Hope and Hype

Russia’s Malachite Design Bureau is ready to cooperate if the Indian Navy asks for Chakra III

A FORCE Report

INS Chakra IIISt Petersburg: The Russian ship-building industry is in an interesting position vis-a-vis India, these days. It has unparalleled history of cooperation with the Indian services. It professes to extend support and technology that no other country can do. And it has been sanguine in the knowledge that the user (Indian Navy) and its political masters have a degree of comfort when it comes to their products and platforms.

But the twist in the tale is that, even the recent history is history nevertheless. Several other aggressive sellers, both Europeans and the North Americans, have entered the market just when the Russians had started to take the Indian users a wee bit for granted. So even when the Indian Navy still looks for the cheapest option, it now seeks value addition. And for the first time, the Russian shipbuilders are having to market and compete. Being new in the game, their best bet is still piggy-backing on the political package.

Vladimir Dorofeev, general manager of Malachite Design Bureau, which specialises in fast attack submarines (its most famous import to India is the nuclear-powered Chakra submarine), is surprisingly candid when he says, “Bilateral statements made during President Putin’s visit to India in December 2012 contain many answers to the questions about our next collaboration in the sphere of delivery of Chakra III nuclear-powered submarine. The need of our collaboration in high-technology projects such as creation of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and BrahMos Guided Missile was stressed at that time. So it is possible to discuss the plan of creation of new submarine, equipped with machinery which will partially be designed and manufactured jointly to continue these projects.”

Indian Navy is currently operating Chakra II, first of the Akula class, which has been leased for 10 years and had arrived in India last year. Dorofeev said that interest shown by the Indian Navy for the second Chakra (Akula class submarine) has not yet been expressed officially. Though called Chakra, after the first nuclear-powered submarine which the Indian Navy leased from Russia in 1988, the current submarine is not the same class as the first one. Chakra II is much more advanced than the first one in terms of armament and capacity. Chakra II or Akula class submarine has 190-MWt nuclear reactor, providing submerged speed of 30 knots and 50,000 shaft horse power.

Both Chakra I and Chakra II were transferred to India together with their missile complexes and missiles. Commanding officer of Soviet SSGN K-43 (called Chakra I after joining Indian Navy in 1988), Alexander Terenov, who has written an interesting account of operating the Russian submarine for the Indian Navy with a mix of Indian and Russian crew in a book, titled Under Three Flags, was among those who took part in handing over of Chakra II to her Indian commanding officer last year. Now after retirement from the Russian Navy, Terenov has joined Malachite Design Bureau. But he still fondly recalls his Indian stint.

Clearly, Chakra II is in a class of its own; and Indian naval officers have not operated anything like this before, the name Chakra notwithstanding. During the induction ceremony at Vishakhapatnam on India’s eastern seaboard, a few naval officers expressed a wish of acquiring more submarines of such class. Russia heeded the wish and offered all help.

Secretary General MalachiteAgreements often stem from a wish. And on that wish hinges a lot of hope. According to Dorofeev, “Indians have expressed an interest in second of the Akula class (which would be Chakra III) and we are ready to collaborate with India to execute this project. We are ready to do that as design bureau and Russian industry is also ready. If a political decision is taken, we will comply.”

And in that lies the difference between wish and commitment. There is a lack of unanimity within the navy about the utility of leasing nuclear-powered submarines. One, there is no ownership; and two, no matter how flexible the leasing terms may be, there will always be some restrictions, which the Indian Navy would not like on strategic equipment.

Even when the negotiations for Chakra II were underway, there were serious reservations in the navy at a very senior level. It was felt that Chakra II would be the case of too late and too little. What India really needed, according to them, was help in the indigenous advanced technological vehicle (ATV) programme, the first boat of which is now called INS Arihant.

And this is one subject Malachite Design Bureau does not want to talk about. Dorofeev says, “This subject is not in the industrial domain; it is in the political domain. But if we put politics aside, then I would say that everything is possible. My design bureau is ready for all kind of help, provided there is political clearance.”

For obvious reasons, the subject of Chakra III is more palatable and the Design Bureau is at pains to offer as many sweeteners as possible; from partnership to life cycle support. For instance, the options are not limited to Akula alone.

According to Dorofeev, Malachite’s technologies have matured during the development of 4th generation ‘Yasen’ fast attack nuclear powered submarines (‘Granay’ class). It is planned to launch Onyx cruise missile, which is similar to BrahMos, from the lead ‘Yasen’ submarine. “This missile will be fired from a vertical launcher,” he said.

Malachite hopes that its earlier experience with the Indian Navy (Chakra II) will come in handy when negotiating for Chakra III as the relationship is much deeper now as compared to 23 years ago, when Chakra I came to India. “During Chakra II, we not only designed the submarine but also worked on the training component which we handed over to the Indian Navy when the boat was delivered,” says Dorofeev.

The second sweetener is the universal launcher that the Design Bureau has developed. Akin to a revolver magazine with multiple cartridges, the universal launcher can fire five missiles of different types at a time, including BrahMos without any changes to the platform or the launcher. With the current design, the universal launcher can only fit in a western-designed missile after tweaking of some software parameters, as the launcher will have to be adapted.

The ideal depth to launch a missile from a universal launcher would be as close to the surface as possible to save the energy of the missile. Despite the great desire to collaborate, Dorofeev explains that he is not privy to any discussions on Chakra III, if at all they are taking place. But he would certainly offer his ideas if he is asked.

Meanwhile, he says that the submarines designed at his bureau can operate in any kind of water globally. “The only peculiarity pertains to the servicing and maintenance of the boats,” he says, as there is more erosion in tropical waters.

While nuclear-powered submarine has a ‘breaking news’ like quality to it, there is another Malachite product that may eventually propel the Design Bureau to the status of a partner in India.

Decades ago, during the Cold War, Malachite built two very small diesel submarines called the Piranja. These small submarines were intended for Special Forces operations in shallow waters. Made of titanium to dramatically reduce electro-magnetic radiation, the submarines could carry a crew complement of three and were capable of firing two torpedoes in self-defence.

But after the Cold War, hit by the economic reality, Russian defence industry had to forego several programmes. Small submarines were one of them. Subsequently, an export version of the Piranja class was approved. That is when Indian shipyards started talking to Malachite to explore the possibilities of joint production. The interest started with the Piranja-type sub and moved on to other, more powerful but small diesel submarines.

“The last round of talks was held a year and a half ago,” recalls Dorofeev. “But then they didn’t move forward. Maybe they can start again,” he says, adding that he thinks the two sides can work together very effectively on designing and developing tactical diesel submarines. “It takes two to tango. Just as Indians can learn from us, we can also learn from them. Indian expertise in software and radio technology is well-known,” he says.

Since only two submarines of the Piranja class were made and have long been decommissioned, Malachite never got a chance to showcase it to the Indian Navy. All they can refer to is archival material on operational history of the boats.

During his talk, Dorofeev made a reference to shallow waters of Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai as possible area of operation, if indeed Indian Navy thinks about small submarines. But like so many other programmes, even this one is work in progress.