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Indian Navy going in for a Second Line of Submarine Construction

The Choice will be Critical

 
By Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd)Published :December 2008
 
 

Mumbai. The Indian Navy holds a fine record of operating submarines including the nuclear-propelled missile fitted Charlie K-73 INS Chakra (1987-91) from the late 60s, but its submarine strength has waxed and waned for one reason or the other.

The Navy has come under criticism recently by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India for allowing the operational state of submarines to fall to 16, half of them being two obsolete Foxtrot and aging Kilo class of the Soviet vintage. And the strength is set to fall further.

The Navy has come under criticism recently by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India for allowing the operational state of submarines to fall to 16, half of them being two obsolete Foxtrot and aging Kilo class of the Soviet vintage. And the strength is set to fall further.

The two old Foxtrot class boats are to be decommissioned. The programme to build six Scorpene submarine at the Mazagaon Docks is experiencing a one year delay in delivery and the first boat will be commissioned only in 2013.

The Navy therefore needs to take a long term view for its future. Ten years ago, the Government sanctioned a two line 30 year submarine building plan. It was also envisaged that India would become an exporter of submarines. The Navy’s submarine arm rightly clamoured for a submarine centric Navy, but there has always been a sort of contest between those favouring induction of submarines and those asking for aircraft carriers.

Although some allege that the aircraft carrier lobby has been stronger, objectively speaking, the Navy actually lacks in both these capabilities.

However, two aircraft carriers, the 45,000 tonnes INS Vikramaditya and the 37,500 tonnes Air Defence Ship (ADS) are under the process of re-fitment or construction and it would be sometime before they are operational after due trials.

Russia has delayed the delivery of Vikramaditaya, formerly Admiral Gorshkov by three years, while the ADS, being built with design consultancy from Italy’s Fincantieri, is also delayed slightly.

The two aircraft carriers are estimated to cost around USD 4 billion. The costs of aircraft, helicopters and some offensive and defensive weapons would be additional.

The Navy should have gone in for a second line of submarines much earlier, but it was only recently that the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, formally announced the programme go-ahead at a conference at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

The ongoing project for 6 French Scorpene submarines commenced in 2005. These boats are to be supplied with underwater tube launched subsonic MBDA Exocet missiles with 120 km range and European-made torpedoes. The project is being executed by the French Armaris/DCNS and Spanish-Navantia combine at a cost of $ 3 bill in the congested East yard at Mazagon Docks.

A legal charge of wrongdoing in the deal however, filed by Transparency International still breathes in Delhi’s High Court, keeping naval officers in the project occupied in courts, threatening the project with further delay. On the aircraft carriers side, Russia has asked for revision of its contract to refurbish Vikramaditya, or Gorshkov, demanding an additional $1.2 billion over the earlier settled price of $975 million.

Nonetheless, the spotlight is shining on the Navy’s upcoming choice for its second line multi-billion dollar indigenous submarine building programme. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) in this regard are under release by the Minsitry of Defence (MOD).

To recall, it was the alleged HDW scandal of the 1980s that had put a halt to India’s ambitious submarine building programme, for no fault of the Navy. An excellent facility which had been built up at the East Yard of the Mazagon Docks by 1985, had to be disbanded after two HDW-IKL 1500 ton design submarines INS Shalki and Shankul, had been successfully built and commissioned in the Indian Navy in 1992.

An innocuous telegram from India’s Ambassador in Germany, inquiring if the 7.5% commission was to be paid for more submarines as for the first four, set in motion a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry. HDW was blacklisted, and the inquiry finally died a natural death in 2006.

India’ s ambitions to build submarines in numbers in India were disrupted. In fact, Admiral Mehta pointed out in his lecture at the IDSA that “India lost the opportunity to become a premier submarine building nation.” In the interregnum, the Indian Navy acquired 10 double decked Kilo class boats from the erstwhile Soviet Union, between 1986 and 2000.

