Countering hurdles

Cover Story

Submarine construction program of Indian Navy

Caught in the shoal of stagnation-cum-depletion over decades the Indian Navy fleet of submarines it appeared had entered a phase of self-sustaining, steady growth. Two production lines of nuclear and conventional diesel-electric submarines are functional but if gaps in the kind of weapons they will carry persist, the full potential will not be achieved.

Even as the Arihant nuclear powered submarine has become “operational” the second and third of this class of vessel are in various stages of fabrication along with improvements based on operating procedures learned while  handling the INS Chakra submarine leased from Russia and Arihant itself. Thus, there is incremental growth in every new vessel be it in size or range of its weapons. Nonetheless there appears to be a misfit regarding the heavy torpedo for use in the submarine and the indigenously developed Varunasthra torpedo that is fitted in the surface vessels. The scrapping of the Black shark torpedo deal for submarines because the supplying firm was involved in kickbacks in the VVIP helicopter deal has left a vacuum in the strategic nuclear fleet.

Once again, it appears, that the government of the day has miscalculated the effect of its actions. An earlier occasion when this happened was when the BJP-led NDA government decided to conduct the second series of nuclear weapons tests at Pokhran in Rajasthan in 1998, it did not first ensure that likely punitive embargoes would not affect the equipment to be installed in the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft that had been sent for calibration to the US. The government could have waited for the calibration to be completed and the equipment recovered before the nuclear tests were conducted. It would have prevented the consequent delay in the LCA project by more than one year and India could still have delivered the message that the nuclear tests were intended to convey to Pakistan, China and the rest of the world.

Indigenous production

In the case of the Arihant and its weapons package, the fact that it has become “operational” could mean that it is being deployed strictly within the context of the “strategic” nuclear strike role that has been assigned to it. It will not be able to play out the hunter-killer role that  would ensure sanitization of the area of its operations against enemy submarines and surface vessels. That is a rather dichotomous situation for a submarine to be in especially when both Pakistan and China are preparing to undercut Indian sovereignty with the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The 750 kilometer range of its nuclear missiles (K-15) allows it to be deployed only against Pakistan within the Indian Ocean littoral.

Also noticed is that even while calling for 100 per cent  Foreign Direct Investments with transfer of technology the application of French firm DCNS has been held in abeyance over the issue of the parameters of the air-independent propulsion (AIP) system to be installed in future conventional submarines to improve their duration of submerged  travel time before surfacing to recharge batteries.

If this has been done to protect an ongoing Indian project in developing an indigenous AIP technology, well and good. If not, this speaks poorly of the vaunted ‘ease of doing business” in India. The DCNS has been involved in the drawing board stage of the Indian aircraft carrier that is being fitted out in Cochin. The French Scorpenes occupy the production line that was created for the manufacture under licence of the ill-fated HDW German submarine which suffered the same treatment as that of the Bofors 155 mm howitzer.

Half the proposed six Scorpenes are to be fitted with the AIP technology (one fails to understand why all were not fitted with an admittedly desireable capability). The torpedo debacle appears likely to also affect the Scorpene project. The first of the indigenously built Scorpenes, the Kalvari, is undergoing sea trials in the Arabian Sea. This is being done without torpedoes which should be the weapon of choice for a submarine, especially one that has been designed specifically for the attack role against enemy submarines and surface vessels.

With the impending growth of the submarine fleet from the current 13 to 22 by 2020, the aspect of rescue of submarines in distress from up to 300 meters of depth of ocean has come to the fore. The Indian Navy has the submarine rescue vessel Neerakshak but it needs to be modernized and supplemented. A demand for a 3000 tonne  Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV) has been projected.

Ensuring safety

In the context of safety of submarine and crew there is need for inbuilt features that could prevent a stricken submarines from going into freefall. There is equipment that helps the submarine to retain a normal headup posture even while sinking after an explosion on board. This aide prevents the submarine from landing on its turret and preventing any possibility of using the escape hatch.

The HDW submarines (four) manufactured under licence at the Mazagon Dockyard Ltd, Mumbai, was equipped with a special escape module into which all the crew could be accommodated and the module blasted out of the rest of the hull to rise slowly (to prevent the formation of nitrogen in the blood by rapid decompression) to the surface.

By showing good sense the government of India resurrected the drawings of the Bofors howitzer and reconstructed a whole system based on these drawings. These drawings have been paid for by the government of India and should have been utilized as soon as the political crunch came. The scare of the consequences prevented this from happening and it is a matter of great irony that the political entity that milked the Bofors issue for political gain by denigrating the weapon was rescued by this same weapon during the Kargil war.

The Government of India must show the same sagacity by resurrecting the drawings of the HDW submarines and using the escape module technology for the new generation of vessels now on the drawing board. A Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel is an instrument that will need to be ferried to the site of disaster (it is not always that the site of a sinking can be identified immediately). This loss of time can be crucial for the survival of the crew. That is why an organic escape module is such an attractive proposition. The escape can be effected as soon as the extent of damage to the submarine is ascertained and the Captain orders “abandon ship”.  All precautions can be taken to mark the position of the boat so that search and recovery time is reduced to the minimum.

That is why STRATEGIC AFFAIRS has advocated that the Indo-US agreement for the deployment of the US rescue vessel to help the Indian Navy should be modified to station the vessel at its naval base at Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Under current situation it would take the vessel to arrive in the Indian Ocean littoral nearly 72 hours after the request for assistance is made.  That is too long a time for an ocean expanse that has deep troughs into which submarines can disappear without trace.