Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Russian nuclear subs for India - one or two?
MOSCOW: A senior Russian government official has dismissed media rumours that his country planned to lease several nuclear submarines to India. According to a media report, the official said that the contract envisioned transfer of only the 'Nerpa' vessel.
The 12,000-ton K-152 'Nerpa' is a Schucka-B class (NATO: Akula-II) nuclear attack submarine meant for lease to the Indian Navy for a period of ten years. The submarine was left unfinished with the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and was subsequently completed with Indian funds.
"We will lease only one submarine. In my opinion, India needs the sub more for enhancing its prestige rather than for accomplishing specific goals," Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, reportedly said in an exclusive interview with RIA Novosti.
The comment by the deputy head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation runs completely counter to the comment reportedly made by the head of the same organisation in mid-December 2008.
"Yes, there is a real possibility of leasing for ten years several of our nuclear powered multi-role submarines of Project 971 of 'Shchucka-B' class," the Director of Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS) Mikhail Dmitriyev was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS in that mid-December report.
The same report also quoted officials as saying that the Nerpa (to be inducted into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra) would provide a quantum jump to India's naval capabilities, which is now sought to be contradicted by this report.
The Nerpa suffered a serious accident on 8 November 2008 while undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan. Three submariners and 17 shipyard workers were killed.
According to Russian navy officials, sea trials will resume in early July and the submarine is scheduled to be delivered to India by the end of 2009.
The Schucka-B class vessels are considered the quietest and deadliest of all Russian nuclear-powered attack submarines, virtually at par with the best the likes of the United States Navy have to offer.
The Akula purchase
Earlier reports in the Russian media, going as far back as the summer of 1998, spoke of an Indian Navy delegation visiting the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet's Schucka-B/Akula submarine base and expressing an interest in the November of that year for possible purchase of two of these submarines.
The request was followed up on by then Russian defence minister Igor Sergeev on his visit to New Delhi in March 1999. Reports indicated that at this point of time the Russians brought up the issue of completing the unfinished hulls of two Schucka-B/Akula subs with Indian funding. These would have been the Nerpa and the Gepard with the first of the Schucka-B/Akula II class, the Vepr, already being commissioned in 1995.
Details were never released but it was understood that the subs would be given out on lease as then Russian laws did not allow export of such sensitive items as nuclear submarines. There was also the problem of keeping American and Chinese sensitivities in mind as both nations were bound to cry foul if the Russians announced the lease or sale of these submarines.
It will have to be kept in mind that in 1999 Russia was at a particularly vulnerable juncture of its national development, post the collapse of the Soviet Union and was not interested in raising hackles of any country, particularly the Chinese or the Americans.
1999, incidentally, was also the year when the Indian government decide to hike funding for its indigenous nuclear submarine, the Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) programme, to about $10 billion with guaranteed funding for its entire duration.
From this period onwards, as far as the sale/lease of the Schucka-B/Akula submarines to the Indian Navy was concerned, no further details were available.
A 2006 analysis by a Russian business journal took a look at the announcements made by the Russian defence ministry regarding its annual revenues for the year 2005 and spotted a discrepancy that could only be explained if the Indians should have paid out money for the construction of two and not one Schucka-B submarine.
Around the same time, to confuse matters even further, reports began to circulate that India had paid $650 million for the 10-year lease of a single Schucka-B.
Very likely, as has happened with all contracts signed in the period 1998-2004, the contract for the Akulas - should it be for twins - would now be hanging fire with the Russians determined to negotiate a higher price for completion and subsequent lease of the second submarine than was earlier committed to.
A discrete silence from the New Delhi may be indicative of its desire not to reveal its 'blue water' strategies, before the means to deliver them should fructify.
With the Chinese navy (PLAN) already fielding a large nuclear submarine force, which allows it to extend operations to the Indian Ocean region with ease, the Indian Navy needs not just a token presence of a single nuclear submarine but also the comfort of numbers.
It's not certain when the indigenous ATV ''baby boomers'' are likely to slip into the water. It is also not certain if it's a single ATV hull that has been laid down at the Vizag yard or two. What is certain is that the Indian Navy needs a nuclear submarine force in numbers soon, given the dramatic turnaround in the capabilities of the Chinese Navy and the rise in strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
All of the world's high and medium intensity conflicts are located in this strategic area, including the American-led Global War on Terror (GWOT). Given the incredible rise in the price and importance of petroleum and the massive amount of shipping tonnage that is now criss-crossing IOR waters the region has assumed significance previously accorded only to the Atlantic seaboard at the peak of the Cold War.
It has been noted, particularly with the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier affair that the Russians let their intentions to re-negotiate existing contracts be known through inspired media reports. It has also been noted that after a period of silence, and denial, New Delhi is then forced to acknowledge the troubles they are faced with regard to a particular 'Russian,' contract.
Such tactics may have resulted in prices of Russian contracts being revised upwards, but they has also seen a significant erosion in the Russian domination of the Indian defence market as the Indian defence establishment is now making it a point to source ever larger portions of their requirements from non-Russian sources.