Why India needs to pay far more attention to its Navy, particularly submarine capability

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the Defence Minister, in its meeting on 31 January 2019 accorded approval for six conventional submarines to be built in India under the Strategic Partnership model (Chapter 7 of the Defence Procurement Procedure 2016), an important milestone for progressing the long overdue Project 75(I) programme. It is understood that the next step is the issue of an Expression of Interest (EoI) to the global submarine manufacturers who have responded to the RFI and the Indian shipyards keen to participate in this programme. However, this is only the first step.

This programme has been bedevilled at least twice in the last decade by false starts and it is hoped this time will prove different. Infact, the one consistent feature in the 51 years since the first Indian submarine was commissioned on 08 December 1967 has been the inconsistency in submarine acquisition.

Project 75(I) is part of the 30 year Plan for indigenous submarine construction which was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 1999. This plan was meant to streamline the submarine acquisition process and envisaged the development of two submarine production lines and construction of six submarines on each in collaboration with foreign OEMs with the programmes running till 2012. Learning from these two programmes through transfer of technology, 12 submarines of an indigenous design were to be constructed on each of these two production lines so that the Indian Navy would be able to maintain a force level of at least 20 modern submarines and thereafter maintain that number through series production.

While the plan is still extant, its abysmal execution has defeated its very purpose. Of the two collaborative programmes through which 12 submarines were to be added, the contract for the first programme was signed in 2005 with Naval Group (formerly DCNS) France to build their Scorpene class submarines in India. It took 12 years for the Naval Group-Mazagon Docks combine to deliver the first submarine which should have been delivered within seven years. The reasons for this delay are many with no single agency wholly responsible. However, the reality is that 20 years into the plan, only one submarine has been commissioned with another one likely to follow soon whereas even by conservative estimates, at least 12-14 should have been added by now. What is of greater concern is that at the end of two decades India is still a long way off from developing an indigenous design which was one of the main objectives of the 30 Year Plan.

In striking contrast to this delay was India’s first foray into indigenous submarine in collaboration with the German HDW Shipyard (now owned by Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems) for four Type 209 submarines (modified to Indian specifications) of which the first two were to be built in Germany and the remaining two in India. The first submarine arrived in India from Kiel in 1986, the second in 1987 and within five years of that the first indigenously built submarine, INS Shalki was commissioned. The second, INS Shankul followed in 1994. These submarines are still in fine fettle more than 25 years later.

However, political expediency put paid to this programme thus depriving India of not only the ability to consolidate this specialised core national industrial skill but also blacklisted the OEM for paying commissions. This, of course, was never proved but did India irreparable harm, the consequences of which are still being felt. India today is more or less where it was 25 years ago in terms of conventional submarine construction.

While the delay in Project 75 should have led the Government to accelerate the 75(I) programme, quite the opposite is happening. The RFI for this programme was first issued in 2008 with four designs in mind – the French Scorpene, the German Type 214, the Russian Amur class and the Spanish S-80. More than ten years later, the programme is still languishing at the RFI response stage and has been mired in the GoI’s muddled defence procurement and indigenisation thought process. It has now been linked to the Strategic Partnership programme which was initiated in 2016 as Chapter 7 of the Defence Procurement Procedure. The SP model is riddled with ambiguity and is still a work in progress. It has also failed to excite industry so far.

While it is definitely a laudable initiative and will eventually become actionable, critical programmes like Project 75(I) should not be held hostage to it. The net result of the delay in executing Project 75(I) is that while three of the four submarine designs in the fray in 2008 remain the same (German Type 214, French Scorpene and the Russian Amur), they will now cost a lot more a decade later.

From an operational perspective, the delay in execution of the 30 Year plan has severely compromised the navy’s combat capability. While the present inventory may be adequate to meet an immediate threat in a limited area of operations, it is in dire need of attention. Of the 14 submarines in commission, 12 are 25-33 years old and one is over 19 years old. As a stopgap measure to arrest this alarming decline, six of these 14 submarines are undergoing a mid-life refit and would remain in commission and combat capable for at least another decade or so. However, this is hardly a desirable situation for the navy of the predominant maritime power in the region seeking to shape the geopolitical contours in a distinctly maritime oriented strategic construct of the Indo-Pacific.

Being combat capable in a contemporary environment is not about just putting an adequate number of platforms at sea. Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s frontline offensive capability and the unforgiving environment they operate in hundreds of metres below the surface of the sea requires professionalism of a very high order both individually and collectively as a crew. This can only be honed by spending adequate time at sea on fully operational platforms exercising operational and tactical scenarios in exercises and war games. However, old submarines require longer maintenance periods in harbour with the consequent adverse operational effects of less time at sea. At a time when most navies in the region are paying greater attention towards augmenting their undersea warfare capability, the Indian programme is grappling with procedural issues.

One of the fall-outs of the delay in delivering Project 75 submarines is that Indian submarines still do not have contemporary technologies like Air Independent Propulsion on board which is now the accepted norm for conventional submarines worldwide as it enhances a submarine’s dived endurance manifold. Even our western adversary Pakistan has been operating the French Naval Group supplied MESMA AIP systems on board its French designed Agosta 90B submarines. for over a decade . It is understood that DRDO is developing a fuel-cell AIP system which could be the future system for Indian submarines. However, its production timeline is anybody’s guess but will definitely not be deployed at sea till the middle of the next decade. While India is still struggling with AIP technology, submarine manufacturers the world over are already moving forward from the AIP-lead acid battery combination to lithium-ion batteries. An operational Japanese Soryu class submarine has been fitted out with these.

The delay in the Project 75(I) programme is creating a deficit in the Navy’s full spectrum capability and therefore needs to be progressed rapidly. One way to mitigate the effects of this delay is to ensure that adequate value addition is included in the Transfer of Technology (ToT) package.

This would accelerate indigenous design development and ensure adequate indigenous manufacturing capability thus reducing the lead time for the subsequent indigenous submarine programme. This would also benefit not only the conventional submarine programme but also the nuclear attack submarine programme, six of which are also planned. To be a submarine building nation, the ability to design a submarine comes first and foremost. In the absence of an indigenous submarine design capability, self- reliance will remain largely restricted to bits and pieces of equipment being incorporated in a foreign design as has been done to some extent in the Project 75 and does not therefore constitute credible indigenous construction and in a way defeats the very objective of achieving self-reliance and the vision of ‘Make in India’ in which defence has been identified as one of the key sectors.

Other areas which will require a focused approach with specific and realistic timelines include contemporary weapons and sensors, diesel generators, propulsion motors, complex ship systems and sub-systems, non-penetrating masts etc. While indigenisation wish-lists have been regularly articulated by the Navy (Indian Navy Indigenisation Plan 2015-30) and the MoD (Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap), they lack conviction of purpose in the absence of a well-defined road map or an enabling environment to encourage industry to make the necessary investment required to attain the desired levels of indigenisation.

The Indo-Pacific is going to be the scene of intense geo-economic competition in which confrontation at some stage will be imminent and conflict also a possibility. If India indeed wants to shape the environment as the predominant Indian Ocean power, it has to pay far more attention to its navy and more specifically, its submarine capability the undersea warfare domain.






Source:- Financial Express

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