Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Indian Navy’s second Submarine Line will witness strong competition

Indian Navy’s submarine arm had clocked an impressive strength of 21 submarines in the 1980s and its Order of Battle (ORBAT) included the Charlie class nuclear propelled submarine INS Chakra, taken on lease from the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.

The Indian Navy (IN) successfully absorbed the Chakra’s nuclear propulsion technology while it was based at Vishakapatnam. The submarine was seen exercising with a few selected fleet units of the Navy in Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) maneuvers.

Since then however, the Navy has witnessed a steady decline and its ORBAT of submarines is down to 14 boats, some of them on the verge of retirement.

India’s Scorpene project is delayed, but the requirement of an additional six boats at least in a second line of construction is inviting keen competition from several countries, including Russia, Germany and France.

The existing boats include four Dr Gabler 1500 HDW/IKL designed submarines inducted between 1986 and 1994, and 10 Kilo class double decked boats from Moscow, supplied between 1986 and 2000. The Indian Navy has acquired just two submarines since 1990 in the last 21 years. Of the ten Kilos, the last, INS Sindhushastra (S 65), was commissioned in June 2000, as the fully converted submarine capable of firing Uran missiles.

Four more were later converted in Russia during long refits and, at present, the older six Kilos are 22 years old and ageing. The 20- year old INS Sindhukriti (S-61), the first submarine to be attempted to be refitted in India for conversion to fire Uran missiles with Russian help, has been languishing in refit at Vishakapatnam for the last three years.

To augment the Navy’s submarine strategic capability, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) took over the loss making Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) from the Ministry of Shipping at Vishakapatnam, as it was right next to the Ship Building Centre (SBC) where India’s nuclear submarines are being built. HSL was given the contract to refit INS Sindhukriti.

The inability to carry out refits of the Kilo class submarines in India is another debilitating factor leading to a degraded operational capability.

Submarines require very robust checks for safety of their hulls, that have to withstand deep depths and no system like pumps and machinery can afford to fail, as it can be fatal.

The life span of Russian platforms has posed many challenges. There are problems in the supply of spares and documentation despite the setting up of Roboronservice Ltd in India by a group of Russian companies to provide better support to the Indian Navy. The L One (L1) syndrome of lowest cost tender acceptance system of procurement leaves little flexibility.

Some times, the L1 issue has become a challenge for logistic and acquisition managers in India’s Armed Forces.


The number of conventional submarines in the Indian Naval fleet to ensure adequate availability in numbers for operations, training, exercises and contingencies is likely to keep declining from the present 14, till the first Scorpene submarine rolls out of Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) in about four to five years.

The vexed Scorpene building programme has also seen an escalation of around $ 1.5 billion over the initial price tag of $ 3.8 billion, and in the words of Defence Minister AK Antony, for reasons that ‘MDL could not procure items as per the contract from India’.

MDL has had to import engines and other equipment at higher prices than quoted in the negotiations, as the contract was hurriedly signed. The situation also worsened when there was a war room leak of information from NHQ’s nerve centre, implicating retired naval officers and son of a member of Parliament.


Historically, it was in 1997 that the Indian Ministry of Defence (MOD) had taken up the ‘two line 30 year national submarine building programme’ for the Indian Navy to boost itss submarine strength as well as India’s indigenous manufacturing sector.

India did build Leander class frigates successfully at the Mazagon Docks.

Former Naval Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, a proponent of submarine power for the Navy, and Rear Admiral Raja Menon, a former submarine captain who had trained in Germany at the HDW yard, scripted the Indian navy’s long term vision.

Adm Bhagwat also pushed for the Dhanush nuclear capable missile, to be fitted on the OPV INS Subhadra and Sukanya in the interim for nuclear deterrence, despite detractors. It is not much known, that the in the 1960s, as a young Lieutenant, Bhagwat had volunteered for the Navy’s budding elite submarine arm but did not fully qualify, as the competition was severe.

