NS Vagir, an Indian Navy submarine, on an extended-range deployment to Fremantle, Australia

The Indian Navy's submarine capability projection for 2030 doesn’t look promising. India requires more submarines to meet the deepening underwater challenge from the rival navies

The joint maritime patrol involving a Chinese submarine along with other powerful warships under the expanded scope of China-Pakistan joint naval drill, Sea Guardian, in the second and third week of November highlights the significance of submarine force in projecting naval prowess of China in the Indian Ocean. The maritime exercise, announced first by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and reported by Chinese official mouthpiece Global Times, has implications for India as the naval patrol being undertaken by China for the first time in the Arabian Sea is very close to Indian waters.

This is indicative of the rising challenge to the Indian Navy from the Sino-Pak axis in the Indian Ocean. Though the Indian Navy has witnessed recent accretions in warship strength, the submarine capability projection for 2030 doesn’t look promising. India requires more submarines to meet the deepening underwater challenge from the rival navies.

That the joint Sino-Pakistan naval patrol involved a Chinese submarine is enough to raise some hackles in the Indian defence establishment. Though the Indian Navy is reported to have closely monitored the Sea Guardian exercise and the joint maritime patrol, there are lessons to be learnt. The exercise has raised concerns in the Indian naval circles about the current status and projected strength of the Indian submarine fleet by the year 2030. Though the Pakistani Navy currently has only five diesel electric submarines and three mini-subs, and does not pose a big challenge to the Indian Navy, the eight Hangor-class submarines China is helping build for the Pakistan Navy should draw the attention of Indian defence planners. Considering the China-Pakistan military collaboration and Pakistan acting as a proxy of its all-weather friend China, Indian strategic planners must give a closer look at expansion of the submarine fleet of the Pakistan navy, which is likely to be used by China in the name of joint maritime patrol. In fact, China may permanently deploy its submarine fleet in the Arabian Sea in association with the Pakistan Navy.

In this backdrop, India needs to relook and hasten its submarine expansion plan. As the Pakistani submarine fleet by the end of this decade is expected to reach the level of 13, including the eight new Chinese submarines under construction, the Indian naval fleet is going to remain static. Though India is soon going to order three more Scorpene-class advanced diesel submarines, the total strength is not expected to go up from 17 by the end of this decade. The Indian naval headquarters had planned 24 submarines by 2030, which includes six nuclear submarines. But the decision making process is slow and that will deny India the projected strength.

Submarine Strength May Even Go Down By 2030

The Indian Navy currently has six Scorpene-class diesel subs built in India under P-75, but half of its fleet is more than 25 years old. These include the 10 Kilo-class submarines supplied by the Soviets in the late eighties and early nineties. The Kilo-class submarines are in their last phase of service. One of them, INS Sindhudhwaj, retired last year, one met with an accident and one was gifted to Myanmar. They will be three and a half decades old by the end of the current decade. The Indian Navy has no option but to retire them. Similarly, the four German HDW type-209 diesel submarines, which were acquired in the late eighties and early nineties, would also have to be retired by the end of this decade.

Since the six submarines under P-75-I are planned to be made in Indian shipyards under strategic partnership programme with foreign collaboration, the government is yet to take a final call. Naval officials are concerned over this inordinate delay, as they fear its submarine strength will go down by 2030. Since it will take at least five to six years to deliver the first submarine from the date of award of contract to the manufacturer, and there are no more submarines on order, India’s submarine fleet will contract. If there is no delivery of submarines under P-75-I programme by the end of this decade, the submarine strength will come down to six Scorpenes, as both the Russian Kilo and four German Type-209 submarines will have to be decommissioned. If three extra diesel electric Scorpene-class submarines are ordered within a few months, the Indian Navy can expect their delivery by the end of this decade. The diesel electric submarine strength, all Scorpene class, will remain at nine.

As far as nuclear-powered submarines are concerned, the Indian Navy’s ambitions of inducting six of them by the end of this decade also seems to be faltering, as there are no firm orders for the fifth and sixth nuclear submarines. The first Arihant-class nuclear submarine is already operational and the second, INS Arighat, is under sea trials. The third, yet to be named, was launched early last year and will take time to complete sea trials. If all goes well, INS Arighat will be made operational by the end of next year, and the third sub by the end of 2027 or 2028.

Meanwhile, the third Russian nuclear submarine, proposed to be on a ten-year lease, is under preparation in a Russian shipyard and is expected to be delivered by the middle of next year. The Indian Navy had acquired the first nuclear submarine, INS Chakra-1, on a ten-year lease in the late eighties and the second nuclear submarine INS Chakra-2 was returned to Russia ten months before the completion of ten-year lease last year. India is also reported to be negotiating for a fourth nuclear submarine on a ten-year lease, but no final agreement has been reached. Even if the third nuclear submarine is cleared for induction on a ten-year lease, India would have three indigenous nuclear submarines and two Russian subs on lease. Thus, a maximum of five nuclear submarines are expected to be in the Indian naval fleet by the end of the current decade. Along with this, the Navy can have at most nine diesel submarines, including the three extra Scorpene submarines that the Defence Acquisition Council cleared last June.

The Indian Navy thus can have a maximum of 14 submarines, including five nuclear subs, by the end of this decade — down from the current fleet strength of 17. This presents a gloomy picture as the Indian Navy submarine fleet requires expansion in view of the rising challenge from Sino-Pakistan axis in the Indian Ocean and the need to patrol this huge maritime area.