The blast that ripped through the submarine INS Sindhurakshak has taken the sting out of the Navy’s already-enfeebled submarine arm.

On record, the Indian Navy operates10 kilo-class (877 EKM a.k.a Sindhughosh-class) and four HDW (Shishumar-class) submarines besides the nuclear-powered INS Chakra, acquired last year from Russia on a 10 year lease. The regrettable state of the stealthy submarine arm — vital for maintaining the critical sea denial capability — is evident from the fact that the Navy hasn’t been able to shore up its sub-sea patrol capabilities by inducting a new conventional submarine after the year 2000, when INS Sindhushastra, the last of the Kilo-class boats from Russia, was added to the naval inventory.

Worse, none of the Indian subs are equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP), which considerably enhances the underwater endurance of conventional diesel-electric submarines. Bereft of AIP, subs are forced to surface once in a few days for recharging their batteries, when they are most susceptible to detection by maritime patrol aircraft on the prowl. While Pakistan took delivery of PNS Hamza fitted with AIP from the French, it has already begun retrofitting two subs of the same class with the system.

Experiment

The Indian experiment of building subs indigenously at Mazagon Dock, which delivered INS Shalki and INS Shankul built on ToT in the early 1990s, went awry when the programme was shelved following allegations of corruption, which resulted in the nation’sloss of capability and skill sets acquired. More or less the same fate awaited the programme kick-started in mid-2000 — as part of the Navy’s high-value 30-year submarine building programme — to build six French-origin Scorpene class submarines at Mazagon Dock. Marred by a string of delays and cost overruns, the first in the class would at best be only delivered in 2016.

Among the kilo-class submarines, while most of them have undergone extensive and costly upgrade in Russia, INS Sindhukirti has been idling at the Hindustan Shipyard since 2006.

It was an experiment gone wrong that put paid to the submarine. While a section of top officials argued for sending it to Russia for refit, another wanted submarine refit capability to be developed indigenously. Finally, the Navy asked the dying Hindustan Shipyard to upgrade it, retrofitting it with new sensors like Ushus and weapons like the Klub missile. It was an attempt at rejuvenating a yard at the cost of a potent war-fighting platform, lamented a Navy officer.

Meanwhile, the nuclear submarine programme to induct nuclear-powered ballistic submarines was announced as maturing at the close of the last decade. INS Arihant, the first of the nuclear subs, was launched in 2009 and its reactor went critical hardly a week ago. Three more vessels of the class are in the offing and Arihant with limited capabilities will be ready for commissioning next year.

In the meantime, India has been toying with the idea of a second line of conventional submarines under the Navy’s Project 75-I, which hasn’t borne fruit yet. Last heard, a purchase notice for this is only likely to be issued in the next two months. Desperate to salvage its dipping submarine force-levels, the Navy is learnt to have asked the Defence Ministry to procure two conventional submarines under the project from the foreign collaborator, while four would be built between Mazagon Dock and Hindustan Shipyard.

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