The Unsavoury History of India’s Long-Delayed Submarine Augmentation Programme

While India's fifth Scorpene-class submarine was commissioned nearly 18 years after the deal was inked, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy had built 12 nuclear-powered general purpose attack submarines and ballistic missile submarines in the past 15 years.

Chandigarh: Euphoric official hysteria over the Indian Navy (IN) inducting INS Vagir – the fifth of six licence-built Kalvari (Scorpene)-class conventional diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) – into service on Monday conceals the unsavoury history of the long-delayed programme to augment the forces depleted underwater assets.

The actuality, on balance, is that the 1,615-tonne ‘killer-hunter’ submarine, built by Mazagaon Dockyard Limited (MDL) in Mumbai under Project 75 (P75), was commissioned nearly 18 years after the $3 billion programme to locally construct the SSKs via a transfer of technology, was inked with France in October 2005.

And with INS Vagsheer, the sixth and last Kalvari-class submarine scheduled for IN induction in early 2024, the entire P75 programme would have lasted 19 years, or alternately a whopping 26 years if the programme’s initial approval accorded in 1997 was considered.

The former time frame makes it an average of 3.16 years for each SSK’s construction by MDL, while taking the latter date into regard as the start of the project would alternately equal a build time of 4.33 years per platform.

At the time of signing the Scorpene deal – then with Amaris, jointly owned by the French shipyard DCNS, Thales and Spain’s Navantia, all of which later morphed into France’s Naval Group – India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) had announced that the first SSK would be inducted by late 2012. The remaining five submarines, it stated, would be commissioned at the rate of one boat per year till the P75 was completed in 2017.

In fact, INS Kalvari, P75’s lead boat, was delivered to the IN only in 2017, when the programme was projected to end. Three others – INS Khanderi, INS Karanj and INS Vela – were commissioned respectively in September 2019 and March and November 2021.

At the time of signing the Scorpene deal, the IN’s Chief of Staff Admiral Arun Prakash had declared that India needed to concentrate on cutting down on P75 production schedules through outsourcing to private companies, to make up for time lost in negotiating the deal. The time frame to build the submarines needed compressing, he had added, voicing a fantasy that never transpired due to the mismanagement and flawed planning and project execution collectively by the MoD, the IN and above all, MDL.

In contrast, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with who the IN operationally compares itself, had built 12 nuclear-powered general purpose attack submarines (SSNs) and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) over the past 15 years – or one every eight months – according to a recent Pentagon report. These included two Type 093 ShangI-class and four Type 093A ShangII-class SSNs and six Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs. The latter submarine type comprised the sea leg of China’s nuclear triad and was capable of deploying the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile with a 7,200 km strike range.

Meanwhile, fundamental problems in the P75 project erupted shortly after the construction of three Scorpene boats began in 2007-08. Amazingly, it emerged that the 2005 contract had inexplicably omitted to include assorted critical components essential to the Scorpene’s construction like engines, generators, sub-assemblies and raw materials including specialised steel as part of the deal.

Consequently, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced into approving an extra Rs 19 billion for the newly formed Mazagaon Procurement Materials (MPM) entity, created to source this supplementary equipment and to progress the stalled Scorpene programme. The protracted negotiations to purchase this gear – which raised the overall submarine contract price by 10.1% – lasted almost two years and was one of the prime causes behind delaying the P75 by over four years to 2016-17, industry sources said.

Representative image of Indian Navy officers on board during the commissioning ceremony of P-75 INS Karanj submarine in Mumbai, on March 10, 2021. Photo: PTI/ Shashank Parade

“Such an additional financial grant for an already signed deal was rare,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD financial advisor for acquisitions. It simply indicated poor planning and lack of understanding by the Indian side, he stated, for which there was little or no accountability for either extended project delays or price escalation.

Thereafter, in 2011, P75 suffered another setback following a breach and flooding at MDL’s dockyard in which components, including sections of the already fabricated hull of at least one of the six SSKs, were submerged under seawater. It took several days to pump out this water, with the myopic MDL and the IN dismissing the incident as a ‘minor obstacle’.

But worse was yet to afflict P75.

In May 2016, plans to equip the SSKs with 98 Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes (HWTs) from Italy’s Whitehead Alenia Sistemi Subacquei (WASS), as initially planned, were scrapped, following allegations – eventually unproven – of corruption involving its then parent company Finmeccanica. Instead, the SSKs were fitted with upgraded German-origin, SUT torpedoes acquired in the mid-1980s that IN officers themselves conceded were a ‘poor substitute’. MoD negotiations since 2019 with two European vendors for HWTs remain a work in progress.

Shortly thereafter, in August 2016 the Scorpene programme was slammed hard by an HWT itself in the form of an investigative report in The Australian newspaper that detailed the operational and combat capabilities of these French-origin boats.

The leak running into 22,408 pages that were culled by The Australian outlined all functional aspects of the IN’s under-construction Scorpene boats, including their stealth capabilities, frequencies at which they gathered intelligence, their noise levels at various speeds, in addition to their diving depths, range and endurance.

The document, marked “Restricted: Scorpene India” also included instructions to the crew on where on the boat they were permitted to speak to avoid detection by the enemy and specifications of the submarines torpedo and combat systems and its antennae. Also specified were the speed and conditions for using the submarine’s periscope and propeller and radiated noise levels that occurred when the boat surfaced.

The entire technical data details were gleaned from 8,666 pages on the submarine’s underwater and above-water sensors and 4,310 pages on its combat management system. It also included specifics garnered from 493 pages on its torpedo launch system, 6,841 pages on its communication system and 2,138 pages on its navigation systems, the newspaper stated.

On its website, The Australian stated that out of ‘security considerations’ it had opted to redact some of the information. It revealed that the data on the IN’s Scorpene programme was compiled in 2011 in France, alleging that a former French Navy captain, who worked as a DCNS sub-contractor at the time, had stolen it. The data was then reportedly taken to another marine company in Southeast Asia, possibly to assist one of the navies in the area aiming to build similar boats.

In response, the IN declared that the documents posted by The Australian had been duly examined and posed no security compromise, as vital operational parameters had been redacted by the newspaper itself. But senior naval officers and security analysts questioned the IN’s assertion, as did The Australian’s reporter who broke the story.

“There is confusion in India about the leaked submarine documents,” tweeted Cameron Stewart on August 25, 2016. “None of the 22,400 documents are redacted, all sensitive figures are there in full,” he stated.

“These leaks had potentially restricted the operational scope and capability of the Scorpene boats even before they were inducted into service,” said a senior retired naval officer. The IN, he added requesting anonymity, would need to be ‘especially creative’ in deploying these submarines, as a large proportion of their competence was already compromised.

In retaliation, the MoD briefly considered the possibility of invoking the non-disclosure clause, signed when the Scorpene deal was concluded, but discarded the option as the agreement was ‘unclear’ and nebulous on Naval Group’s overall culpability regarding data theft – or possible industrial espionage – or both. Besides, the legal challenges the matter posed were ‘awesome’ and hence the MoD, the IN and MDL collectively adopted the path of least resistance, hoping that in time the issue would dissipate.

It most certainly did; few if any discuss, even sotto voce details concerning this critical information leak on the SSK’s operational details. Silence, it seems, became a better part of naval and MoD valour.