Foreign contenders for the Project 75(India) submarine program have hit a critical obstacle over the air-independent propulsion clause in the deal

India’s most critical submarine program Project 75 (India), or P75(I), is running into fresh delays owing to challenges faced by potential foreign vendors in meeting a key criteria. While initial interest from German firm ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) gave the project a thrust, another contender, Navantia of Spain, is encountering obstacles in fulfilling the criteria, particularly the ‘proven AIP (air-independent propulsion)’ clause.

Under the ₹43,000 crore P75(I), India aims to build six advanced conventional submarines, equipped with better sensors and weapons and AIP, through a joint venture. The JV requires the Indian bidder to have a technology partnership with a foreign collaborator.

AIP allows a submarine to remain underwater longer, making it more difficult to detect. Conventional diesel submarines, on the contrary, have to emerge out of water to charge their batteries. The AIP clause demands a certain level of technology, currently possessed only by German submarines. Navantia has been working to master this technology.

To ensure fairness and avoid legal hurdles arising from a single vendor situation, the Indian government may delay acquisition until Navantia develops the AIP technology, thereby maintaining a level-playing field among the contenders. Navantia’s struggle to meet the AIP criteria is therefore a significant obstacle to P75(I). At the same time, a debate has ensued over the relevance of AIP technology since advancements in lithium-ion battery technology may potentially offer submarines superior underwater endurance in the future.

P75(I) has strategic implications, especially considering China’s growing submarine presence in the Indian Ocean Region and Pakistan’s accelerated acquisition of these warships. The urgency for India to modernise its submarine fleet is evident as its current fleet is ageing and depleting.

The Indian Navy’s fleet of attack submarines—all diesel-powered—has come down from 21 in the 1980s to just 16 at present. Only eight are battle-ready at any given time, as half of the fleet undergoes mid-life upgrades and is 30 years old. P75(I)’s success will enhance the India Navy’s underwater capabilities and support the country’s strategic defence objectives against regional threats.

P75(I), initiated in the late 1990s, has been through lots of ups and downs. It entered a critical phase in June last year when TKMS tied up with the Mumbai-based Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) while L&T joined hands with Navantia to build these submarines. Eventually, TKMS and Navantia submitted bids, the deadline for which saw several extensions before finally culminating in July 2023.

P75(I) ran into rough weather due to the Indian Navy’s specifications, which weren’t amenable to submarine manufacturers. TKMS, Navantia, Daewoo of South Korea, Rosoboronexport/Rubin Design Bureau from Russia and the Naval Group of France were in the race initially.

Last month, an Indian Navy team did field evaluation trials of German submarines. Now, Navantia is hosting an Indian team for field evaluation trials of its submarine, but this is happening in the absence of proven AIP as the Spanish firm is expected to acquire this prowess by the end of the year.

For now, TKMS, which has the backing of the German government, appears to be the frontrunner in grabbing the P75(I) contract. Earlier this year, TKMS and MDL signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to collaborate on building submarines under P75(I). It marked Germany’s return to submarine manufacturing for India four decades after a submarine contract with Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) had got mired in a corruption scandal.

German shipbuilding company HDW had developed four Shishumar-class diesel-electric submarines for the Indian Navy. The firm built the first two submarines in Kiel, Germany; the remaining two were built by MDSL in Mumbai between 1986 and 1994. Subsequently, HDW was blacklisted in India due to allegations of massive kickbacks in the deal. In 2004, HDW was purchased by TKMS. Eventually, the blacklist tag was lifted by the Indian government after a request from the Indian Navy.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party-led government has been highly conscious of India’s growing global stature and has been making strategic moves into the Indian defence market with an aim to expand its presence and reduce India’s high dependency on Russian arms. Only last month, the German government lifted restrictions on small arms sales to India.

About P75(I), TKMS believes that more than just a procurement of submarines for the Indian Navy, the project stipulates that the warship design be also transferred to India. TKMS added that the submarine for India would be built by MDL and its design will belong to India. P75(I) will, therefore, be an Indian submarine, with MDL being the main contractor and TKMS doing a complete transfer of technology to India.

TKMS claimed the design being offered to the Indian Navy is a derivative of the HDW class 214, which is in service with navies worldwide. It is adapted to fulfil the challenging P75(I) requirements and also incorporates several advanced design characteristics. Without disclosing its specific features, TKMS stated that it is no secret that the firm is a forerunner in submarine stealth technology and the only provider of a sea-proven fuel cell AIP system, which dramatically increases the range at which a submarine can remain undetected. Germany and several other major navies have been using this system for over 20 years.

“Unlike other submarines, the German-designed boats have never had to go back to Germany for refits. So, in addition to the proven AIP technology and other features of the submarine itself, it is the industrial partnership with MDL and the enabling of self-reliance that set us apart,” a senior TKMS representative said.

Naval experts say that at a time China has been frequently deploying its conventional and nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean Region under the pretext of anti-piracy missions, the Indian Navy’s underwater capabilities need to be ramped up urgently. While China, with over 65 submarines, is the biggest threat, even the smaller navy of Pakistan appears to be racing ahead of India with faster acquisitions. Last month, China launched the first of eight Hangor-class submarines for Pakistan’s navy at a Wuhan shipyard. The remaining four submarines will be built at Pakistan’s Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Ltd under a transfer-of-technology agreement. The Pakistan Navy plans to add the submarines to its fleet by 2028.

(With Reporting by India Today)