Indian Navy: The very silent service

Indian Navy: The very silent service

Submerged: India’s inability to build up its submarine force makes it strategically vulnerable

Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s frontline offensive capability across the entire spectrum of conflict – strategic, operational and tactical. In the emerging maritime security scenario in the Indo-Pacific, and more specifically in the Indian Ocean region which is India’s primary area of interest, a robust undersea warfare capability with submarines as the principal component is an imperative.

On 8 December 1967, the Indian tricolour was hoisted for the first time on a submarine with the commissioning of the INS Kalvari, a Soviet-built Foxtrot class submarine in Riga (in the erstwhile USSR). In the 52 years since, the Indian Navy’s submarine arm has come a long way, and constitutes the cutting edge of its offensive combat capability. Fifty years later, almost to the day, the INS Kalvari had a second coming – this time as a French/Spanish Scorpene-class submarine, built at the Mazagaon Docks Limited with technology transfer and assistance from the French company DCNS as part of ‘Project 75’ to build six submarines of the class.    

Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s frontline offensive capability across the entire spectrum of conflict – strategic, operational and tactical. In the emerging maritime security scenario in the Indo-Pacific, and more specifically in the Indian Ocean region which is India’s primary area of interest, a robust undersea warfare capability with submarines as the principal component is an imperative. Since India aspires to become a major power in a predominantly maritime-oriented Indo-Pacific, it requires a balanced, multi-dimensional blue-water navy. The advancements in technology and enhanced surveillance capability have made the oceans increasingly transparent thus shifting the focus to undersea warfare. Although India has a force level of 17 submarines, its lack of a balanced submarine force development programme is a strategic vulnerability that needs immediate attention as it seeks a larger global role as a regional power.

The Present

India is a nuclear weapons power with ‘No First Use’ as the cornerstone of its nuclear doctrine. Hence, a credible deterrence and invulnerable second-strike capability is essential, for both of which a submarine is the most effective platform as it provides stealth, surprise and concealment. Presently, India has one nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant, which was built indigenously and completed her first deterrent patrol successfully in November 2018. India thus became only the sixth nation, after the Big Five (US, UK, Russia, France and China), with this capability. However, for deterrence and second strike to be credible, the continuous presence of a SSBN at sea is essential, for which a force level of 4-5 SSBNs is required. It is believed that India is in the process of building this capability.  

Also Read: The underwater threat: The Chinese are coming!

Nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), armed with conventional cruise missiles, are very versatile and extremely effective platforms which should be integral to a blue-water navy. Their speed, stealth and endurance greatly enhances a navy’s offensive options and they can operate either independently or as part of a naval task force. Armed with lethal land-attack cruise missiles, besides the traditional torpedoes, they are the ideal platforms to shape the battlespace at an operational level of conflict and also influence the outcome on land with their ability to strike targets on land from stand-off ranges at sea. India presently has one SSN, which is an Akula-2 class submarine on lease from Russia for 10 years since 2012. Media reports indicate that the lease of another Akula-2 class SSN is being negotiated as a replacement.

India’s conventional diesel-electric submarine (SSK) fleet comprises 15 submarines which include nine Sindhughosh-class submarines (Russian Kilo-class), four Shishumar-class submarines (German Type-209) and two Kalvari-class (French Scorpene-class). However, these numbers belie the underlying concern as 12 of these submarines are more than 25 years old, and one is nearing 20. While these submarines are kept in fine operational fettle with periodic modernisation, their advancing years cannot be denied. Unfortunately, the follow-on programmes for new submarines are not moving at the desired pace. At current estimates, the four remaining P75 Kalvari-class submarines will enter service by 2022, but the follow-on P75(I) submarines, even by optimistic guesstimates. are unlikely to enter service before 2030, by which time most of the older submarines would either have been de-commissioned or would be at the end of their service life.

It is the SSK fleet which will provide the vital advantage in a conventional conflict in a limited battlespace. SSKs are capable of not only delivering devastating kinetic effect with their armament of torpedoes and missiles, but their relatively smaller size and better stealth characteristics make them very useful platforms for carrying out clandestine operations, landing special operations personnel (commandoes), etc. Their ability to scan the surface while remaining submerged, both electronically and visually, make them effective ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platforms for providing situational awareness.

The Future

In the last week of December 2019, the Navy informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that it plans to build 24 submarines, including six nuclear-powered attack submarines, SSN). This is not something new as two decades ago (in 1999), the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) had approved a 30-year plan for indigenous construction of conventional submarines, which had envisaged building 24 of them by 2030. That plan is presently running woefully behind schedule, with only two submarines having been commissioned in almost 20 years. The follow-on Project 75(I) for six SSKs with Air Independent Propulsion is still at a discussion stage and is planned to be built under the Strategic Partnership Model introduced by the Ministry of Defence in 2016. Presently, neither has the Indian shipyard to build it been selected nor has the foreign collaborator been finalised. Hence the assumption that it could take a decade or so for the first of these to enter service.

In February 2015, the CCS had cleared a proposal to build six SSN and six SSK submarines. It was this approval that the Navy was alluding to in its presentation to the parliamentary panel. This differs from the original 30-year plan in that instead of building 24 conventional submarines, the intention now is to build six SSNs and 18 SSKs which include the present P75 submarines as well. Work on the design of the SSNs to be built indigenously is reported to have begun. Designing and building a nuclear submarine is a very complex process so it can be safely assumed that the first of these could take a decade-and-a-half or so to enter service. 

In the last few years, despite the stated intent to develop the desired capacity to further India’s foreign policy objectives in a largely maritime-oriented strategic domain, the naval budget has been falling as a percentage of the total defence budget, which itself has been falling as a percentage of the GDP over the last five years. From a high of 18% of the defence budget a few years ago, it has fallen to less than 14%. Coupled with the delays in decision-making and subsequent time and cost overruns in construction, it has led to a snowballing of committed liabilities and consequently lesser money for initiating new projects. This concern has been flagged by the Chief of the Naval Staff on more than one occasion because capability gaps, once allowed to occur, take a lot of time and effort to fill, and this is something the Indian Navy can ill-afford, now or at any time in the future.

An area of concern that is often spoken about is the more-or-less permanent Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. As China expands its navy, which it is doing at a breathtaking pace (they are building more warships and submarines year on year than India has built in 20 years), this presence is bound to increase. Their strategic and economic interests in the region (bases at Djibouti and Gwadar and numerous infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative) will give them enough reason to maintain a substantial force in the Indian Ocean, and submarines will be a significant constituent. The Indian Navy has a definite quantitative and qualitative advantage in the Indian Ocean at present, but may find this diminishing rapidly if the decline in our shipbuilding capacity is not arrested and reversed. From a submarine perspective, China has supplied two SSKs to Bangladesh. Thailand is also likely to get four SSKs from China, and Pakistan is scheduled to get eight SSKs (four to be built in China and four in Pakistan) with AIP and long-range anti-ship missiles, to keep India under pressure.  

In a nutshell, therefore, the Indian Navy has an aspiration for five SSBNs, six SSNs and 18 SSKs to meet its emerging security challenges in the strategic, operational and tactical domains. Submarines are expensive to build and require very specialised skills and a sustained building programme with committed funding support to retain those skills. This has not been forthcoming and needs to be addressed at the earliest in the interest of our national security and foreign policy objectives.

(The writer is a veteran submariner and Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation.)


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