Its presently crunch time for the Indian Navy (IN) as Vaghsheer, its sixth and final Project 75 (P75) licence-built ‘hunter-killer’ French Kalvari (Scorpene)-class diesel-electric conventional submarine (SSK) began sea trials last week, ahead of its commissioning in early 2024.
Accordingly, the IN now faces the prospect of somehow resolving its botched-up and continually delayed 16-year-old Project 75I (P-75I) programme to indigenously build six SSKs with air independent propulsion (AIP) and land-attack capability, or simply opt to licence-build three additional Scorpene boats at Mazagaon Dockyard Limited (MDL), as a follow-on to the original $3 billion 2005 contract for the previous six French boats.
“The IN is caught in a cleft stick entirely of its own making, following its muddled approach to the P-75I programme to boost its flagging underwater assets” said a senior retired naval officer, requesting anonymity. Accordingly, it now faced a Hobson’s choice of either settling the seemingly unresolvable P-75I conundrum somehow, or pursuing the path of least resistance and extending the Scorpene line to sustain MDL’s submarine building skills, established at great cost in the early 2000’s for the P-75I venture, he added.
Senior security officials, however, stated that during his Paris visit as the chief guest at the Bastille Day parade on July 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could conceivably ‘rescue’ the navy from its predicament by indicating directly, or obliquely, his government’s decision to licence build three more 1,615-tonne Scorpene’s at MDL.
Such an eventuality, should it ensue, would be reminiscent of the PM’s surprise announcement in Paris in 2015 of India’s decision to scrap the under-negotiation deal to procure 126 Dassault Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and, instead acquire 36 of these same fighters in fly-away condition. If so, these officials indicated, Modi would only be exercising the contractual option for an additional three French boats, on terms broadly analogous to those agreed in the tender inked 18 years ago in New Delhi for the already constructed six Scorpene’s.
And though Scorpene manufacturer Naval Group did not have an operational AIP system for now, it is believed to have agreed, in principal, its willingness to collaborate with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that claims to have designed one such system in conjunction with Larsen & Toubro (L&T), Thermax of Pune and the Naval Materials Research Laboratory in Ambernath.
These DRDO-designed AiP’s, based on phosphoric acid fuel cells, had successfully undergone initial testing two years ago and were intended eventually for fitment onto the navy’s Kalvari-class SSK’s. However, agreeing to a possible DRDO-Naval System collaborative venture for the AIPs, industry officials said, would also fulfil the Modi governments mandatory atamnirbharta requirement for self-reliance, to meet India’s materiel needs by reducing import dependency.
Official sources also anticipated that such an announcement by PM Modi in Paris regarding the acquisition of three more Scorpene’s was unlikely to trigger allegations of wrongdoing by Opposition parties, as it was merely the continuation of a contract inked by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance administration.
Besides, other than pleasing the French, it would also help ‘resolve’ the ‘black hole’ in which the IN found itself in over its misconceived and mismanaged P-75I programme. Furthermore, it would also obviate a re-run of the ‘lost decade’ between 1995 and 2005 when MDL’s submarine construction facilities remained idle following a corruption scandal involving the import of four German HDW Type 209/1500 SSK’s for the IN, that ultimately remained unresolved.
MDL had licence-built two of these boats, but the alleged wrongdoing in the deal led to all submarine building activity in the Mumbai shipyard being halted for 10 years. In turn, this had resulted in MDLs specialised workforce, especially skilled underwater welders, leaving in droves to seek alternative employment abroad and all submarine construction facilities were depreciated.
Subsequently, around 2005-6, new dockyard facilities were resurrected for the P-75 programme at great expense and skilled engineers, mechanics and welders hired afresh to man them. Senior navalists acknowledged that with Vaghsheer now completed MDL, once more, faced the grim prospect of remaining idle and its experienced manpower laid off.
Senior MoD officials who visited MDL last year told The Wire that large areas of the dockyards submarine building facilities were already deserted and groups of idle workers drifted aimlessly around. “The navy is anxious to avoid such an outcome, and this could easily be realised with a follow-on order for more Scorpene’s” said a retired IN officer. The navy can ill afford to repeat such a folly, he cautioned.
