While Pakistan, assisted by China, looks set to acquire eight submarines over the next decade, Navy veterans are concerned about India’s depleting underwater warfare capabilities, thanks to a submarine crunch

Indian submariners, on December 8, took to social media to wish everyone on the occasion of Indian Submarine Day. It was on this very day in 1967 that the Indian Navy’s first submarine, INS Kalvari, was commissioned at the Soviet era seaport of Riga. But celebrations aside, submariners and Navy veterans are also concerned about the depleting underwater warfare capabilities of the Indian Navy, thanks to a submarine crunch.

The Indian Navy, on November 20, received the fifth Scorpene-class submarine Vagir. The submarine was built at the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) in Mumbai in collaboration with the Naval Group of France, under the Indian Navy’s Project-75, which entails indigenously producing six Scorpene submarines.

According to the developers, INS Vagir can undertake multifarious missions, such as anti-surface, anti-submarine, intelligence gathering, mine laying and area surveillance. It is designed to operate in all theatres of operation, showcasing interoperability with other components of a Naval Task Force. The developers see INS Vagir as a transformational shift in submarine operations. While INS Vagir will be commissioned shortly into the Indian Navy, INS Vaghsheer, the sixth and the last submarine of Scorpene class, is undergoing trials.

India has 15 conventional and one nuclear submarine. But most of the fleet is three decades old. The navy needs at least 24 submarines to meet its 30-year submarine-building plan, which was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 1999 after the Kargil War. The plan was to induct 12 diesel-powered submarines by 2012 and another 12 by 2030. But repeated delays have forced the Navy to rejig the plan. The revised plan is to have 18 diesel-powered submarines and six SSNs (nuclear-powered submarines).

In a recent conversation, Vice Admiral A.K. Singh (Retd), who commanded India’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine INS Chakra, taken on lease from Russia, said that while China remains India’s biggest threat, even the smaller navy of Pakistan was leaping ahead of the Indian Navy. “Our underwater capabilities are pathetic and it’s high time we speed up,” said Singh.

In 2015, Pakistan had signed a contract with China to build eight Yuan-class (Type 039-A) conventional AIP (air-independent propulsion) submarines for an estimated $5 billion. The first four submarines will be built in China and the remaining four by Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW). Going by the pace of Chinese shipbuilding, the first submarine is expected to be delivered to the Pakistan Navy by the end of 2023. Pakistan is likely to acquire all eight submarines over the next decade or so, which arguably puts it ahead of India in terms of underwater warfare capability.

On the other hand, the Indian Navy’s Project-75, initiated way back in November 2007 with an estimated outlay of Rs 43,000 crore for building six conventional submarines with better sensors and weapons and an AIP system, ran into rough weather due to certain specifications demanded by the Indian Navy. These were not agreeable to the submarine manufacturers. In a bid to resolve the issue, the Indian Navy has approached the defence ministry for relaxation of certain specifications and extending the deadline for the shortlisted shipyard to respond to the RFP (request for proposal).