The Submarine Arm @ 50 -A View From The Periscope

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2017
Page No.: 
24
Sub Title: 
Analysis of the existing capabilities of the underwater arm and the voids that need to be effectively and expeditiously filled for the Indian Navy
Author: 
Commodore Anil Jai Singh, IN (Retd)
Monday, December 4, 2017
On 08 December 1967, the Indian Navy’s submarine arm came into being with the commissioning of INS Kalvari – a Soviet built Foxtrot class submarine - in cold and distant Riga in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Fifty years later, as the Indian Navy prepares to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its submarine arm, the second Kalvari, this one built indigenously at Mumbai has been delivered to the Navy and is due for commissioning as a worthy successor to take forward the legacy of its illustrious predecessor. This, in many ways encapsulates the remarkable evolution of the submarine arm in this short period and is being duly recognised with the award of the President’s Colours to the submarine arm by the Supreme Commander on 08 December 2017 at Visakhapatnam.  
 
While this is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, it is also a time for humble introspection and an occasion to chart the future course in an increasingly complex security environment where undersea warfare will be a vital factor in defining the country’s maritime security architecture of the future.  
 
India is essentially a maritime state as reflected in our recent foreign policy outreach across the oceans and clear articulation of our aspiration to be the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean, one of the poles in the emerging multi-polar world order and permanent member of the UN Security Council. This further underlines the importance of becoming a maritime power as a pre-requisite to attaining these goals. 
 
The Indian Navy, as the principal exponent of India’s maritime power, thus needs to be an effective and multi-dimensional blue water force with adequate power projection and sea control capability to protect India’s interests wherever and whenever it may be called upon to do so. This is also reflected in the Indian Maritime Doctrine and the Indian Navy’s strategy document and its approach to capability- based force development 
 
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the global geopolitical centre of gravity and its distinct maritime orientation has focused attention on the naval force augmentation amongst the navies in the region with the emphasis being on undersea warfare and submarine acquisition programmes. Their ability and versatility to operate across the strategic, the operational, the tactical and increasingly the sub-conventional domains make it imperative for their adversary to have an effective multi-dimensional capability to counter them, thus making them the ideal instruments of a sea denial strategy. Therein lies the inherent advantage of submarines; an enemy that cannot be seen, cannot be heard and yet capable of denying the use of the sea to the enemy by its mere presence; possessing the capacity to deliver devastating kinetic effect and thereby being able to shape the outcome. 
 
In consonance with its blue water aspirations, India has endeavoured to develop a comprehensive submarine capability straddling this entire spectrum of capability. If India is to fulfil its manifest destiny as a global maritime power in the next half century or so, it is this element which will be critical and therefore needs sustained attention which regrettably has been wanting so far and is a matter of concern. 
 
India’ Strategic Deterrent – An Imperative
 
India is one of an exclusive club of six nations (the others being the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) to have built a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). Combined, with the element of surprise and concealment, they are the most effective and credible instrument of deterrence. In fact, it was the presence of SSBNs that ensured the Cold war, which raged for over four decades, remained ‘cold’ despite numerous provocations. Infact SSBNs came to exemplify the Cold war itself. 
 
As a declared nuclear weapon power with ‘No First Use’ being the cornerstone of India’s nuclear doctrine, it is essential to have an effective, invulnerable and credible second strike capability. The most effective of the land, sea and air triad of delivery is without any doubt the submarine. It is for this very reason and contrary to expert predictions that their effectiveness will diminish after the Cold war, SSBN development has progressed and as the world becomes an increasingly dangerous place, their usefulness to maintain the peace will continue.
 
The first submarine of the class, INS Arihant, though still some distance away from being deployed in its intended role, has proved its capability and once suitably armed, will complete the Indian triad. It is understood that the second submarine of the class, INS Aridhaman, has been launched and three more SSBNs {perhaps larger) will be built for a total force level of five. This is the minimum requirement to ensure a continuous deterrent patrol. The current capacity for building these submarines is limited and therefore it is unlikely that this number would be reached before the middle of the next decade at the earliest. It is therefore incumbent upon the government to take immediate measures to encourage capacity enhancement for developing and consolidating this technology.
 
The Attack Submarine – A Blue Water Asset
 
The attack submarine (SSN) is a nuclear powered but conventionally armed platform. It is a very versatile, extremely effective and is an integral part of a blue water navy. It has the speed, stealth and endurance to greatly enhance a navy’s offensive options and can operate independently or as part of a Task Force. Armed with lethal land attack cruise missiles besides the traditional torpedoes, and is the ideal platform to shape the battlespace at an operational level of conflict. The spectacular success of the Tomahawk missiles launched from US Navy SSNs in Op Desert Storm and thereafter in Libya testify to the effectiveness of the SSNs as an integral element of expeditionary capability. Developed during the Cold War years to shadow the adversary’s SSBNs and prevent a surprise pre-emptive strike, they have more than proved their utility in a post- cold war littoral scenario.  
 
