The Indian Navy is determined to control the Indian Ocean Region, the world’s third largest water body, which it says is now a global economic highway. With two-thirds of the global oil, half of the container traffic and a third of the cargo traffic passing through it, the region holds a special significance for the entire world. For the navy this region is its backyard and it wants to be recognised as the chief security provider here.
The key to dominating this vast expanse lies underneath, though, the stealthy domain of the submarine that can patrol unseen but is an ever present danger. With increasing signs that China is expanding its influence in the region, a great submarine game is on the anvil.
Over the past two years, there have been increased sightings of Chinese submarines in the region, including a nuclear attack boat. These submarines are ostensibly deployed to escort the Chinese anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, but the security establishment in India knows that nuclear boats are not needed to tackle pirate skiffs.
The docking of a Chinese submarine in Karachi earlier this year came as another wake-up signal. This submarine has the same design as the eight boats that Pakistan is ordering from China.
The Indian Navy is not as well prepared for this new, unseen game as it would have liked, mainly because of the two lost decades in which the country ignored its underwater fleet and did not place orders on time, resulting in disruption of delivery schedules.
In sheer numbers, the Indian fleet is nowhere close to its ambition of dominating the region. The bulk of it is over two decades old, with most boats nearing the end of their designed life. While extensive upgrade programmes are planned, there is no substitute for a new, modern attack submarine, making the fleet the weakest link in the chain for the navy’s plans. The navy’s experiment with manufacturing its first conventional submarines has hit several roadblocks. Ordered in 2004, the first of the Scorpene subs was to be inducted in 2012. However, the inexperience of Mazgaon Docks has meant a four0year delay, with the first of the lot to be inducted only by October 2016.Fresh Hope
While the last few years of the United Progressive Alliance government did not see much attention to the underwater fleet – with the sinking of the Sindhurakshak in 2013 being the low point of the navy in peacetime – the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, which took charge in May 2014, has revived several plans of the navy.
The decisions taken by the Modi government, if implemented properly, may just get the submarine fleet back on track. At the centre of this is the ambitious plan cleared in February to construct six new nuclear attack boats (SSNs) in India. The mega plan, the first of its kind, could give the navy much-needed teeth but it will take a long time to implement – even accelerated development will take close to a decade before the first boat comes in. The defence ministry, meanwhile, is looking at Russia to lease another nuclear attack boat, preferably one of its latest Yasen class that will give a tremendous capability boost to the navy. In addition, there are signs that the much-awaited P 75 Iproject for six submarines may finally be back on track. The navy required a new generation submarine that can stay underwater much longer than its current Kilo and HDW class boats. Billed as the largest Make in India project, the P 75 I is in its final stages and the navy is set to go ahead with the process to select a foreign design.
A stopgap arrangement before the SSNs start coming in and the P 75I takes off is also being considered – extending the order for the Scorpenes by another three boats. While a French effort is on to get a follow-on order for the Scorpenes, even offering an air independent propulsion system to give it the ability to stay under water longer, a decision is expected to be taken only after the first of the boats being built at Mazgaon Docks is successfully tested.
Navy officials believe that the next year will be most critical because a number of key decisions will be taken and orders placed that will determine the longevity of its undersea fleet. The submarine projects, all to be made in India, also present huge opportunity to the private sector, with two shipyards, L&T and Pipavav, vying for the lion’s share. The navy is, however, apprehensive that the brewing rivalry between the two players in bagging the big orders could come in the way of its much-needed modernisation drive.