The Sindhurakshak tragedy raises many issues, among them, the danger of close berthing of warships and submarines in the crowded Mumbai docks and the need urgently to commission the Karwar base to host most of the Western Fleet and take the pressure off Mumbai harbour and, given the dangerous depletion in submarine strength, the urgency to lease Kilo subs from, say, Vietnam, which has acquired six of them and whose submarine crews are being trained here, and move quickly on Project 75i — the supposed final step before full indigenisation of diesel submarine design and production.
Strangely, while the navy’s strategic-minded leadership has a firm grip on issues relating to surface combatants, confidence deserts them in in-country production of conventional submarines (SSKs). This is perplexing considering the expertise the navy has gained in designing, project management, and system integration in the programme to produce nuclear-powered submarines. As follow-on to the three Arihant-class ballistic missile-firing boats (SSBNs), a bigger, more advanced SSBN is in the pre-production phase, and a design for nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine (SSN) is nearing firm-up.
The Navy’s plan was to learn from and absorb the best attributes of the western and Russian submarines and to gain from their differing design philosophies and manufacturing techniques, and to use them to come up with a wholly new design and indigenous production regime for a diesel hunter-killer submarine (SSK) to constitute the navy’s bulk sea denial force. The concept of parallel production lines realised with the selection of the HDW 209 German submersible quickly unravelled with the scam attending on that deal struck during the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency of the mid-’70s – a forerunner of defence scams that have blotted defence acquisitions. Its local production proceeded with the customary delays and cost-over-runs the defence public sector units (DPSUs) are habituated to until it was junked. The corpus of hard-gained production competence and industrial skills by the Mazgaon shipyard in disciplines like high-pressure welding to achieve micron tolerances, were thus wasted because successor governments, including those headed by the Congress party, distanced themselves from the taint of the original scandal. In the meantime, the Russian Kilos were acquired to fill the breach.
Some twenty years on another western submarine was chosen, Scorpene from France. A deal was finalised in 2006 by yet another Congress government and, once again, allegations of illegal payoffs surfaced. But just when the aspect of alongside production of a Russian boat came up and the Amur-class SSK identified as appropriate to the country’s needs, global tendering was introduced. Russia discovered it had to compete for the Project 75i contract with a number of western suppliers, and needed to provide incentives/sweeteners to surpass whatever the competition can muster. In the event, it has made a clever offer the Indian Navy cannot refuse and which consolidates its presence.
This offer is rumoured to have the following features: Russia will lease for $1.5 billion a second nuclear powered Akula SSN — Irbis, lying mothballed in Severodvinsk, to be delivered by end 2014; both INS Chakra and Irbis will be upgraded to Akula-III standard by incorporating the latest technology, including hull-mounted sensors to, for instance, detect thermoclines — thermal layers in the Indian Ocean that make sonar detection difficult and enable submarines to “hide” in them. These sensors will be retrofitted on the Arihant, and equip the two follow-on sister ships. Irbis SSN will moreover come equipped with the Shtil (Storm) torpedo (to also equip Chakra) that can close in on targets at uninterdictable speeds touching 280 knots, and a vertical launch system “plug” accommodating a mix of 40 K-15 land attack missiles and the first of the Indian submarine-launched K-4 ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It will in effect convert the Akulas from exclusively warship and submarine hunters into more versatile platforms able also to reach deep hinterland targets and take out littoral sites with land attack cruise missiles.
The new 75i design will boast of similar weapons profile with Indian naval designers and engineers invited to work alongside their counterparts in the Russian design bureau right from conception all the way to design and delivery stages, thereby enhancing the Indian Navy’s all-round skills and competence to handle submarine design and oversee submarine production generally. In the wake of the Sindhurakshak mishap, moreover, the additional safety of a double hull (permitting high reserve of buoyancy) and platform versatility enabling a single boat to carry out multiple missions — central to Russian design philosophy — have obvious appeal.
It is, in fact, the differences in the western and Russian design philosophies that have seriously divided the Directorate-General Naval Design-Submarine Design Group at the Naval Headquarters, stalemating for long the crucial decision on standardising the diving depth and delaying indigenisation. The differences persist, according to Vice Admiral K N Sushil (Retd), an experienced submariner and former head of the Southern Naval Command, who prefers the western single hull design, despite the fact that Western suppliers will not transfer sensitive technologies (such as optronic masts) or do a “lot of hand-holding” that diffident Indian production firms still require, that only the Russian are prepared to do.
The indecision has prevented, he maintains, the establishing of other standards such as for “the operating pressures of the hydraulics and high pressure air systems, pressure hull materials, weld normative, hydraulic and high-pressure air pipelines, manifolds, valves, etc.” common (to nuclear and conventional submarines) and deterred the build-up of local capacity. Were it otherwise, the “scale” of work would prompt investment in the latest tooling and other manufacturing wherewithal to produce different types of submarines by private sector companies, such as Larsen & Toubro, Tata, and Pipavav without whose participation fully indigenised production, Sushil believes, will languish at the elementary level of assembling from imported CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits the DPSUs are stuck at. The under-utilisation of the more capable and efficient private sector, as the regressive-minded defence production department in the ministry headed by the leftist A K Antony would have it, means the country can kiss self-reliance in armaments Good Bye.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com