Another Delay in Indian Navy's Attempt to Augment Underwater Assets

The plan to locally build six ‘hunter-killer’ diesel-electric conventional submarines via the navy's 15-year-old Project-75I has been delayed again.

Chandigarh: The Indian Navy’s (IN)’s continually postponed endeavours to augment its steadily ageing and depleting underwater assets by locally building six ‘hunter-killer’ diesel-electric conventional submarines (SSKs) via its 15-year-old Project-75I (P-75I) has suffered yet another delay.

Official sources said the vendor response deadline to the P-75I’s July 2021 tender or request for proposal (RfP), which was earlier postponed from June to December 2022, has been further deferred to late 2023. It was initially scheduled for November 2021, giving foreign submarine original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) just 12 weeks to finalise their bids in conjunction with two local shipyards, but thereafter had been repeatedly pushed back due to multiple obstacles and hurdles in the RfP.

These included design ‘overreach’ in the Navy’s Staff Qualitative Requirements (NSQRs) for the submarines, unrealistic delivery schedules, impracticable liability clauses and other rigid technology transfer requirements to one of two shortlisted Indian shipbuilders – Mazagaon Dockyard Limited (MDL) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T). These impediments also led to several of the world’s leading submarine builders declining to participate in P-75I.

In August 2022, Russia became the fourth country to opt out of P-75I, due principally to the proposed submarines’ unviable design and operational parameters and timeline restrictions. Just three months earlier, in May 2022, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris, France’s Naval Group that has been licence-building six of its Scorpene SSKs at MDL in Mumbai as part of Project 75 (P-75) since 2005-06 – of which the fifth was delivered to the IN on Tuesday – too officially announced its disinclination to bid for P-75I on analogous grounds.

And, earlier, 2017 onwards, following the IN’s RFIs and subsequent expressions of interest (EoIs) ahead of the P-75I’s RfP, Japan and Sweden also declined involvement in the SSK programme for broadly similar reasons.

Another major spoiler in the prospective submarine deal was the clause that would render the selected OEM responsible for the finished product, without providing him with any executive authority or control over both MDL and L&T. Senior military officials said that such an ‘impracticable’ stipulation by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was one of the major causes for scrapping the contract for 126 French Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in 2015.

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At the time, fighter manufacturer Dassault had declined to accept responsibility for the licensed manufacture of 108 Rafales by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, resulting in the 2007 MMRCA tender being terminated. Thereafter, India procured just 36 Rafales in fly-away condition. “The MoD, it seems, had either forgotten past slipups or simply ignored them blithely,” said a senior naval veteran. This stipulation could easily have been dispensed with, he added, declining to be named.

Consequently, only Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine systems, Daewoo of South Korea and possibly Spain’s state-owned Navantia were, according to industry sources, the only OEMs still tentatively in the race for the SSK tender. But even their participation in P-75I was ‘somewhat ‘tenuous’ for reasons consonant with the other OEMs who had opted out of P-75I, these sources maintained. Recent media reports indicated that some of these OEMs had yet to obtain clearance from their respective governments to transfer submarine-building technology to India as it had been developed via official financing.

The IN Chief of Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar recently admitted that P-75I faced several challenges and that the two competing Indian shipyards and OEMs had apprehensions over the programme, but claimed that these had been adequately addressed. “We are hopeful now that P-75I will go forward in a few months” Adm Kumar stated in his annual presser in early December, but provided no details. The IN spokesman too declined to comment on the extension granted to vendors to respond to the RfP, but industry sources said it had been prolonged by some 8-9 months, to around August or September 2023.

The P-75I programme involves OEMs forging a strategic partnership (SP) in accordance with the Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP-2020) with either MDL or L&T to construct, via a technology transfer, the six SSKs with air independent propulsion (AIP) systems and land-attack capability. AIP systems allow conventional submarines to operate for 6-10 days without needing to surface to re-charge their batteries or access atmospheric oxygen.

But the RfP required the OEMs to field operational fuel-cell based AIP systems, which other than shipbuilders in Germany, South Korea and Spain, none in France, Japan, Russia or Sweden could offer, despite having developed their prototypes. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) too claimed to have designed an AIP system in conjunction with L&T, Thermax of Pune and the Naval Materials Research Laboratory in Ambernath, but that also remains to be operationalised. It’s unclear, for now, whether the DRDO, at the MoD’s behest and as part of the governments Atamnirbharta initiative of self-reliance, was offering its AIP system to the P-75I programme, or readying it merely for fitment later on to the Kalvari-class SSKs.

