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Defence

Published on: Nov. 16, 2020, 7:21 a.m.
Indian Navy grows fitfully
  • The Indian Navy finds a dire need to surmount a slump in its undersea capabilities

By Sarosh Bana. Executive Editor, Business India

As a regional maritime power aspiring to widen its footprint from the Horn of Africa to the Malacca Strait and beyond to the South China Sea, India is giving as much credence to revitalising its undersea arm as to bolstering its surface fleet. India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) will shortly be issuing the long-pending Request for Proposal (RFP) for the over $7 billion – eventually possibly $12 billion – Project-75 (India), or P-75(I), to make six new generation stealth diesel-electric attack submarines (SSKs) domestically with foreign collaboration. It was in 2012 that the then Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral D.K. Joshi, had announced that the RFP would be issued ‘soon’.

The lucrative contract has elicited wide interest among shipyards both at home and abroad, with the Ministry in January shortlisting two domestic contenders – state-owned Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL) and the private sector Larsen and Toubro (L&T) – either of whom will ultimately partner the one selected from the five foreign submarine makers bidding for the tender. They are Russia’s JSC Rosoboronexport, which is offering its Amur 1650 submarine, France’s Naval Group, with SMX 3.0, Spain’s Navantia, with S-80, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), with HDW 214, and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co Ltd (DSME), with KSS-III. Project-75 (I) will be the first so-called Strategic Partnership (SP) Model assigned to an Indian military procurement programme. It was promulgated in 2017 as Chapter VII of the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) 2016.

The Indian Navy finds a dire need to surmount a slump in its undersea capabilities, as it confronts a menacing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and in the larger Indo-Pacific, with Beijing concertedly bolstering its fleet levels, as also marshalling support of India’s neighbours in the littoral through transfers of significant naval assets. Mindful of the operational gaps riddling the Indian Navy, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) had approved a 30-year plan way back in 1999 for the induction of 24 new diesel-electric submarines by 2030, a dozen of them to be constructed with foreign collaboration by 2012, while the balance 12 were to be ‘built to indigenous design’. Curiously, a political objective has been thwarted by political lethargy.

In the Indian context, defence procurements, and their timing, are largely a political exercise rather than one premised on military and security concerns. They are also painfully slowed by extraneous considerations, often at the cost of the nation’s defences.

 Falling dangerously short

Thus, in the 21 years since the plan was unveiled, only six submarines have been built, by MDL under licence from Naval Group. Designated P-75, the programme is the precursor to P-75(I) and is itself running six years late, its original contract cost of Rs16,316 crore ($2.63 billion) in 2010 having spiralled to  Rs23,562 crore ($3.8 billion). The government had then publicly admitted ‘massive slippages’ that would adversely affect the navy’s underwater combat capabilities.

Project-75 had been finalised in 2005, and the construction of Kalvari, the first of this series of 1,565-tonne Scorpene 2000 SSKs began in 2006, the boat finally commissioned in 2017. INS Khanderi, the second in the series, was commissioned in September 2019, while Karanj, the third, was launched in 2018 and scheduled for delivery this December. Vela, the fourth, was launched in 2019, and due to join service in intervals with the final two Scorpenes by 2022.

The Navy has been worsted by a dismal run that has beset it with an ORBAT (Order of Battle) of a depleted fleet of submarines, some of them close to being paid off and 10 or less of which are operational at any time. Apart from the two Scorpenes in service, there are eight 3,100-tonne Sindhughosh class (Russian-origin Kilo class 877EKM) submarines, down from 10, with one disabled in a mishap and another gifted to the Myanmar Navy and four Shalki class (HDW Type 209) submarines of a displacement of 1,850 tonnes.

While a submarine’s prescribed operational life is about 25 years, seven of the eight Kilos are already of 29-34 years’ vintage and the HDWs are between 26 and 34 years old. The Indian Navy also has a nuclear-powered 8,140-tonne Akula-II Class boat that it took on a 10-year lease from Russia in 2012.

The navy also operates INS Arihant, developed and built at home at a cost of $2.9 billion as the first of a series of three such 6,000-tonne nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). It was built under the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project conceived way back in 1998, but launched only in July 2009. INS Arihant was commissioned in August 2016, while its successor, Arighat, was launched in 2017 and will join service by the end of this year.  

The P-75 Scorpenes are being christened after the eight Soviet 1,952-tonne Type 641 Foxtrot class SSKs, with which India’s submarine arm was established in 1967. All eight were decommissioned between 1989 and 2010.

The P-75(I) submarines will be armed with land-attack cruise missiles and will be India’s first to be equipped with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), allowing for longer duration submergence than conventional diesel submarines. However, identifying the Strategic Partners, followed by price negotiation and contract finalisation, the lead-in submarine may not arrive for at least 10 more years.

