More than 60% of the IN’s conventional boats (as submarines are referred to) are over 30 years old and there is a steady decline in the total number of fully operational submarines

by C Uday Bhaskar

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) gave the long awaited green signal on June 4 for the acquisition of six conventional submarines for the Indian Navy (IN) as part of Project 75 I. More than 60% of the IN’s conventional boats (as submarines are referred to) are over 30 years old and there is a steady decline in the total number of fully operational submarines. Hence, this approval is welcome even if the commissioning of the first fully ops submarine is a decade away.

The long and complex process of acquiring a major platform for the Indian military will begin with the issue of a request for proposals (RFP) and prospective Indian suppliers of the new boat will make a bid for what is estimated to be a ₹43,000 crore (US $5.9bn) order. In the process, they would have to form a “partnership” with one of the five shortlisted foreign manufacturers.

However, there are a few caveats related to India’s submarine building experience in general, and some characteristics about 75 I in particular, that merit notice. The submarine project is one of four that have been placed in the strategic partnership (SP) basket of the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Policy (DAP) 2020 — the other three big ticket items being fighter aircraft, helicopters and armoured vehicles. India has modest indigenous design capability in these sectors and whatever is manufactured in India is either assembled or manufactured under license.

Arriving at a final DAP has been a long and convoluted process for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which has prioritised indigenisation of military inventory since 2014. Finalising a comprehensive blueprint, let alone meaningful indigenisation, remained elusive for Modi 1.0. PM Modi was handicapped in his first term by not being able to have the same minister for a full five-year term as Raksha Mantri (RM). This has been redressed by the appointment of the current incumbent — the highly regarded Rajnath Singh.

The success of the P 75 I project, or lack thereof, will have a bearing on the other three major SP projects and India’s resolve to acquire Atmanirbharta, or self-reliance, in this domain. There is thus a need to accord high priority to how this project unfolds in the years ahead.

India has had a chequered past with submarine-building projects. Towards the end of the Cold War, India acquired four submarines from the then West Germany, with a provision to build a line in India at Mazagon Docks, Mumbai and progressively acquire indigenous submarine building capability. Regrettably, a financial transgression was reported in this deal, as also in the Bofors artillery gun acquisition of the late 1980’s and aspersions were cast against the then PM Rajiv Gandhi. The HDW submarine building was scuttled peremptorily.

While the HDW-Bofors scandal rocked Indian politics, the long-term negative impact on India’s military procurement policies has been disastrous. Acquisition decisions became more complex, the procedure turned labyrinth-like. And officials tasked to enable the final outcome became hesitant and more concerned about RTIs being filed at a future date.

Cutting through the accreted bureaucratic bramble is a daunting task but this gauntlet has to be picked up. The trajectory of P 75 I could be the bellwether to India’s ability to acquire a credible index of indigenous capability in manufacturing major military platforms with foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

India has invested heavily in defence public sector units (DPSU), but they have not been able to deliver what the military needs — and hence import dependency persists. The challenge for Rajnath Singh will be to provide the political leadership to synergise the innate strengths of the three entities – the DPSU, the private Indian entity and the foreign OEM to make the SP model for submarines a success.

This would be an enviable legacy for Modi 2.0.