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What should be the submarine procurement policy of India to deter growing threats from China and Pakistan: A detailed analysis

India needs to choose one country’s design for a large SSK submarine and go for it the whole hog, instead of ordering modifications and additions and adding nonsensical conditions

The recent Australian rejection of a long-sought deal with the French for the acquisition of 12 Short-fin Barracuda class submarines at a huge cost of $50 billion (at least four times costlier than the next most expensive non-nuclear-powered submarine) has kick-started chatter on India buying them instead. While the US promise to build 8 nuclear-powered attack submarines for the Australian Navy was enough for the Australians to cancel the contract with the French, the sheer cost of the French submarines is off-putting to any country that wishes to buy the same conventional submarines.

Indian Navy is reeling with a submarine availability shortage, with more than 35-year-old submarines still in service and expected to remain so for another 10 years. The 30-year plan of 1999 envisaged 24 non-nuclear diesel-electric submarines (SSK) and 6 nuclear powered ballistic missile carrier submarines (SSBN) which would be the naval leg of the triad of nuclear deterrence of our nation. In these 30 years, we were supposed to build enough submarines to replace the 14 in service in 1999 and also add at least 10 conventional and 6 nuclear-powered submarines additionally. In total, 24 conventional and 6 nuclear submarines were sought to be built in the period 2000-2030.

However, in the first 21 years since 2000, we have commissioned a total of 3 conventional (SSK) and 1 SSBN submarine. Obviously, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the period, with only 3 SSK and 3 SSBN submarines on order and expected to be deployed by 2030. This leaves the Indian Navy with just 6 new SSK and 4 new SSBN submarines, while the rest (if any are left by the year 2030) after repeated refurbishment will at best serve as active reserves instead of being war capable.

Spending on the refurbishment of the Sindhughosh class submarines has reached ₹10,000 crores over the last 10 years, which was sufficient to build 5 new Scorpène class submarines if the order was placed in 2005 along with the other 6. Indeed, if instead of one Mazagaon Dock, two different Docks were chosen to build the Scorpenes, we could have had at least 8 Scorpene-class submarines today, all of which were not more than a decade old, instead of the 8 old Russian submarines which are not only creaky but are increasingly obsolete for modern war against the Chinese submarines.

The contract for building 6 Scorpene submarines required a large technology transfer from the French company DCNS (now Naval Group) which was supposed to be the basis for a homegrown submarine building industry. Despite ballooning of costs which is generally typical of the French and inordinate delay in completing the contract (another French area of excellence), we are left with the production of 6 submarines probably to be completed by 2023 and no home-grown industry to boot. Since this has been typical of the French, having done the same to us in Rafale tender as well as to the Australians in negotiating a literal loot with the Barracuda class submarine, India need not jump into the water (literally) to rescue the French after their stand-up down under.

India’s submarine building is to be looked into holistically and decisions are to be taken at the earliest to salvage the best of the 30-year plan in whatever time that remains. Of the two other available submarine classes that remain to us, the HDW built (now Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems -TKMS) type 206 submarines and their technologies were also given to India, South Korea and Australia.

While typically Indian dockyards sat on the technology and the Indian polity failed to ensure orders to ensure the talent (which in shipbuilding is the most important) in design and construction was retained and renewed, the South Koreans and Australians have a flourishing submarine building and overhauling industry having assimilated the Type 206 design. In fact, South Korea has offered its own development of Type 206 as a competitor to type 214 which the TKMS has now developed for export. Even in Australia, the biggest reason for domestic opposition against the shortfin Barracuda was the fact that the Collins-class submarines based on the HDW design could be further developed and modernized in Australia itself at much lower costs.

