The navy needs to revive the 30-year submarine building plan
Capt. Jawahar Bhagwat PhD (retd)
In 1997, the government approved the construction of two indigenous SSK submarines of Type 1500 at Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd (MDL). In October 2000, with the approval of the then minister of defence, Request for Proposal (RFP) was forwarded only to Thomsun CSF, France. Though the Price Negotiation Committee (PNC) was held between November 2001 and June 2002 and the draft Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) note was prepared in October 2002, the contract was signed only on 6 October 2005 after approval of the next government.
The Public Accounts Committee of the 15th Lok Sabha in its 10th report stated, ‘Though the government accorded approval in 1997 due to depleting force levels, it took nine years for finalisation of the contract.’ The Scorpene project continues to be delayed with the first submarine having been commissioned in December 2017 and the second submarine on 28 September 2019, well behind the originally intended schedule of 2012 for the first submarine and 2017 for the last submarine. At the commissioning of the second submarine INS Khanderi, defence minister Rajnath Singh, said, “Our special partnership with the French Navy will touch new heights. The construction of the submarine is benefitting industries indirectly through the ‘Make in India’ programme. Our government is alert to the needs of our defence force and we are committed to fulfilling it.”
However, it is understood that the navy has asked MDL to pay a thousand crore rupees due to the repeated late delivery of these submarines. Though construction began on 14 December 2006, INS Kalvari could be launched only on 27 October 2015 and commissioned on 14 December 2019. One of the reasons attributed for the delay in the Scorpene contract is that expertise had to be built up by MDL afresh as submarine building stopped in 1994 post commissioning of INS Shankul with the blacklisting of HDW. This has, of course, been repeatedly highlighted by MDL.
Notwithstanding the claim on MDL by the navy, since MDL functions under the department of defence production, it is unlikely that this claim will be permitted by the defence ministry. The issues with respect to the Scorpene contract including cost escalation due to delay in signing of the contract have been documented in detail by the 10th report of the Public Accounts Committee of the 15th Lok Sabha. In addition, for reasons best known to Integrated Headquarters ministry of defence (Navy), the contract did not follow the well-documented and attention to detail of the contract for Shishumar class submarines. All shore support and training facilities so vital for submarines were not catered for.
Apart from non-synchronisation of the delivery of the platform and the SM-39 missiles, the most glaring snafu was that the contract did not cater for a heavyweight torpedo, the main weapon of offense and defence for any submarine. As a consequence, these submarines are being fitted with the SUT torpedo which was procured originally in the early Eighties for the Shishumar class submarines. The defence ministry and the navy may argue that these torpedoes have been modernised recently, but that is only the electronics part. The capabilities including the range and maximum speed remain the same and these capabilities are inferior to modern torpedoes.
Regrettably the programme for indigenisation of the SUT torpedo was stopped due to problems with the torpedo and lack of patience on part of the naval brass. Therefore, till now we are dependent upon Germany for the supply of torpedoes. The number of combat and practice torpedoes available for the submarine fleet is a cause for serious concern. If sufficient practice torpedoes are not available, then submarine captains cannot hone their skills adequately in peacetime; a fact not quite understood by the defence ministry. Indigenous efforts need a lot of time and patience on part of IHQ, MoD (Navy). We must contrast this with China which is almost self-sufficient in submarine missiles as well as torpedoes.
As is well known, the Scorpene deal was signed due to the French willingness to offer the Exocet missile for the follow-on SSK project. But if we compare the Exocet missile of 50km range with any advanced torpedo then these torpedoes also have a similar range and are more lethal since they strike at the underwater part of a ship’s hull. As also the Club-S with a range of 220km and the land attack version of 275km which no nation has offered us so far. Similarly, the ship version of BRAHMOS has a range of about 300km.
Another area of concern is the breach of operational security (following the leak of Scorpene data four years back) where the vessel’s sonar frequencies, radiated noise levels, diving depth, range and endurance, infra-red data and weapon specifications are now available in the open domain and obviously even to our adversaries makes these submarines vulnerable. The alleged detection of INS Kalvari off the coast of Pakistan during the skirmish in early 2019 is a pointer to this vulnerability.
The Scorpene incident followed by the stealing of documents pertaining to the Rafale deal as stated by the Attorney General in 2019 ought to have been a reminder for the defence ministry and the armed forces to re-examine their defence production, physical security and cyber security norms. An Australian newspaper report stated that the documents could prove an ‘intelligence bonanza’ for India’s rivals, such as, Pakistan and China. The level of oversight by the Parliamentary committee on defence as compared to other countries such as the United States and Britain is so weak that as usual no mention is found on this vital issue in any of the annual reports of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence.
