Turbulence Ahead

As India falters, Indian Ocean Region is seeing increasing Chinese subsea activity

Smruti Deshpande

May marked the beginning of sea trials of the sixth submarine and the last of the French Scorpène or Kalvari-class submarines, Vagsheer. The boat is expected to be inducted into the Indian Navy by early 2024 once the sea trials are completed. The aim is to enhance India’s prowess in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), an area which is increasing seeing Chinese forays.

The 6th of the Kalvari class, Vaghsheer starts sea trials
The 6th of the Kalvari class, Vaghsheer starts sea trials

Project-75 or the P75 include indigenous construction of six submarines at the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) in Mumbai in collaboration with the Naval Group of France. Five of the Kalvari class of submarines have already been commissioned into the Indian Navy.

Interestingly, another programme, Project-75 India (P75-I), which was approved in 1999 along with the P75 programme, has not yet seen light of the day despite it having been resurrected multiple times in the past. This project envisages indigenous construction of six ‘hunter-killer’ diesel-electric conventional submarines (including associated shore support, engineering support package, training and spares package) with contemporary equipment, weapons and sensors including fuel-cell based AIP (Air Independent Propulsion Plant), advanced torpedoes, modern missiles and state of the art countermeasure systems.

The Hindustan Times reported in January 2023 that the Indian Navy would ‘bury fresh acquisition under Project-75I and may go for a repeat Project 75 order to MDL with the DRDO-proven and tested air independent propulsion system fitted into the new submarines under Aatmanirbhar Bharat.’

This came after the ministry of defence (MoD) issued a request for proposal (RFP) for the first acquisition programme under the Strategic Partnership Model for construction of six AIP fitted conventional submarines named Project 75 (India) for the Indian Navy on 20 July 2021.

Project-75I will be the first project under the Strategic Partnership Model. The provision of the SP model outlined to the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 (DAP-2020) were first included in the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP-2016). The objective behind such a model is to spur indigenous production of defence equipment by encouraging private sector participation. The idea is that an Indian Strategic Partner (SP) will tie up with the shortlisted OEM to manufacture the equipment. This programme is expected to bring about capability and infrastructure to India for the growth of indigenous production.

The RFP was issued to shortlisted SPs or Indian Applicant Companies for the project including MDL and Larsen & Toubro (L&T). The project cost is over Rs 40,000 crore. Once the Expression of Interest (EoI) was received, the shortlisting of potential SPs and foreign OEMs was undertaken by the ministry. The shortlisted SPs to whom the RFP had been issued were to collaborate with any of the shortlisted foreign OEMs for technology including Naval Group-France, TKMS-Germany, JSC ROE-Russia, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Co Ltd-South Korea (now known as Hanwha Ocean) and Navantia-Spain.

In a statement, the ministry of defence had said the objective behind such an exercise was to enable the SP for construction of submarines, achieving high levels of indigenisation and transfer of technology (ToT) for various technologies. These OEMs would have enabled the setting up of dedicated manufacturing lines.

However, the project failed to take off despite receiving EoIs from the OEMs. Reports stated that the vendor response for the July 2021 tender was postponed more than once. The original deadline of November 2021 was pushed to June 2022, which was then moved to December 2022. It has been further deferred to late 2023. These deadlines had to be pushed further citing several obstacles in the RFP. The initial hindrance in the RFPs pertained to design “overreach” in the Navy’s Staff Qualitative Requirements (NSQRs) for the submarines, “unrealistic” delivery schedules as well as “impractical” liability clauses among other concerns regarding “rigid” technology transfer requirements to one of the two shortlisted Indian shipbuilders—MDL and L&T.

Subsequently, the acquisition programme failed to come through after participating foreign vendors started pulling out one after the other. France’s Naval Group, one of the five shortlisted OEMs for the P75-I project, pulled out of the race in May 2022. It said it would not bid for the project. The reason, the Naval Group said, was that the RFP “requires that the fuel cell AIP be sea proven, which is not the case for us yet since the French Navy does not use such a propulsion system.” The AIP technology for conventional submarines provides greater endurance and allows submarines to be submerged for a longer period and is less noisy than the diesel-electric propulsion system. AIP allows the batteries to be charged even while the boat is submerged. However, even with the AIP, the submarine needs to surface nearly every three weeks.