The objective of further conventional submarine building should comprise of the following:

  1. Creation of in-house talent, skill, metallurgy, detection and ranging capability, torpedo capability, AIP and battery system and hull design and self-protection systems for conventional submarines to enable further R&D for 5th generation submarines after 2040.
  2. Creation of adequate submarine building dock capacity that allows at least 6 submarines to be built simultaneously with production time of 3 years from work order to launch for trials.
  3. Choosing a foreign collaborator to be able to jointly build/ develop and design in joint venture for export.
  4. Create and promote a strong ancillary industry for ship building including specialty components for Submarines.
  5. Ensure construction of at least 12 new SSK submarines by 2030 to give a healthy total of 18 SSK submarines and to add 6 more every 3 years from then on.
  6. To develop and integrate into production of indigenous Vertical Launch System, Air Independent Power, Advanced SONAR to detect enemy submarines, Stealth and acoustic signature reduction,
  7. Heavy Torpedo storage and launch system, VLS launched submarine variant of Akash or Barak-8 SAMs and Submarine Launched Cruise missile (either Brahmos supersonic or hypersonic) into homegrown submarine design as a joint development effort for Indian made SSK and SSN submarines.

The above seven objectives need to be aligned with the necessity to be at the forefront of deployable technologies in submarine warfare. The excellence of the Japanese Soryu class submarines in deploying Li-ion batteries that almost replace the Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system in capability needs to be paired with the AIP system of the Gotland class of the Swedish Navy, which gives long underwater capability at almost undetectable levels of noise. At the same time, the submarines to be built need to be armed with Desi Varunastra and also submarine-launched cruise missiles like Kalibr and Klub or other equivalent missiles.

A comparison of various submarine designs of different countries is shown below

Sl NameCountryCostWeight when submerged AIP endurance No. of Torpedoes A2A missiles Cruise missiles to build
1Amur-1650Russia$ 450 mil2600 tons5 days24 -533 mm4 -Igla106 years
2ScorpeneFrance$ 650 mil1800 tons21 days12- 533mm6 – MICA06 years
3S-80+Spain$ 1 bil3200 tons55 days12 -533 mm028 years
4GotlandSweden$ 450 mil1600 tons14 days12-533/6-400004 years
5Type -214German$ 450 mil1860 tons21 days16 -533 mm043 years
6Type 216German$ 600 mil4000 tons28 days12 -533 mm6245 years
7SoryuJapan$ 650 mil4200 tons40 days18 -533 mm1203 years
8TaigeiJapan$ 650 mil4200 tons40 days18 -533 mm1205 years
9Dosan Anh Changho KSS-III batch-IIKorea$ 900 mil4200 tons28 days AIP + 14 days on Li batteries18 -533 mm10104 years

What should be the selection criteria for SSK submarines in Indian Navy?

  1. During a hypothetical war, Indian Navy could be expected to hunt and sink Chinese SSN/SSK submarines trying to infiltrate into the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea either from their bases in Djibouti, Gwadar and Hambantota or directly from the Chinese coast. So, the Navy requires advanced Sonar detection to detect Chinese submarines and also be much quieter and stealthier than most operational submarines in order to obtain first shot advantage vis-à-vis an enemy submarine.
  2. It is foreseeable that in future conflict, Pakistani Navy submarines (the Chinese supplied ones) may also launch to hunt Indian surface vessels and cargo ships to sink them and augment the Chinese effort. The Indian Navy requirement in this case remains the same as in the point 1 above.
  3. Chinese aircraft carrier operations may be carried out in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea through Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters or Y-20 transport planes which are proposed to be turned into the Chinese equivalent of P-8 aircraft of US Navy. While submarines largely do not have such Submarine launched Anti-aircraft Missile (SLAM) capability, newer technologies like IDAS for the Thyssenkrupp type 214 and the French A3SM (based on Mistral/MICA) are already tested and are available today. For what is going to be a large order of 12 submarines, having such a capability to shoot down ASW helicopters and long range ASW planes can blind the enemy to our deployment and also break an important arm of the Chinese/Pakistani Navy. This would require IN to provide its submarines with a Vertical Launched System (VLS) or a torpedo tube launched SLAM system so as to keep them current with near future technologies.
  4. Chinese aircraft carriers and destroyers in a conflict, need to be hunted in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea as well as at choke points of Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden, Malacca Straits as well as South China sea, to provide offensive capability and take the war into Chinese homeland. In such a case, having a submarine with an underwater endurance of at least 21-28 days at 8 kmph submerged speed would allow a range of 4000 – 5200 kms under water at a time. The overall operational endurance should also be around 60 days to enable an over water operational range of around 6000-8000 Kms and a ferry range of at least 15000 kms without resupply at friendly bases. This is almost the equivalent of a Nuclear-Powered Submarine (SSN) and at a fraction of the cost of an SSN, which can be used to reduce the edge China has over India in submarines. Further the submarines would require Anti-Ship Missiles and Submarine Launched Cruise missiles (SLCM) to take out ship and land targets in Pakistan, Djibouti and Chinese coast. This can be only done through VLS and only such submarines which possess VLS capability should be preferred for construction by Indian Navy.

