The sixth Scorpene-class submarine, INS Vagsheer, pictured in the water
The technical skills to manufacture a submarine will be lost if a fresh order doesn’t come soon and the chances seem remote
For a submarine-deficient navy, the release of INS Vagsheer — the last of six Indian-made Scorpene-class submarines — into the water for trial a couple of weeks ago, is undoubtedly good news. After two decades, the Indian Navy finally has six new underwater boats, four of which (Kalvari, Khanderi, Karanj and Vela) are in service and the others (Vagir and Vagsheer) will be commissioned by early 2023.
Underneath the surface, however, are palpable signs of worry. The Narendra Modi government has failed to conclude the construction of six more conventional submarines with Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) that allows submersion for longer periods of time under Project-75I, even after eight years in power. With the Ministry of Defence extending the deadline to respond to the tender until June 2022, it is unclear if a commercial deal with the winning bidder would be realised before the 2024 polls. Such agreements often run into thousands of pages and involve protracted negotiations that can continue for months.
As a consequence, the assembly line that was buzzing with activity now wears a deserted look. The naval community had long warned that such a situation could arise. Acquired over many years, the technical skills to manufacture a submarine will be lost if a fresh order doesn’t come soon and the chances seem remote.
For India, there is a sense of deja vu in the vacant yards of Mazgaon dock in Mumbai. This is the same place that witnessed the consequences of the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) scam three decades ago, freezing India’s first steps in building submarines in its tracks.
In December 1967, India got its first submarine, a Foxtrot class (the first INS Kalvari) from the then USSR. By 1974, there were eight such submarines. In 1981, New Delhi entered into an agreement with HDW, a German firm, to buy two Type 209 submarines. Two others were to be manufactured at Mazgaon Dock Limited (MDL). The idea was to give the workforce at MDL a chance to acquire the required skills with the ultimate aim of establishing an indigenous assembly line.
The program did not proceed that far. While MDL was making the two boats — INS Shalki and INS Shankul — the HDW scam in which then defence minister V P Singh ordered an enquiry into allegations of pay-off in purchasing the submarines broke out. With politics overriding military imperatives, the Centre cut its links with the German firm and did not use the ‘option clause’ in the agreement for the construction of two additional submarines. The production line was shut and skilled MDL workers migrated to other places.
Meanwhile, China did not stay idle. The People’s Liberation Army decided to shift its focus from land-based force to shoring up naval resources. It aimed to dominate the strategic Indian Ocean region through which the bulk of the world’s cargo and oil moves.
A report by the Pentagon in 2021 suggests that the PLA Navy (PLAN) currently operates 46 conventional submarines (SSK), six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN). “The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis,” the report said.
Since the last decade, the PLAN has begun deploying its submarines, demonstrating its increasing familiarity with operating in that region and underscoring China’s interest in protecting sea lines of communication beyond the South China Sea.
Moreover, Beijing is supplying eight new submarines to Islamabad making Pakistan’s SSK total 11 (all with AIP) in the near future. It is also helping Bangladesh in the construction of a submarine base, which China can use to berth their submarines that are on long-range deployment.
“By 2028-29 we will face a lot of pressure in the Indian Ocean on the submarine front as most of our Kilo-class submarines may be out of action,” Commodore Anil Jai Singh (retd), an Indian Navy submariner, who was involved in drafting the 1999 plan told DH.
The Russian submarines are the mainstay of the Indian fleet for the past two decades. While looking for a replacement for the old Foxtrots, New Delhi turned to Moscow and ended up buying ten Kilo-class boats, the first of which came from Russia in the mid-1980s.
Two of the Russian submarines are no longer in service. INS Sindhurakshak exploded and sank near Mumbai in 2013 and India gifted the decommissioned INS Sindhuvir to the Myanmar Navy. Seven out of the eight remaining boats have surpassed their lifespan of 25 years but are still functioning thanks to multiple upgrades which cost hundreds of crores. The sole Kilo-class boat still left with some of its designed life is INS Sindhushastra which was commissioned in 2000.
In February 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved a 30-year plan that envisaged two production lines – P-75 and P-75I – to make 12 submarines at two Indian shipyards. The plan was to use the experience gained in the process for subsequent indigenous design and manufacturing so that the first set of home-grown submarines would come out by 2030. This would line up with when the last few Kilo-class submarines would be at the end of their lifespan.
A Mistake
The UPA government under Manmohan Singh signed the Rs 23,653 crore P-75 deal in 2005. As per the contract, the French supplier DCNS was to deliver all the six submarines — manufactured at MDL — by 2012. Though the 30-year plan envisaged two production lines operating simultaneously, the government decided to go for only one. This was a mistake.
The Scorpene program was soon embroiled in all sorts of troubles, from political to technical. Even though all the six submarines were to be delivered by 2012, in reality, the first submarine was handed over to the Indian Navy only in 2017.
“Our submarine building program is at least 15 years behind schedule,” said Commodore Dilbagh Singh, a retired Indian Navy submariner. “The reasons range from policy and bureaucracy to absence of capability in the Indian defence industry.”
The Naval Headquarters kept pushing the P-75I whose Acceptance of Necessity (AON) was issued multiple times and procurement-cum-manufacturing plans — some of which are foolhardy — were made, discussed and rejected. The project was more or less stuck when the Modi government took over in 2014.
The new government first introduced ambiguity in Defence Procurement Procedure in 2016 and subsequently came out with the idea of “strategic partnership” which further complicated the business. A new AON for the SP model was issued in 2018 and the global players responded.
A Long Way To Go
The Defence Ministry last year approved the long-awaited project and a Rs 43,000 crore tender was issued. The five foreign vendors in contention are Rosoboronexport (Russia), Naval Group (formerly DCNS of France), Daewoo (South Korea), Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (Germany) and Navantia (Spain). They would have to tie up with MDL and Larsen & Toubro which have been selected by the Defence Ministry as the manufacturing yards for P-75I. The deadline for submitting the bids was November but now has been extended to June 2022.
With AIP being a must for P-75I boats, the Russian, French and Spanish companies suffer a disadvantage as they lack the technology. Only South Korean and German firms have AIP technology but it remains to be seen how others overcome the handicap.
Even in the best-case scenario, it would take a few years for the Defence Ministry to complete negotiations with the technology supplier and sign on the dotted lines. The more the delay, the higher the chances of losing skill. “If we are delayed with the decision, the capacity to build the submarine will disappear,” noted Commodore Anil Jai Singh.
With China expanding its submarine fleet, the 30-year plan was modified in 2015 to incorporate the construction of six SSN. Since then very little has been heard of about the plans to build the nuclear-powered attack submarines. Even if everything on the SSN front happens on time, the first Indian SSN won’t be in the water before the 2040s.
“There is a dichotomy between what we want and what we end up with. This is clearly visible on the submarine front,” summed up Commodore Singh.

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