India’s submarine programme unrealistic, says Russian Design Bureau

Experts believe that the Qualitative Requirements (QRs) or technical specifications of the equipment/platform call for a relook. They believe that the current impasse with Project 751 indicates that out of box thinking and boldness in taking some difficult decisions is important.

India’s submarine programme unrealistic, says Russian Design Bureau
The Indian Navy wants ‘the latest, state of the art submarine.

By Amit Cowshish

The revelation by Andrey Baranov, Deputy Director General of Rubin Design Bureau, as to why Russia pulled out of India’s Project 75I to build six diesel-electric submarines in collaboration with an Indian shipyard, does not come as a surprise, but it is a grim reminder of the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to draw any lesson from the past mistakes.

Baranov was reported by the Economic Times to have said that the Indian Navy (IN) wants ‘the latest, state of the art submarine with powerful weapons, an Air Independent System and high stealth’ but ‘no one in the world has such a submarine ready’. He wasn’t shooting from the hip; other shipyards from Sweden, France, Spain and Japan too have exited the programme at different stages on similar grounds.

This leaves only the German and South Korean shipyards in the race, assuming that they have a ‘proven’ Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system which is one the IN’s key requirements. The AIP system enables submarines to remain submerged continuously for more than two weeks without surfacing to recharge their batteries, whereas the traditional diesel-electric submarines cannot do without surfacing every few days.

There is nothing wrong with the IN wanting to acquire a state-of-the-art submarine built at an Indian shipyard, but the timeframe within which the IN wants them to be built seems unpropitious. In Baranov’s words, the IN’s specifications call for ‘a brand new submarine design’ which makes the project ‘unrealistic as the desired technologies cannot be made available within the strict timelines being defined (by the IN)’.

He is also reported to have said that ‘a lot of responsibility is assigned to the designers but at the same time, the designers have no influence on the construction process that will happen in India’. It may be recalled that the deal for acquisition of 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft from Dassault Aviation of France was cancelled in 2015 for a similar, albeit not the only, reason. Evidently, this experience did not deter the IN from including the same condition in the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the submarines.

Read More: India’s submarine programme unrealistic, says Russian Design Bureau

Baranov was referring to the fact that the project is being pursued under the Strategic Partnership Model which would requires the selected Indian shipyard to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for making the submarines in India in collaboration with a foreign shipyard as the technology provider, while the responsibility for ‘certification and quality assurance of the platforms’ is borne jointly by the Indian and the foreign shipyards without the latter exercising any managerial control over the manufacturing activity in India.

Two Indian shipyards, state-owned Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilders and the private sector L&T Shipbuilding – shortlisted by the IN for being potentially capable of undertaking the project have so far not been able to tie up with any foreign shipyard, forcing two postponements of the due date for submission of bids. At this point, the prospects of a breakthrough look remote.

One cannot help feeling a sense of Déjà vu over these developments.Though reliable data on the subject is hard to come by, it is widely acknowledged that many acquisition proposals get stymied by unrealistic Qualitative Requirements (QRs) or technical specifications of the equipment/platform, or other terms and conditions, including the delivery schedule.

The armed forces zealously guard their right to formulate the QRs on the grounds that being the users of the equipment they are best placed to specify the technical parameters of the equipment which could meet their operational need. There may be some merit in this, but there is no justification for formulating overambitious or unachievable QRs. This is counterproductive as it can inordinately delay induction of the required equipment.

This is what is happening to Project 75I, for which the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN), or the approval-in-principle to commence the tendering process, was first accorded in 2007. Fifteen years later, the project is faced with the bleak prospect of running aground -pun intended- on account of QR-related, and possibly some other, issues.

Considering that a very meticulous process is prescribed for firming up the QRs in consultation with several agencies and departments, and these are approved by the service-specific Staff Equipment Policy Committee (SEPC) headed by a three-star Principal Staff Officer, it is inexplicable how quite often unrealistic, overambitious, or unachievable specifications find their way to the RFP.

It is even more surprising in the instant case as the IN has a full-fledged Submarine Design Group in the Directorate of Naval Design. It is the only agency in the country capable of designing state-of-the-art underwater platforms, including submarines and other submersibles. It also has the capability to provide comprehensive end-to-end design support during execution of a project and support indigenous development of equipment and submarine systems.

It defies imagination how, despite this in-house expertise, the IN came up with the QRs which have led to the present impasse.It is unlikely that the Bureau did not know that there are very few shipyards across the world which can boast of a ‘proven’, or functional, AIP. It is also unlikely that the shipyards made the false claim while responding to the Request for Information (RFI)that they could offer a proven system as a part of the technology transfer to the Indian shipyards.

Read More: P-75I submarine project future uncertain after Russia pulls out

Why then was this requirement included in the RFP with an unrealistic timeframe for completion of the project? The answer will perhaps never be known, but one possibility is that the IN did not make full use of the RFI as an instrument that is designed to elicit all manner of information required for drawing up a viable acquisition proposal, especially the QRs which have become the bane of many an acquisition programme.

The alternative explanation that the IN possibly ignored the information gathered from the shipyards in response to the RfI while formulating the QRs, especially by including the requirement for a proven AIP system and unrealistic timelines for delivery of the submarines in the RfP, would be too drastic to be taken seriously.

Be that as it may, the guidelines on formulation and approval of the QRs call for a relook. No QRs should pass muster with the SEPC unless their viability is established with reference to the feedback given by the prospective technology providers and manufacturers. This guiding principle will obviously not apply to developmental projects in which the QRs are frozen during the prototype development phase. Project 75I is anything but a developmental project.

More importantly, the project can still be saved by taking all concerned into confidence and amending the RFP to make it possible for the leading foreign shipyards to participate in the programme. However, this will require out of box thinking and boldness in taking some difficult decisions, unless of course, the German and South Korean shipyards can fully comply with the IN’s requirements and the Indian shipyards manage to tie up with them.

The author is Former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.