The advantages of multiple capabilities like torpedo, mine laying, VLS launched cruise and Anti-Ship missile and Anti-Aircraft capabilities in addition to being stealthier than most operational submarines would allow the IN-submarine fleet to engage a much larger part of enemy Navy and Navy air arm in search and destroy activities, that shall tie them down instead of being deployed offensively against the Indian Coast. Thus, our task of sea denial is accomplished both by enemy asset destruction and forced re-deployment away from our seas.

One important point to be remembered is that underwater and even oceanic offensive operations cannot be conducted suddenly in a conflict. Even if the Indian Navy is eventually planning to use SSNs (Nuclear-Powered Submarine) and SSBNs (Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Carrier Submarine) in the south China Sea and Pacific and Indian Oceans, it has to have numerous submarines to map out underwater topography repeatedly to have a swift movement of submarines during times of conflict into targeting areas.

In fact, the Chinese Navy is currently undertaking this exercise in the Indian Ocean and occasionally in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. For a fast topographical exercise that allows India to rapidly deploy its underwater resources in times of conflict and take the battle to the Chinese mainland, we need to have at least twice the present number of conventional submarines with long endurance when compared to the present crop of 1500–2000-ton size boats. Indeed, India’s next generation of 12 submarines should all be around 4000 tons submerged in displacement and be able to carry larger AIP and Battery sizes for decent underwater and overall endurance.

What To Choose?

The choice ultimately has to be made to go for a specific design of submarines and collaborate with a country to build at least 12 submarines at two different docks starting from 2022 to be able to commission all of them by 2030. Due to our requirement to possess heavier and longer-ranged SSK submarines, we can eliminate the designs of submarines that are lesser than 3000 tons. Further, only an established design should be taken up to avoid any research that causes delay and also pushes the research cost onto us while the offering nation uses the results of research and design for themselves subsequently freely and at our cost.

Therefore, only proven designs and production techniques should be considered when deciding on the submarine to procure. One bane of Indian procurement in defence equipment is the penchant for tendering and making submarines of different design objectives to compete for our order. This leads to a long and iterative process which despite ostensibly being done to avoid allegations of favouritism, actually achieves the exact opposite of the same.

Further, the aversion of politicians to be dragged into controversy in a defence deal means the procurement process is not taken up at the government level but at the level of vacillating bureaucrats. Thus, the entire process is long drawn out, often ending up with decades of process and nil results to show. The MMRCA tender, the P-75I tender, the AK-203 tender, the BAE Hawk purchase, the Tejas order etc. show that in most cases a decade’s delay is the norm in merely taking decisions and paperwork, leave alone solving problems of metallurgy, production and armament as well as research, which really need time.

India, therefore, needs to choose one country’s design for a large SSK submarine and go for it the whole hog. Instead of ordering modifications and additions and adding nonsensical conditions like technology transfer in niche areas like Air-independent Propulsion (AIP), etc, India should go for a plain contract to build 12 submarines in India at two docks, preferably Mazagaon and one of Vizag or Garden reach, by 2030. Further, the same weaponry and technology which is good enough for the designing country’s submarine fleet should be good enough for the Indian Navy.

To make a direct choice off the table above, one can see that only the German Type 216, the Japanese Soryu and its future upgrade Taigei-Class, and the South Korean KSS-III Batch-II also named the Dosan Anh Changho class submarines are the only four types that are reasonably useful for the future Indian Navy. All the four classes displace well above 3000 tons and provide the requisite vertical launching system (VLS), torpedo and SLCM /SLAM missiles either in torpedo tube or in VLS. Further, they have proven AIP technology and the Japanese and South Korean classes also provide latest LI-ion Batteries that further increase underwater endurance to close to 40 days.

