Secrets of the Sea

The government finally approves the P-75I programme

Cdr Ranjan Bhattacharya (retd)Cdr Ranjan Bhattacharya (retd)

On 4 June 2021, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) finally approved the RFP for procurement of six submarines under Project-75(I) through Strategic Partnership route (SP). The much needed, eagerly awaited and inordinately delayed project, which was an important step in the nation’s 30-year submarine building plan approved by the CCS in 1999, is expected to cost INR43,000 crore as of today’s estimate. Financial Express Online has quoted a senior naval officer who believes, ‘However, there is still a long way to go. In a regular procurement process, it takes around three-four years to clear various stages. In this case, there is no clarity on how much time it will take’.

 

Brief Historical Perspective

The Indian Navy (IN) joined a select band of submarine operating navies on 8 December 1967 by commissioning INS Kalvari, a Foxtrot class submarine at Vladivostok, in erstwhile USSR. Soon seven more submarines joined the IN and saw service for over 40 years. The plan for the next generation of submarines began in 1977 with a two-pronged approach to get submarines of Western as well as Russian origin almost simultaneously. Commencing 30 April 1986, INS Sindhughosh was commissioned at Riga, USSR with seven follow-on submarines of the class joining in quick succession. On the other side, two Shishumar class (HDW Type209/1500 class) submarines were commissioned at Kiel, West Germany in late 1986 and two more were built at Mazagaon docks Mumbai (MDL) under OEM supervision.

INS Khanderi, second of the Kalvari-class submarine

Of Scams, Scandals and Scallywags

The HDW submarine deal turned out to be one of the most talked about scandals over a seven per cent facilitation fee, about INR25 crore, paid to middlemen, and has had a lasting effect on India’s defence procurement ever since. Along with the Bofors 155mm Howitzer deal, these two arms deals cost the government of Rajiv Gandhi, the general elections in 1989.

After lengthy investigations running into decades and having expended at least 10 times the ‘grease money’ on investigations alone with no results, all cases were closed without anyone found guilty or punished. The only adverse fallout was an unfortunate and inadvisable ban on any future dealings with the OEMs, with complete disregard to the need for continued engagement with the OEM for support of hardware already paid for. The amount spent on investigating the HDW scandal, and the inflated cost of spares bought through third parties at a premium in the last 33 years to support the four HDW submarines, together could easily be more than 10 times the alleged bribe money of INR25 crore. The HDW project, in my opinion, continues to be the best defence project executed till date by India and the failure to persist with it was extremely detrimental to India’s interests. The infrastructure and trained manpower developed at MDL while constructing the last two submarines of the project were laid to waste and the consequent loss, has been far greater than the INR25 crore that till remains untraced.

 

India’s Submarine Building Plans

The Cabinet Committee on Security approved a 30-year submarine building plan for the Indian Navy on 13 July 1999, aimed at creating indigenous designing and build capability so as to ‘insulate us from submarine technology control that may be imposed’. The plan involved construction of 24 submarines in two phases. Phase I would entail construction of six submarines of Western Design (Project 75) and six more of possibly Russian design (Project 75 (I)), between 2000-2015.

Upon successful completion of these projects, it was hoped that the nation would have assimilated necessary expertise and developed adequate industrial base to design and build 12 indigenous submarines. The ambitious plan failed to take into account some vital factors of our national character such as poor strategic awareness, lack of will and long-term vision in our political leadership; a lethargic bureaucracy that thrived on inaction and a military leadership that would not take a firm stand even when national security clearly mandated so. Consequently, the 30-year submarine building programme is today in its 21st year, with only three of the planned 12 submarines (2000-2015 target) in water.

 

The Nuclear Submarine Programme

The Advanced Technology Vessel Programme was commenced in 1974 to provide a sea-based deterrence and second-strike capability to India’s nuclear weapon policy. As infrastructure and various organisation were slowly set up, naval engineers were deputed to undergo their M.Tech in nuclear engineering commencing the early 1970s.

In 1981, when the chief of general staff, the Marshal of the Soviet Union, Ogarkov visited India and formally broached the so-called Ogarkov Principle, it was reiterated that assistance in building a nuclear submarine could be provided to India by the Soviet Union. The collaboration between the two countries started with the leasing INS Chakra in 1987, a Charlie Class SSN that gave the Indian Navy the first feel of the complexities involved in operating a SSN, for three years.

