Submarine import trap

The Indian Navy needs to spearhead the amalgamation of nuclear and conventional submarine design and manufacturing capabilities

The Indian Navy has quietly and without fuss built up a great reputation for itself as a strategic-minded service. Its plans for distant defence are the best articulated, and its procurement of naval hardware mission-appropriate, reason why the government has accorded it the pivotal role in the strategic defence of the country.

As commendable is the Navy’s role in driving the country’s agenda for self-sufficiency in armaments in the teeth of sustained efforts over the years by the bumbling Indian government with the defence ministry and its department of defence production (DPP) to undermine it. The DPP conceives its remit as only ensuring custom for defence public sector units while trying to trip up the private sector whose built-up capacity and capability can more quickly and substantively attain for the country the goal of self-reliance, which has so far only remained rhetoric. The Navy is the only service to have had a main weapon design directorate, generating designs for 43 of the 45 warships under construction in the country. The Navy, moreover, has prevented indigenous projects such as the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft programme from sinking, by investing in the development of a navalised variant, managing a technical consultancy with US Navy’s aviation experts to iron out design kinks and shepherding this aircraft to the prototype stage.
But the singular success story and its greatest accomplishment is the strategic submarine project. Starting from scratch, it has got to a point where the basic Russian Charlie-II class nuclear-powered ballistic missile firing submarine (SSBN) design has been enhanced, which changes will be reflected in the second and third units of the Arihant-class boats, and a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine (SSN) as follow-on to the Akula-II class boat (INS Chakra) on lease from Russia, is in the works. The most heartening aspect is the driven nature of this programme leading to the Navy mastering the tasks of prime integrator and with, great foresight, nurturing this expertise in the private sector, which has acquired strategic submarine-production expertise and wherewithal.
The tragedy, alas, is that despite the success of the SSBN and the technology transferred from two earlier diesel-powered hunter-killer submarine (SSK) projects — the German HDW-209 and the French Scorpene, the Indian Navy still espies a gap in the indigenous design, development and production wherewithal, especially in “silencing” technologies and in producing “workshop drawings” to allow designs to be translated into actual manufacturing schemes, individual component up. This gap is sought to be bridged by importing yet another SSK for Project 75I (I for India). The Navy could, at the time the contracts were signed, have insisted on comprehensively complete transfer of technology in the deals for the HDW-209 or, much later, the Scorpene trumpeted for its stealth and “silencing” technologies. This was not done. The result is, other than creating multiple opportunities for corruption at all levels, this piece-meal purchase of technology may end up costing the taxpayer 300-400 per cent more for three separate submarine projects to obtain a conventional submersible manufacturing capability.
The argument that importing is necessary to be technologically in-date and meet “immediate need” is a hackneyed one. Considering the stretched HDW and Scorpene submarine delivery timelines, local Indian companies contracted to build a new line of SSKs may take no longer than the transaction with a foreign supplier, involving numerous stages — request for information, request for proposals, extensive trials, shortlisting, selection and elaborate price and contract-content negotiations, at the end of which the DPSUs will get to assemble the boat. In the context of the hard-won indigenous SSBN capability, naval stalwarts such as Vice-Admiral Raman Puri (retd.), former head of the Eastern Naval Command, have opposed the import option. It is incomprehensible that ignoring the huge sunk costs in developing, with Russian help and technical assistance, in-house/in-country infrastructure to design, develop and manufacture whole nuclear submarines, the Navy, astonishingly, is not confident about a lower-technology diesel submarine being produced indigenously! It is like a person proficient in calculus seeking help with arithmetic. Air-Independent-Propulsion (AIP) technology (enabling subs to remain underwater for longer duration) is the official justification for importing, but it is a weak reed to hang the deal on, especially because AIP units can be separately bought on transfer-of-technology basis, and fitted into a modern conventional submarine out of a new production line that an enabled private sector can readily establish.
The rub here is that left to Indian companies, the first product may, quality-wise, be sub-par. However, Vice-Admiral R.K. Dhowan, Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, warned at a naval symposium on January 31, 2013, that indigenisation cannot be at the expense of the “combative edge”. The trouble with this formulation is that it perpetuates dependence on external sources. The services have to accept the fact that the Mark-I of any locally produced weapons-platform will not be as good as the best available in the market, but by the time the Mark-III version rolls out it will be world-class. This much grace the military will have to allow the indigenous efforts if Indian industry is to at all have a chance. Ultimately, this is a political decision the government has to make. What’s in collision are two philosophies — the nuclear visionary Homi Bhabha’s “learn as you make” thinking versus “import when you can” attitude of the military encouraged by venal politicians, a short-sighted government, and a DPP covering up for the inefficient defence public sector that has proved itself incapable of sustained technology absorption or innovation via offsets or any other route. The fatal reliance on imported armaments only underlines India’s second-rate military status.
Besides revising the “30-year submarine plan” of 1990s vintage in light of the currently available capacity at home and reversing the P-75I import decision, the Navy needs to spearhead the amalgamation of nuclear and conventional submarine design and manufacturing capabilities to achieve synergy and economy of scale such that India never looks to a foreign supplier again. Instead of just talking self-reliance, defence minister A.K. Antony can, for a change, do something about it by ensuring these steps are immediately taken.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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