Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s offensive capability; the importance of a potent and contemporary undersea warfare capability with submarines as its most important element cannot therefore be over-emphasised.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh
On 28 September 2019, the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will commission INS Khanderi, the second of six Scorpene class submarines being built under Project 75 at Mazagon Docks Ltd,Mumbai in collaboration with Naval Group (formerly DCNS), the French submarine builder. The first of the class, INS Kalvari, was commissioned in December 2017.
Indian Navy Scorpene class submarine INS Khanderi: It’s a deadly deep-sea predator
Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s offensive capability; the importance of a potent and contemporary undersea warfare capability with submarines as its most important element cannot therefore be over-emphasised. In the emerging geo-strategic construct in the Indo-Pacific with its distinct maritime orientation, China has clearly articulated its intent of displacing the United States of America as the numero uno maritime power in the region and with its strategic, economic and military initiatives is relentlessly pursuing that goal with an expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean. This is of serious concern to India and has been highlighted by successive Chiefs of the Indian Navy. Its shipbuilding programme, unprecedented in scope and execution with more than 20 ships and submarines including aircraft carriers, LPDs, destroyers, nuclear and conventional submarines has made it the largest navy in the region and what it lacks in capability and experience, it makes up in quantity. It has already built a military base in Djibouti at the western extremity of the Indian Ocean and controls Gwadar, a deep-water port on Pakistan’s Makran Coast Gwadar is critical to the ambitious $61 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor which is considered the flagship programme of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it gives China access to the Indian Ocean and rids China of its ‘Malacca Dilemma’. China’s debt-trap diplomacy has given it control over the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and is likely to yield rich dividends with maritime infrastructure in hock to the Chinese in many other Indian Ocean Rim countries.
As the two most populous nations on earth and future middle income countries, the need for resources to satisfy the aspirations of an increasingly prosperous population will lead both China and India to seek resources farther and farther afield including the depths of the oceans. Hence competition between the two is inevitable, confrontation very much possible and conflict also probable.
It is therefore imperative that India, as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean, which is bounded by five critical choke points, leverages this unique physical conformation to its advantage. It must therefore develop the capacity and capability to control or at least monitor these choke points to effectively detect, deter and destroy any aggressive intent which jeopardises India’s maritime interests, primarily in the Indian Ocean but also anywhere in the world that these may lie.
Diesel electric submarines are the ideal platforms for this purpose with stealth, concealment and lethal firepower as their main assets. The hydrological conditions in the Indian ocean inherently favour submarine operations. It is very difficult to detect a submarine in the depths but gives the submarine a decisive range advantage in detection of surface platforms or even nuclear submarines. In addition they can effectively shadow a task Force and in conjunction with other platforms in the air and on the surface deliver devastating effect.
Conventional submarines, being smaller and more silent than their nuclear brethren can operate undetected in shallow littoral waters and be deployed as effective ISR platforms. India is heavily dependent on the sea for its trade and energy requirement. Over 90% of its trade by volume and 74% by value travels over the sea and more than 60% of India’s energy requirements are sourced from the Arabian Gulf; therefore an effective Sino-Pak naval presence in the Arabian Sea has the potential to destabilise this supply either by attacking it or forcing it to re-route its transit which will take longer and be more expensive. Submarines can be used effectively to counter this.
Modern submarines are not only effective sea denial platforms which, as the very term suggests, denies the use of the sea to the enemy but in a restricted area of operation, as would be the case for India in the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal, have the potential to not only shape the maritime battle space but also influence the outcome of the war on land with their capability to launch land attack missiles that can be fired from underwater,
The Indian Navy has 15 conventional submarines (including the newly inducted INS Khanderi), of which 12 are more than 25 years old. The Indian submarine building programme has been beset by poor planning and abysmal execution which has resulted in the present crisis where six of the older submarines are having to be refurbished despite their age as the induction of new submarines is getting inordinately delayed. The first Project 75 submarine, INS Kalvari was delivered in December 2017, five years behind schedule and the second one is being delivered almost two years later. It is hoped that each of the remaining four will be delivered one year apart. There is, however, a delay in execution of the Project 75(I) programme for six more submarines which was initiated over a decade ago and is still at the discussion stage. This is likely to get further mired in the recently introduced Strategic Partnership model on which little clarity exists at present. Even by the most optimistic guesstimates, the first Project 75(I) submarine will probably enter service only by the end of the next decade.
Hence even the induction of the six Project 75 submarines will do little to alleviate the dismal situation as all the older submarines would either be decommissioned or due for decommissioning within the next decade or so. This delay has not only affected the force levels but also deprived the navy of contemporary technologies like Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) even on the new submarines. Hence their underwater endurance and range, two of the greatest vulnerabilities of conventional submarines, is only marginally better than the submarines inducted three decades ago. AIP provides a submarine with greatly enhanced endurance underwater which reduces the requirement to snorkel for charging batteries (also called the indiscretion rate) and thereby reduces the risk of detection by the enemy’s ships, Anti -Submarine Warfare helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft. AIP is almost a standard fitment on modern submarines of all leading navies. Even the Pakistan Navy introduced Air Independent Propulsion on its submarines more than a decade ago.
The commissioning of INS Khanderi is a welcome development and will add to the navy’s teeth with its contemporary capabilities. However, one swallow does not a summer make and it is time that the process-driven procurement procedure becomes more responsive to the widening capability deficit in our undersea warfare preparedness.
(The author is a veteran submariner and Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation, The views expressed are personal)