The naval design bureau and the shipyard were similarly given an opportunity to figure out their individual challenges. The lease of a second SSGN in 2012 for 10 years continued to provide valuable operating experience. Plans for leasing a third submarine from Russia is in advanced stage and likely to be concluded in soon. Meanwhile, the first indigenously-built SSBN, INS Arihant was commissioned in August 2016, and the follow-on submarine is currently undergoing pre-commissioning trials. The third submarine is expected to be launched shortly, with, perhaps, two more following in their wake.




Unconventional Planning for Conventional Boats

The Indian Navy’s conventional submarine building programme has been written about ad nauseum. The delays in our submarine building programme have pushed the IN to find some quick fix solutions to maintain minimum force levels by way of Medium Refit with Life Extension (MRLE) for the existing submarine force. These refits will push our submarines well into the 4th decade of this century, when some of them will be 50 years old.

The next generation of our submariners will be putting to sea on old submarines with material and technological limitations in environments that are fraught with great risk. The loss of the Argentine submarine San Juan and the Indonesian submarine Nanggala are too recent to remind us of the dangers of operating ageing boats well beyond their designed life cycle. To my understanding, the following planning issues are germane:

 

INS Chakra
INS Chakra, on lease for the second time, has recently been spotted sailing back to Russia

Lack of Clarity and Direction: The first principles of war that was taught to me as a cadet at the National Defence Academy was ‘selection and maintenance of AIM’. A brilliant plan that lies unexecuted is no worse than a lack of plan. The HQ IDS has Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), and the IN has the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) and Annual Acquisition Plan. The constant slippages in the plan and shifting of goal posts on a regular basis are dangerous for morale and have safety concerns for the crew, not to mention the adverse effects on professional training, skill and confidence.

Lack of Long-Term Vision: It would be interesting to compare the paths of India and South Korea in terms of submarine building capability. Having started the journey together in the mid 1980s, South Korea is already a submarine exporter. Isn’t it ironic that for the P75(I) project, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering company is one of the five contenders in the fray? Having started the journey together, how did we falter while they surged so far ahead? Did we invest in the right capability-building plans, conducive ecosystem for self-reliance, and also seek accountability from those in charge? The ill-advised ban on HDW hurt the IN greatly while wasting the infrastructure and technical skills developed at MDL for construction of two Shishumar class boats in 1990.

Failure to Build Capability While Destroying Existing Ones: In the last 35 years alone, the Indian Navy’s Submarine Design Group (Directorate of Naval Design SDG) should have been exposed to the design philosophy of the Shishumar class when the last two boats were built in India at the MDL, as well as the P75 submarines. Added to this is the experience from the Advanced Technology Vehicle Project (ATVP). Despite all these critical exposures accorded to the design bureau, looking to invest in a new design from a foreign OEM means that the entire journey till date has been a wasted one. While the navy designs and builds most of its ships indigenously today, the submarine force has languished far behind. This asymmetry between the two, the surface and the sub-surface forces, is glaring and should have been addressed by the planners better.

Much Ado About ToT: A common phrase that one hears in any defence project in India involves discussions regarding Transfer of Technology (ToT). In fact, for the P75 project, the Armaris-DCN conglomeration was supposedly paid almost INR 7,000 crore for ToT including Transfer of Design Documents (TDD). A whopping 30 per cent of the project costs! What happened to the technology thus obtained? Why wasn’t it sufficient to kickstart an indigenous P75(I) programme without having to shell out an estimated INR 15,000 crore ToT for the P75(I) programme when the last TDD failed to prove sufficient? We also need to look at what is the critical technology we are getting and how is it enriching our domestic industry. Even if we pay for the technology, have we built an ecosystem to assimilate the technology gainfully?

Ageing Fleets and Dwindling Force Levels: The bulk of the IN’s conventional submarines fleet is beyond their fair life with ages between 27-35 years and should have been up for decommissioning at regular intervals. As a fallout of our policy and planning paralysis in getting their timely replacement, we are forced to extend the operational life of the ageing submarines through additional refits in Indian as well as Russian yards at considerable expense (almost INR 1,500 crore per refit). The MR plan that was envisaged, mandated refitting two submarines in Russian yards followed by subsequent refits in Indian yards. Despite a sizeable investment made at the Hindustan Shipyard Limited, Visakhapatnam in 2003-04, only one MR was undertaken, thereby wasting the substantial financial investment in materiel as well as human resources made for almost a decade. The IN is back to sending submarines to Russian yards now.

