, the navy lacks credible punch to even guard its territorial waters let alone impose blockades on far flung chokepoints. Submarines are some of the most complex war machines ever built and are centric to the naval power posture of a maritime nation. With their stealth they provide unmatched control over hostile waters and are instrumental assets in naval warfare. No other platform can perform as efficiently as submarines in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operations. Nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines have helped countries realize dreams of maintaining credible deterrence through their second strike capabilities.

The Indian navy currently operates thirteen conventionally powered and a single nuclear powered attack submarine. For India, submarines are critical to guard its vast coastline and to sanitize waters along its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The need has only been compounded given the navy’s increasing area of operations. Nuclear powered attack submarines or SSN’s remain the need of the hour to escort Carrier Battle Group (CBG)’s. The country in an effort to establish credible second strike platform is also pursuing programs to induct SSBN’s or boomers at the earliest.

Backbone to India’s under-water forces are the aging Russian built Kilo-class or Sindhughosh-class SSK submarines which has an endurance of around 45 days. Complementing the Kilo-class submarines are the four German-origin HDW-built Type 209 submarines.  These submarines which were inducted in the late 80’s have well passed their service life and are staring towards imminent retirement, thus, leaving the navy toothless in guarding the country’s territorial waters.

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 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 to boost force levels.”

The MRLC program, under which a submarine is refitted with the latest technology and naval systems, is an extremely time demanding and technologically complex process. The MRLC program, which is being executed by Indian and OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) shipyards, will be completed only by 2019. In such a dismal scenario, it is very difficult for the navy to be adequately prepared for any eventuality.

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. A study of the ground realities, however, raises doubts about the country’s capabilities in meeting this ambitious target.

The P-75 program, under which six conventional ‘Scorpene’ submarines are being built by DCNS and MDL, is at least four years behind schedule. Even though the program has enjoyed two major breakthroughs recently, navy’s problems are however far from being answered. INS Kalvari, the first submarine being constructed under the program, is expected to be commissioned only in mid-2017 and INS Khanderi, the second of the six submarines being built in MDL, is expected to join force only in 2018.

INS Chakra on its delivery cruise.

The navy’s much talked about program, P– 75I, under which the force is to acquire six conventionally powered Indian built submarines, has hardly made any progress since the MoD floated the RFP for the multi-billion dollar tender almost seven years back. The missing ‘Strategic Partnership (SP)’ model under the newly drafted Defence Procurement Program (DPP) had further hampered the program’s progress. The introduction of the SP model by the MoD recently has raised the hopes of the navy and the bidders alike.

Minimal detail is known about the progress the ‘ATV Project’ has made. Unconfirmed reports of INS Arihant having been inducted to the force have widely been circulated. Further several reporting agencies have in the past reported that INS Aridhaman, the second submarine being built under the program, has been prepared for induction. Given the secrecy the program has been shrouded in, it is extremely difficult to confirm the details. The induction of these strategically important platforms remains the need of the hour, given the country’s decades of hunt for attaining credible nuclear triad capabilities.

The government has recently cleared navy’s much after sought program to manufacture at least six highly advanced nuclear powered attack submarines. These platforms are crucial to meet the navy’s increasing operational ambit and also to escort the Carrier Battle Groups (CBG), which serve as the power projectors.

India, through the P-75 and ATV programs, has acquired substantial requisite technological knowledge and experience to manufacture stealth submarines. While MDSL today is rolling out the deadly silent Scorpene submarines, the state-run Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL) under the secretive Shipbuilding Centre (SBC) is making forays into constructing state-of-the-art SSBNs. The budding private sector of the country, which has a strong footprint in both the P-75 and ATV program, is well prepared to meet the surging demands of the navy.

Tapping these expertises is bound to change the dismal force readiness status and what is expected of the government is to roll out a robust and well-chalked out acquisition program in consultation with all the stakeholders. Submarines, which have time and again proved as decisive strategic platforms, remain the need of the hour for the country to maintain its traditional yet fast slipping naval dominance in the Indian Ocean Region.

© Karthik Kakoor