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Ageing Submarine Fleet Raises Security Concerns

Slow progress in Indian Navy’s ambitious Submarine fleet expansion with delays in induction and decommissioning of ships poses significant challenges in policing the vast Indian Ocean Maritime Zone and countering PLA (Navy) threats

Issue: 5/2023 By Ranjit KumarPhoto(s): By indiannavy / X
(Left-Right) Submarines are one of the most challenging branch of the Navy. The Submarine fleet of Indian Navy is getting old and desparately needs to be revamped.

Indian Navy’s objective to have 24 operational submarines including six nuclear submarines by 2030 is in doldrums. At the present rate of induction and decommissioning the Indian navy will have only nine conventional and four nuclear powered submarines in its fleet by the end of the decade, whereas the Navy presently possesses 16 submarines in all. If the order for three additional French Scorpenes materialises very soon, the conventional fleet strength will remain at 13 by the end of the decade as it will not be possible to deliver the three additional Scorpenes before that time.

Emerging Gaps

Considering the gigantic requirement to police huge Indian Ocean maritime zone and the need to be prepared to counter the challenges Chinese Navy (PLA-N) is likely to pose in the coming years in the Indian Ocean, the execution of fleet enhancement plan is not adequate and running very late. Since the Russian Kilo and German HDW submarines acquired in eighties and nineties can’t continue to be in service beyond the present decade, the effective fleet strength will decline to a dozen or so by the end of the decade. A few less than the present strength. This certainly is bothering the Naval Headquarters.

As the majority of present strength of 16 conventional submarines are aging, the Naval Headquarters is keeping its finger crossed as to when the government will okay the Project 75 India (P-75I) for indigenous manufacture of six submarines in Indian shipyard. Though the defence ministry is working on formally sending the request to the French government for three additional Scorpenes to be made in India in Mazagaon Dockyard Ltd (MDL), with French technical assistance, the most serious issue is, even if the orders for three additional Scorpenes are placed within a few months, it will not be handed over to Indian Navy before 2030. By that time the remaining seven Kilo class Russian submarines will have to be retired. Since these Kilo class submarines were acquired in eighties and nineties, and the Kilo class INS Sindhudhwaj that arrived in 1987 in the initial phase has already been decommissioned, the rest will have to be retired in the coming years. So, the additional Scorpenes will only be replacing the retired submarines. The four German HDW submarines will also be approaching retirement by then. Hence even if three additional Scorpenes are inducted by the end of the decade, the decommissioned Kilo and HDW submarines will more than offset the gains made. Hence, India will have only nine Scorpene class submarines left besides three nuclear powered submarines. With one extra to be acquired under lease from Russia, this will be another nuclear platform.

Current Fleet Status

Indian Navy Submarine fleet comprises both conventional diesel electric and nuclear powered submarines. Among the diesel electric submarines, Indian Navy has acquired them from Russia, France and Germany. The Navy presently has seven Russian Kilo class, four German HDW types and five French Scorpene class. The sixth Scorpene class Vagsheer is expected to join early next year after the completion of sea trial. The Sindhudhwaj was commissioned in 1987 and is already beyond service age. With the decommissioning of INS Sindhudhwaj, after three and half decades in service, the strength of Kilo class submarine has gone down to seven. India had acquired ten Kilo class submarines from which one Kilo class has been lost in accident and one has been given to Myanmar.

Presently Indian Navy has one nuclear powered Arihant class submarine and second is under sea trial besides the third nuclear missile submarine (SSBN) reportedly launched early this year. These three will add substantially to Indian navy firepower, though the Indian Navy or the Ministry of Defence is silent over these developments. Another nuclear submarine under ten year lease is getting ready in Russian shipyard, which will replace the second INS Chakra submarine that has been returned to Russia ten months before the completion of its ten years lease period.

The sixth Scorpene class submarine Vagsheer is under sea trial and is expected to be inducted early next year. So, the present total fleet of submarines under Diesel electric category would be 16 plus one Nuclear Submarine presently. The Scorpenes are capable of undertaking multifarious mission like anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, intelligence gathering, surveillance, mine laying etc. The Scorpenes are designed to operate in all theatres and considered as a generational shift in submarine operations. These submarines have superior stealth features because of state-of-the-art technology utilised in their construction. These Submarines have advanced acoustic silencing techniques, low radiated noise levels, hydrodynamically optimised shape with the ability to launch precision guided weapons. It can launch an attack with torpedoes and tube launched anti-ship missiles simultaneously underwater or on surface. The Scorpenes have a state-of-the-art sonar and sensor suite, which enables them outstanding operational capabilities.

Nuclear Submarines

In the nuclear category, Indian Navy had plans to acquire six additional nuclear powered submarines but the government is sitting over the proposal. Meanwhile the Arighat, second Arihant class submarine, is completing its sea trial and the third (S-4), which is yet to be named and is expected to join service within three or four years, has been launched, without making any formal announcements. If all goes well, the rest of two Arihant class of submarines Arighat and the third, which was launched last year, Indian Navy can expect to have at least three indigenous nuclear powered submarines besides one nuclear submarine Bratsk, which is under preparation and to be delivered most likely next year, under a ten year lease from Russia. This is an Akula class nuclear powered attack submarine to be named in India as Chakra-3 is presently being refitted according to Indian specifications.

The third nuclear submarine has a long journey to complete before it is finally commissioned, as before this it has to undergo the next phase of sea trials and weapon trials. These trial phases are expected to be completed before the end of the decade and finally can be made operational by that time. The first of the Arihant class (S-2) was launched in July 2009 and sea trials began in December 2014 and commissioning was done in August 2016. Taking into account this speed of induction, the third nuclear submarine is most likely to be inducted by the end of the decade. The third indigenous submarine is numbered S-4.

The Arihant class of nuclear submarine is being constructed under the Advanced Technology Vessel programme, under the $12 billion project. According to sources, the S-4 nuclear submarine would be bigger in size, tonnage and capability compared to previous two S-2 and S-3. The S-4 would be able to carry eight K-4 or 24 K-15 SLBM’s. The K-4 SLBM can go up to 3,500 kms while K-15 has a strike range of 750 kms. The K-4 SLBM has undergone a number of tests, but this is yet to be operationally deployed. Considering the no first use nuclear doctrine, the naval arm of the nuclear triad is significant for India.

The author is a Senior Journalist and Strategic Affairs Analyst