No nation other than India buys platforms and crucial weapon systems which have also been sold to its adversary as such a transaction may involve ease of implementation of suitable countermeasures by the adversary apart from the possibility of leakage of vital combat information for a price. The cases of manufacture of the Scorpene class submarines, purchase of the Exocet missiles for the Scorpene class submarines and Harpoon Block II missiles for two ageing Shishumar class (INS Shankush and INS Shalki) submarines are relevant. Earlier India had also purchased the Harpoon missiles for its Jaguar aircraft. The Pakistan Navy has Exocet missiles fitted on its Agosta 90B submarines and Harpoon missiles fitted on its frigates and P3C Orions.
In a recent development, India signed a USD2.3 billion agreement for Fleet Support Vessels (FSVs) to be built at Hindustan Shipyard Limited, Visakhapatnam in collaboration with a Turkish shipyard TAIS. This was despite security concerns which were raised as the firm has ongoing links with Pakistan including building of four anti-submarine corvettes, the first of which was launched in September 2019. It may be recalled that Turkish firms have been involved in building a FSV, four corvettes, supply of 30 T129 attack helicopters and also reportedly supports its submarine fleet. The contract is supposed to have been signed after India issued a statement rejecting references made to Jammu and Kashmir in a joint declaration by Pakistan and Turkey during President Erdogan’s visit to Islamabad in February 2020. Apart from a repeat of signing a deal with a firm which also deals with its arch adversary, HSL is located uncomfortably close to the ship building centre where nuclear submarines are built for the Indian Navy.
The navy’s project for six new stealth diesel-electric submarines which was first approved in November 2007 (Acceptance of Necessity) at a cost of Rs 45,000 crore is still in the quagmire of the defence procurement process even under the strategic partnership model. A news report in October 2017 carried out an analysis of six mega ‘Make in India’ projects and found that ‘bureaucratic bottlenecks, long-winded procedures, commercial and technical wranglings, coupled with lack of political push and follow-through continue to stymie their launch.’
As per the 41st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence released in January 2019, the navy reported that it was still evaluating Requests for Information (RFIs) received from the Original Equipment Manufacturers/shipyards (OEMs/ shipyards) more than a decade after being given the initial approval. It was reported that on 21 January 2020, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) shortlisted defence shipyard MDL and private shipbuilder L&T in the race for the Rs 50,000 crores contract. The DAC also approved five OEMs: Rubin Design Bureau (Russia), Naval Group (France), ThyssenKruppMarine Systems (Germany), Navantia (Spain) and Daewoo (South Korea).
With regards to the submarine building programme there has been insistence of the naval staff on including the air independent propulsion (AIP) as an essential requirement in the P-75I RFP. Whilst AIP is desirable, it is not vital and what needs to be borne in mind that the AIP is a defensive capability which improves a submarine’s survivability by enhancing the ability to remain submerged for a longer duration. With electro-catalytic fuel cells and the high energy density of Lithium-ion batteries, AIP submarines can operate at a patrol-quiet state or rest on the seabed for several weeks without planning to periscope depth.
German Type 212 submarines can reportedly stay underwater without snorkelling for up to three weeks, travelling 1500 miles (2400 kilometres) or more. But this is only at a speed of three knots, which means that its search area is limited. AIP has no role in an attack other than in evasion post-attack. It also increases the cost and weight of the submarine exponentially and therefore, needs to be accorded a lower weightage in the evaluation matrix for the P-75I submarine. What is important is the ability to influence events on land with land attack missiles and also long-range precision strike on enemy combatants by anti-ship cruise missiles if targeting data can be passed to a submarine in real time.
Three classes of submarines have successfully fired the potent Club land attack missile in our waters. Unfortunately, much as many power centres in the government and the navy might wish for, no nation other than Russia is willing to offer us land attack missiles and maybe even hypersonic missiles, or else we need to be serious about integrating Brahmos with our Project 75I submarines with the help of the Russian design bureau. Being a Russian-Indian joint project it may be unrealistic to expect that the Russians will permit integration of the Brahmos missile on a Type 214 or any other foreign submarine. Ideally, the design should also cater for the retro-fitment of a hypersonic missile which is a game-changer in the employment of missiles.
Of the five foreign OEMs short-listed only the Russians have the capability to offer the conventional anti-ship cruise missile, land attack cruise missile and hypersonic missiles. So, the question which arises is that are the defence ministry and the navy willing to sacrifice the missiles for the AIP, a purely defensive capability? Even if the shipyards respond to the defence ministry by the end of 2020, it will not be before early 2023 that a contract could be signed based upon analysis of past trends for the time taken to sign key defence contracts.
