The Untold Story of the Development of Indian Submarine Force
In 1957, the government of India requested Lord Mountbatten, then the First Sea Lord, to provide India a target submarine which could be the oldest and cheapest available to serve as a foundation to build a submarine force for the Indian Navy (IN), a request he flatly refused to consider. In 1959 the Indian Navy asked the UK for three operational submarines, this never happened as the UK refused the soft credit terms sought by India. The Indian Navy finally got a Break when the Soviet Union came to India’s rescue and provided the Indian Navy with eight Foxtrot class submarines between 1967 & 1974.
Submarine acquisition in India was hit by a double whammy in the 1980s with the German HDW Submarine scam in 1987 which saw the much required class of six HDW type 209 submarines being acquired being reduced to four boats. To make matters worse, India also had to prematurely return the Charlie class SSN it had leased from the USSR for 10 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it had only served the IN for a bare three years. The Russians came to the rescue once again and the fleet was bolstered by 10 877EKM (KILO) class boats which were inducted between 1986 & 2000.
In the year 2000 the Indian Navy adopted a 30 year submarine building plan which would see the induction of 24 new submarines by 2030 with 18 SSKs(Submersible ship killer) & 6 SSNs(Submersible ship nuclear) joining the fleet by 2030. This was later tweaked to 24 SSKs with all 6 SSNs getting their own separate category & $14Bn approval under the strategic nuclear submarine program in February 2015.The plan called for half the Slated strength of 24 SSKs or 12 boats to be built on two simultaneous lines with foreign collaboration by 2012 with another 12 to be built completely of an indigenous design between 2012-30, needless to say that plan lies in tatters.
The French Naval group Scorpene was a natural choice for the first six of the 12 submarines to be built with foreign collaboration as Indian authorities had actually been in negotiations for a Scorpene line at MDL as far back as 1998. Post the Kargil conflict these older negotiations were clubbed in with the new 30 year plan & a deal for 6 Scorpene SSKs was signed in October 2005. All six submarines were to be built in the MDL shipyard at Mumbai in a plan called P75 or the Kalvari Class with technology transfer from France enabling the construction of more if required . It is interesting to note that the Press at that time reported the Scorpene deal to have been more expensive than a similar offer by HDW for the Type 214, the deal then was apparently decided in favor of the Scorpene pointing to the French agreement to install Indian indigenous AIP & an ability to fire Exocet missiles.
It is also interesting to note that as far back as 2005 International defence publications indicated the Scorpene yard at Mumbai as a potential source for new Scorpene SSKs for Taiwan as well. That said a lot changed down the line,the Indian Navy Scorpene program faced a lot of setbacks and wherein all six submarines were slated to be commissioned by 2012 the delayed signing saw that timeline first pushed back to 2017 . The timeline for completion of the six Scorpene now lies in 2022 with the fourth craft of the series set to be launched later in 2020. The program has suffered other setbacks apart from the expanded timeline as well with the DRDO AIP getting further delayed which will see this rather elusive DRDO developed Air independent Propulsion module only be installed onto the Scorpene units on their first refit sometime after 2024. Apart from this the Blacklisting of Finmeccanica saw the Indian Scorpene development program blocked off from acquiring Italian Blackshark heavy torpedoes that were initially selected as standard fitment for the type in 2005.A new tender for 100 Heavyweight torpedoes has been released as recently as January 2020 with The German Firm Atlas Elektronik with the Seahake mod 4 & French Naval Group with the F21 the only two respondents. A final selection is yet to be made. This program faced another setback when on 24th August 2016 “The Australian “released a set of 22000 papers with Technical & Operational details of the Scorpene class submarines currently in construction for the Indian navy at Mazagon Docks Mumbai. This led to much diplomatic & defence ministerial consternation with an official statement stating no official secrets had been leaked & the matter being quietly buried .It is worth noting here that Reuters in December 2019 pointed to this data leak as the reason why India had decided against exercising an option for an additional three boats, the news by Reuters was never officially confirmed.
The 2nd part of the 30 year plan which called for another simultaneous line called P75I building 6 more SSKs is under negotiations now with the frontrunner reportedly being Naval Group which has apparently offered India an enlarged modified version of the Scorpene in conjunction with its old partner MDL. That said Russia has queered the pitch & made this much more than a simple acquisition program with a proposal for an India Centered Submarine JV on the lines of the successful Brahmos program. Reports indicate that under the terms offered India will be free to build as many of the SSKs as it wants with export rights as well. The key to this project is the DRDO AIP again, Russia has so far struggled with AIP technology & the DRDO AIP would likely become an item of reverse tech transfer for integration on Russia’s own fleet of nearly 20 Diesel electric submarines making this a lucrative proposal for both parties.The Russian Design would integrate the Brahmos missile as well something on which clarity has not been received yet from their French competition. It is worth noting here that United Shipbuilding from Russia has sought to acquire the bankrupt PIPAVAV yard once owned by Reliance Defence, it may not be farfetched to see that yard become the nerve center for an Indo Russian Submarine Joint Venture corporation in the near future.
