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Ageing fleet, expired contracts, China— India has a submarine issue, Project 75 not helping

Given the long time required to manufacture submarines, there is almost a certainty that India will have a serious crisis in the next few years.

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With the formal induction of INS Vagir, India has commissioned the fifth of its six Kalvari-class diesel-electric attack submarines. The last in the series in the Project 75 programme, INS Vagsheer is likely to be commissioned sometime in 2023, thus pulling the curtains down on India’s most ambitious conventional submarine project.

India will have less than 20 operational submarines with the completion of this programme. It is still a far cry from current and future national security requirements. And the greater worry is that there is no commitment to fulfil long-term submarine requirements.

The Project 75 submarines have been made at Mumbai’s Mazgaon Dockyard Limited in a technology transfer agreement with the French manufacturer, Naval Group. The technology is from the sophisticated Scorpène-class submarine that has been lauded worldwide among sub-sea warriors.

The multi-billion dollar contract would be a precursor for a more ambitious domestic programme that envisioned a further production run of modern and conventionally powered submarines, even as India developed its indigenous nuclear-powered vessels.

The latter is the seaborne platform in the triad of nuclear delivery options. The nuclear submarine is the course, the most secure of the three platforms since it is virtually impossible to detect its presence in the deep seas.

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Single vendor situation 

Even as the indigenous nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant sails the oceans, the number of conventional submarines in India’s arsenal continues to face declining numbers. A large part of the fleet has aged beyond retrofitting or refurbishment. The only recourse left was for a continued modern induction programme, which has stalled with the completion of the Kalvari-class submarine project. The subsequent submarines were to be inducted under the Project 75 (I) programme. ‘I’ stood for India and depended on a domestic production run of advanced submarines with stealth capabilities and air-independent propulsion, thus giving them greater range and survivability. There was meant to be a complete transfer of technology from foreign partners, but that has run aground as manufacturers pulled out.

All the manufacturers have cited unreasonable and mostly impossible contractual obligations imposed in the Request for Proposals (RFP) by the Ministry of Defence. The RFP called for domestic production and had stringent penalties on the original equipment manufacturer for delays. As a result, India finds itself in a single vendor situation, which the country’s government auditing system does not allow. This peculiar predicament has vexed decision-makers, so the contract deadline was continually extended until it finally expired on 31 Dec 2022. An assurance by the Chief of Naval Staff during the annual Navy Day press conference wasn’t convincing.

It is unclear how and when the long pending Project 75 will get cleared, given the complexities of the initial RFP. Unless there is a serious climb down in the exacting Indian contractual obligations, it is unlikely there will be more than one foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM) willing to take the plunge. As things stand so far, South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering hasn’t officially pulled out of the race, potentially making it a single-vendor bidding situation. But none of the other manufacturers have submitted their responses to the RFP, thus extending the deadline all over again.

With the completion of the Project 75 production cycle and no progress on its successor programme, India now has an expensive production line lying idle with wasted technical skills.

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Indian Ocean and China

It is not a luxury any country could afford in this era, especially not one in the complex security scenario that India is in. Even as its troops’ stand-off with China on the Ladakh front enters its third year, tensions are not easing elsewhere along the undemarcated border. The one area where India was placed militarily better than China, on the high seas, is also under serious competition now.

With a mix of nuclear and diesel-electric vessels, China currently has 66 submarines in its fleet. And more are on their way at a rapid rate. So much so that China is also able to supply AIP-capable submarines to Pakistan. Given the long lead time required to manufacture submarines, there is almost a certainty that India will have a serious crisis with its sub-surface fleet in the next few years. With no production commitments available in the foreseeable future and a steadily ageing fleet, it is a matter of time before India finds itself playing catch up even in the Indian Ocean.

Last year’s neighbourhood visit of the Chinese spy ship Yuan Wang 5 wasn’t simply an eavesdropping exercise. It was mapping operational routes for Chinese submarines for the near future. Given the large number of submarines available to the Chinese navy, that near future could not be very far.

Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader, Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert and Chairman, Soldier Welfare Advisory Committee, Rajasthan. He tweets @ManvendraJasol. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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