The Indian Navy (IN)’s submarine modernisation plans finally look set to gather some steam with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) approving the long-delayed ‘Project 75-I’ (‘I’ for India) to build six submarines in the country. The Defence Acquisition Committee, India’s highest decision-making body on procurement, made this decision on June 4 while also giving the nod to another project worth Rs 6,000 crore for air defence guns and ammunition.
The ministry is expected to soon issue requests for proposal (RFP) for the Rs 43,000 crore submarine deal from foreign shipyards. For the first time, the RFP will seek strategic partnership (SP) bids for making the conventional diesel-electric submarines —all larger than the Scorpene vessels currently under construction at Mazagon Dockyards Ltd (MDL) in Mumbai. The SP model allows Indian industry to become involved in making four categories of weapon systems: submarines, fighter aircraft, helicopters and armoured vehicles. It stipulates that an Indian company must build the six subs in collaboration with a foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
Two Indian strategic partners with submarine-building experience have reportedly been picked to collaborate with the OEMs: MDL on India’s west coast and L&T on the east coast. Five OEMs are reportedly bidding for the project: the French Naval Group, German conglomerate Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems, Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau, Spain’s Navantia and South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co Ltd. The strategic partner has to ensure a minimum of 45 percent indigenisation in five of the subs and at least 60 percent indigenous content in the sixth one.
The navy, though, is likely to greet this development warily, given the chequered history of India’s effort to modernise its submarine fleet which began in the late 1970s, but never took off as successive governments failed to prioritise it.
It was only in 1999 that the changing geostrategic equations—read rising Chinese influence—in the Indo-Pacific region finally prompted New Delhi to bolster its underwater assets. The 30-Year Submarine Construction Programme was then charted out to replace the submarine fleet with vessels built under two categories: the P-75 (Scorpene) and the P-75I. The original idea was to build six subs using western technology and six with Russian collaboration so that Indian engineers could construct a dozen more subs indigenously by forging design and construction partnerships with domestic and foreign industry. But while the ball was set rolling on the P-75 in 2005, the P-75I had hung fire as the MoD dragged its feet over finalising an OEM. The Scorpene deliveries, meanwhile, missed several deadlines and only three submarines have materialised so far, with another three expected by 2024.
The navy saw fair weather only in 2011 when the Krishnamurthy Committee recommended opening the doors of submarine-building to private industry. It suggested inviting private sector investments through public-private partnerships and the need to rope in private sector shipyards to push through projects on a priority basis. Policy-makers realised that moving in this direction would not only obviate the need to import submarines, but would also allow Indian companies to access the Rs 50,000 crore market.
An even bigger concern for the navy is India’s fast-depleting submarine strength. Ten Kilo-class Russian-origin submarines and four German HDW vessels form the backbone of the navy’s current non-nuclear underwater fleet. These are all diesel-powered and becoming obsolete by the day. Since many of these are scheduled to be decommissioned soon, it would leave less than half a dozen operational subs with the navy at a time when 18 conventional submarines would be needed to defend India’s coastline.
Even with the P-75I’s launch, the first subs will still take at least eight to nine years to enter service. True, the new boats will have stealth and land-attack capabilities and are equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems to boost their operational capabilities. But the navy would still have to depend on nuclear submarines that have a vital role in India’s nuclear deterrence policy.
The AIP, for instance, helps submarines stay submerged for much longer periods, narrowing the gap with nuclear-powered submarines which can operate underwater for virtually unlimited periods. Nevertheless, policy-makers know that the navy must move from diesel submarines, however advanced, to nuclear-powered and conventional cruise missile-equipped platforms sooner rather than later. The government acknowledged this in 2015 when it modified the 1999 submarine-building programme and approved a plan to build six nuclear-powered submarines.
The Indian Navy currently has only two nuclear submarines: the indigenously built INS Arihant and INS Arighat, and is building two more Arihant-class vessels at Visakhapatnam with Russian help in miniaturising their nuclear reactors. But this still falls short of the six nuclear fast attack subs and four nuclear subs with nuclear-tipped missiles that the navy needs to maintain strategic balance in the region.
India doesn’t have a friendly neighbourhood, and considering most of its territories border the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, it’s hardly reassuring to see Pakistan and China expanding their naval fleets exponentially. It is imperative for the country to augment its underwater combat arm urgently as the navy cannot afford to drift anymore.