As shipyard gains in confidence building the Scorpene, it hopes for a second line of six improved Scorpenes
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th April 14
Project 75 is one of India’s most closely guarded military projects, almost as inaccessible to outsiders as the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, nearing completion at Visakhapatnam. In a giant shed in the East Yard of Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL), a 200-feet-long, cigar-shaped, metal cylinder is the first of six conventionally powered Scorpene submarines that the Indian Navy contracted to build with Franco-Spanish company, Armaris (since taken over by French shipbuilding major, DCNS).
The boat (as submariners call their vessels) is obviously close to completion --- a small remaining gap at the rear will be filled by the section that holds the engine. Nearby, a second Scorpene is taking shape, metallic rings being welded together to form a hull. In the shed next door, a third vessel is racing towards completion.
Hundreds of MDL workmen swarm over the scaffolding that encases the three submarines, overseen by 25-30 French experts from DCNS. They are fitting the wiring, piping and combat systems that must function silently and efficiently in the most taxing underwater conditions.
Business Standard has repeatedly applied to visit this facility, but each time it has been turned down. The description above comes from a trusted source with intimate access to the Scorpene project. The ministry of defence (MoD) discourages the media after years of negative publicity over a project running four years late.
Yet MDL’s current chairman, Rear Admiral (Retired) Rahul Shrawat --- who inherited the Scorpene delay when he assumed charge of MDL --- is upbeat. He promises the first submarine by September 2016, and to deliver the next five Scorpenes at nine-month intervals rather than the one-year intervals contracted.
Speaking to Business Standard, Shrawat promised: “We will launch the first Scorpene by Sept 2015 and deliver it to the navy within a year, i.e. by Sept 2016. The subsequent boats will be delivered at nine-month intervals, with the sixth and final vessel joining the fleet by June 2020.
Shrawat admits this is an aggressive timeline without any buffers for unexpected delays. As Business Standard first reported (Scorpene tangled in govt web, December 19, 2009) Project 75 was delayed by a sloppy Rs 18,798 crore contract that made MDL responsible for buying Rs 2,700 crore worth of Scorpene internal equipment from DCNS. When MDL ordered, DCNS cited inflation to raise the price to Rs 4,700 crore. The ensuing negotiations, and the lengthy processes for fresh government sanctions for added costs, caused over two years of delay.
“Many significant items are yet to be delivered to us, even for the first submarine. This is a big criticality, but we will meet the challenge,” says Shrawat confidently.
The Scorpene delay is part of a critical shortfall of operational submarines with the navy. The fleet has just ten Sindhughosh-class (Russian Kilo-class) submarines, and four Shishumar-class (German HDW) submarines, of which just 9-10 were operational at any time. The availability fell to 7-8 after two recent submarine accidents --- the sinking of INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai after a cataclysmic explosion on board that killed 18 crewmembers last August; and a fire on board INS Sindhuratna in February that killed two officers and led to the resignation of the navy chief.
Even so, Project 75 has created confidence about MDL’s new ability to build submarines. The shipyard is readying to build a second line of six submarines under the new Project 75I, worth an estimated Rs 50,000 crore ($8.25 billion). Government sanction is being processed for Project 75I.
Rather than floating a global tender for Project 75I, Shrawat wants to take advantage of the experience and expertise gained during Project 75. Instead of having a fourth type of submarine in the navy’s fleet (in addition to the Kilo-class; HDW and Scorpene), MDL sees benefit in a more modern Scorpene with air independent propulsion (AIP) and land-attack missiles that the Project 75 vessels lack. Only the last two Project 75 vessels are slated to have AIP.
“Most naval policymakers would not consider it prudent to have a fourth type of conventional submarine in the fleet. I’m sure the government will feel the same. So why not build more Scorpenes; improved with AIP and land attack missiles”, says Shrawat.
The defence ministry led by AK Antony for the last eight years consistently shrank from such decisions in favour of a single vendor, preferring the path of open tendering even when it created operational drawbacks, like a multiplicity of platforms. The next government’s orientation will be keenly watched.
Another key factor in the Project 75I decision would be the willingness of foreign governments to supply submarines equipped with land attack missiles. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) proscribes the transfer of missiles with ranges of 300 kilometres and more.
Meanwhile, Indian defence shipyards are jostling fiercely for a share of Project 75I. The navy wants two submarines built abroad and inducted quickly into service, with the remaining four being built by MDL and the newly acquired defence shipyard, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL). But L&T cites its key role in building the nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, to argue that it should build at least one Project 75I submarine.