India’s submarine capabilities stall; no order after the last Kalvari-Class

With no new order in sight after the conclusion of six submarines under Project 75, the docks will be idle and the workforce underutilized. However, the next-generation Project 75 I is moving ahead with two bidders – L&T and MDL—ready to submit their technical and strategic roadmap by August.


The sixth submarine of Project 75, Yard 11880, Indian Navy’s Kalvari class commenced her sea trials on May 18. The submarine was launched in 2022 from the Kanhoji Angre Wet Basin of Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL).

While the ‘Vaghsheer’ is scheduled for delivery to the Indian Navy in early 2024 after the completion of these trials, the question is being raised—what is next as the contract for six- diesel submarines come to an end?

The docks will remain idle and the workforce underutilized as the strategic projects conclude at MDL. The issues become critical as the next project in line for building next-generation submarines is still moving through the stages of a highly complex submarine tendering process under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Four submarines of the project– INS Kalvari, INS Khanderi, INS Karanj, INS Vela and INS Vagir– have been commissioned into the Indian navy. Indian navy’s fifth stealth Scorpene class Submarine INS Vagir was commissioned into the Indian Navy in Jan 2023 at the Naval Dockyard Mumbai. 

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Project 75 was initiated in 2006 to build six diesel-electric attack submarines of the Kalvari class that is based on the Scorpène-class submarine, which is being built at MDL.

No new Scorpene: What is next?

Project 75 was launched to locally construct the submarine via a transfer of technology(ToT). Through such ToT, India was aiming to acquire and absorb significant absorption of technology and create a tiered industrial ecosystem for submarine construction in India.

Looking back then, India was threatened as Pakistan had acquired Harpoon underwater missile capability, and India needed to fill that critical void which came through the Scorpene submarine. The choice of Scorpene was because of the Exocet, a missile manufacturer, which later merged into French defence entity MBDA, provided Indian navy with the underwater missile capability.

However, MDL will have to enter into a new contract with the French entity, Naval Group for another set of Scorpène-class submarines as the existing contract nearly concludes.

While MDL has been willing to continue with the Scorpène-class submarine which is rechristened as Kalvari-class by the Indian navy, the new contractual obligations pose another challenge.

“That needs to be negotiated as a new contract,” points out a leading industry expert who wished to remain anonymous.

In fact, for the new contract, the price quoted by the naval group is much higher than the previously-negotiated scorpene deal, it is learnt.

Apart from the higher-priced scorpene, the technology remains the same with the option of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems in the next phase.

In that case, the focus is shifted to the next generation Project-75 India (P-75 I).

Unveiling P-75 India

Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) is one of two international bidders for the proposed submarine project. In 2021, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued Request for Proposal (RFP) for the first acquisition programme under the Strategic Partnership model for the construction of six conventional submarines named Project 75(India) [P-75(I)] for the Indian Navy. 

The P-75I will embrace advanced submarine capabilities based on the AIP systems which is the key element of the strategic partnership (SP) model.

The ambitious P-75(I) proposes the plan for the indigenous construction of six conventional submarines, including associated shore support, engineering support package, training and spares package with contemporary equipment, weapons & sensors. Apart from the AIP Systems, the P-75 (I) must have advanced missile systems and torpedoes.

It is learnt that India has asked Germany for the full transfer of technologies (ToTs) for the submarines which is about sharing the full spectrum of submarine manufacturing from the design stage to development.

However, the German bidder, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) is undergoing a makeover as the parent company –ThyssenKrupp– is also going through restructuring.

The German steel to submarine conglomerate ThyssenKrupp is selling its submarine and maritime systems unit. Despite receiving a $5 billion submarine order from Norway, German industrial group ThyssenKrupp has revived its plans to sell its submarine and maritime systems unit. Once a symbol of German industrial might, with a 200-year-old legacy of shipbuilding, ThyssenKrupp is in the final phase of a restructuring to pay down debt as per the latest report. The reason is the poor financial performance due to the customer claims which result in the current profitability below 2-3%, according to the naval expert.

Will that cause the further delay?

In some way as ThyssenKrupp does have a proven AIP system—operational and sea-worthy certified. Besides, the strict defence export rules and regulations bind their ability to transfer the key technologies, despite the intentions.

Interestingly, politics also play a crucial part as the debate rages in Germany after the Russian-Ukraine war on modernizing German’s naval capabilities and utilizing resources within the NATO-centric world.

While the German government is willing to participate in the Indian submarine programme—P75 I—the internal politics and security scenarios entangle, leading to delays.  

What makes the partnership model clumsy is the case of another bidder in the fray, Korean submarine manufacturer, Hanwha Ocean–formerly known as Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering — is also grappling with similar challenges. The dichotomy lies in refurbishing its naval capabilities in the wake of lingering threats from the neighbouring North Korean regime and technology transfer under defence export.

In fact, South Korea has made great strides in building submarines, destroyers, battleships, submarine rescue vessels, AUVs, and other speciality vessels domestically.

South Korea’s latest 3000-tonne submarine project KSS-III Batch II which is based on Dosan Ahn Changho-class is equipped with cutting-edge systems and advanced combat management which include the essential AIP system, Lithium-Ion battery and Vertical Launching System, loaded with Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles — Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missiles (500 km range).

Another bidder, a Spanish shipbuilding conglomerate, Navantia has also offered their expertise with full TOTs like integrating their new age AIP system known as BEST “Bio-Ethanol Stealth Technology”, which has been developed together with the Spanish Company Abengoa and the American Collins Aerospace, working under a sub-contract by Navantia.

Navantia already has signed MoUs with L&T and MDL, both shortlisted as Strategic Partners for the P75(I) project in India.

Despite the challenges, the project is moving ahead with Indian entities—Larsen and Toubro and MDL—are ready to submit their final proposal by August, according to the sources.

There are already concerns over the failing response deadline, beginning from the request for proposal (RfP) for P-75I in July 2021, to December 2022, which is been further deferred to 2023.

Submarine construction is an intricate activity as the difficulty is compounded when all equipment is required to be miniaturised and is subject to stringent quality requirements.

Recently, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar also highlighted the capability gaps, especially on the P-75(India). Since the project is yet to take off under the strategic partnership model, the process for Project 75I for building next-generation submarines will be through by the next year, he said.

The delay over the submarine project is also posing a serious challenge for the Indian navy to address China’s constant maritime expansionism in the IOR. The Indian navy is grappling to maintain its operational capability in the region and beyond in the Indo-Pacific with depleting numbers of submarines. 

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First published on: 24-05-2023 at 18:40 IST