Further, since the South Korean design is already in production and since the Taigei-Class is also close to launch, there is no fear of trying out unproven designs. Therefore, India must design between the Japanese Soryu/ Taigei designs from Japan or the Dosan Anh Changho III Batch -II class of the South Koreans. India should directly negotiate with either country and decide which one suits them financially as well as in terms of sharing useful technology and know-how. If the South Korean design is chosen then the cost per submarine would be around $700 million per boat or around $8.4 billion over 9 years.

Similarly, if the Japanese Taigei design is chosen, the same would cost $550 million per boat for 12 boats and would be equal to $6.6billion over 9 years. Either way, the costs are acceptable and the evaluation should rather be done on the basis of utility and favourable production terms to the country. Indeed, a work order of $6.5 -8.5 billion dollars would do wonders to any nation’s defence industry and it is expected that due to lack of adequate shipyards to build for both Indian Navy and Japanese Navy or the South Korean Navy, the two countries would accept these 12 submarines to be produced in India. Indeed, a joint venture between Indian and Japanese/Korean Docks should build the submarines with rights to export the same. Therefore, being a low capital affair for the partnering nation, this contract can help both India and partnering nation to develop a mature submarine production line and design that can help in taking the fight to China for both nations.

Ideally, the contract should be decided and signed before April 2022 and production should be kicked off before 2023 at Mazagaon Dock and by 2024 at the other dock also. Assuming a 3-year period of construction from metal cutting to launch for sea trials, the first 3 submarines would enter sea trials by 2026 and the next 3 by 2027. Further by 2030, 6 more would be in sea trials and ready for commissioning by 2031. The capital cost of these submarines could be met easily by amortizing the costs as is possible due to Indian construction. Indeed, the Indian Docks can be paid through Defence Bonds, which will significantly reduce the foreign component of the cost to more than half.

Conventional Power or Nuclear Power?

One of the most repeated arguments in the national defence fora today is that nuclear-powered attack submarines i.e., SSN is more important to the Indian Navy instead of conventional powered SSK submarines. On the basis of capabilities and ability to stay undetected, nothing compares with a nuclear-operated submarine. At the same time, its ability to carry large stores of torpedoes, cruise missiles and Anti-Aircraft missiles means that the SSN is more lethal, better protected and can operate as a lone wolf or in a pack.

Further, the SSN can also act as a deterrent merely by forcing over the deployment of assets for Chinese coastal defence simply because the IN had it. SSKs are noisier, operate for smaller durations and have more limited ranges due to fuel and AIP constraints and need to surface more often. The same constraints also make the submarines smaller (the largest SSK submarines are only 4500 tons while the smallest operational SSN is at least 5000 tons) and therefore lighter on torpedo stores as well as self-protection AAMs. This causes them to be dependent on other submarines and surface fleets and even then, these can only do limited duration operations in oceans.

On the balance of capabilities, the SSN is definitely more capable and useful for any Navy, leave alone Indian Navy. However, we need to consider the current state of development of SSNs in India. Presently, since 1988 India has been intermittently using first a Charlie class and now an Akula class Russian submarine on lease to provide SSN capabilities. We have paid Billions of dollars merely to lease the submarines and another $3 billion deal has been signed for a refurbished Akula Class submarine to be leased to India from 2025.

While on one side, financial constraint is given as a reason for not initiating production and design of more conventional submarines, on the other side, we are spending $3 billion to merely rent out an SSN for 10 years, when even Indian made Arihant and Arighat nuclear submarines do not cost more than $1.5 billion to make. In fact, the S-4 and S-4* ballistic nuclear submarines presently in the SBC docks would probably be constructed in just above $1 billion. So, to spend $3 billion on a lease is foolhardy and is alternatively quite enough to quickly fund an aircraft carrier INS Vishal especially if the same design of INS Vikrant is frozen and finalized.