It will be at least another eight years before the first submarine gets commissioned i.e. in 2031 by which time the first Scorpene would be already 14 years old with only the six life-extended Sindhughosh/ Shishumar class submarines in service and due for decommissioning assuming that the navy will be able to exploit them for 10 years post life extension, though five years may be more realistic in view of equipment obsolescence. Unless the missiles, particularly land attack missiles are an integral non-negotiable part of Project 75I, the navy would end up having no land attack missile capable conventional submarines in the 2030s, a serious lacuna.
As mentioned earlier, the 30-year submarine building plan envisaged two different submarine building lines (one from a Western source and other from a Russian source) so as to avoid putting all eggs in one basket. Institutional memory has overlooked the sanctions that were imposed upon us post Pokhran-II in June 1998, which affected the supply of spare parts for the Jaguar aircraft and the HDW/ Type 209/ Shishumar class submarines. It has also conveniently forgotten that sanctions were waived only when India secretly agreed not to carry out any nuclear test again.
Considering the timelines mentioned above, it might therefore be prudent to look at three submarines (with AIP) of a Western source being built at MDL and six submarines of an Eastern source being built by L&T with both contracts being signed simultaneously. In keeping with the disinvestment of the inefficient Air India by the present dispensation it may also consider offering L&T a majority share in HSL to further both the conventional submarine and nuclear submarine building programmes. Based upon intelligence estimate of Pakistani AIP capability and operational analysis of the threat perception, the navy could consider retro-fitment of AIP on the Scorpene class submarines at a future date, if also found financially viable.
Shrinking Naval Budget
As reported in the media, according to the Parliamentary panel for defence, ‘The government does not meet the requirement of funds for increasing threat perceptions and modernisation to face a “two-front war”.’ The committee also noted in January 2019 that there has been a 40 per cent shortfall in the allocation for committed liabilities for the navy for the fiscal year 2018-19. The naval representative pointed out to the committee that this shortfall has been there for the last three financial years. The Committee has also noted that the percentage share of capital segment of naval budget to the total defence budget has declined from 12.81 per cent in the year 2012-13 to 7.46 per cent in the year 2017-18. This data, by itself is reflective of the unsympathetic attitude of the ministry of defence (MoD) towards the modernisation drive of the navy.
Pakistan Navy Submarine Force
The Pakistan submarine fleet consists of two Agosta-70 boats (Hashmat-class) and three modern Agosta-90B (Khalid-class) submarines, all of French design. All the Agosta-90B submarines are AIP capable. It has always been ahead of India as far as submarine developments are concerned whether it is missile capability or AIP, thus reflecting the priority that the Pakistan naval leadership has accorded to submarine issues vis-à-vis the Indian Navy which has generally been focused on aircraft carriers and destroyers. In 2015, Pakistan announced a USD5 billion agreement with China to purchase eight attack submarines — likely Type 039 or Type 041 Yuan-class vessels. Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Limited (KSEW) will construct four of these submarines in Pakistan while the China Shipbuilding Trading Company (CSTC) will build the remaining four in China. In 2016, Pakistan finalised the deal and its long-term loan with China to finance the deal. The first four vessels are slated for delivery by the end of 2023.
The ‘Project for Series Construction of Submarines for the Indian Navy and Acquisition of National Competence in Submarine Building’ conceived by the naval leadership in 1997 was visionary. However, the vision has been let down by successive defence ministers, the defence ministry and the navy. Except for the nuclear submarine component of the submarine arm we are in weaker state than we were in 1998 in terms of operational availability of submarines and on ground combat capability due to the ageing of submarines.
In the interim period, the submarine force of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has gone ahead by leaps and bounds and prowls around the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) at will. The defence ministry and the navy need to get the 30-year submarine building plan back on track in letter and spirit. This will only happen if force levels are realistically tabulated for the next 20 years at least. Insistence on AIP vis-à-vis giving less importance to an offensive missile including land attack capability for the conventional submarine programme is not in the national interest. It would do well to emulate the Chinese example of focusing on real and not knocked down indigenous capability simultaneously for both the conventional and nuclear submarine programmes.
It also needs to factor in further budget cuts due to a slowing economy. The Parliamentary Committee on Defence needs to include independent experts as advisors if it is to function effectively as an oversight mechanism for the functioning of the defence ministry and the three services. Action taken report of the MoD on observations by CAG could be included as part of the annual report of the parliamentary panel on defence.
(The writer is a former Captain of INS Chakra, INS Shishumar and INS Shalki. He also served on the Sindhughosh [Kilo] class submarines)