They had to be sent back to Russia for midlife refits and conversion to fire Klub missiles at great cost to the exchequer. The latest INS Sindhuvijay recently arrived after successful Klub firing trials in July 2008 off St Petersburg.

Efforts are being made at Hindustan Shipyard to develop this capability. Russia’s Rosoboronexport has set up Rosboronservice as an agency to facilitate supply of spares and Russian experts but for such specialised submarine refits, a nation needs to possess its own submarine building facilities with specialized welding techniques and workers to execute tasks in confined spaces. This expertise is becoming gradually available at Vishakapatnam, thanks to India’s Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV), a name given to India’s indigenous nuclear submarine project.

The hull of this vessel has progressed well at Vishakpatnam’s Ship Building Centre (SBC)’s dry dock and awaits launch. The Navy’s planners have been engaged in examining the bids for the second line of submarine building, which include Spain’s Navantia S-80A, HDW’s 214, DCNS French Super Scorpene and an Italian Fincantieri offer of S-100 in collaboration with Rubin of Russia.

Earlier the Russian builders of the Amur class had put up a proposal with India’s Larsen and Tubro to set up a submarine building facility, and L&T as it is known, even offered to build the Scorpene submarines.

L&T is investing around $2.5 billion in this area, and is also a partner in the ATV project. The project was under wraps for a long time, and only recently, its existence was admitted by the Chief of Naval Staff.

All bidders for India’s second line of submarines have confirmed that they will be able to install a plug of 4/8 under water vertically launched missiles of the BrahMos variety, and Mr Sivathanu Pillai CEO of Brahmos Aerospace Ltd, who is also the Controller of all naval DRDO projects, has stated that the underwater launch of BrahMos from a submarine will pose no problems.

In fact, indications are that it is just about to be a reality. India’s former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the architect of the successful BrahMos joint venture, has also articulated the same sentiments. The length of the S-100 based on the Amur 1650 submarine has been increased from 66.8 meters to 73.1 meters to incorporate the BrahMos.

At the same time, BrahMos itself is being modified to make it smaller. The current economic turmoil in the West which has taken the world by surprise, and the recent rise of Russia, India’s trusted strategic partner, need to be considered as possible factors in the decision-making process, although Defence Ministry sources insist that any deals would be on merit..

India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP 2008) also harps on political considerations being arbiters in the final selection of strategic defence purchases. It needs airing that India, with Russian help from Rubin and other yards and suppliers has already stealthily acquired very impressive indigenous submarine building skills in its classified 8000 ton ATV nuclear submarine project.

Many systems have been indigenised at the Defence Materials Department (DMD) at Hyderabad for the project, and experience in construction of the sections assisted by Russian technology have been mated in the hull, awaiting launch.

The skills so acquired need to be harnessed and unleashed for future submarine building programmes. Leading Indian suppliers like KSB Pumps, L&T, Walchand Industries , Bharat Electronics, Godrej Boyce, Tatas, Jindal Pipes and other contractors at Vishakapatnam are looking forward to becoming suppliers for the S-100 project.

It is also opportune perhaps now to lift the veil of secrecy over the $ 1.5 billion ATV project as Indian suppliers and vendors have been informed of more orders in the pipe line to make the project viable for them. India’s nuclear deterrence from the sea is dependant on the ATV project and its follow-on vessels.

Presently, the Indian Navy has a depleting conventional operational submarine fleet. And as a thumb rule, only 60 per cent of a submarine fleet is operational for war patrols at any given time.

From its pre-eminent strength of 21 underwater killer submarines, which included the nuclear Charlie class boat, India has only seven operational submarine platforms, and at a time when the Navy aspires for ‘Blue Water capability’.

The world is also witnessing the dramatic rise of the Chinese PLA (Navy)’s large submarine fleet, which Indian planners need to consider. India’s nuclear doctrine includes the caveat of “No First Use” but mandates a Triad of arsenal in which the IndianNavy is expected to provide for India’s nuclear deterrence from the sea.

India’s Sukhanya class OPVs are being modified to fire the 300 km Dhanush SSM which DRDO claims is nuclear capable, but it would be a folly in this day and age to arm surface ships with nuclear warheads for deterrence, as they would be tracked and targeted.