Further, Project Alpha which is the designated SSN production program for the Indian Navy, itself gives a very unambitious timeline of 2032 for first commissioning of the first indigenous SSN for Indian Navy. Even the first SSN would go into dry dock at SBC, Visakhapatnam for construction no sooner than 2023, which is when S4* shall leave dry dock or shall be about to be launched. Even though the SSBN construction timelines have progressively declined for SBC to around 3 years before launch and 4-5 from first cut to commissioning, SSN being a new project will take longer.

Therefore, it is hoped that SSN shall be constructed in a new dry dock instead of the SSBN construction dock and that we have at least 1 assembly line of three submarine construction drydocks for SSN separately. Only then, can the Indian Navy be able to commission one SSN every year from 2030 to 2040, to possess at least 10 SSN, which would be a credible threat for the Chinese Navy in any sea. Further, having multiple submarines of a class and a larger assembly line reduces the cost of each submarine and India can even start producing SSN for other Navies at a very competitive cost compared to the US and other P-5.

Nonetheless, India’s SSN program if sped up will not deliver a submarine by 2032 at the earliest. So, it is therefore imperative to have a considerable SSK program to tide over such a shortage and to enter 2030 with a healthy strength of 18 SSK and so that by 2040, we can have 18 SSK and 10 SSN along with 4 Arihant-class and at least 2 S5 class SSBN. Thus, IN would be a true-blue water capable Navy, which can deter any nation from both nuclear attack on India as well as any conventional strike, by taking the fight to their land and strike at their underbelly.

SSK program also needs to be mastered for another purpose. Unmanned Under Water Vessels (UUV) are becoming fast popular and for at least the next 30 years, there shall only be SSK type UUV. For this, IN needs to have a large dedicated SSK fleet to patrol coastal waters and not only hunt UUVs of enemy fleet or even non-state actors, but also coordinate attacks on enemy Naval vessels of other types using our own UUV. This therefore needs technology and construction capability of both SSK and UUV types of vessels.

This is one main reason why the SSN shall never render the SSK obsolete even in large Navies. Even China as yet has 54 SSK submarines which it keeps replacing with newer SSK submarines only. This is in preparation for any large enemy Naval incursion in South China Sea, to deny Chinese coastal waters to any adversary. Therefore, the strength of numbers is never going to become irrelevant and IN also needs to have a thriving SSK building and R&D capacity to build bigger, better, quieter and more capable submarines.

For a cost-efficient yet highly lethal and Blue Water capable Navy, India has to make important strategic decisions on the construction of submarines of both SSK and SSN type. It also has to decide on the project time period and capital investment in the S5. Further, India has to decide on cancelling the $3 Billion lease for the Russian SSN or at least decide to prevent spending on a lease to affect its indigenous submarine construction plans.

India has to decide on a mixed fleet of SSK, SSN and SSBN, to deal with all kinds of threats to its maritime security and to project its National Power to obtain its international objectives. A 30 submarine Navy was ideal in 1999, when India’s main two adversaries, China and Pakistan together could not field 30 submarines on their own. Today with China having 64 submarines and adding at least 2 SSN and 2 SSK submarines every year, it shall definitely operate at least 80-100 submarines over the next 2 decades. At the same time China has already started building 8 conventional AIP equipped submarines for the Pakistani Navy and this may rise to 12-16 by 2040.

Therefore, Indian Navy will face at least 100 submarines and at least a similar number of UUVs in any joint war from 2040 onwards. In such a situation, we are optimistically looking for 18 SSK, 10 SSN and 8 SSBN at the maximum if we do not delay any further even today. Indeed, the task is tough and more importantly, urgent. India has to place its money where its mouth is and embark on a strategic submarine production program like South Korea and Japan decided in the 1990s. Every adversarial neighbour of China has embarked on a strong submarine program to deny sea dominance near their coast to China in any potential war. It is time India did so, even if it is with a delay of 20 years.


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Chiranjeevi Bhat
Chiranjeevi Bhat, also known as Chiru Bhat is a journalist at Hosa-Diganta. Previously he has worked in Vishwavaani, Kannada Prabha, Suvarna News 24/7 and Samaya News. His writings will be mainly on security related issues, politics, distortion and appropriation.

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