India Should Renew It’s Focus On Subsurface Capabilities

-By Ravi Srivastava

(This article has also been featured by a National Magazine on 08th Aug 2023.)

a 4 mins read.

Mega Assets

There has been number of recent news on Indian Navy’s new procurements, ship building and joint collaborations with foreign and domestic firms. Navy has been looking for swift upgradation of it’s surface and sub surface fighting capabilities. Induction of new Vikrant the second aircraft carrier and sea trials for final of the six Kalvari class submarine Vaghsheer, in recent past have drawn much attention. While these projects have now been realised to an extent Navy’s concerns are far from being fully addressed.

In 1997 Navy laid out it’s core requirements especially in sub surface capabilities for 24 submarines. Keeping self efficiency in the mind, it was later altered to build 12 new submarines locally as project P-75 & P-75(I). The plan included joint production with foreign firm, substantial technology transfer and construction in India itself. The procedure then followed carried on with little success, major hurdle being charting of qualitative requirements. Since the projects were meant for future compatibility very few such technologies were available for commercial negotiations. At few instances if it was indeed available, either the host governments were not willing to part with them or technology was not sea proven. These issues acted as severe hurdle in the expected progress.

Current Capacity

An Aircraft Carrier and Submarine force of a nation are originally considered tools of power projection. Global Fire Power in it’s 2023 report has highlighted submarine fleet strength by World’s top Navies wherein, China leading with 78, Russia with 70 and US with 68 submarines respectively are the top three global players. India with 18 submarines is at distant eight in the list. The very slow movement on the P-75(I) started to become a matter of concern in the power corridors, especially considering rapid changes in the neighbourhood.

In a September 2020 report carried by China Youth News, it highlighted how China has laid down great emphasis towards capacity build up in sea domination, amphibious and paratrooping capabilities to support a viable Taiwan operations. In a November 2021 report by PLA Daily it was reported that PLA Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) has tested it’s paradropping capabilities over the sea. These lessons have resulted in development of some top class naval assets and airlift platforms by China like the 7,500T Luyang III guided-missile Type-52D destroyers and the larger 13,000T Type-55 Renhai-class guided-missile cruisers and Y-20 heavy lift aircraft.

New Capability

The plan to substantially augment submarine strength was to run concurrently with two projects P-75 and P-75(I) and was conceived to be completed by middle of 2020. While work on P-75 commenced in 2005 onwards the upgraded P-75(I) faced challenges on technical issues. The Navy’s requirement for a proven Air Independent Propulsion(AIP) system became major sticking point. An AIP equipped Diesel Electric Submarine allows it to remain underwater for almost 12-15 days than a conventional Diesel Electric Submarine which has to surface every 2-3 days to charge it’s batteries.

In 2019 another Expression of Interest (EOI) was issued for P-75(I) which included capability for land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles. By September 2019 five bidders Naval Group of France, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) of Germany, Rosoboronexport of Russia, Daewoo of South Korea and Spain’s Navantia had responded. Later in July 2021 Naval Group of France, Rosoboronexport of Russia and Spain’s Navantia were left out as they did not have any proven AIP system, leaving only German and South Korean firms in contention.

All this while Navy was clear on few aspects of the requirements viz. need for AIP, construction in India and transfer of technology with Indian partner. Since both Pakistan and China have AIP capable submarines in their fleet, Navy’s insistence on this technology was highly justifiable. TKMS initiated the process and choose Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) of India as it’s local partner to undertake complete construction of these Submarines.

Capacity Buildup

A notable spinoff of this project has been the government’s acceptance of a new perspective in the management of very high end defence requirements. The challenges of finding technology or a global supplier apart there were domestic concerns with regards to absorption of the new technology. This time the government allowed even the private sector to be part of bidding. This will be a huge test for development of indigenous defence companies who must rise to the massive requirements if they are serious about future prospects.

It is commendable that private companies like L&T Shipbuilding indeed stepped forward with requisite conviction. Developing a massive platform like submarine with future oriented          front-line technology, is a completely different ball game than producing some parts and components. It is not a show down on the public sector firms but a statement of evolution of Indian Private Defence Industries. For India in the foreseeable future there are massive opportunities available, both public and private sector defence companies must reorient to rather complement each other’s growth.

Since the project incorporates transfer of advance technologies it also showcases India’s acceptance as responsible power. Wherein, world is prepared to share advance know how and sensitive technologies. The knowledge gained would be immensely helpful for development of something say deep diving autonomous vessels which are yet a future platform and require mastering knowledge of underwater imaging, under water sensing and underwater navigation among others before taking some developmental shape. These spinoffs would ultimately add strength and asset augmentation for future ready indigenous platforms.

New Dimension

Asia is increasingly becoming a complex domain for geopolitical influence. Last one decade has suddenly witnessed spiralling of power play in the region. There has been increased Chinese assertiveness, US recalibration in Asia, Japan & Australia adopting a whole new security outlook, Russia inspite of challenges in Europe is willing to enhance it’s stakes in the region and NATO’s recent proposal of a ‘Liaison Office’ in Japan as part of it’s Asian outreach. These are the tough realties and as few observers suggests, all these probably manifested much quicker than India has anticipated.

India has been a close observant of these rapidly evolving geopolitical challenges. It has continued to advocate for a free, open and responsible access to international resources for all, based on globally accepted norms. Basically implying – No coercive tactic through self justified historical distortions will be acceptable and if the need be it will be pushed back. To achieve such strategic aims the country needs to have means to implement it’s national will. India will be looking to move fast on it’s strategic projects, while ensuring it closes the gap with evolving technologies. A re-oriented approach to Defence Diplomacy will prove key to such realisation.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Jitendra singh solanki
    02/09/2023 22:30

    Excellent article, author has wide knowledge and analytical approach to express his vision in true perspective.

  • Raj Kamal Devashwar
    03/09/2023 20:57

    This article is very good, explaining the present situation of subsurface capabilities , India’s position and how to check out neighbours like China and Pakistan


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