Submarines - The Stealth Warriors

China’s projections of their future submarine fleet should be a concern for India. It gives China the ability to enlarge their maritime domain in the IOR and also provides them with the ability to maintain surveillance over India’s sea lanes of communication which can be interdicted during hostilities.

Issue: 5 / 2020 By Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)Photo(s): By Indian Navy
Submarines are an extremely essential arm of naval combat power and forms a very important component of a Task Force at sea

This write up will go to press at a time when the participation of Australian Navy in the MALABAR series exercise 2020 has been announced. Indo-US 2+2 dialogue is over to the satisfaction of both countries. The exercise is scheduled for November this year. One can expect Chinese reaction rubbishing the multilateral cooperation for maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s aggressive undiplomatic iteration would reflect its sense of insecurity and concerns. After all, coming together of the might of four democracies also reflects their people’s will. This conversation may just cast shadow on individual strength areas in the arsenal of each of these countries vis-à-vis China.

The common belief that weapon platforms of similar type in possession of two adversarial countries need to be compared with each other for assessing relative combat potential would be erroneous. If an adversary has X number of fighter aircraft then our own country must have enough assets to shoot them down, not necessarily only by interceptor aircraft but every possible anti aircraft weapon systems, e.g., Surface to Air missiles, Anti aircraft guns, shoulder launched weapons, Electro Magnetic Pulse weapons, interceptor aircraft etc. That would provide fair comparison of kill potential.

Role of Submarines

When it comes to submarines, these are extremely essential arm of naval combat power and forms very important component of a Task Force at sea. Country’s defensive mindset in the past lead India to grade submarines only as sea denial platforms which was required to protect our ports and Task Forces to deny access to adversaries before it could become bigger threat.

China’s own projections of future submarine fleet is a concern for India. It gives them the ability to enlarge their maritime domain awareness in the IOR and provides them with the ability to maintain surveillance over India’s Sea Lanes of Communication which can be interdicted during hostilities.

However, arrival of nuclear powered submarines (SSN) and Nuclear powered/nuclear armed submarines (SSBN) have dramatically altered the concept of submarine operations. Hunter killer submarines search and detect another submarine with the aim of destroying it. These could be diesel or nuclear propelled but carry conventional weapons. With the advent of submarine launched land attack missiles, the submarines are effective offensive weapon platform with inherent stealth characteristic due to its medium of operation. Ones higher in the category are the nuclear powered and nuclear missile launch capable submarines called SSBN. The nuclear propulsion affords greater underwater endurance and quick transit due to higher underwater speeds. They don’t to snort or surface for charging their batteries (by running its diesel generators) as is the case with diesel submarines. It makes the submarine vulnerable to detection and prosecution. Each class of submarine has different roles. An SSBN will probably be deployed as a second strike weapon platform to respond to nuclear attack on our own country or any other asset at sea.

Expansionist China Plan

What does the dragon have and how does it compare with India? These comparisons are needed for assessment of comprehensive military power.

China has very large fleet of submarines since it has global ambitions of becoming the most powerful country in the world. Economic and military powers are two pillars of a country’s comprehensive power, therefore numbers do matter. In 2015 PLAN commissioned three Shang Class nuclear powered attack submarines (Type 093B SSNs). They are fitted with vertically launched YJ-18 anti-ship ballistic missiles which have reported range of approximately 400 kms. There are reports that China has also begun construction of Type 096 SSBNs equipped with follow on (possibly upgraded) JL-3 SLBMs. Since the NATO nomenclature of these submarines and missiles are different from what the Chinese names are, one look at the full inventory is desirable:

  • Jin Class (Type 094). Fitted with 12x JL-2 SLBMs
  • Shang Class (Type 093). Fitted with Torpedoes and cruise missiles.
  • Yuan Class (Type 039 A or Type 041). Fitted with Torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.
  • Kilo Class (2x Project 636, 2x Project 877, 8x Project 636M). Torpedoes
  • Song Class (Type 039). Torpedoes and anti ship missiles.
  • Ming Class (Type 035). Torpedoes and anti ship cruise missiles of different varieties.

Thailand has purchased three Yuan class (Export version) diesel submarines. Pakistan is purchasing eight Yuan Class (Type 039) diesel submarines fitted with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), of which four each will be built in China and Pakistan. In 2016 China delivered 2x Ming class submarines to Bangladesh. While sovereign nations must make their own decisions based on their threat perception, it is the foothold that China would get in the Bay of Bengal on the pretext of training, maintenance and fleet upgrades. That could lead to near permanent presence of Chinese nationals (some PLA intelligence operatives) who could be on long term positioning. These are fertile grounds for surveillance.