In the coming years though, he enrolled his son in to the Indian Navy, who is now a senior Commander and a qualified nuclear submariner.

Adm Bhagwat could not follow up on his aggressive thrust to make the Ministry of Defence give accent to maritime issues, especially submarines and an indigenous aircraft carrier in his time. His tenure was also cut short by a ministerial order.

It was a jolt to the Armed Forces, and the Navy’s submarine plans suffered. It is well said, new brooms take time to settle and sweep differently. Only in 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) formally approved and recommended the long term plan for the local construction of 24 submarines over 30 years in two lines.

The decision for the first line of submarine building programme languished for seven years. The vested interests of the three contenders were not easy to resolve. These included Armaris (now defunct), the French and Spanish combine DCNS which finally secured the $ 3.8 billion contract for six submarines, German HDW which had supplied two 1500 IKL/HDW boats from Germany and helped build two at MDL, and Rubin/Amur of Russia, which had also offered to build submarines.

India’s Larsen & Toubro (L&T), which has engaged in building India’s ATV nuclear submarine INS Arihant with Russian help, is confident that it can also deliver new submarines in cooperation with foreign shipyards.

South Korea, which had locally manufactured the 212 HDW submarines under license, has also offered its interest in the project.

Many professionals from 1998 onwards had suggested that one or two submarines should be urgently built abroad and inducted to adapt to the technology first, as was done from HDW in the 1980s, but it was not to be.


The saving grace is that the IN has plans to induct two nuclear propelled submarines soon; the home built INS Arihant which will be armed with the DRDO’s 700km K-15/Sagarika missiles by the end of next year, and Nerpa from Russia.

The initial snags reported in the Arihant’s nuclear reactor operation have been overcome and the arduous harbour trials are reported to be going well at Vishakapatnam.

It will be a proud day for Indians, when the submarine’s reactor is made critical and Arihant sails out on nuclear power. The other submarine, the 8,500 ton Akula class Nerpa, being christened INS Chakra, is expected to arrive on lease later this year.

Unconfirmed reports say that the Indian crew for it is already being trained in Vladivostok. In India, these officers and men would have had extensive training in nuclear reactor operations already at one of India’s power reactors.

When commissioned, the two nuclear boats will be a formidable addition to the Indian Navy’s declining strength. The base and safety facilities are being setup under the care of Vice Admiral P K Chatterjee, a submariner at NHQ who heads the Nuclear Safety Division.

For underwater communications, an agreement has been reported to have been signed with a private company to build tall transmitter towers for Very Low Frequency (VLF) Radio Waves to transmit messages to submerged submarines at 300 bits/sec.

VLF is a communication system that allows submerged submarines to receive messages without having to break the surface or through towed and tethered buoys or their periscope masts. This is an advancement on the earlier VLF station which was set up under the Navy’s Project Skylark in Tirunaveli in South India with US help, akin to the Omega system which was proposed for Australia in 1972.


The progress for the approved second line of building submarines, pending since 1999, appears to be moving swiftly now.

In mid-July 2010, the Indian media stated that the programme for the next line six submarines was to be funded at about US $ 8 to 10 billion inclusive of technology transfers and offsets. The Navy had released the relevant RFI on 26 September 2008.

The replies continue to be reviewed by the Indian Navy and the Acquisition Wing of MOD, and most foreign builders have been called for consultations, so that a comprehensive RFP can be issued.

The plans call for import of two, and the construction of four in India, under what is called Project 75-I. An RfP is awaited, and may be issued within this year. In financial terms, this acquisition could nearly be as big as the Indian Air Force’s tender for 126-plus order for Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA).

The responses to the Navy’s 2008 submarine RFI include the five designs tabled below, which in all probability will include options for Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems as no leading navy can have submarines that surface often to charge batteries, acting like sitting ducks in today’s technology of detection.