Former retired Vice Admiral A K Chawla concurred.
Writing for SP publications last year he declared that the “fastest way to replace ageing conventional submarines would be to go in for at least three additional Scorpenes, with advancements in technology and design, and a higher level of indigenisation, in preparation (later) for an indigenously designed submarine”. Such a move, he declared, would have the advantage of faster replenishment of force levels and platform commonality, with all its attendant benefits. Additionally, it would also ensure gainful employment of MDL’s infrastructure and expertise, which otherwise would be wasted, the former head of the IN’s Southern Command at Kochi warned.
Meanwhile, the IN’s efforts to acquire SSK’s via the P-75I programe to enable it to deploy 24 boats by 2030 in keeping with the navy’s 2012-27 Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP), were somewhat akin to a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The IN presently operates 16 SSK’s, of which seven Russian Type 877 EKM ‘Kilo-class variants and four German-origin HDW Type 209/1500 boats were between 20 and 34 years old, with several of them due either for retirement, or in limited instances, an upgrade. The remaining five SSK’s- six if Vaghsheer was included- were the MDL-built Scorpene’s.
Hence, senior officers admitted that the navy faced serious problems in fielding a ‘credible’ SSK fleet for power projection. They conceded that the submarine shortfall also challenged the IN in realising its wider strategic goal of sea control and sea denial in the critical Indian Ocean Region to match the rival Chinese navy’s rapid underwater platform force accretion.
However, the parallel P-75I programme, that has been in play since 2007, has proven a non-starter so far, and industry sources admitted that the navy desperately awaited ‘succour’ to somehow resolve it, by substituting it with Scorpene’s in the medium term but were unwilling to publicly state as much. Scrapping P-75I, naval sources said, was not an option as such a move would reflect adversely on a succession of senior IN officers over the past two decades involved in its planning, but certainly not its execution.
P-75I was eventually sanctioned by the Defence Acquisition Council in 2011, four years after it was initiated, but its authorisation lapsed following inactivity, leading to its re-approval in 2014.
The programme envisaged foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of submarines forging a strategic partnership (SP) in accordance with the Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP-2020) with either MDL or L&T to construct, via a technology transfer, six SSKs with proven AIP systems and land-attack capability. AIP systems allow conventional submarines to operate for 6-10 days without needing to surface to re-charge their batteries or access atmospheric oxygen.
The initial vendor response to the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) P-75I July 2021 request for proposal (RfP) or tender was initially scheduled for November of the same year, giving OEMs just 12 weeks to finalise their bids in conjunction with two local shipyards. Thereafter, it has been repeatedly pushed back from June to December 2022 and further deferred to late 2023, primarily due to multiple obstacles in the RfP.
Many of these Naval Staff Qualitative Requirements (NSQRs) in the RfP included design ‘overreach’, unrealistic delivery schedules, impracticable liability clauses and other rigid technology transfer requirements to one of two eventually shortlisted domestic shipbuilders:MDL or L&T. These impediments had also resulted in several of the world’s leading submarine OEMs from France, Japan, Russia and Sweden declining to participate in P-75I.
Industry officials said only Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine systems, Daewoo of South Korea and possibly Spain’s state-owned Navantia were presently in the P75I fray; but even their participation remained ‘tenuous’ for reasons broadly consonant with the other OEMs who had opted out of the IN tender.
Another spoiler in the prospective submarine deal was the clause that would render the selected OEM responsible for the finished product, without providing him any executive authority or control over both MDL and L&T. The IN Chief of Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar admitted in his annual presser last December that P-75I faced several challenges, and that the two competing Indian shipyards and OEMs had apprehensions over the programme. “We are hopeful now that P-75I will go forward in a few months” he stated but did not elaborate. Five months later, P-75I remains moribund.
Perhaps, as suggested earlier Modi could, on his Paris trip, pull the IN’s chestnuts out of the fire by pursuing a flanking underwater manoeuvre.