The chequered history behind Kalvari’s induction

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman chaired her first DAC (Defence Acquisition Council) meeting on September 27 and accorded ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ to the Indian Navy for acquiring upgraded sonars to be fitted on its surface ships. Sonars are underwater surveillance equipment used for submarine detection and the technology involved in designing and producing them is complex and restricted to a few nations.

It is understood that the value of the contract to be awarded is a modest Rs 200 crore and will be routed through the ‘Make in India’ framework and will hopefully spur the domestic capacity in the sonar domain. India’s procurement procedures for military inventory items are long drawn out and often piecemeal and the backlog is huge.

The Minister apparently stated that such DAC meetings are to be held every fortnight and whether this is the beginning of the proverbial ‘stables being cleaned’ of accumulated and malodorous dung remains to be seen.

Concurrently, the first Scorpene class submarine, the Kalvari, was handed over to the Indian Navy by the Mazagon Docks shipyard on September 21 and it is expected that the ‘boat’ will be formally commissioned, when it will get the prefix INS, in the next couple of months. This is a major development given the chequered trajectory of the Scorpene project that was first mooted as far back as 2003.

Kalvari (tiger-shark) is a historic name for the navy. The first Indian submarine — a Foxtrot-class boat acquired from the former USSR and commissioned in December 1967 bore the same name. This submarine was de-commissioned in 1996.

The Scorpene submarine project was officially initiated by India in 2005 with Armaris, a French-Spanish joint venture. The fact that it has taken 12 years for the first submarine to be handed over to the user tells its own story. Differences over contractual obligations between the French supplier and the Indian buyer also led to avoidable cost and time overruns, and the submarine arm was deprived of much needed operational capacity.

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The DAC meeting and the induction of the Kalvari offer some very valuable clues for the higher defence management of the country, which is in need of urgent review and redress — a matter that one presumes must be on top of the priority list for Sitharaman.

The first question that comes to mind is why a Rs 200 crore upgrade to an existing piece of equipment — in this case the sonar, must await approval by the Defence Minister. And the suggestion that such meetings must be held every fortnight is yet another indicator of the convoluted procurement-modernisation process that the Ministry of Defence has evolved over the years.

India’s submarine saga is a very inspiring story and the Kalvari symbolises the triumphs and the tribulations of the last 50 years. The F-class boats acquired from the former USSR acquitted themselves with quiet aplomb in the war for Bangladesh in 1971 and a pattern of inducting new platforms in a regular and cost-effective manner was envisioned — with a focus on indigenous submarine-building capacity.

A new generation of boats, this time the HDW, were acquired from then West Germany in the late 1980s, with a provision to build two of the submarines in Mazagon Docks. However, a corruption scandal broke over the HDW contract and a feckless political decision was taken by then PM Rajiv Gandhi to scrap the deal and the indigenous effort went into cold storage.

Almost 25 years later, the first conventional submarine to be built in India, the new Kalvari, will be inducted later this year and the loss of time, money and operational capability can be deemed ‘avoidable’ — if there was more informed and objective political oversight about such critical aspects of national military capability.

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But the distinctive Indian experience has more to it. In an anomalous development, the Kalvari when commissioned will have no torpedoes, for the original supplier is linked to an Italian firm — Finnmeccanica — that has been banned over the VIP helicopter corruption scandal.

India is currently scrambling to acquire the appropriate heavyweight torpedoes for the Kalvari and the boats to follow, and this may be a contract worth about Rs 1,300 crore. A very judicious decision will have to be taken to ensure the indigenous torpedo design and building effort — in which India has made modest but commendable progress — is also enabled.

The sonar upgrades that were cleared by the DAC have to be harmonised with the success story of the first Indian designed and built APSOH sonar in the early 1980s. At a time when India was under extreme technology denial regimes, a young naval officer, then Captain Paulraj, led the effort with the DRDO to give India its breakthrough in sonars. This pioneering effort was not adequately supported and scaled up, and hence the import dependency continues. In short, the current defence procurement template is inadequate and dysfunctional.

Sitharaman has to evolve a new template that will be effective and affordable, and which will be nurtured by her successor. Too many piecemeal DAC meetings is not a viable option.

The writer is a former Commodore in the Indian Navy

 

 

 

 

 

Source:- DNA India

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