Originally Published 2013-08-29 13:48:24 Published on Aug 29, 2013
The tragic accident of Sindhurakshak should serve as a clarion call for the Navy and the higher defence establishment for introspection over the institutional inadequacies and the need for re-evaluating policy decisions.
Short-sighted Submarine saga
"The second week of August sent contradictory signals for Indian Navy. While the nuclear reactor of Arihant, the indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine SSBN became critical and an indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant was launched, explosions sank India's frontline submarine INS Sindhurakshak, snuffing out 18 lives of Navy's officers and seamen a few hours before she was due to proceed on a classified war patrol.

In a way the accident was ironic as the Indian navy's submarine arm had always prided itself as having a safety record with no major accidents since it acquired its first boat from the Soviet Union in December 1967. But, the enormous tragedy altered the complacent thinking drastically as it also raised serious issues regarding the depleting numbers of available submarines.

Sindhurakshak returned a few months ago from Russia after a two-and-a-half-year-long modernising and retro fitting refit under Project 08773 which cost the Indian exchequer 80 million USD (a price more than the original cost of the submarine). Losing such a platform in the wake of low operational availability of the submarines was an irreplaceable loss that India could ill afford with a mere 14-plus nuclear submarine in its inventory.

The main reason for this state of affairs has been the irregular trajectory of India's submarine acquisition programme that has been marked by short-sightedness and impulsiveness weighed by political compulsions. Commencing from the sixties when Britain did a U-turn and refused to hand over submarines at the last moment, India had to perforce turn to erstwhile Soviet Union for getting its boats. Starting from the Foxtrot class INS Kalvari in December 1967 Indian navy has never had adequate numbers that would match its threat perceptions.

While the Foxtrots were being slowly phased out the need to upgrade its ageing fleet led to the purchase of ten Kilo-class (Sindhughosh class) submarines, one of the quietest conventional submarines in the world that were constructed in Russian shipyards for the Indian Navy between 1985 and 2000.

In the post-Cold War scenario, the requirement of diversifying from the stranglehold of Russian suppliers led to the acquisition of the highly sophisticated Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) Type 209 boats between 1986-94. Regrettably, the HDW deal was marred by a corruption scandal similar to the one that afflicted the Bofors artillery gun and this deal was peremptorily scrapped and the construction of the last two boats by Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL) was abandoned after the elaborate infrastructure to commence manufacture was ready. The four Sishumar class boats currently with the Navy have served the nation well despite the initial controversy.

In the meantime the Navy's 30-year submarine building plan that was approved almost a decade and a half ago was dogged by delays in approval for the Scorpene deal, partly due to the dilution of infrastructure built for the HDW submarine construction. As a result, the first submarine of the six new Scorpene class, as part of the Project 75 currently under construction at the MDL in collaboration with the French DCNS, got seriously delayed. With the first boat due in 2015-16 the remaining five would follow at 18-month intervals thereafter, by which time about 65 per cent of the current fleet would be decommissioned or require urgent replacement. It is scheduled the last two of these boats will be fitted with the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) which would allow a conventional submarine like the Scorpene to operate without the need to surface or use a snorkel for long periods.

With the delays and rising threat perception, dawned the realisation that India needed to further supplant its depleting submarine strength. This led to the Project 75 India (P 75 I) whose primary focus is the acquisition of six new larger stealth submarines, equipped with both tube-launched missiles for land-attack capabilities as well as AIP for enhanced underwater capability. The project has been approved by the government and the request for proposals (RFPs) for the $11.8-bn project is expected to be issued shortly. Two submarines would be acquired from a selected foreign shipyard and the remaining four would be built by the state-owned Mazagon Dock and Hindustan Shipyard.

India currently requires at least thirty submarines to fulfil its commitments but has only 15 submarines divided into three classes - Chakra, Sindhughosh and Shishumar. A lot of stress has been laid on Chakra, an Akula II class nuclear powered attack submarine, currently on lease from Russia and the Indian build Arihant SSBN which is undergoing sea trials and is expected to enter service around 2015.

While there is justifiable euphoria surrounding the launch of Arihant, it must not make us complacent as these will not carry long-range missiles. We have a long way to go before catching up with the Chinese navy. In the Asia-Pacific region, China possesses one of the largest submarine fleets comprising anything between 68 to 85 boats spread across nine different classes; a far cry from the Indian inventory.

India's naval thinking derives its inspiration from the maritime strategist Mahan. The idea of projecting power across the Indian Ocean for securing Indian strategic interests is the dominant discourse in this thinking. As a corollary, India considers itself a net security provider in the entire Indian Ocean region. Many of the associated issues that Indian naval planners are presently grappling with include how to cope with Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean, expanding Indian presence in the Indian Ocean, controlling SLOCs (Sea lines of Communication) i.e. trade routes, de facto forward basing and generating capacity for sustained operations in and around the entire region. This is a difficult task to perform with the limited number of warship platforms and mere fifteen boats.

The tragic accident of Sindhurakshak should serve as a clarion call for the Navy and the higher defence establishment for introspection over the institutional inadequacies and the need for re-evaluating policy decisions. A refocused attempt to rectify the growing lack of underwater platforms and warship inventory is the dire need of the hour, as we can ill afford such major setbacks to our national security.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy : The New Indian Express, 28 August 2013

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