The Make in India project to build six conventional submarines was cleared by the Centre's Defence Acquisition Council after staying stuck for over two decades

It took 21 years. And there was a palpable sense of relief in the Indian Navy headquarters as the central government’s Defence Acquisition Council cleared the procurement of six conventional submarines. They will be built under Project 75-I. ‘I’ for India because it is one of the biggest defence projects to be approved under the Make in India banner. The biggest criteria to build the P75-I submarines is that they should have the capability to stay underwater for over two weeks with cutting-edge air-independent propulsion. Our current submarines, most 25 years old, have the endurance to stay submerged only for a few days. The strength of a submarine is its stealth. The quieter it is, the longer it can sustain itself underwater unseen by the enemy, the better it is. This batch of six will cost around Rs 43,000 crore. When ready, these submarines will have the capability to carry 18 land-attack cruise missiles and heavy-duty torpedoes.

How It Started

In 1999, right after the Kargil War, the need was felt to strengthen India’s underwater force. The Cabinet Committee on Security under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee approved a 30-year plan to build submarines: 24 of them by 2030. They were to be conventional submarines. For eight years, things didn’t move. In 200, under PM Dr Manmohan Singh, this particular project was approved. But, for the next 12 years again, it was put on the back burner. In 2019, the Narendra Modi government approved the acceptance for necessity. The first submarine of Project 75-I will be delivered only by 2031.

What Types of Submarines Is India Getting?

The initial 1999 plan was to build 24 conventional submarines. Which means submarines that are propelled by electricity and diesel. But there has been a bit of a change now. Of the 24, six will now be nuclear submarines. Such a vessel is powered by a nuclear reactor. This gives it two big advantages over conventional submarines. First, unlike conventional subs, they don’t need to surface frequently to breathe. And second, the power generated by nuclear reactors gives them the freedom of limitless voyage at high speeds. Conventional submarines on the other hand run on batteries that have to be topped up periodically. This means the boat has to become indiscreet by rising to periscope depth and extend its snort mast above water to ingest air. This snorkelling exposes them to all kinds of threats. But conventional submarines have their advantages as well. They are much cheaper than nuclear submarines. Since their hull is smaller they manoeuvre well in shallow waters and make for good deterrence in their littoral zone.

Countries like the United States, United Kingdom and France have moved completely to nuclear submarines, but most other countries have structured their navies to include both.

Not Enough Subs

India has 15 conventional submarines and one nuclear sub. Out of them, 12 are really old. At 25, they should ideally be on their way out. At any given point, only half are operational. The Indian Navy recently inducted three of the six French-origin Scorpene submarines that have been made under Project 75, which is the predecessor to P75-I. On the day the announcement on P75-I came, the nation also bid goodbye to INS Chakra, the nuclear-powered attack submarine or SSN that was on a 10-year lease from Russia. We are left with a solitary nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine, also called SSBN: the made-in-India INS Arihant. The second SSBN, INS Arighat, is to be commissioned later this year. INS Chakra’s replacement from Russia will arrive on Indian shores only by 2025.

Rising ‘C’ Level

China already has the world’s largest navy: 350 warships, 50 conventional submarines, and 10 nuclear submarines. The plan is to reach a force level of 450 by the end of the decade. The world has seen Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea. The Indian Ocean region is next. Already Chinese warships and submarines are being spotted in the region fairly regularly. China is also helping Pakistan build its naval muscle. Under a $7 billion deal, Islamabad is on track to get eight Yuan-class submarines and four multi-role frigates from China.

The Timeline

The process of awarding the contract is complex and will take at least two years. The navy will roll out the RFP, i.e., request for proposal, this month. This marks the beginning of the tendering process. Then the two bidders, Larsen and Toubro and Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited, will select their foreign collaborator out of the five that the Government of India has already picked. After that, a techno-commercial proposal will be thrashed out. Then both MDL and L&T will submit their final bids to the defence ministry. Both bids will be evaluated. The pair with the lowest bid will be awarded the contract. That is two years gone. Then add another eight years for construction. So the first submarine under P75-I is at least 10 years away.

Strategic Partnership And Make In India

The clearance for P75-I is a landmark for two reasons. First, it is the largest under the Make in India banner. And second, this is the first project that has been cleared under the strategic partnership model. A strategic partnership essentially is a roadmap to give major military contracts to the private sector and break the monopoly of the public sector. It means that an Indian manufacturer will collaborate with a foreign company with expertise in making a particular defence platform. They will set up production facilities in India and manufacture the platform here. The idea is to cut the country’s dependence on imports and ensure greater self-reliance. Just for perspective, India is the second-biggest arms importer in the world after Saudi Arabia. In the P75-I project, the first five submarines will be 45 per cent indigenous and the sixth will have to have 60 per cent Indian content.

The Unexplained

So why has India not been able to design and build its own submarines? After all, India inducted its first sub some 50 years ago. And the navy has an in-house design bureau called the Submarine Design Group to do precisely that. In the last three decades, India has spent billions of dollars for transfer of technology (ToT) every time it bought submarines from Germany, Russia and France. ToT means that India has the blueprint to build the submarines on its own. Why has this ToT not been put to good use is a matter of conjecture.