INS Sindhurakshak

Costs of Diversity versus Standardisation:   If we look at the complexity of our submarine development and operating philosophy, it would appear that we are a nation of plenty, that resources are abundant, and we would not be worried about wasteful indulgence. No other nation today attempts to operate so many diverse platforms, and instead insist on standardisation and commonality of technology, logistics, manpower, training and the like. With the P75(I) being inducted hopefully by 2035 at a most optimistic estimate, we will be operating four different classes of conventional submarines in the next decade, not to mention a few different classes of nuclear submarines. The spares management, the crew training, staffing, weapons and equipment, repair, testing and trial infrastructure, all look to be a staggering challenge at the least.

Cost of Bureaucratic Delays:   The cost of delaying signing of the P75 deal by three years (2002-2005) led to an escalation of more than 25 per cent over the 2002 price. This short-sightedness in unnecessary delays has time and again imposed great financial burden without anyone being held accountable for the same.

Failing To Learn is Learning to Fail: Planners and decision-makers would do well to objectively revisit past experiences from all big-ticket projects in India and abroad to collate lessons learnt. Fortunately, the RAND corporation has published an excellent compendium titled ‘Learning from Experience’ that critically evaluates the US Navy, the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine development programme. The ‘Top level Strategic Lessons Learnt’ alone would be extremely helpful in serving as a lodestar for any sustainable long term submarine programme. The following lessons are quoted from the report:

(i) Ensure the stability of the programme;

(ii) Be an intelligent and informed partner in the submarine enterprise;

(iii)         Establish the roles and responsibilities of the government and the private sector;

(iv)         Develop knowledgeable and experienced managers;

(v)          Take long-term, strategic view of the submarine force and the industrial base;

(vi)         Involve all appropriate organisations in any new programme; and

(vii)        Adequately support a new programme and make it open and transparent to all.

 

Dangers of the Fait Accompli:  The inordinate delays in our submarine building programme have pushed the IN between a rock and a very hard place. A submarine force needs decades to evolve into a band of professionally competent undersea warriors. Once acquired, these skills must be consistently practiced to maintain a competitive edge over the potential adversary. The lost years under the UPA regime has done great damage to the submarine fleet, only because the political leadership suffered from a complete policy paralysis. Consequently, going forward we will face stiff challenges to maintain the submarine arm at its highest levels of professional competence, motivation and morale.

 

Getting the House in Order

The biggest challenge that the Indian military faces is the structure of our Higher Defence Organisation where the civilian bureaucracy calls the shots over every defence procurement decision without adequate expertise on the issue or accountability. The situation worsened by the failure of the military leadership to face up to the inadequacy of this arrangement and stand their ground because the threat of backlash from those that control promotions at higher levels is omnipresent.

A few long pending reforms have been set into motion by the current government. However, such reforms have to move beyond the cosmetic makeovers and address the real issues like empowering the DMA completely for all matters military including financial control over all capital procurement, the principal driver for modernising our armed forces. The military leadership, on the other hand needs to invest in building the right kind of future leaders, the ones that are confident, competent and capable of not only leading the armed forces of the future to battle but can also take a stand for the right cause.

 

Recommendations and Way Ahead

One of the biggest challenges that the confronts military planners in India are the procurement procedures that take up inordinate planning time and create the greatest roadblocks to capital acquisition. To a large extent, procedures and not actual necessity dictate the procurement plans. Having looked at some of the challenges that the Indian Navy’s submarine arm faces, it is time that a concerted effort is directed towards mitigatory measures that will best arrest the depletion of existing force levels already facing technical and material obsolescence. Here are a few suggestions:

Force Structure Planning: Sir Basil Liddell Hart had long ago said, ‘The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.’ A realistic status review of our present situation involving all stakeholders regarding where we stand on our 30-year submarine building programme, and how best to salvage the damage already wrought, is an undeniable necessity instead of persisting with a plan that may not retain the same relevance today as it did 20 years ago. The size and type of submarine force that we would need in the next half of this century could be given a fresh look. The biggest challenge would be in getting the government to see reason to change the approved plans, but it is necessary to make that attempt. We need to deliberate if for an 18-boat conventional force, we need three different projects? To my mind, maybe it might be sensible to place a repeat order for more P75 submarines and invest in the next generation of submarines combining the P75(I) & P76 projects as one indigenous submarine programme with AIP capability. The build plan can factor in MDL and L&T yards sharing the building of the next 18 submarines equitably with a firm commitment for funding to support the government’s intent.

