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 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 strategically important criss-crossing Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It also has ambit control over several choke-points, through which a major part of the oil traffic between the West and East traverses. Control over these choke-points carry immense strategic values as 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, a naval force has to possess three main assets – Surface and under-water combatants backed by mean aerial platforms. Indian Navy, under its command has one of the most robust mixes of front-line battleships and an extremely efficient aerial force.

However, on the underwater front, the Navy lacks credible punch to even guard its territorial waters. Indian Navy currently operates thirteen conventionally powered and a single nuclear powered attack submarine, which are a mere number for an emerging regional power.

With inherent stealth capabilities, submarines provide unmatched control over hostile waters and are thus an instrumental asset for naval power posture. Besides, no other platform can perform as efficiently as submarines in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operations. Nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines with second strike capabilities have helped countries realize their dreams of maintaining credible deterrence.

For India, submarines are critical to guard its vast coastline and to sanitize waters along its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). While nuclear powered attack submarines or SSNs remain the need of the hour to escort Carrier Battle Group (CBG)’s on long range missions, SSBN’s or boomers are being sought to establish credible second strike capabilities.

Indian Navy, Submarine, Kilo-class submarine

The Kilo-class fleet of the Indian Navy; Source – MoD.

Backbone to India’s current under-water forces are the aging Russian built Kilo-class or Sindhughosh-class SSK submarines and complementing them are the four German-origin HDW-built Type 209 submarines.  These submarines, which were inducted in the late 80’s, have surpassed their service life and are staring towards imminent retirement, effectively leaving the Navy toothless in guarding the country’s territorial waters.

A recent report by the ‘Standing Committee on Defence’ has raised serious concerns about the Indian Navy’s underwater force. The high-powered standing committee has strongly noted that – “It is very unfortunate that the 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 consuming and technologically complex process. The MRLC program, which is being executed by Indian and OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) shipyards, is expected to 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 report prepared by the Navy in regard to the operational availability of these submarines 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.

Compounding India’s concerns is the increased induction pace followed by both the Chinese and Pakistani Navy in acquiring under-water combatants. While China has been largely successful in attaining desirable results in several of its indigenous construction program, Pakistan is all set to import at least 8 diesel-electric submarines from China. This increased tango between India’s hostile neighbours is further threatening India’s dominance in the IOR.

In arguably, the Indian Navy has been forced to teed along with major short fallings. While naval planners have for years batted to operate at least two dozens of submarines, the Navy has at its disposal had only a dozen of these combatants.

INS Kalvari, INS Khanderi, Scorpene Submarine, Submarine, Indian Navy, DCNS, DCNS India

Indigenously manufactured Kalvari-class submarine; Courtesy – Indian Navy.

Sustained mismanagement and truncated outlays have greatly hampered progress in crucial modernisation programs. The Indian Navy had in 1999 drafted the 30-year submarine construction plan, under which it envisioned to construct 12 conventional submarines by 2012 in Phase – I and another 12 by 2024 in Phase – II. However, after almost two decades down the lane, it has failed to induct even a single submarine to its force.

The Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) 2012-27, under which Navy’s current modernisation programs are being floated, envisages a force level of at least 18 conventional submarines. However, a study of the ground reality raises serious 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 far from being answered. While, INS Kalvari, the first submarine being constructed under the program, is expected to be commissioned only by the year end; INS Khanderi, the second of the six submarines being built in MDL, is expected to join force only in 2018.

Navy’s much talked about program, P– 75I, under which the force is to acquire six conventionally powered Indian built submarines, is years away from realisation as the Navy has only recently floated a RFI for the program. The missing ‘Strategic Partnership (SP)’ model under the newly drafted Defence Procurement Program (DPP) had hampered the program’s progress for years. Several Naval planners quip that the first submarines under the program would be inducted only after a decade.

Minimal details are known about the progress the ‘ATV Project’ has made. Unconfirmed reports of INS Arihant having been inducted to the force and INS Aridhaman being prepared for a soft launch have widely been circulated. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to ascertain the veracity of these reports, given the secrecy the program has been shrouded in.

Government’s recent clearance for the construction of at least six highly advanced nuclear powered attack submarines has been warmly welcomed by the Navy. 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.

Recourse to these short fallings is possible only through sustained acquisitions programs, according to retired submariners. It is imperative that the Government introduces a robust roadmap in due consultation with the developers and the users to induce traction into the stalled and delayed programs.

INS Chakra on its delivery cruise.

India, through the P-75 and ATV programs, has acquired substantial requisite technological knowledge and experience to manufacture stealth submarines. While MDSL is rolling out 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. 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.