Project-75 (India) - One Last Chance?

This could be India’s last chance to acquire the capability to design and build submarines because countries like China and South Korea, that started along with us in a common quest to design and build modern submarines, have left us far behind

Issue: 3-2021 By Commodore G. Prakash (Retd)Photo(s): By Indian Navy / Twitter
Submarine Khanderi during various phases of sea trials

It may not be wrong to say that the Project-75(I) recently approved by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for building six conventional submarines at a cost of 43,000 crore could be India’s last chance to acquire the capability to design and build submarines. That this has been the first major project to be cleared under the Strategic Partnership model etc is only of academic interest to the Navy, for whom, increasing the dangerously low number of submarines alone is what matters. I feel this is the last chance because countries like China and South Korea, that started along with us in a common quest to design and build modern submarines, have left us far behind and one of them, South Korea, is even one of the prospective OEMs for the 75-I project. If we don’t get it right this time, we will be left too far behind to catch up. The view espoused by some, that since we have designed and built SSBNs we can build anything we want, may be bogus.

Unlike the good capability we have developed over the years in designing and building surface ships, we haven’t done well at all in designing and building aircraft and submarines. The reasons are many. It is not that the Navy had no plans. The Navy’s plans, duly approved by the Government of the day, bombed for extraneous reasons typical of functional democracies, one aspect of which is the tendency to invent more and more ‘checks and balances’ with every ‘incident’, to prevent ‘oversights’ in the future that could boomerang politically later. Needless to say, every such invention translates to bureaucratic procedures, leading to delays in projects.

If the HDW submarine plan in the 1980s had gone well, we would have been in a much better position now. But that didn’t happen. Now, we have one more chance, maybe our last.

This indigenous Submarine building project of great strategic significance, was urgently required to be given green signal in the backdrop of emerging challenges from China in the Indian Ocean

As for the probable time line for P-75(I), the difficulties of embarking on the brand new process of entering into strategic partnership individually by the Indian entities selected by the Government, viz, Mazagaon Docks Limited (MDL), and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), with whoever they select from among the five foreign OEMs chosen, viz., Russia’s Rosoboronexport, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp, France’s Naval Group, Spain’s Navantia and South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and making a combined bid, the final contract is unlikely to be concluded before 2024. With about six years expected for construction, the first of the class is likely to be delivered by 2030 and the last probably by 2040. By then, our submarine levels would have gone down even further. In order to increase the rate at which the 75-I submarines would be delivered, as of July 7, 2021, an innovative possibility is being considered by the Government, wherein, both MDL and L&T would simultaneously build the chosen model.

Several experts have pointed out lessons from our failure to pursue the 30 year submarine building plan (2000–2030), rightly titled ‘National Competence in Submarine Building’. There are lessons for the Government in decision making, policy making and legislation, for the Navy’s Submarine Design Group about the minimum requirement of staffing levels, scope of the skills to be absorbed and the ways to achieve that, for the building yards for absorbing technology and developing skilled manpower and for the industry to develop the capacities required to support indigenous manufacture in the future. There are also the usual pitfalls of failing to make contracts wholesome, cutting corners, trying to adjust within allotted funds and approved scope so as to avoid delays, inability to finalise weapon and sensor outfits in time and inability to retain people with special skills, especially because long term projects do not progress the way there were envisaged.

Admiral K.N. Sushil, an experienced Submariner, points out in an article in the media that ‘a submarine is a complex integration of diverse high technology material, structural, engineering, electrical and electronic systems, most of which are specifically function- and form-fitted for a class of submarine’. Therefore, it is obvious, that there should be an industrial capability and materials availability to support the design requirements, or the R&D capability to enable the industry to produce the specific materials. This exists in most nations as an institutionalised service-academia-industry cooperation. Submarine-building nations adopt a design philosophy, and choose and standardise pressure hull materials to suit that design to cost-effectively produce and supply such materials. Further, he writes that ‘the next step is to determine the system configuration and equipment fit to provide the submarine with operational and safety characteristics, another painstakingly complex phase’, for which, he points out that ‘there is enough material available to provide our designers with answers to design problems and ergonomics’. He sums up this part of the submarine building process by saying that persisting with the adopted build philosophy and allowing industry to consolidate and establish baseline technology is the vital first step to establish ‘national competence in submarine-building’, the stated aim of the 30 year submarine building plan. It is productive to listen to wise counsel.

With the Chinese Navy zooming ahead in its force levels and the Pakistan Navy increasingly getting armed by China and Turkey, India has an urgent need to ensure that her Navy grows quickly in all the three conventional dimensions. The Project-75(I) is too important a programme to be allowed to suffer our past faults.