Whither Project 75(I)…. and India's Submarine Capability

Indigenous submarine construction is indeed the need of the hour and requires to go beyond mere licensed production to truly include transfer of technology which needs to be absorbed if any meaningful capability is to emerge

Issue: 6 / 2014By Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)Photo(s): By DCNS

During recently held meting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), India’s Defence Minister Arun Jaitley addressed a major concern of the Indian Navy (IN) by approving the acceptance of necessity (AoN), a major milestone in India’s defence procurement procedure, for two submarine projects. The first was the acceptance for a service life extension programme (SLEP) for six existing submarines (four of the Sindhughosh class and two of the Shishumar class). The SLEP will ensure their availability for at least another decade and will alleviate the impending shortage in numbers of frontline combat-worthy submarines.

The second and perhaps more significant decision for the long term was that all six submarines of Project 75(I) will be built in Indian shipyards through transfer of technology (ToT) arrangement with a foreign submarine manufacturer. While the merits of this decision can be debated, both these decisions could not have come a moment too soon as the IN’s current submarine capability is indeed a matter of grave concern which has been repeatedly articulated at the highest levels of government.

In the 47-years history of the submarine arm which came into being with the commissioning of INS Kalavari, a Foxtrot class submarine on December 8, 1967, the one consistent feature has been the inconsistency in the Navy’s submarine acquisition programmes. After four Foxtrot class submarines were acquired between 1967 and 1969, another four of the same class followed between 1972 and 1974. A long hiatus thereafter was followed by a flurry of acquisitions between 1986 and 1994 with the induction of 12 submarines (eight Sindhughosh (Kilo) class and four Shishumar (Type 209) class, including two built indigenously). Another two Sindhughosh class submarines followed—the ill-fated Sindhurakshak in 1999 and INS Sindhushastra in 2000. The latter was the first to be armed with torpedo tube launched anti-ship missiles. The fickleness in India’s submarine capability development is best illustrated by how an indigenous capability, developed at considerable cost and constituting an important landmark in India’s avowed goal of becoming builder’s navy, was sacrificed at the altar of political expediency after the construction of just two submarines with the facilities at Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), Mumbai, going waste. The country is still paying the cost of this decision two decades later as it struggles to build its first indigenous conventional submarine. Equally illustrative of the inconsistencies in our acquisition programmes is that no submarine has been commissioned in the IN since 2000; other than the SSN, INS Chakra, leased from Russia.

It was to address this very issue that a well thought out and achievable plan for indigenous submarine construction over a 30-year period (2000 to 2030) was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 1999. As per this plan, the IN should have commissioned six submarines each on two production lines through a ToT arrangements with two foreign submarine builders by 2012 and 12 indigenously designed submarines built on these two production lines should have been joining the Navy every year or so thereafter till 2030 such that the IN would have a force level of at least 20 contemporary submarines by then. Ship and submarine building programmes are notorious for delays in time and increase in cost the world over so some slippages in the implementation of this plan would have been acceptable and perhaps were built into the plan. However the reality on ground reflects a dismal picture of decision making in the hallowed corridors of South Block.

As we stand on the cusp of the half-way mark of this plan, not even one submarine has yet been built. An optimistic assessment would estimate that first submarine is at least three years away from becoming fully operational though DCNS France and MDL have assured its availability by end 2016. The Project 75 programme has been beset by delays and there may still be more to follow. Just one day after the Defence Minister visited MDL in August 2014, Admiral R.K. Sarawat (Retd), the CMD of MDL, stated to the media that further delays cannot be ruled out and was unwilling to offer a firm timeline in the absence of a confirmation to that effect from the collaborator (DCNS of France). In fact many of the reasons for delay have been attributed to DCNS though that may not be the full story. It is also understood that the remaining five will follow at an interval of nine months each, which appears to be a rather optimistic assessment and would perhaps be closer to a year at the very least. While this programme is well underway despite the hiccups, and will run till 2022, it is the delay in the initiation of Project 75(I) which is of greater concern.

Project 75(I) should ideally have run almost concurrently with Project 75 and is therefore almost a decade behind schedule. However, the recent DAC approval, which has reversed the decision taken in 2010, has merely reiterated what the CCS had approved fifteen years ago with the project nowhere nearer commencement. Progress may have been made on paper and there is perhaps a draft request for proposal (RFP) doing the rounds in the labyrinths of India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) but very little is actually quantifiable either in content or schedule. A major consequence of this indecision apart from the operational aspect will be a manifold increase in the cost of the project from its initial estimate, and with the plummeting rupee, a far greater outflow of foreign exchange whenever it happens.

In 2010, the DAC had decided that to reduce the timelines and address concerns of an ageing submarine fleet, two submarines would be acquired directly from the selected foreign partner and the remaining four submarines would be built in India—three at MDL, and one at the Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), Visakhapatnam. While the nomination of the yards particularly the latter and that too for only one submarine was debatable, the need for two from abroad was entirely justified and would have helped kick-start the programme. However, the merits of that decision notwithstanding, what is disturbing is that almost four years later, there is still no RFP and now that the DAC has revised its decision to build all six in India, the RFP will get further delayed as it will have to be redrafted in line with this decision.

