Our underwater Aesop's fable - The New Indian Express

Our underwater Aesop's fable

Published: 01st September 2013 07:23 AM

Last Updated: 20th January 2014 06:48 PM

Draping the national flag around us and indulging in chest-beating does not really help provide any useful insight into the continuing sorry state of our submarine programme. Last week, this space briefly dealt with the wonderful saga of how we took decades developing a so-called indigenous submarine from dated Russian designs. More apt would have been to recount how the Americans similarly converted USS George Washington from an SSN to an SSBN. According to people who follow this sort of thing, it took only 26 months, including the role change. Less than 800 days. From start to finish. It’s there in Wikipedia as well. I don’t know if this is a record but our experience in nuclear submarine building certainly seems to be one, a record of the wrong kind. I don’t want to run our submarine builders down. They worked very hard. They were thoroughgoing. Maybe they were perfectionists: they took almost 10 times the time to get to the stage where the nuclear reactor went critical recently. I am sure their medals will be well deserved.

Again, I flag the point that I am no expert on this slightly esoteric topic, but it should be obvious even to the uninitiated that 25 years is a pretty long time to get something—and we were being continually spoon-fed by the Russians—right.  Under similar circumstances, the Chinese SSBN Xia took about 14 years. Despite problems, the Chinese are pushing ahead with 094 and 096 programmes. They also built three Han-class SSNs and have a robust programme in 093 and 095. In foreign policy and military capabilities, the race belongs to the swift. George Washington was then the state-of-the-art. My Naval friends tell me that our nuclear submarine which is still probably a year away from sea trials is anything but. Sea trials apparently means seeing if what is produced actually works predictably. Not to put too fine a point to it, US Navy bid goodbye to George Washington back in 1985. We are yet to say a proper hello, for a design from the Sixties.

It is not as if our experience in building other kinds of submarines has been edifying either. We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we stopped the SSK programme after the MDL delivered the second sub built in India. Since we neither had the ability to design nor the industrial wherewithal to support submarine building, we asked the French to help us continue building the HDW submarines. They tried to obtain a licence agreement from the HDW but because the costs were exorbitant, the project sank.

The French then quietly offered us the Scorpene which we accepted. The deal to build six submarines under what was known as Project 75 was signed in 2005. The first submarine was to be delivered in 2012, and one every year after that. We are still waiting for the first one. My fingers remain crossed. The vision papers say we have to build submarines from two sources, through Project 75 and Project 75I. We were supposed to learn from the two experiences and build a submarine from this experience. I really cannot tell you about Project 75I because there is nothing much to say except that it exists—on paper still. The beauty is, on paper we seem to have everything. But what do we have in reality?

(Sudarshan is most recently author of Adrift. He can be reached at sudarshan@newindianexpress.com)

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