DCNS has offered the Super Scorpene design which is still on paper, with MESMA AIP with a sales pitch that since DCNS is building the Scorpenes in India at MDL, the second line will come out faster and economically. DCNS can also build simultaneously at another yard like HSL. (The French also claim the submarine design can be fitted with a nuclear propulsion package plug on the lines of the French nuclear submarine of the Rubis class).
Navantia is the Spanish submarine builder who was the partner with DCNS in Armaris for the current six Indian Scorpenes project progressing at MDL. Navantia has since broken off from DCNS, and has offered the Spanish S-80 design almost with the same argument of alacrity as the French, with a competitive ethanol based AIP. Navantia is constructing S-80 submarines for the Spanish Navy and has a very advanced open architecture design for fire control suites and also has a tieup with Lockheed Martin of USA, which should allow the Indian Navy to independently select fire control suites, missiles and torpedoes from either source.
Rubin has offered the Amur design which has also been on the cards for long. Many in the Indian naval community wish to see the Navy and MOD adopt a Russian design as Russians have good submarine technology and have proved alternate reliable strategic partners. The Amur designers claim they can fit eight vertical BrahMos missile launchers and Russia holds the BrahMos technology.
Fincantieri/Rubin has offered the S-1000 design. Fincantieri has emerged as a favoured reliable, and economical warship supplier that has delivered fleet tanker INS Deepak, an Oceanographic research vessel ORV Sagar Nidhi, and is a consultant to IN for its ambitious 37,500 ton aircraft carrier project at Cochin Shipyard Ltd.
ThyssenKrupp Marine has offered the HDW Type 214 with the sales pitch that the 214 is the only widely proven design in service and that the Indian Navy operates the earlier adaptation of the 209 class. HDW claims it can deliver submarines timely, as in the past.


The Indian Navy is in the search for an AIP system and contemplating to upgrade one or two of the 1500 HDW boats with an AIP plug when the boats come up for refits. Singapore has adopted the Swedish Sterling engine with climate control for tropical waters for its Archer class from Kockums AB, which is now under the German umbrella of the ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. The Indian Navy and Republic of Singapore Navy relations are very close and Indian officers are seconded to Singapore, and have exchanged notes.

In the current Scorpene contract, the Indian Navy has the option to fit the French MESMA ethanol steam system, which the French firm DCNS has fitted on the Pakistan Navy’s AgostaB submarines.

Little is known how the MESMA is progressing in the Pakistan Navy and this writer met the Vice Chief of the Pakistan Navy in Singapore during an OPV Conference and he claimed success. The German HDW submarines employ a fuel cell AIP technology and the Spanish have an adapted ethanol based AIP, which they claim is superior to the French. Russians claim they have an AIP design and it is reported India’s DRDO has been experimenting with an AIP also.


The Indian Navy has a grave responsibility in the coming years and if the Indian economy is to continue to grow at a steady rate then energy security, stability in the Indian Ocean, exploitation of the two million sq miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and protection of India’s shorelines against 26/11 type of attacks will need a robust, large and well equipped, well trained, and well funded Navy.

The Indian Navy has a crucial role in ensuring that the trading Sea Lanes and choke points in the Indian Ocean and the littoral areas are secure at all times.

To patrol the seas, a large Navy needs a surface fleet and a sufficient strength of conventional submarines is a necessity for the Indian Navy in current scenario in the Indian Ocean.

India’s maritime military strategy is predicated on preparing for a possible conflict whilst maintaining a deterrent posture that ensures peace. The Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) has stated in Indian Navy’s strategic document India’s Maritime Military Strategy thus: “The direction appears abundantly clear – a compact but capable Navy. The emphasis would be on force multipliers, quality of weapons, sensors and networking of platforms. In other words, the focus would be on critical capabilities than on the number of ships or aircraft.”

So be it, but all new projects, including the second submarine line, should also help bring new technologies and economic benefits to Indian industries.

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