‘Going by the plan’

Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), foresees progressively higher indigenisation

If both MDL and L&T are contracted, will the work be divided between their respective shipyards, as two production lines can cut down any delay?

At present, there is no proposal to divide the execution of the project between two construction lines. MDL and L&T will bid separately, along with a selected foreign collaborator.

 What will be the penalties imposed for delayed production?

To preclude delays in the P-75(I) submarine construction schedule, penalties in accordance with Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) 2016 would be imposed on the selected company.

 What is the indigenisation envisaged in the P-75(I) programme?

The aim is to achieve a high level of indigenisation in each submarine project, in a phased manner. Indigenisation content in P-75(I) is being stipulated in accordance with DPP 2016.

Has not the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) delay in producing its Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system denied this vital equipment to the P-75 Scorpenes?

The Scorpene submarine design did not include an AIP system when the contract was concluded in 2005. However, given the importance of the AIP system for submarines, the Indian Navy initiated a project for developing one with DRDO and the Scorpene submarines will be progressively fitted with this system.

Will the DRDO or another AIP be considered for the P-75(I) submarines?

The AIP system meeting our Navy’s requirements will be selected for the P-75(I) submarines.

Why are we still, even under P-75(I), pursuing construction of only diesel-electric (SSK) and not nuclear-propelled (SSN) submarines?

The required type and number of submarines are being constructed to meet the Navy’s requirements as envisaged in the 30-year Submarine Construction Programme.

Customised design

Jayant Patil, whole-time director & senior executive vice-president (Defence & Smart Technologies), L&T, sees many factors behind the delayed programme

If both MDL and L&T are contracted, will the work be divided between their respective shipyards, as two production lines can cut down any delay?

Project-75(I) is to be implemented under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model, under which the shortlisted Indian companies, L&T and MDL, will select a Foreign Collaborator (FC) from the five shortlisted, and submit competitive bids. The contract will be awarded to the L1 bidder. However, as P-75(I) is the maiden SP programme, the RFP process is still evolving and it is premature to comment on operating models.

Globally, submarine building nations like the US, Russia as also South Korea, which have built far larger numbers of new generation submarines, do award them on two yards independently as well as in collaboration modes to reduce construction timeframes as well as costs.

 Why has the RFP been so inordinately delayed?

The SP model needs to address complexities such as contract structure vis-a-vis SP and FC, lifecycle support, collateral requirements, walk in rights, etc. that need to be legally vetted. The Covid-19 related lockdown has contributed its share of the delay. As we await the RFP, we are gearing ourselves to respond to it during 2021, followed by technical evaluation, L1 declaration, price negotiation and contract finalisation over the next 18-20 months, when work is likely to commence.

What precisely is the type of submarine P-75(I) envisages?

The contract envisages indigenous construction of the six submarines, outfitted with AIP, which may be state-of-the-art lithium-ion rechargeable batteries instead of lead acid batteries. The Indian Navy is likely to seek customisation of the submarine design to suit its specific operational needs, and this is expected to be clarified in the RFP. It is clear the final configuration will adapt the base design of the FCs’ respective submarines, while undertaking modifications and enhancements as per the Navy’s requirements. It is evident that these requirements are not readily available in any of the reference submarines, but can be suitably incorporated, post award of contract. Also, the quantum of indigenisation will necessitate design modifications suiting yard practices followed by the Indian SP.

What makes the SP model the first of its kind in India in P-75(I)?

The SP model is an innovation over past platform building programmes that were through nomination to state-owned shipyards. Policy innovation recommended that private sector companies be entrusted with complex platform programmes in addition to the capacities built in the Defence PSUs, to comply with the ‘Make in India’ initiative for enhancing indigenisation. This policy was finalised and issued in 2017 and incorporated as Chapter VII of DPP 2016. P-5(I) is unique because:

It will be the last programme where ToT (Transfer of Technology) will be acquired from an FC for building all the submarines in India, fully meeting the Navy’s requirements by both the FC and SP jointly customising the design. India is consequently ex-pected to become self-reliant in submarine building.

An entire indigenous ecosystem for submarines comprising equipment manufacturers, R&D facilities, etc. is envisaged to be created under this SP model through enhanced indigenous content.

Considering the delays that have derailed our 30-year submarine programme, will P-75(I) extend beyond six submarines?

Even the late Manohar Parrikar, former Defence Minister, had regretted that the inordinate delays had completely upset the strength of our submarine fleet. He is on record, in 2016, in stating that India must look beyond the 2030 plan and look to a 2050 programme. However, it is speculative at this stage to predict whether P-75(I) will extend beyond the currently indicated numbers.

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