AUKUS highlights India’s own submarine development efforts and delays

Unlike Australia, given its geography and operational requirements, India needs both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines: official

Updated - September 22, 2021 07:56 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2021 06:39 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Representational Image

Representational Image

Australia’s announcement to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the tripartite arrangement with the U.K. and the U.S. ( AUKUS ) puts the spotlight on India’s own submarine efforts, ongoing tender for manufacturing six conventional submarines with technology transfer under Project-75I and the indigenous programme to build six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN).

“Unlike Australia, given our geography and operational requirements, India needs both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines,” an official noted.

However, both the conventional and nuclear-powered projects were delayed and the first vessel was at least a decade away while the Navy faced an urgent need to modernise its ageing submarine fleet, especially in the backdrop of increasing forays by the Chinese Navy into the Indian Ocean Region , two officials said.

In July, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued the Request For proposal (RFP) to the shortlisted Strategic Partners - the Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T). The contract, estimated to cost upwards of ₹ 43,000 crore, is being processed through the strategic partnership model of procurement and being the first project under it has added to the delays.

Questions from OEMs

However, the RFP has raised several questions from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) who have to supply the technology and know-how to the Indian company to build the submarines here. “It is tremendous amount of responsibility. Also isn’t it too much technology sophistication for the local industry to execute within the short time frame? Is the industry ready to pay for the technology transfer?,” an official from one of the OEMs stated.

The RFP response itself could take two years, an official with another OEM observed.

The Navy currently has 15 conventional submarines- eight Russian Kilo class ones, four German HDWs and three Scorpenes and nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant . Second indigenous SSBN Arighat, now in advanced stages of sea trials, is expected to be commissioned next year along with indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant, which recently began sea trials, the two officials remarked.

Akula class SSN Chakra, on a decade-long lease from Russia, has been returned recently, slightly ahead of schedule. India has already signed a deal for the lease of another such submarine and the project is underway. It is expected to be delivered in 2025, at least two officials disclosed. Given the delays, India is also considering leasing one more Akula class SSN, the officials pointed out, adding that discussions were still in the preliminary stage.

Russia has recently put forward a proposal to India to quickly supply three Kilo class submarines to arrest the falling numbers. “Russia can deliver the first submarine in three years once the contract is signed,” a Russian official told The Hindu on the sidelines of Army 2021 expo in Moscow end-August.

Midlife upgrade

Of the eight Kilo class submarines, except for INS Sindhushashtra , which was inducted in 2000, all others were inducted between 1986 and 1991. The German HDWs were inducted between 1986 and 1994. To keep them functional, the Navy has embarked on an extensive midlife upgrade and refit programme that adds another decade to the boats. “It is expensive but necessary,” a defence official asserted.

Given the developments in the Indo-Pacific, India needed to accelerate its submarine building programmes to maintain the requisite numbers of these critical military platforms, the official added.

In addition, six Scorpenes are being built by MDL under technology transfer from the Naval Group of France. Three have been inducted so far and the fourth one, Vela , is expected to be commissioned by year-end. The Navy has drawn up plans to install Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) modules on all Scorpenes to enhance their endurance, as they go for their refit.

Under the AUKUS partnership unveiled on September 16, the first initiative is for Australia to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. and the U.K. With it, Canberra has scrapped the plan to build 12 conventional submarines in partnership with Naval Group estimated at over AUS$50bn when it was announced in 2016.

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