Questions have arisen about the efficacy of German submarines just before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chancellor Angela Merkel sit down for talks in Berlin late this week when arms trade will be a certain, but underplayed, segment of the discussions.

A submarine tender is too lucrative one to covet and like all big ticket military hardware deals, sees tremendous undercutting of the rival’s position. This time the contest among French, German and Russian submarines promises to be no different. The last tender, close to Rs. 20,000 crore, was bagged by the French. The Germans were not considered due to a corruption charge that was rejected by the courts here.

Technical problems

Fingers are being pointed at the poor performance of German submarines in the South Korean and Greek navies. The Hindu has independently verified that allegations about persisting technical problems with the Korean’s HDW Type 214 submarines are correct. The informed sources also confirmed that a prototype Greek submarine of German design too suffered from serious problems.

But the Indian Navy, badly short of submarines and struggling to complete the French Scorpene project, does not have any complaints about its four German submarines. Sources in the Navy said the four HDW submarines were working fine and they were satisfied with their performance. The sources expressed ignorance about HDW submarines malfunctioning in South Korea. But Korean diplomatic sources admitted there were problems.

The German submarines with the Indian Navy seemed to have followed the same trajectory as the VIP AgustaWestland helicopters. Of the 12 choppers, three have arrived while the import of the remaining has been suspended due to bribery charge. Similarly, in the case of the German submarines, two arrived from the OEM and the other two were assembled here. Then the bribery charge struck and the option to build two more was withdrawn.

Vital shortcoming

According to the sources, Korean submarines Son Won II, Jeongji and Jung-geun were immobilised after the first submarine was badly damaged on the high seas. It has also been alleged that the submarines suffer noise problems. This is a vital shortcoming in a submarine which has to be as noiseless as possible to avoid detection. Or, as Navy officials say, they will be as easy to detect as some Chinese submarines that tried to recce the Bay of Bengal. “We picked them up each time they came,” claimed a Navy official.

Independent sources, however, said the noise levels of the German submarines were lower than the requirement but higher than what the manufacturers – ThyssenKrupp Marine Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) – had promised. The sources making the allegations also claimed HDW were fined for the persisting technical problems but none could independently verify the charge.

In the case of Greek submarine Papanikolis, the sources backed their claims with video footage that showed an unusual tilt as it dived. The Germans worked on the Papanikolis but the government has raised other issues.

These problems mean it will not be easy sailing for the German submarines when they make a pitch for the Indian Navy tender.

Currently, the Ministry of Defence is looking at the configuration for supply with circumspection and some more time might be required before a firm decision is taken to call for bids.

Ironically, the allegations against the Germans have originated from one of its close allies, thus indicating the cut-throat competition that is always an integral component of such large military tenders.

(With inputs from Vinay Kumar)