INS Kalvari, on its recent sea trials
By Ajai Shukla
Mazagon Dock, Mumbai
Business Standard, 18th Sept 17
It has been twelve years in the making but, before end-September, Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL) will hand over INS Kalvari to the Indian Navy -- the first of six Scorpene submarines being built in India in collaboration with French shipbuilder, Naval Group.
On receiving its new boat (sailors traditionally refer to submarines as “boats”), the navy will invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to formally commission the vessel.
INS Kalvari is likely to be commissioned in October, Modi’s engagements permitting. After that the submarine will slip into the Arabian Sea on operational deployment.
INS Kalveri will be the fourteenth submarine in a navy that calculates it needs at least 24-26, given India’s two-front threat from China and Pakistan, a sprawling 7,500-kilometre coastline and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of over two million square kilometres.
During wartime, India’s submarine fleet would be required to seal entrances to the Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden to the west, the Horn of Africa to the south and four crucial southeast Asian straits – Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar – that Chinese warships would use to enter the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea.
The current fleet is grossly inadequate for these tasks. There are currently four German HDW boats called the Shishumar class, after the lead vessel, INS Shishumar. These small, 1,850-tonne submarines were inducted in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are also nine larger, 3,076-tonne Russian submarines called the Sindhughosh-class, after the lead vessel, INS Sindhughosh. These were inducted between 1986 and 2000. Of the original ten, INS Sindhurakshak was lost in 2013 to a cataclysmic, on-board ammunition explosion in Mumbai dockyard.
To fill the submarine gap, the navy signed a Rs 18,798 crore contract in 2005 with French-Spanish consortium, Armaris to build six Scorpenes in MDL under what was termed Project 75. In 2007, Armaris was taken over by France’s Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), which changed its name to Naval Group this year.
All six Scorpenes were to be delivered between 2012 and 2015, but are running five years late. The second Scorpene, INS Khanderi, which is currently undergoing sea trials, is slated for delivery in March 2018, and the remaining four at nine-month intervals till end-2020.
The 1,565-tonne Scorpene will be the navy’s smallest submarines, but reputedly its deadliest. A submarine’s stealth is its greatest attribute and modern technologies make the Scorpene extremely difficult to detect. Its size is a major advantage in the shallow Arabian Sea, where the waters 25 kilometres seaward from Karachi are just 40 metres deep. Large submarines risk scraping the bottom in such shallow waters.
Larger submarines like the Kilo-class, or the six nuclear powered attack submarines that India plans to build, can operate more freely in the Bay of Bengal, where the continental shelf falls sharply and the ocean depth just 5 kilometres seaward from Visakhapatnam is over 3,000 metres.
The Kalvari-class Scorpenes are designed to carry a formidable weapons package – the tube-launched Exocet SM-39 anti-ship missile, and the 533-millimetre heavyweight torpedo.
However, the first Scorpene boats will be commissioned without state-of-the-art torpedoes, their primary weapon system. The defence ministry has suspended a Rs 2,000 crore contract for 98 Black Shark torpedoes signed with WASS, an Italian firm, WASS is a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, which the defence ministry proscribed after AgustaWestland -- another Finmeccanica subsidiary -- was accused of bribing Indian officials to win a helicopter contract.
To provide the Scorpene with basic torpedo capability, German firm Atlas Elektronik is upgrading and extending the life of the older SUT torpedoes that the navy acquired for its Shishumar-class submarines. Atlas also hopes to supply its sophisticated Seahake torpedoes for the Scorpenes.
Following Project 75, will be Project 75-I, which envisages building six more submarines under the Strategic Partner (SP) procurement model. This involves identifying an Indian private shipbuilder – Larsen & Toubro and Reliance Defence are the only two with suitable shipyards – that will enter into a technology partnership with a global Original Equipment Manufacturer and bid to build the boats in India.
Navy sources say the Project 75-I submarines are to be built with DRDO-developed Air Independent Propulsion for enhanced underwater endurance, and the capability to carry Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles.
Given that the tendering for Project 75-I could take another three-to-five years, MDL is pitching to build another three Scorpene submarines in the meanwhile. Shipyard executives argue this would keep alive submarine manufacturing skills, acquired during the Scorpene build.
The navy’s 30-year submarine building programme, which was cleared by the cabinet in 1999, caters for building 24 submarines by 2029. With Project 75 and Project 75-I accounting for 12, another 12 submarines are required to be indigenously built. With the aging Shishumar and Sindhughosh class submarines approaching obsolescence, naval planners say the Scorpene only begins to cover an impending shortfall.