Basics first. Let us clearly remember that ‘Facts are sacrosanct, opinion is optional’, before getting into “submarines-in-the-seas”. Of the 222, 21st century, countries in the world (included in which are “dependencies” and “territories”), 193 are members of the United Nations and 164 have navy. Again, of the 164 naval powers, 45 operate submarines and at the top end there are only 16 producers who have the technological expertise and industrial base to sell or supply submarine to the 45 users or anyone aspiring to buy and operate the boat.
One may, in the Indian context, however, ask. What is the future of Indian fleet? According to this author, though New Delhi thus far has done a commendable job in the growth of professional competence in ‘sea-state’, lot of work and strategic-by strategic one implies long-term-planning and execution thereof, nevertheless, remain undone. Why? Because precious time has been wasted over last three decades to focus on indigenous submarine production. Hence, regretfully, submarine wing of Indian Navy continues to be one of the victims of monumental miscalculation of the establishment.
Why and how one calls it “monumental”? The answer lies in depicting the facts and figures at our disposal. There was a time, not too long ago, when India had 18 operational subs in her naval inventory. Today though, as the number 18 stands reduced to 13, one wonders, at a given time, how many would be operating to the high sea and how many would undergo dry dock maintenance? Again facts, which are ‘sacrosanct’, would reveal a scenario which may not be to the liking of some. The US (69), China (63), Russia (42), Japan (18), North Korea (20) are clear leaders in sub-surface boats, followed by South Korea, Turkey and India, all three with 13 subs each. Nevertheless, the not-so-good news for India is that the last conventional diesel electric boat commissioned, 16 years ago, was a Russian origin Kilo-class INS Sindhushastra on July 16, 2000. There is a reference to South Korea and Turkey, because both have their own indigenous submarine production line. Hence, they do not have to go through the protracted process of RFI (request for information), RFP (request for proposal) ,etc, from foreign vendors which axiomatically have proved to be scam-prone as has been experienced by India ever since the 1980s’ ghost of Bofors, which still haunts the political class.
Thus, in comparison with India’s latest Russian-made submarine induction of July 16, 2000, the last indigenously produced Turkish submarine “Inonu” was commissioned January 27, 2008 and South Korea’s Daewoo built “Kim Jwa-Jin” on December 30, 2014. And in both cases (Ankara and Seoul), the “lay-down” to “launch” to “commission” of boats have taken an average four years thereby reflecting their sense of national urgency, security and interest.
Seoul, Ankara aside, it is noteworthy that even a small country like Greece, which suffered a nasty financial crisis in recent times, is a ten submarine fleet, and at least three German origin Type 214 boats, as on date, are under construction in Hellenic Shipyards, Skaramanga, with the first of the type having been commissioned November 02, 2010. In other words, from Far East to Europe to Asia Minor, smaller countries are commissioning new submarines, at faster rate, to upgrade assets and modernise their forces, than India. Why then a continent-like country is lagging behind? Is it indifference or negligence?
Nearer home, China’s submarine enterprise too has taken a “great leap forward”. And to make matters optimistic for Beijing, and pessimistic for its neighbours and competitors, especially for India in general and navies contiguous to China in particular, Beijing successfully changed role from being a buyer, to a seller, of submarines. It has already cut into the near monopoly western supply-chain, transferring four Romeo class boats to Egypt between March 1982 and May 1984.
And now from Cairo, the Beijing-made underwater boats will stealthily move to Karachi and then to Chittagong. Eight Chinese boats to Pakistan and two to Bangladesh signal the recalculation and recalibration of Chinese game plan to counter Indian armada on the high sea. Beijing just cannot allow Indian Navy play pivotal role for “sea command and control” in the Indian Ocean as had been famously declared by Chinese—“Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean”! Following the same counter-logic, India too can give back to Beijing, and openly profess that “South China Sea or the Yellow Sea too is not China’s Sea”!
Frankly and objectively, however, there is no doubt that India has a lot of home work to do. And it has to be done quick and fast. One often wonders which way, if any, should India go? Can there be “course correction”? A section may very well react, and question this course correction.
As is well known, traditionally India preferred surface to sub-surface boats. Thus, when India inducted the English origin second-hand aircraft carrier Vikrant in March 1961, shortly before Goa operations, it perhaps did not take into account that the carrier is vulnerable to submarine attack if not protected, supported and accompanied by combat capable anti-submarine frigate, and destroyer and logistics boat, technically referred to as CBG (carrier battle group). In other words, whereas carrier can operate alone at its own peril, submarine can resort to a standalone operations with a better chance of survival and result, than any surface ship.
In fact nothing could illustrate better than the 20th century battle doctrine of “surface ship versus submarine” in context of the Soviet-American Cold War. Thus, when the 28 aircraft carriers of the US were ruling the waves, Soviet Admiral Gorshkov tried to close the gap with a counter-doctrine of “US carrier versus Soviet submarine” (underwater capability of Moscow versus surface quality of Washington DC).
Seen in this light, it is clear that there is an urgent need for India to switch gears from surface to sub-surface boats. China’s 63, Pakistan’s existing five (plus eight more in the pipeline) and Dhaka’s two have clearly pushed New Delhi to corner. “Foreign port calls” by a 45,000 tonne carrier, 7,500 tonne destroyer and 4,500 tonne frigate are all very good visible naval diplomacy, but when push comes to shove, it will be the run-silent run-deep submarines which will be most lethal of all assets to save the surface combatants, both commercial and fighting ships.
Gwadar, Karachi, Khulna, Chalna, Cox’s Bazaar and Chittagong will shortly be infested with sub-surface ships to the detriment of India’s safety and security.
The author is alumnus of National Defence College, India. Views are personal