The Future for the Indian Navy has to be indigenous & in this regard India has developed a series of technologies that are currently being incorporated into its existing fleet of SSKs as they are upgraded. A number of these technologies are being used in the indigenous SSBN/SSN programs as well. Key amongst these are DMR249B Submarine grade steel which is now being produced in industrial quantities at SAIL Durgapur, the USHUS Sonar & Panchendriya Combat Suite which are both now part of standard fitment on upgraded KILO Class SSKs. It is also worth noting that there are at least two Indian manufacturers that have a known capability to manufacture Batteries for Submarines .HBL Batteries headquartered at Hyderabad manufactures 12391 Wh to 40300 Wh Batteries for Submarines at its facilities in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand & Haryana.
Exide Industries India also manufactures Batteries for Submarines and currently meets 100%of the requirement of Submarine batteries for the Indian Navy. Exide also has a license to export Submarine batteries and has exported submarine batteries to Algeria and Russia in the past. Exide is on the list of registered Submarine battery vendors for the Russian Submarine Design Bureau RUBIN as well. India has also developed indigenous Anechoic tiles that are manufactured at Mysore & now adorn all the SSKs in the Indian Naval fleet .A series of Submarine fired weapons including both lightweight & Heavyweight torpedoes remain in development & should be part of future fitment for indigenous SSKs.
The holy grail of modern SSK development is Air independent propulsion & after a lot of hits & misses which included experimentation with at least two different types of AIP (Air independent Propulsion) Fuel Cell technologies called PAFC (Phosphoric acid fuel cell) & PEMFC (polymer electrolyte fuel cell).The DRDO has reportedly perfected the world’s first Phosphoric Acid Borohydride hydrolysis based fuel cell that is reportedly scalable to an output of up to 500kW & a modular construction that allows for modules to be fabricated for any submarine as desired. This allows for AIP modules to be prebuilt & simply plugged into each P75 Scorpene as they come in for their midlife refits starting 2024.The technology has already been transferred to industrial partners so the modules can be fabricated & tested in conditions mimicking a Scorpene hull for an extended period before they are finally installed onto submarines starting 2024.
Apart from the conventional Submarine developments listed India has also embarked on a multi decadal plan to build nuclear submarines with an initial plan for 6 SSBN (Submersible Ship ballistic nuclear) & 6 SSN already approved & well in progress. That said India has no plans at the moment for an all nuclear underwater fleet and may actually be looking to increase SSK numbers beyond the earlier mentioned 24. Erstwhile defence minister the late Manohar Parrikar said something to the effect when in 2016 while speaking at a FICCI seminar on undersea defence technologies he mentioned that the Indian Navy need not limit itself to 24 SSKs but must plan for expanding its undersea fleet. That said the current delays with SSK acquisition have necessitated life extension refits on all four Type 209 SSKs & eight boats of the KILO fleet. It’s worth noting here that Russia has offered India three rebuilt Kilos provided a Russian yard gets the order to upgrade three Kilo SSKs currently up for refit.
The Bay of Bengal & Arabian Sea have seen a steady cooperative buildup in undersea combat capabilities by Pakistan and China, both neighbors with which it has been in conflict in the recent past. China fields one of the largest fleets of attack submarines comprising six Jin Class ballistic missile nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSBNs), nine modern Shang Class SSNs and 53 SSKs currently deployed with plans to build at least six more SSNs & SSBNs of an even more advanced design. It is worth noting here that the PLAN SSK fleet is undergoing steady renewal with older obsolete Ming class vessels getting phased out & replaced by modern Yuan & Song class vessels with Stirling AIP engines. China has entered the underwater arena in subcontinental waters by exporting submarines to Pakistan and Bangladesh. China will be delivering eight S20 class SSKs to the Pakistan Navy between 2021 & 2028. The first four will be built by China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., which will also set up a training center in Karachi, and will be delivered by 2023, while the remainder will be assembled at the Karachi Shipbuilding and Engineering Works by 2028.
The Pakistan Navy already operates three Agosta 90Bs (Khalid class) submarines purchased in the 1990s which are currently being modernized by Turkish Shipbuilding firm STM. The fleet also has two older Agosta 70s (Hashmat class) dating from the late 1970s, the Hashmat class will likely be progressively retired as the S20 submarine deliveries begin & should give the Pakistan Navy the capability to deploy eleven relatively modern AIP equipped SSKs by 2030. Bangladesh has acquired two Type 035G Ming-class diesel-electric submarines from Beijing in a U.S. $193 million deal. These are the first submarines in the Bangladesh Navy ,two submarine bases to host these vessels are currently under construction at Cox Bazar & Patuakhali. Another new entrant to the Submarine arena in subcontinental waters in Myanmar which has recently been transferred one old KILO submarine from India post refit, there are indications that Myanmar is looking to acquire two more KILO class SSKs directly from Russia as well.
It is imperative that India keep pace with developments in the subcontinental region with an increased boost towards increasing submarine combat capabilities & numbers so that the Indian Navy can maintain effective Sea Denial against any adversarial force that may try to wrest away it’s stewardship of the Indian Ocean in the near or distant future.Submarine force development is a key part of maintaining deterrence against any adversaries. As detailed earlier submarine force growth in India has suffered numerous setbacks throughout the years & numerous well set acquisition plans now lie in tatters. This has contributed to a scenario where adversarial forces appear to have narrowed the lead India had with regard to capabilities in the underwater sphere. It is imperative that these problems are sorted out at the earliest so that a large modern effective armada of submarines can give the Indian Navy the same dominance in the underwater domain that the surface fleet enjoys vis a vis its immediate adversaries.