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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Chasing Sub Surface Dominance
The Indian Navy’s quest for underwater capability
Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)
By Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

The launch of the first Scorpene built by Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL) on 6 April 2015 received extensive media coverage. It marked reawakening of indigenous submarine construction capability, which had been sent into hibernation by an indecisive and myopic defence ministry in 1994.

It also marked a first step towards adding to the Indian Navy’s (IN) submarine strength, suffering from absence of any inductions after INS Sindhushastra, the last of the Russian origin Kilo class, was commissioned in July 2000. To be named INS Kalvari when commissioned in
September 2016, the vessel still has a long way to go before it can be considered an accretion to Indian naval capability. It still has to be fitted out numerous internals before it goes through trials, first by the builder and then by the IN before commissioning, followed by workup. It is only after workup is completed that she will be usable as a weapon. Nevertheless, this is as good a time as any for an appraisal of the IN’s submarine capability, its purpose, origins, current standing and future.

Why does India need submarines? They can be used for a wide range of tasks, but the primary missions assigned to them include nuclear deterrence, hunting and sinking surface and underwater military targets, fleet protection, interdiction of enemy trade, precision strike on targets on land, reconnaissance, mine-laying, harbour penetration and other clandestine missions off the enemy coast. Missions shape submarine design and how it is operated; all cannot be executed by all submarines. The only common characteristic is stealth; the ability to stay hidden till it is time to use weapons against an unsuspecting enemy.

Consider nuclear deterrence. The guiding operational philosophy is that the retaliatory platform used must remain hidden till it is ordered to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike — and the submarine is best equipped to hide. This mission is usually assigned to nuclear propelled submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), designated SSBNs by the US. Examples in service in the world are the French Triomphant, the Chinese Xia and Jin, the Russian Borei, Typhoon, Delta III and Delta IV, the British Vanguard and the American Ohio classes. India’s Arihant, currently undergoing sea trials, will be an SSBN. Due to the preponderant need to preserve deterrent capability, SSBNs can never be risked in combat missions. They carry the full range of conventional weapons and train to use them effectively, but that is for self defence, to protect themselves if found and attacked by the enemy.

In February 1945, HMS Venturer sank U–864 while both were at periscope depth, becoming the first and the only recorded instance of a submerged submarine sinking another intentionally. The event brought home to all the inherent advantages of a submarine in hunting another, resulting in a class designed to attack and sink other submarines, surface combatants and merchant ships. Called attack submarines or SSKs, the overwhelming majority of submarines in use globally perform this role. India’s Shishumar, Sindhughosh and Kalvari class (when commissioned), Pakistan’s Hashmat and Khalid, China’s Ming and Yuan, Japan’s Soryu and the British Upholder class are a few examples of such submarines currently in service. All use diesel electric propulsion, with the diesel engine being used on surface and electric motors fed from batteries when dived. Use of high speeds drains the batteries quickly; just 30 minutes at top speed could drain a fully charged set of batteries completely, leaving the submarine a dead duck. SSKs are, therefore, characterised by slow underwater speeds as well as the need to come to at least snorting depth to charge their batteries (by running their diesels) periodically. The development of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems such as MESMA, Stirling Engine and Fuel Cells have enabled these submarines to remain underwater for longer periods of as much as two-three weeks, but have not really overcome the speed limitation. Once its position is compromised, the conventional submarine changes from hunter to hunted, vulnerable particularly to ASW helicopters.

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