A fully integrated Scropene class Diesel-Electric Submarine

by C Uday Bhaskar

The commissioning of INS Kalvari, a Scorpene-class diesel submarine, built in Mumbai with French collaboration on Thursday last (Dec 14) is a significant development by way of inducting a sorely needed new platform to the depleted Indian naval submarine arm. The event was marked by a reiteration of strong political commitment to India’s maritime/naval growth by Prime Minister Modi.

The new Kalvari is the second boat that will carry forward the illustrious tradition of the first diesel submarine acquired by the Indian Navy in December 1967 from the former USSR and the trajectory of the last 50 years has been commendable. In the last five decades, India has achieved a remarkable success – it is the first country globally to leap-frog from a diesel class of submarines to a nuclear-propelled, ballistic missile capable boat – the SSBN. The INS Arihant that has been indigenously designed and built at Visakhapatnam, with valuable support from Moscow is an unprecedented technology transition initiative – for most navies move from diesel boats to SSN (nuclear-propelled attack submarines) and then to SSBN.

This can take decades and the anomalous Indian trajectory is that with almost nil indigenous submarine building capability, it embarked upon an ambitious SSBN program and acquired the necessary proficiency level of designing and fitting a nuclear reactor into a very confined space. The fact that the INS Arihant has been commissioned after satisfactory trials testifies to the composite Indian design and manufacturing capability in the underwater platform domain.

Currently, India has 14 conventional boats and two nukes (one SSBN – the Arihant and one SSN – the Chakra on lease from Russia) that is 16 boats in all. The Indian navy has ambitious plans for enhancing its submarine strength and this includes five more of the Kalvari class; six more follow-on diesel boats; three SSBN to follow the INS Arihant, and six SSN (nuclear-propelled submarines) used in an attack role. In summary, if all programs are taken to their optimum levels of delivery (meaning funding support and design cum manufacturing nimbleness) – India would be able to induct 20 new boats over the next two decades.

How does this compare with China? The first broad indicator is that given the GDP disparity – Beijing allocates almost three times as much as Delhi does for defence outlay – under $ 50 billion for India and over $ 150 bn for China. Within this budget, the naval share for India is modest – a mere 16 percent, while for China it is almost 32 percent. Consequently, the PLA Navy currently has over 70 boats in service and these are a mix of SSBN, SSN and conventional diesel submarines. Concurrently China has an impressive indigenous ship and submarine building program, meaning that the national eco-system for design and manufacturing of ships per se – both merchant and military is of a very high order. India is yet to acquire that level and this is the principal challenge for the Modi government. India does not seek equivalence by way of submarines with China, for such an objective is not desirable.

What is critical is the national determination to acquire a navy that has the appropriate index of sufficiency, by way of platform mix and the highest levels of material cum technical support and a human resource pool with the highest level of professionalism. Submariners instinctively internalize the zero-error syndrome when they dive in their ‘iron-coffin.’ The SSBN is the ultimate nuclear deterrent, for any nation that has acquired such capability (P 5 nations plus India) and this is a national capability and not just that of the navy. Hence the funding support has to be appropriately apportioned and the building program of the SSBN, the SSN and the diesel boats will have to be pursued concurrently.

However, India’s track-record in planning submarine induction has been below the median and is a poor reflection on the higher defence management acumen of the nation – that is the PM led Cabinet Committee on Security. The last conventional boat was inducted in July 2000 and despite all the proposals made by the navy – it took 17 years for the second Kalvari to be commissioned.

To her credit, Defence Minister Sitharaman drew attention to this aspect in Mumbai when she noted that the “start-stop” pattern of submarine building would have to be redressed. The Navy’s last built-in-India submarine was inducted in 1994 and a hasty political decision related to financial transgression (the HDW corruption scam) resulted in a very costly program being peremptorily shut down.

In relation to China, it is very likely that in the post-Doklam scenario, over the next decade the maritime/naval domain will be an arena of considerable competition – one that will have to be managed in such a manner that any kind of military confrontation is avoided. In this matrix, the underwater platform, the submarine and related detection sensors will have a central role in shaping an environment of suasion that can be invoked, to render more credible, the Indian posture in the uneasy bi-lateral relationship.

Naval capability is a tangible determinant and has to be carefully nurtured and India has a satisfactory profile despite the modest funding. 

The author is a former Commodore in the Indian Navy