The Defence Ministry clears six P-75I submarines for the Indian Navy. What lessons it must learn from the P-75 Scorpene submarine project

On June 4, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh cleared the acquisition of six Project 75 ‘India’ class submarines for the Indian Navy. The Rs 43,000-crore contract will be awarded to a consortium of an Indian submarine builder and a foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer under the MoD’s Strategic Partnership model.

It aims to give the navy a fleet of modern conventional submarines with greater endurance and capabilities than the present one. India’s submarine fleet is ageing—the bulk of its 15 boats are over 25 years old. Its adversaries are boosting their underwater platforms—Pakistan will field 11 conventional submarines by the end of this decade.

The P-75‘I’ contract will be awarded to MDL (Mazagon Docks Ltd) or Larsen &Toubro. The two firms will need to tie up with one of four submarine builders—France’s Naval Group, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, Russia’s Rosoboronexport (Rubin Design Bureau) and Spain’s Navantia. The Indian Navy is to shortly issue Request for Proposals (RFPs) for this project, but given the tortuously slow MoD procedures, even a 2024 contract signing date seems optimistic. The aims of the P-75’I’ project are lofty. The ‘I’ symbolises the attempt to give India the ability to design and produce submarines as part of a 30-year submarine building programme. The goal is to produce 24 conventional submarines by 2030 (now been reduced to 18). The MoD will also need to create an indigenous industrial ecosystem to support the building and maintaining of conventional submarines in India.

Here’s what the MoD needs to keep in mind as it proceeds:

1) India has wasted millions in paying ToT (transfer of technology) fees to foreign OEMs but has not acquired the capability to design and build submarines

India is the world’s only major submarine-operating country that has not designed and built its own submarines. This is a glaring lapse for a country which inducted submarines over 50 years ago. Yet it was not for want of money. Over four decades, millions of dollars have been spent in obtaining submarine-building expertise from Germany, France and Russia. Yet for various reasons, the Submarine Design Group (SDG), the Indian Navy’s inhouse design organisation, has failed to absorb the capability to design and develop an Indian submarine. In 1981, India signed a contract with West Germany’s HDW to buy four Type 1500 conventional submarines but, more crucially, to acquire submarine-building knowhow. Project officials say the transfer of ToT from West Germany was comprehensive and the plan was to build the fifth and sixth submarines using completely indigenous submarine technology. The company was blacklisted in 1987 on suspicion of bribery, after four submarines had been delivered. In the late 1990s, it paid Russia for design knowhow to build the Arihant-class nuclear submarines. With the blacklist on HDW still on, India signed a contract with the Franco-Spanish consortium Armaris in October 2005 to buy six Scorpene conventional submarines. This contract included transfer of design knowhow. Three submarines are currently in service and three more are due to be delivered by 2023.

2. A need to audit Project 75

The defence ministry needs to carefully audit Project 75, the ‘buy and make’ order for six Scorpene submarines signed in October 2005. This is also critical not just because France’s Naval Group, which supplied the Scorpenes, is also in the reckoning for Project 75‘I’ but also for one other important reason. Project officials say nearly 30 per cent of the Rs 19,000 crore contract cost went towards ToT. This meant that by the sixth Scorpene submarine, India should have been self-sufficient in designing and building submarines, the way it is now for warships. The P-75’I’ would have then segued into a line of Indian designed submarines. This has clearly not happened. What did MDL do with the Transfer of Design Documents (TDD) it received from Armaris, the Franco-Spanish consortium (including DCNS--now Naval Group) that sold the Scorpenes. This TDD went from France to MDL and from the MDL to the DG SDG. It was never utilised. In the 1980s, HDW transferred to MDL all the design blueprints on thousands of microfilms, and microfilm readers were supplied to interpret those designs. These were not utilised because the firm was blacklisted.

3. Why was no indigenous ecosystem created?

The original 2005 contract was between MDL and Armaris. If the MDL-Armaris contract was an ideal one and all the terms of the contract abided with, then MDL should have established an indigenous supply chain to source components from Indian suppliers. This did not happen. The cost of the contract escalated substantially when MDL-Procured Materials or MPM were added on to the contract. MPM was material that was procured for MDL by the French firm. Project officials say this is what subverted India’s ability to indigenously source the items and manufacture. More than 60 per cent of the Scorpene, including the combat management system and sensors, are imported. Would the same be repeated with the P-75‘I’ contract?

4. Can Project 75 segue into the P75 ‘I’?

India currently operates three different types of conventional submarines from Russia, France and Germany. All three have separate training and spares and procurement. Each submarine has its own distinct build, maintenance and operational philosophy. Russian and French boats, for instance, are completely different in their power supplies, types of motors, control systems, operations and standard operating procedures. A bulk of India’s conventional submarine fleet is over 25 years old and life extensions will see most of them in service for 15 more years. The P-75‘I’, therefore, offers a chance to stabilise the entire submarine line on an in-service platform, whether French, Russian or German. By 2023, the navy will operate six Scorpene submarines which will be in service until 2050 and beyond. Feedback from the current fleet of Scorpene submarines should inform the decision on the choice of the P-75‘I’. Would a lengthened ‘Super Scorpene’ with additional sections for AIP (air-independent propulsion) and weapons be more cost-effective than a whole new class of submarines?

5) Can both industrial partners form a consortium to speed up submarine production?

MDL and L&T, the only two Indian shipyards with submarine-building experience, are national strategic assets. MDL has delivered two HDW Type 1500 submarines to the navy and three Scorpene submarines. L&T has fabricated hulls of four 6,000-tonne Arihant class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines at its facility in Hazira and integrated them at the Shipbuilding Centre in Visakhapatnam. The P-75 ‘I’ contract will be placed on one shortlisted firm. The MoD could perhaps consider a consortium of both firms to produce the submarines to drastically cut down on delivery schedules. A linear build programme will see the six submarines delivered by 2036 at the earliest. Parallel production by MDL-L&T could halve this delivery schedule.