China’s own projections of future submarine fleet is a concern for India to take note of. While these numbers by themselves don’t necessarily project China’s agenda of threatening India, it certainly gives them the ability to enlarge their maritime domain awareness in the IOR and provide it to countries which are existentially anti India. Also, it provides China with the ability to maintain surveillance over India’s sea lanes of communication which can be interdicted during hostilities.

By 2035 PLAN is expected to have 9/10 SSBNs, 16 SSNs & 50 SSKs. In comparison, Indian Navy will be way behind, however, the Anti Submarine Warfare assets are likely to increase proportionately and deployed in a manner that Chinese submarines would find it difficult to perform their designated tasks. While there are bases other than Djibouti where PLAN could base its fleets in due course of time, it still is quite some years away.

Indian Navy Submarine Arm

India’s fleet size of nuclear propelled submarines is limited to two whereas PLAN is said to have ten of which four are SSBNs. Number of diesel submarines is reported to be 60+. Also, Chinese are committed to build eight diesel submarines at Karachi shipyard for Pakistan Navy. In our context the firepower of both these countries should be treated as one adversary.

Project 75(I) is to be built under strategic partnership programme. Future Indian submarines would have advanced systems, less noisy and certainly with Air Independent Propulsion system. This needs expeditious commencement.

India’s submarine fleet is under expansion. Arihant is being followed by series of SSBNs which will probably be of larger displacement as also carry significantly larger numbers of nuclear warhead deliverable at much longer ranges. These are essential for a decisive second strike capability given our declared policy of NO First Use.

Also, on the build are Scorpene diesel submarines of which 6th one should be launched shortly. Project 75(I) is to be built under strategic partnership programme. Future submarines would have advanced systems, less noisy and certainly with Air Independent Propulsion system. AIP increases the underwater endurance to large extent thus reduces its vulnerability to detection. This needs expeditious commencement. Non-PSU shipyard, Larsen and Toubro, needs to be roped in at this stage to create county’s second submarine production line, one each with PSU and non PSU shipyards. As is well known, L&T has gained experience by being partners with the Navy during Arihant’s production. Thereafter, decision for series production can become easier driven by own and export requirements. The Kilo class and Shishumar class submarines would fall due for replacement by the time Project 75(I) nears completion. Mid life upgrade of Kilo class could have been avoided to save the exchequer big budget and little additional capability. This decision could also have expedited commencement of Project 75(I) and opening up of second production line. In the past, governments have often succumbed to influence of interested weapon manufacturers/lobbies within government structures, in their decision making which prevented any creation of indigenous manufacturing. By now India would have had respectable numbers to sustain 24x7 Mission Based Deployment of the Indian Navy.

There have been discourses in the media and think tanks on the issue of SSN vs SSKs. Diesel submarines of lower displacement are often more useful in shallow waters. This provides them ability to sit at the bottom of the sea outside adversary’s harbours. This is an attribute which makes the submarine more potent for surveillance and opportune offensive action. SSNs on the other hand, have advantage of higher speeds hence quicker transit to area of potential engagement. Higher speeds also increase acoustics and therefore vulnerability of detection. The operational planners have to weigh these pros and cons in each combat scenario. The weapons package on these platforms are various types of torpedoes or combination of torpedoes and sub launched land attack /anti surface vessel missiles.


Significance of underwater assets is here to stay till such time new technologies evolve which make detection and surveillance of submarines easier. The competition between current superpower and emerging superpower will continue till either multipolarity or bipolarity emerges in the international rule based order. World hasn’t witnessed a situation in which the reigns of economic and military power are in the hands of two different nations with entirely different systems of governance. Therefore, the instability could be prolonged. This environment provides fertile canvas for committing strategic errors which could lead to military confrontation beyond diplomatic resolution. India would have to build capabilities and capacities for the uncertain times. It will be a fine balance between enhancing prosperity and military power. Approaches will demand astute political leadership, well informed committed bureaucracy and very professional Armed Forces capable of absorbing new technologies. It will need an ‘AatmaNirbhar’ India and confident citizens whose foreign and security policies should be anchored around Indian centricity.