Accountability and Project Management: With all arms of the government located within one sqkm, the fact that all such projects take decades to fructify is a serious issue and needs resolution. Once CCS approval has been accorded to the project, bureaucratic delays whether civilian or military, must be clearly identified and addressed. The DMA need to be given complete responsibility over all defence procurement processes including complete financial control to cut through the unnecessary delays that have been the legacy of the past MoD structure. This will also entail fixing accountability on one agency alone instead of needless blame game that leads nowhere. Once the approval is accorded by the DAC/ SCAPCHC, and necessary budgetary allocation made for the overall modernisation of the armed forces, a private player from industry could drive the programme as they would be more focussed on avoiding cost and time overruns. Necessary handholding and financial support for capability development, and project monitoring would be done by the DMA.

Programme Stability and Scale:          The stability of any project is a big challenge in the Indian context and industry’s confidence has to be built up. No industrial base grows without government support and all political parties must avoid playing games with national security and military issues. Decisions on national security must take into confidence all parties so that the long-term stability of the projects can be ensured. The MMRCA, the submarine building projects, the main battle tank cases, all suffer from similar malaise. The scale of orders is important for the industry and unless we can demonstrate the will for continued supportability, industry would be sceptical to make necessary investment for self-reliance.

Plan Review: The CCS note for the next three decades commencing year 2000 is at least two decades behind schedule. Hopefully, in this time we have learnt why we failed to meet the desired timelines. It is a good idea to step back and revisit the milestones envisaged and set fresh goals with adequate procedural mechanisms to ensure we do not falter again. A good beginning could be made by putting together a team of experts to ideate together and evolve a road map for the future. Submarine building programme is a critical national programme and must be treated with due seriousness.

Auditing: A critical audit of the ToT that we have paid for thus far needs to be undertaken to identify where we stand and what we lack. We have expended substantial amount of taxpayer’s money into ToT and a realistic assessment is now necessary to understand why our design agencies have failed to assimilate the design knowledge the nation has paid for, thus necessitating once again looking towards foreign OEMs for the P75(I) project. Every ToT investment must have a deliverable milestone that should be critically reviewed.

INS Kalvari

Make in India and Strategic Partnership Model: While I am convinced that the future of our armed forces is best served by self-reliance in our defence hardware, we must empower the industry to fetch up to our vision. The present SP model for the P75(I) project is extremely complex and involves 10 possibly different combinations for shipyard and OEM in the fray. In all this, the builder has an advantage in leaning towards one OEM or the other and negotiating from a position of strength because of financial information available vis a vis other OEM. To add to this, the existing partnerships of the builders with one particular OEM in the existing projects creates clear possibilities of conflict of interest. The whole process could do with a realistic relook. Overall procurement procedures must also be examined and made more supportive of providing the best affordable hardware to the man on ground.

Need for Speed: The usual timelines for the induction of the next class of submarines looks to place the IN at a very critical point in the next decade with respect to platform availability. Going by our previous experience, in all probability, the first of the new design P75(I) submarine, could see a launch only around 2035. Somehow these timelines need to be reduced to more acceptable levels. Instead of a single shipyard making all the boats, a cooperative engagement between the two shipyards, MDL and L&T might deliver greater value in terms of timelines.

Diversity in Production Lines: For a project of great national importance and continued investment, we need to ensure at least two diversified production lines for our submarine production. Having two shipyards being engaged adequately with assured build plans, would help in greater capability development and maybe an export-oriented ecosystem.

Letting the User Decide: A little radical thought maybe, but withing the approved budget, it could be worthwhile to let the user decide the best hardware based on prior experience, and system familiarity. Instead of tying down the military procedurally, this flexibility will be a great boost to morale for the forces.

 

Conclusion

As the nation looks to send our next generation to sea for the sub-surface warfare, we need to realistically assess if the decision we take today will be in the best interests of those young submariners who follow in our footsteps. They will take whatever submarines we provide them to sea. We must ensure for them safe operations, at least a level battlespace and safe surfacing every time. Indian Navy will be investing, at a conservative estimate, more than INR two-lakh crore on the next 18 submarines over the next three decades. With such a large sum of money on offer, it is left to our present leadership to deliberate on how best we can achieve the goals of self-reliance and make the transition from a buyer’s navy to a builder’s navy at the shortest possible time. We may go wrong, we may make mistakes, but if the intent is right, if the resolve is strong, and if we collectively pull together, success is certain.

 

 

 

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