Stealthy nuclear submarines are the answer.

On offer, the S-100 based on the Amur has been designed by Fincantieri which has consultancy of the Navy’s 37,500 ton Aircraft carrier being built at Cochin and the Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering (CDBME).

It has been described by its legendary General Designer Yuri Kormilitsin, a well wisher of the Indian Navy, as being a fourthgeneration SSK that had been conceived as an underwater hunterkiller SSK. The submarine has
the ability to destroy surface and submerged targets using both torpedoes and BrahMos guidedmissiles.

The SSK’s design incorporates comprehensive signature management techniques including the use of noise-absorbing elements.

The machinery is mounted on the nose and vibration-attenuated mounts. Notably, the single-hull architecture, a first in Russian submarine-shipbuilding practice, has helped reduce the acoustic signature by 300 per cent when compared to the earlier double-hulled Project Kilo class SSKs.

Politically, the Russian defence connection is essential for India, as it was announced after President Medvedev’s recent visit to India in early December.

Russia is set to supply four more nuclear power plants with lifetime uranium supplies, in addition to the two VVER-1000 MW each under construction at Kundankulam in Tamil Nadu. Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Ivan Kaminskih, who has also been dealing with India’s ATV, is involved in the project.

The Indian Navy is also awaiting the transfer of the nuclear Akula class submarine Nerpa on lease, after it is successfully commissioned into the Russian Navy as part of the established procedures before transfer to another country.

Nerpa suffered an accident off Vladivostok on trials when its Freon fire fighting system was inadvertently operated, killing 21 workers. There was no damage to the vessel, and those who perished died because the number of gas masks on board was much less than the number of people on the vessel.

Authoritative sources told India Strategic that Nerpa had a lot of workers on board as part of the tests that day, but the number of gas masks was limited according to the number of the crew. “That’s how the tragedy happened.”

Nerpa is expected to be the Navy’s platform for the training of the ATV crew.

The DRDO-ATV nuclear submarine project has engineering support and equipment from Russia, and includes supply of the essential enriched uranium fuel for ATV’s hybrid Indian designed reactor. A large team of DRDO, BARC and Kalpakkam-based atomic research scientists and many naval officers and technicians have been trained in nuclear submarine engineering directly under the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which also controls the Department of Atomic Energy.

When this maiden nuclear submarine venture succeeds and India’s ATV Captain reports from sea that he is under way on steam generated by nuclear power, it will truly be an achievement the nation can be proud of.

In due course, DRDO hopes to arm ATVs with underwater long range K-15 Sagarika missiles from universal vertical launcher plugs built by L&T. Three missile firing trials from an under water platform have been successfully carried out and the same missile is being adapted in a 5 canister version for vertical launch from shore.

The missile, designated Shaurya, can be configured for several attack roles, and could replace the Agni 1, as it can be stored in underground silos also.

The Indian Navy has also trained key personnel at Sosnoy Bar in Russia near St Petersburg and appointed an Inspector General of Vice Admiral rank to oversee the nuclear submarine project at NHQ.

The Government has to appreciate that the Russians, who have supplied the engines for the BrahMos missile, have been quick to have grasped India’s requirements for its second line of submarines and to make the Italian- Russian choice for the Navy’s second line a win-win long term choice, where the experience of the ATV and Scorpene can be mated.

This is where the Russian-Italian collaboration could score in India’s selection for the second line.

It is not fully western in origin, which tap can be shut off as was experienced during Western sanctions in the past, The submarine on offer will have commonalities with India’s ATV which has Indian suppliers. The Russians have carried out tests to launch the BrahMos in an equivalent mock up of a submarine and had earlier offered the elongated hump backed Amur 1650 ton submarine to the Indian Navy.

The $ three billion-plus second line of submarine building will be a critical decision for India’s maritime ambitions.

(Views expressed are those of the author, a former Director Naval Intelligence and now a contributory writer).

 
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