INS Kalvari, first made-in-India Scorpene class submarine commissioned into the Navy

by Sujan Dutta

The Prime Minister described the INS Kalvari (Tiger Shark) submarine that he commissioned and embarked at the naval dockyards in Bombay on Thursday morning before he went to cast his vote in Ahmedabad as a prime example of “make in India”.

As it floats in the water today the tiger shark – the predator fish after which the boat is named -- is really toothless. It is five years behind schedule. It has been made by the French in India.

The INS Kalvari takes its name not only from the fish but also from the first submarine to join the Indian fleet, a Foxtrot, that was commissioned in Russia 50 years ago on December 8, 1967.

In 50 years, India has not been able to develop submarines on its own when the Navy has identified the boats as a potent necessity not only because of the country’s rough neighbourhood but also for the physics of the Indian Ocean. The viscosity of tropical waters makes submarines difficult to detect.

In the tropical waters around India's coasts, former navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (retired) once told this correspondent, the laws of physics favour the use of submarines. "The total internal reflection of sound when there are thermal layers between 32 degrees and 24 degrees makes it virtually impossible for a submarine to be detected if it is 30 to 50 metres under the surface in summers and 100 metres in winters," he explained.

The Kalvari – the first of six Scorpene-class submarines first contracted in 2004 – has been commissioned without being adequately armed. It does not till today have any of the heavyweight torpedoes, its most important weapon since the Modi government blacklisted the Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica for its association with Agusta Westland in a deal by the UPA to procure VVIP helicopters. The Black Shark torpedoes for which the Kalvari’s firing tubes are tailored are made by Systemi Subacquael, a Finmeccanica subsidiary.

Over the past two years, the government has explored the option of replacing the Black Shark with a German-made HWT. But it was found that the tubes would require substantial re-engineering. The government is now again in talks to procure 98 Black Sharks to arm the six Kalvari-class boats.

The commissioning-without-arming of war vessels is of a pattern. In August 2014, the government commissioned the INS Kolkata, a destroyer, in Bombay and the INS Kamorta, a submarine hunter-killer in Visakhapatnam. The INS Kolkata was commissioned without its Long Range Surface to Air Missiles (LR-SAMs) and the Kamorta, scandalisingly, was commissioned without its Active Towed Array Sonar (ATAS). It means the Kolkata was minus its primary land-attack weapon and the Kamorta was not – and still cannot – see adequately underwater. In the rear of the Kamorta is the ATAS’ empty housing.

Yet, the Kalvari, the Kamorta and the Kolkata are accepted by the navy as they are because of the rate of depletion of the fleet is not matched by the rate of acquisition of newer assets. India suffered its biggest peacetime loss of a warfighting system in the navy when the submarine INS Sindhurakshak went down in the water after an explosion in the Bombay naval dockyard in August 2013. Its cracked and burnt-out hull is a stark reminder of the tragedy that killed 17 men on Independence Day eve.

The Navy's submarine arm, that was awarded the President’s Colours, at Vizag only last week currently as 13 diesel-electric or conventional boats. (There are two nuclear submarines, the INS Chakra, that is nuclear-powered and on lease from Russia and the INS Arihant that is said to be both nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed).

At any given time it has five or six patrolling. In the last 12 years, in the time that it took to build the Kalvari, China has added 40 submarines to its fleet. Those submarines now criss-cross waters close to India.

The building of the Kalvari has been tortuous. There were disagreements with the French makers, the Naval Group (earlier DCNS and Thales) even after the first contract was signed. Then an Australian newspaper claimed last August that it has got a cache of 22,400 pages of data on the Scorpene including its design and signatures, a charge that both the Indian Navy and the French denied.

Prime Minister Modi this morning said the INS Kalvari will add more strength to the Indian Navy. He said India is focused on its global, strategic and economic interests in the Indian Ocean. That is why the modern and multi-dimensional Indian Navy plays a leading role in promoting peace and stability in the region, he said.