In quick succession, in August 2022, Russia too backed out of the programme. Deputy Director General, Rubin Design Bureau, Andrey Baranov said the “terms and conditions” stated in the RFP for the construction of six advanced submarines under the Project-75I were “unrealistic.” According to reports from Russia, Baranov, while speaking at the Army 2022 expo, also said the requirements mentioned in the RFP demanded strict timelines and put a load of responsibility on the designer of the submarine. The foreign OEMs’ concern regarding this factor emerges out of the fact that since the submarines will be constructed in India, the designer would have no control over its construction. But, despite that the OEM will have to pay “high penalties” in case the timelines are missed. He further said that while the project’s design was no cause for concern, the same was not true with respect to the implementation of the programme.

Baranov said the Indian Navy wanted the state-of-the-art submarines to be equipped with powerful missiles, stealth technology and ToT. He added that this would be effectively be an entirely new submarine and there was no such prototype available in the world. While Germany had exited the projected, it is again in the fray along with South Korea. Earlier in 2017, after the initial go-ahead of for the P75-I programme that came in 2007 from the central government, Japan’s Mitsubishi-Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Spain’s Navantia became the first two countries to exit the contest and not respond to the RFI. Further, in 2019, Swedish major SAAB withdrew from the race citing an imbalance in the SP model with the Indian side having more control.

One of the main issues ailing the major players was the AIP technology. The tender by the navy mentioned that the submarine should have on offer an operational AIP module. As of today, this technology is available only with Germany and South Korea. Navantia of Spain is reported to have offered its expertise in integrating new age AIP system known as Bio-Ethanol Stealth Technology (BEST) with full ToT. Navantia is known to have signed MoUs with both Indian partners MDL and L&T for the submarine project under the SP model.

Interestingly, while the P75-I project is shrouded in uncertainty, The Financial Express quoted sources as saying the MDL and L&T are both ready to submit their final proposal by August this year.

Despite the problems and foreign vendors opting out of the programme, the Navy has remained consistent in backing the programme. On several occasions, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar has shown confidence in the P75-I project and said the force would be going ahead with it. In December last year, the chief said the Project 75-I for building the next generation submarine would be through by next year. During the annual press conference, responding to concerns that there has been a massive delay, the chief termed it a “complex process.” He said, “It is under the strategic partnership model. It the new way of doing business where we want to develop capabilities on this with private players. So, there are a lot of challenges. There has been a little bit of delay. The Indian applicant companies and the OEMs who are joining with them had apprehensions.” But he added that the queries of the OEMs were “duly processed” and “addressed”. He said the Navy was hopeful that it would now go forward in a few months.

In an interview to FORCE the same month, he said, “Programmes of such nature are complex and the world they take time to fructify. The RFP for the Project-75(I) has been issued to the two Indian applicant companies, MDL and L&T, on July 20, 2021. The case is being progressed as per the guidelines of the strategic partnership model defined in the defence procurement procedures. The bidders had raised certain concerns on some clauses of the RFP and the same have been resolved by minor changes to the RFP.” He added that the amendments had been issued to the bidders post approval by the DAC. After receipt of the response to the RFP, the process of technical evaluation and commercial negotiation would follow.

The acquisition programme for submarines was launched in June 1999 when the Cabinet Committee on Security approved a 30-year plan for the Navy to indigenously build and induct 24 submarines by 2030. In the first phase, two lines of production were to be established—the first, P-75 and the second, P-75I. Each of these lines were to produce six submarines. While the P-75 programme was signed in 2005 with the Naval Group, the P-75I programme was delayed and never really got on track. The first Request for Information was issued in 2008, then again in 2010 and finally in 2017.

In 2017, the Indian Navy again issued an RFI after formally launching the acquisition programme to six submarine OEMs including Rubin Design Bureau of Russia, Naval Group (formerly DCNS) of France, Navantia of Spain, Saab of Sweden, Mitsubishi-Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan and ThyssenKrupp of Germany.

The Navy currently has 16 conventional and one nuclear ballistic submarine in service. It includes seven Russian Kilo class submarines, four German Shishumar class submarines, five French Scorpene or Kalvari class submarines, and the indigenous nuclear ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant. The upgraded version of INS Arihant, INS Arighat is expected to enter service by 2024. The last of the Kalvari class submarines, Vagsheer, has only recently begun sea trials. It is hoped to be delivered to the Navy by early 2024. With Vagsheer having left the MDL facility, India’s submarine manufacturing has come to a halt.

All eyes are now on P-75I for building underwater capabilities of the Indian Navy, the manufacturing of which will again take a few years. When the project received clearance from the government in 2021, the first submarine was supposed to be completed by 2030. However, with delays now, the construction will take additional time. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN), on the other hand, is said to have more than 65 diesel-electric and nuclear-powered and nuclear-attack submarines. Reports state that China is on course to boost these numbers soon.



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