“It’s astonishing that the IN, which otherwise has an excellent record of formulating realistic NSQRs and of localising its platform and equipment requirements, compared to the other two services, had not only drafted unfeasible QRs after 14 years of deliberation, but stipulated numerous other impractical conditions in the RfP,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD financial advisor on acquisitions. The RfP, he added, displayed a collective lack of pragmatism, realism and workability and needed be substantial tweaking to render it workable. Other industry officials also warned that the DAP-2020 inherently lacked the ‘flexibility’ to substantially alter the conditions stipulated in the RfP.

Andrey Baranov, deputy director general of Rubin Design Bureau, one of Russia’s three main submarine developers, placed the P-75I programme in perspective at the Moscow Army Expo 2022 in August by declaring that the NSQRs specified in the RfP virtually demanded a ‘brand new submarine type’ that would present ‘difficulties’ in its manufacture.

“Our major concern,” declared Baranov, “is that the requirements specified by the IN and the timeline for the project are not matching’. The IN, he added, would like to have the latest, state-of-the art SSKs with powerful weapons, AIP systems and high stealth. “No one in the world has such a submarine ready,” stated the head of Russia’s 122-year old submarine design bureau.

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Baranov also pointed out that penalties for delays in submarine construction were high and only added to projects overall unfeasibility. “We have been saying from the beginning that building the first submarine of the class is not possible within this (MoD) timeline,” he stated, but declined to provide details. We understand that when the first ship of the class is constructed there will be lot of problems which is natural for the process of development, he stated.

The IN currently operates 16 SSK’s, of which seven Russian Type 877 EKM ‘Kilo’-class variants and four HDW Type 209/1500 boats were all between 20 and 34 years old, with several due soon for retirement. The remaining five SSKs, that joined service 2017 onwards, were the French licence built Kalvari (Scorpene)-class SSKs, of which one more was scheduled for induction in 2023. But these latter SSKs were inadequately armed, lacking heavyweight torpedoes that significantly circumscribed their deterrence capability and operational effectivity.

Furthermore, with MDL delivering the last Kalvari-class boat sometime next year to the IN, its submarine building skills, developed at great cost, would once again languish in the event of it being shortlisted for the long-delayed P-75I. If so, this would be a re-run of the ‘lost decade’ between 1995 and 2005 when MDL’s submarine construction facilities remained idle following a corruption scandal involving the import of four German HDW Type 209/1500 SSK’s, that ultimately remained unresolved.

MDL licence-built two of these boats, but the alleged wrongdoing in the deal led to all submarine building activity in the Mumbai shipyard being halted which, in turn, resulted in its specialised workforce leaving to seek alternative employment abroad. All these facilities and skilled workforce had to be resurrected for the P-75 programme.

The IN’s prevailing SSK numbers were eight boats short of the stipulated 24 submarines that were to have been inducted by 2030 in accordance with the navy’s 2012-27 Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP). Furthermore, with a majority of the IN’s older EKM Kilo-class and HDW boats due imminently for retirement, senior officers admitted that the IN faced serious problems in fielding a ‘credible’ submarine fleet for power projection. The submarine shortfall also challenged the IN in realising its wider strategic goal of sea control and sea denial in the critical IOR to match the rival Chinese navy’s rapid underwater platform force accretion.

The IN also deploys one indigenously designed nuclear-powered missile submarine (SSBN), albeit with limited missile capability, and is awaiting the arrival of another nuclear-powered general purpose attack submarine (SSN) on a 10-year lease from Russia sometime around 2025. It is also fast-tracking the local construction of 3-4 additional SSBNs, but all of these were only scheduled to join service 2027-28 onwards, if not later, in addition to six SSNs, also to be developed domestically.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), on the other hand, according to the US Defense Department, presently operates the world’s largest naval force, with 355 front-line warships larger than corvettes, and over 400 platforms if one takes small missile boats into reckoning. In comparison, the US Navy is capable of deploying just 355 warships, rendering the PLAN the world’s largest maritime force.

Senior IN officers admitted that with numerous self-induced obstacles in the P-75I programme, the first such boat under it was unlikely to be commissioned for at least another 6-8 years at the earliest. One veteran said that the IN’s ‘unwarranted’ shortcomings in the P-75I RfP could be rectified to further the vastly overdue submarine construction. But it remains to be seen whether the service can rescue the project from floundering aimlessly in deep waters without ballast, he added, requesting anonymity.