A Case for Amur

From partnership to joint development, Rubin Design Bureau offers the world

A FORCE Report

St Petersburg: In India, warnings are seldom taken seriously. Even disasters that follow the warnings are usually accepted with a sense of philosophical fatalism. So, for whatever it is worth, here is a warning from the Rubin Design Bureau of Russia which has designed the Kilo class submarines, 10 of which the Indian Navy operates: Two Indian submarines are past their service life and the third one is quickly on the way. Anything can happen to these boats and the responsibility will be of the Indian Navy.

INS Sindhurakshak after its midlife upgrade in Russia
INS Sindhurakshak after its midlife upgrade in Russia

Talking to FORCE during the IMDS, deputy director, foreign economic activities, Rubin Design Bureau, Andrey I. Baranov eschewed diplomacy for some hard talk. The life of a diesel-electric submarine designed by Rubin is 25 years. Life extension of the submarine is possible after a thorough inspection of the boat to ascertain areas which needs to be worked upon. Ideally, the process of life extension should commence after 10 years of the submarine’s service life.

“We have been discussing this with the Indian Navy for many years,” says Baranov. “Not only have we impressed upon them the need for detailed inspection, I also feel that we must carry out a second overhaul on the boats. But the Indian Navy has still not asked us for a detailed inspection.” Even when they ask, it is going to be a lengthy bureaucratic process. The government to government request will have to be made, after which Russia would appoint an agency to carry out the inspection, which itself will be extensive and time-consuming given the sensitivity of the platform.

Indian Navy operates 10 of Rubin-designed, Admiralty Shipyard-built Kilo class submarines, the first of which, INS Sindhughosh, arrived in India in 1986 and the last, INS Sindhushastra, in 2000. Even if the class of the submarine is same, their vintage is varied. Hence, the amount of modernisation or refit that each boat can undergo will be different. For example INS Sindhurakshak has recently returned from Russia after a midlife refit and all of them have been fitted with the Russian Klub missile. But now when the navy is getting them fitted with the Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM), the individual lives of the boats are coming in the way. After all, there is only this much one can do to a platform which comes with a sell-by date.

A Case for AmurHaving made his point forcefully, Baranov insists that, “Our main focus at the moment is to support Project 877 submarines (Kilo class) to the best of our abilities.”

In the three days that FORCE spent at IMDS, several executives of various seniorities from the Russian submarine industry, both design and manufacturing, kept making points about the growing preponderance of submarines in the Indian Ocean region. While the language and the urgency differed, the message was one. India’s submarine fleet was getting depleted at a time, when almost all Indian Ocean countries were operating or were in the process of operating submarines. Considered the most potent weapon for maritime defence, submarines are the platforms of choice for even those countries which have limited money to spend on defence. The talking point at the Show was the Kilo class submarines that Russia has sold to Vietnam, in which India is seeking a training role for the Vietnamese crew.

At the moment, India theoretically operates 14 conventional submarines, 10 of the Kilo class (Russian) and four of the Shishumar class (German). In reality, while two of the Kilo class are already well past the 25-year service life (with no extension), the third one will enter retirement age by the end of this year. Even if these are not officially decommissioned, the navy will be callous to operate them. Moreover, the endurance and reliability of at least two other submarines will become increasingly doubtful in the next two years. This will leave India with just about 10 or less operational submarines by next year to defend the coastline of 7,516km (ministry of home affairs figure). Incidentally, MHA does not list the length of India’s coastal border. Neither does it mention the total area of India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, according to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), India’s total EEZ is 2,305,143 sqkm, which includes 663,629 sqkm of the Andaman group of islands, about 1,200 km east of the Indian mainland. Incidentally, a regional power also has area of influence and area of interest well beyond the EEZ. That is a lot of area to secure and defend.

Unfortunately, the Indian rate of development came in the way of the ambitious submarine acquisition programme, which the navy had started to voice in the closing years of the Nineties. In 2000, a delegation from Admiralty Shipyard and Rubin Design Bureau accompanied Rosoboronexport executives to India. On the itinerary were several Indian shipyards to access the capability for building submarines. That was the beginning of navy’s Project 75. Russia offered Amur submarines; three to be constructed by Russia and three by a selected Indian shipyard.

“We offered different propositions to the Indian Navy, including license-production,” recalls chief engineer, Admiralty Shipyard, Vladimir Baikov. “But Indians did not take the talks forward.”

Apparently, navy at that time wanted to look at a western design. The thinking in some quarters was to first license-produce six submarines of the western design (P-75) followed by six of the Russian design (P-75I) — probably Amur — and use the learning to finally build bona fide Indian submarines. However, the plan got inordinately delayed; and modified. Six frightfully delayed Scorpene submarines under P-75 are under construction at Mazagon Dock Ltd. And as far as P-75I is concerned, instead of opting for the Russian submarine, navy will one day issue a request for proposal (RFP), which incidentally has been in the works for the last several years, prompting Baikov to quip, “We have been waiting for the RFP since 2000. I believe that everything that moves fast need not be good.”

At Admiralty Shipyard and the Rubin Design Bureau patience is not a virtue, but necessity. A necessity which may eventually see Amur 1650 sail in the Indian waters, even though the focus at the shipyard these days is project 636, an advanced version of the Kilo class.

Since the Indian Navy already operates the Kilo class and the Russians are working on the advanced Kilo, why are they then offering Amur to India instead of that?
Chief designer, Rubin Design Bureau, Igor B. Molchanov explains, “Going by the requirements of the Indian Navy, we felt that Amur would fit their requirements better than the improved Kilo.” According to Baikov, Amur is a single hull, good-looking submarine, whose shape and configuration resemble a jet plane. “We believe that if a submarine looks nice, its features are also nice,” he chuckles. Amur is sleeker with the crew complement of 35. It has a very small signature, an effective sonar complex and can carry a salvo of six cruise missiles. Without Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), Amur can stay underwater for eight to 10 days, relying on lithium ion batteries; with AIP it will be able to stay submerged for 45 days. In comparison to Kilo, it has more advanced cooling and air purification system.

Rubin is currently working on building AIP system for Amur, which will be compliant with the requirements of P-75I. Since the AIP is still at the planning stage, Rubin tried to interest Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in a possible joint development of the system. Last December, it received a delegation from DRDO’s Mumbai-based Naval Research Materials Laboratory (NRML). Following the visit, DRDO indicated that it will send an invitation to Rubin to visit NRML in Mumbai. However, the invitation never materialised. “The dialogue seems broken,” says Baranov, adding, “I doubt if anyone can help India as much as we can to build its own AIP.”

The Russian AIP will be starkly different from the Mesma of DCNS and the German system. Molchanov insists that Rubin’s system comprising electric-chemical generator uses naval fuel (diesel) to produce hydrogen on-board and generate power . “This is much advanced and lighter than Mesma, which not only cannot control the noise level, but also has less power generation capacity,” says Molchanov. “Even with the German system, you need to produce hydrogen on shore,” he says.

Rubin is determined to propel the relationship that seems stuck. For this reason, it has been visiting Indian shipyards to explore possibilities of joint design, development and construction. “We have been telling them that we can jointly build submarines and export them to other countries,” says Baranov, adding that. “I have visited even Indian private sector shipyards. While Pipavav is impressive, it has very few engineers or design facilities. L&T, on the other hand, has qualified design and engineering team.”

Just as Russians are trying to repeat the BrahMos experiment in the submarines, Indians seem a bit chary. Maybe because unless there is adequate indigenous know-how, the joint development programmes will end up being mere license-production. Still, such is the Russian optimism that they believe that the long-winding tunnel is now inching towards light. Maybe it is.