At present none of the shipyards in India with the exception of MDL has the infrastructure in place to build submarines. Setting up the infrastructure involves large costs which the shipyards would be unwilling to invest till there is some assurance of their getting the order. The order will depend on the choice of submarine and the collaboration with the foreign OEMs. In the absence of an RFP, this process cannot even commence. So in a nutshell, Project 75(I) at present is only an aspiration and given the characteristic pace of decision making in the MoD, even the most optimistic guesstimate would suggest that construction will not begin for at least another five to seven years and the first submarine will not enter service before 2025.

The rethink and the decision to build all submarines in India must have been taken with due thought, and nothing will be better than this guesstimate being proven wrong. However, considering that the previous decision was taken four years ago to address the ageing and consequent shortfall in numbers of the existing submarines, reversing that decision four years later and with the submarines four years older does seem strange considering that we have also lost one submarine to an accident since then.

Any new submarine programme must include a missile firing capability and an air independent propulsion (AIP) system. Unfortunately the first four Project 75 submarines are not being fitted with an AIP (the option is only for the last two with an option for retrofitment on the first four later) and the range of the Exocet SM39 missile they are being armed with is less than that of some modern torpedoes. Therefore the first AIP system is not likely to enter service till the early years of the next decade.

The decision on the choice of AIP and the missile could perhaps be the reason for the inordinate delay in the issue of the RFP for P-75(I) considering that there are only five submarine manufacturers in the fray. Of these one was not allowed to bid by its parent company, another is having major design challenges with its own project while a third has not been able to deliver a worthwhile product to its own navy and has unproven technologies despite its claims to the contrary. This leaves just two, both of whose AIP capabilities are proven and well known and so is the missile they can offer.

It is also no secret that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing its own AIP system using fuel cell technology and has also successfully fired a BrahMos missile from an underwater pontoon. This missile, however, cannot be launched from a torpedo tube and would require a vertical launch system which would have to be incorporated into an existing design. This in turn would lead to even more delay in the response to the RFP as the foreign manufacturers will have to modify and validate their existing design lest design issues emerge later leading to cost and time overruns, both of which the Navy can ill afford. If the intention is to issue RFP after the indigenous AIP and missile programmes are suitably developed to achieve maturity in time for inclusion on board these submarines, it could be an interminable wait.

Indigenous submarine construction is indeed the need of the hour and requires to go beyond mere licensed production to truly include transfer of technology which needs to be absorbed if any meaningful capability is to emerge. The second phase of the 30-year plan which was meant to achieve this is not even near getting off the ground because in the last ten years we have been unable to and are still quite some distance away from absorbing these sophisticated technologies. Project 75(I) can provide that opportunity provided it is allowed to progress.

In conclusion, the need for progressing Project 75(I) is immediate. While the decision to build all six in India may not seem prudent vis-à-vis the earlier approval to import two and build the rest in India, now that it has been made, should be initiated immediately and progressed expeditiously. The complex defence procurement procedure, the time required for responding to a RFP (if the design has to be modified), the time required in deciding the Indian shipyard(s) and that shipyard’s collaboration arrangement with the foreign manufacturer are only some of the issues that will contribute to delays in its progress. Even an optimistic assessment would suggest that it would take at least four years for a contract to be signed after the RFP is issued and another five to seven years before the first submarine enters service. The earliest the first submarine can enter service is at least ten years away.

Perhaps the approval for refurbishing six of the older submarines could have been a factor in revising this decision as it also resonates with the theme of indigenisation re-emphasised by the new political dispensation. That decision, though an inescapable imperative and urgent requirement does not come without its own share of risk particularly if it is going to be taken up in Indian shipyards which have no previous experience of such a complex project. As for the Russian reassurance of providing all the technical support, the cost and time overruns in the Sindhukirti refit presently underway at HSL should be kept in mind.

The rapidly evolving maritime security dynamic and our national geopolitical imperatives have also highlighted the importance of the SSN as an integral component of the Navy’s blue water reach and power projection. The submarine acquisition programme therefore is being constantly reviewed and the SSN will definitely become an important factor in our force level development. Notwithstanding the validity or relevance of the 30-year plan in the contemporary scenario, the need to get Project 75(I) up and running needs no emphasis and a long-term submarine acquisition strategy needs to be put in place. This should be based on realistic inputs from all stakeholders and give due attention to the operational requirement, indigenous technologies, national submarine building capability and the fiscal resources and should not be held ransom to political or bureaucratic compromises.

Editor’s postscript: Top sources indicated to SP’s that the shipyards that will be the contenders for this programme include Mazagon Dock Ltd., Hindustan Shipyard Ltd., Goa Shipyard Ltd,. Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers Ltd, Cochin Shipyard Ltd., Larsen & Toubro and Pipavav. Bids will be invited from Indian shipyards to build the six submarines who will join up with a foreign partner to fill the technological gaps. Global contenders include DCNS (France), Rubin (Russia), HDW (Germany), Navantia (Spain) and possibly Kockum (Sweden). The submarines will need to be equipped with land attack missiles and air independent propulsion system.

The author is a veteran Submariner and a former Naval Adviser at the High Commission of India, London.