by Pravin Sawhney

The recent test-firing and operationalisation of Pakistan’s submarine launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) Babur-III (which can be fired with both conventional and nuclear warheads) with a range of 450km has three serious implications for India: operational (war-fighting), as sea-based deterrence, and strategic (in cahoots with People’s Liberation Army Navy, PLAN).

India would need to bolster its precariously depleted submarine arm to meet this enormous challenge with out-of-box ideas since the 30-year submarine plan approved in 1999 is out of sync with the existing realities. Submarines, after all, beat submarines.

Babur-III missiles with conventional warheads are expected to be fitted on Pakistan Navy’s three Agosta-90B class diesel-electric attack submarines (Khalid class) with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) built by the French DCNS (new name, Naval Group). These joined service in 1999-2008. Coupled with the French Exocet anti-ship missiles, Babur-III will make Khalid submarines a potent war-fighting platform.

Pakistan has also contracted for eight Chinese modified diesel-electric submarines with AIPs (to evade detection by remaining underwater for long) to be delivered by 2028. By the time the Gwadar port, which is the southern tip of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, gets converted into a military base, the two navies’ conventional submarines would have acquired interoperability (to fight together on common mission) to dominate the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden through effective sea-denial capabilities.

For sea-based deterrence, Pakistan is expected to acquire the Chinese improved Shang-class 093 type Submersible Ship Nuclear (SSN, referred to as nuclear attack submarines). These were spotted docked in Karachi harbour in May 2017. These could be fitted with Babur SLCMs, turning them into Pakistan’s sea-based deterrence for second-strike capability.

The versatile SSNs can perform a variety of tasks including hunting enemy SSNs/ diesel-electric submarines and tailing SSBNs (Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear or nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines); escorting carrier battle group; attacking amphibious task group; doing clandestine and intelligence gathering missions and so on. The SSNs, during peace-time, gather information which is useful in war, to include sea conditions, submarine probable areas, harbours and coastlines, traffic densities, warship characteristics with its habits and patterns of operations and the like. This is precisely what the Chinese SSNs have been doing in the Indian Ocean Region since 2008 under the garb of anti-piracy tasks in the Gulf of Aden. And this is what the Pakistani SSNs, working closely with China, would do.

All this would, on the one hand, adversely impact upon India’s strategic maritime aspirations which are unfolding through its Indo-Pacific ambitions in concert with the Quadrilateral nations, the Act East policy, BIMSTEC and India-ASEAN policies. On the other hand, it would strengthen China’s One Belt One Road which traverses the same sea-route as the traditional sea lanes of communication. India would find it extremely difficult to match China/ Pakistan forays in its backyard since China, with its vibrant war-shipbuilding industry, excellent maintenance and medium-refit capabilities, and over 60 submarines amongst other assets, scores heavily over India in naval power.

India has 13 diesel-electric submarines (nine Russian Kilo-class and four HDWs); one SSBN, INS Arihant commissioned in August 2016 (it has not done a single deterrent patrol), and the second SSBN, Arighat undergoing sea-trails; and one SSN, INS Chakra leased from Russia in 2012 for 10 years. Of the nine Kilo class submarines (all of Eighties vintage) not more than five are available operationally. Since India never bothered to set-up indigenous maintenance facilities for Kilo submarines in four decades, two of them are in Russia (with two more waiting) for medium refit and life extension certification for another 11 years. While Kilos are armed with excellent cruise missiles — 3M 14E land attack with 300 km range and 3M 54E anti-ship with 220km range — the submarine technology is old.

The 30-year submarine plan, which had envisaged six each submarines of western and Russian origin, followed by 12 indigenous submarines (from design to production), is woefully behind schedule. Six French Scorpene submarines built at MDL under Project 75, which are now expected to be delivered by 2022, too are old technology. The government is mulling over the possibility of three follow-on Scorpenes at MDL. With 14 changes (including AIP and better propulsion) that the navy wants, the next lot of Scorpenes, if it materialises, would be a mix of new and old technologies.

The government meanwhile has taken two steps. One, it issued a Request for Information in 2017 for a new class of submarines. France and Russia are serious contenders in the programme to partner with Indian shipyard under Make in India to manufacture six submarines under Project 75I. The next programme, Project 76, which is supposed to make indigenous 12 state-of-art submarines, remains on the drawing board. And two, work on six indigenous SSNs under Make in India which was approved by the government in 2015, has reportedly begun.

Keeping the uninspiring state of Indian war-shipbuilding in mind, it should be clear that India should seek French or Russian help (India has close ties with them) for expeditiously building diesel-electric submarines (under 75I and even 76) and SSNs. Both these countries with multiple linkages with India including a direct line to the Prime Minister’s Office, are aware of Indian requirements and realities. Not for nothing, the navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba during his November 2017 visit to France was shown the Barracuda SSN, which also has a diesel-electric version. The big question with France is this: Will it share the nuclear-propulsion technology for SSNs with India?

This and other doubts are not there with Russia. Moscow is helping India with its SSBNs (Arihant design came from there), has leased its SSNs (talks for another INS Chakra are at an advanced state), and has offered to help with the six indigenous SSNs including propulsion. According to top sources, Russia has offered joint design, joint prototype building, and transfer of technical documentation for serial production to nominated Indian shipyard under Make in India (to include BrahMos and DRDO’s AIP installations) for both Project 75I and 76. If true, this should be considered as the out-of-box solution to make up submarines’ deficiencies.