France offers India 2 stop-gap Scorpene submarines

Issue: 1 / 2014 January 8, 2014 By SP's Special Correspondent Photo(s): By DCNS

As the already delayed Project 75I request for proposal for six new conventional attack submarines continues to hang fire, the Indian Navy is studying a list of emergency measures to possibly shore up force levels in the interim. French shipyard DCNS, partially owned by the French Government, designers and manufacturers of the Scorpène-class submarine, have put forth an offer offering two Scorpène submarines off the shelf as a stop-gap supply to mitigate rapidly reducing force levels in the Indian Navy, made worse by the recent tragedy aboard INS Sindhurakshak, one of the Navy's 10 Kilo-class attack submarines. DCNA, with authorisation from the French Government to make the offer to the Indian Government, has assured the Indian Navy that it can build two Scorpenes and deliver them in a time period that coincides with the induction of the first of the original six Scorpènes being built at present Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) in Mumbai.

DCNS officials confirm that the Scorpène build programme is now fully on track after major hiccups between 2009-2013. A comprehensive review meeting held last month took stock of progress, and involved persons from the French DGA, DCNS and French industry.

In a related development, DCNS, currently in an MoU with DRDO to help facilitate the integration of the indigenous in-development air independent propulsion (AIP) system has placed its anxiety on the table before the Indian Navy about the absence of an official backup plan in the event that the DRDO project doesn't result in a workable AIP module for the final two submarines in the production line. DCNS, which has for long tried to convince the Indian Navy to commit to the French MESMA (Module d’Energie Sous-Marine Autonome) AIP system, has formally suggested to the Indian Navy that the Indian Government formalise a contingency plan without further delay. The MESMA being proposed will be a second generation system where the steam generator involved will be replaced with fuel cell technology, according to sources. DCNS has also suggested that the DRDO system, being developed by the Naval Materials Research Laboratory (NMRL) in Mumbai, is quite unlikely to meet deadlines given that it will need to be ready (developed fully and then tested in dock, at sea and at depth after integration with the submarine) by 2015—an unrealistic proposition by any measure. DRDO officials contest this, and insist that the programme is on track and will meet timelines. DCNS plans to recommend to the Indian Navy that the Plan-B be invoked if the DRDO doesn't meet a specified timeline (beyond which, delays would impact the submarine build itself) on the indigenous AIP. It also plans to suggest that the DRDO AIP then be retrofitted on the first four submarines, if the Indian Navy so desires.

On December 17 last year, Defence Minister A.K. Antony informed Parliament, "Based upon the Naval HQ proposal, Defence Acquisition Council has taken a decision that P-75 I project will have four submarines (out of six) built within the country (three at Mazgaon Dock Limited, Mumbai and one at Hindustan Shipyard Limited, Visakhapatnam, on transfer of technology, and two to be built in collaborator’s yard abroad."

The Project 75I competition will be a fierce one, though the Indian Navy's priority at this time is to see the RFP go out. Apart from DCNS with the Scorpene, contenders for the $11-billion deal include Russia's Rubin with the Amur 1650, Navantia for the S-80 and HDW for the Class-214. DCNS, which is already steeped in the Indian license build programme will be hoping it is a lead contender for the contract from Europe. DCNS will be pinning its hopes on the P75I competition being a two-horse race against the Russians. It will be pinning its hopes, for this, on the fact that the HDW Class 214 submarines have had technical problems in the South Korean and Greek navies (though the HDW 209s in service, the Shishumar-class, have acquitted themselves operationally, are in line for a capability upgrade through a combat system and new torpedoes), and that the S-80 has been hit with a serious weight imbalance issue that has prompted Navantia to enlist the help of US firm General Dynamics Electric Boat, pushing the prospective delivery schedule of the first boat to the Spanish Navy till at least 2017.

The submarines that the Indian Navy is looking for should be capable of operating in open ocean and littoral/shallow waters in dense ASW and EW environments and capable of undertaking the following missions: anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, supporting operations ashore, ISR missions and special forces and mining operations, according to the original information request.

As has been set down by the Indian Navy in a report to the MoD in 2010 regarding submarine force levels, " It is a matter of deep concern that in the next few years, India will have its lowest submarine capability in the hiStory of the submarine arm, as a result of retirements, obsolescence, critical delays in shipbuilding/procurement, despite all requirements being catered for adequately in financial and/or perspective plans. As this critical capability is constantly eroded, there is an inverse increase in both capability and strength by the PN, PLAN and other navies operating in the IOR. A prioritised action plan is urgently required to stem dwindling operational availability and strength of the submarine arm if the Induian Navy is to control its area of immediate responsibility, i.e. the IOR."

While the Indian Navy awaits clarity on the tragedy aboard INS Sindhurakshak, it has an offer from Russia for a second refit and life-extension of the remaining nine Project 877EKM Kilo-class submarines, which the Rubin Design Bureau and Zvezdochka Shipyard say will give the submarines an additional 10 years of operational life—something that would help the navy tide over dwindling force levels.