INS Chakra, a Charlie-I class SSN, leased from the erstwhile Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991 was India’s first tryst with nuclear powered submarines. More recently, in early 2012, the Indian Navy leased an Akula class SSN from Russia for a period of ten years. This submarine, also commissioned as INS Chakra is a valuable platform to gain the expertise to operate and maintain these sophisticated platforms. However, being a leased platform, it would probably be restricted in its range of offensive options. It is therefore imperative that capabilities such as these have to be developed indigenously if they are to lend credibility to a nation’s claims of maritime power. 
 
The Indian Navy, despite its blue water posturing is presently bereft of this critical element and the Indian Navy still have a long way to go towards building our own SSNs. For its three Carrier battle Group aspirations, a force of at least six SSNs is essential. SSNs are expensive to build, expensive to maintain and require a host of cutting edge technologies to give them the offensive edge. A focused and time-bound construction programme is therefore essential if these are to become a part of our navy in the next decade and a half or so.
 
Conventional Submarines – Area of Concern
 
While the SSBN and SSN force will form the strategic and operational assets of the future Indian navy, it is the conventional diesel-electric submarine (SSK) that will be the most effective tactical asset in a regional security context. The SSK is optimized for stealth and scores over its larger and more powerful stablemates in the relatively shallower waters of the littoral. 
 
The Indian Navy’s current inventory of 13 SSKs comprises nine Sindhughosh class (Russian Kilo class) and four Shishumar class (German Type 209) submarines.  Of these, four are more than 30 years old, seven are more than 25 years old and the remaining two are 23 and 17 years old. This hardly speaks well of a navy which is desirous of extending its footprint in the larger Indo-Pacific space. The commissioning of Kalvari, the first indigenously built P75 submarine is being seen as a big boost towards achieving self-reliance in the defence sector. However these are not the first submarines built indigenously. INS Shalki and Shankul (German Type 209) were built in Mumbai in 1992 and 1994 but further construction was discontinued for reasons not known. The effects of that decision are reverberating even today as the country struggles to regain this national core competence.
 
In an effort to streamline the submarine acquisition process, a 30 year plan for Indigenous Submarine Construction was approved in 1999 by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). It addressed most major issues like indigenous construction, resource availability, industrial capacity, phased replacement and credible capability with an objective of building 24 submarines by 2030 so as to have at least 20 contemporary conventional submarines at any given time. Nuclear submarine acquisition was not factored in this plan. 
 
The first phase of the plan had envisaged the construction of 12 submarines on two production lines under a ToT arrangement with two global submarine builders. This was to be followed by the second phase with serial production of an indigenously designed submarine on these two production lines to ensure a modern and credible SSK force. However, 17 years later, by which time at least 12 submarines should have been commissioned or under construction, not even one has yet entered service. The other five are in various stages of fitting out. The second line of six is still at the RFI (Request for Information) stage with little or no clarity on the way ahead.  
 
This deficit in quantity and quality is a matter of great concern and may snowball further unless tackled with alacrity and decisive action. Unfortunately, the portents of that happening in the MoD given the existing trend appear highly unlikely.
 
The Future
 
The Indian Navy is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The existing inventory is being selectively upgraded through Life Extension Programmes. These submarines will hopefully be available to the navy for about a decade and a half or so. However, their combat worthiness may progressively degrade with age. 
 
The P-75 submarines will enter service at intervals of about one year each.  However, these submarines still suffer the characteristic limitations of limited endurance and range. The lack of Air Independent Propulsion Systems is in itself a serious operational constraint and the choice of missile also limits the submarine’s stand-off weapon delivery capability. Hence these at best offer only a marginal capability improvement over the older submarines.   
 
The second production line called Project 75(I), should have been at an advanced stage running almost concurrently with P-75. However, ten years after the first RFI was issued, another RFI was issued in August 2017 which has been linked to the ‘Strategic partnership Model’. The first submarine of this programme will not enter service before 2026-27. 
 
While the 30 year plan included 12 SSKS of an indigenous design, it has now been reduced to 6 SSKs as a SSN programme is also underway. These submarines are still on the drawing board and one can safely predict their induction in the 2030s.  For the sake of the navy and the country’s security imperatives, it is hoped that political and other extraneous considerations will not derail these projects. 
 
Conclusion   
 
Credible Naval force development is a long lead time activity.  Naval acquisitions are capital-intensive, take time to build and thereafter to integrate fully with existing platforms in a fully worked-up combat environment.  It is thus important that a holistic view is taken of submarine force development A force level of at least five SSBNs, six SSNs and 20 SSKs is the minimum number required by the IN to fulfil its mandate as a blue water navy of a regional maritime power in the larger Indo-Pacific space. This would provide adequate strategic deterrence, a potent force projection and expeditionary element commensurate with a three CBG capability and a credible tactical and operational presence in the littoral.
 
Category: 
Military Technology