Lifting Ban on Leonardo Group Opens Door for Black Shark

Scrapping of ongoing tender could set back procurement process by a decade but re-entry of Italian giant opens door for emergency purchase

Issue: 5-2021 By Vishal ThaparPhoto(s): By Leonardo
ORIGINAL CHOICE: The aborted Black Shark deal left a critical void in the Indian Navy Scorpene fleet’s weapons package

The lifting of the ban by India on the Italian defence and aerospace giant Leonardo earlier this month has thrown open the choice for a heavyweight torpedo for the Indian Navy at a time when the much-delayed torpedo tender is close to conclusion.

Informed observers reckon that in the very least, the lifting of the ban could open doors for the emergency purchase of the Black Shark torpedo for the Indian Navy’s Scorpene fleet independent of the ongoing tender for importing 100 heavyweight torpedos. The fourth of the six Scorpene submarines ordered for the Indian Navy is due to be commissioned later this month. These submarines are operating without the intended torpedo.

The Black Shark torpedo from the Leonardo group company Whitehead AleniaSistemi-Subacquei (WASS) was the original choice of the Indian Navy to arm its Scorpene (Kalvari class) fleet. The principal factor in the Indian Navy’s choice of the Black Shark in 2012-13 was its compatibility that the Subtics Fire Control System (FCS) of the Scorpene. The Malaysian and Chilean Scorpenes are also equipped with the Black Shark. The rival bid by Germany’s Atlas Elektronik with the Sea Hake Mod4 for the Indian order was then rejected for lack of “seamless integration with the FCS”, a prerequisite in the earlier tender.

But the subsequent ban on dealings with the Leonardo group (then Finmeccanica) following revelations of an alleged scam in the 3,600 Crore deal for the sale of 12 AW-101 VVIP helicopters to India by Agusta Westland, another Leonardo company, led to the scrapping of the process to buy the Black Shark.

The aborted Black Shark deal left a critical void in the weapons portfolio of the Indian Navy’s Scorpene submarine fleet, which is reportedly being filled on an ad hoc basis with Atlas Elektronik’s SUT-1, the torpedo arming the ageing HDW (Type 209) submarine fleet.

The procurement process was reinitiated with a fresh global tender, in which the French Naval Group and German Atlas Elektronik are the bidders with the F-21 and the SeaHake Mod4 respectively. The Field Evaluation Trials (FET) have been concluded and the selection process is in the staff evaluation. Both competitors have claimed success in the trials.

Observers reckon that it is “too late” for Black Shark to be co-opted into this competition at this stage. “Any contention for inclusion into the ongoing competition on the grounds that Black Shark has cleared Indian Navy trials in an earlier selection process will not pass muster because the Defence Acquisition (Procurement) Process does not allow this. The process makes it clear that results of Field Evaluation Trials (FET) in an earlier programme are not valid for a current programme,” informed sources told this reporter.

“For the Black Shark to be considered at this stage to meet the full requirement of 100 torpedoes, the ongoing tender will have to be scrapped and the matter perhaps taken up on a Government-to-Government level,” sources explained.

At the same time, it was pointed out that the Indian Navy is averse to cancelling the ongoing tender to accommodate the Black Shark. The Navy’s fear is that if the ongoing tender is cancelled, the DRDO is certain to put its foot into the door with a bid to develop a submarine-launched torpedo indigenously, a process which could delay the induction of this critical, contemporary weapon on not just the Scorpenes but even perhaps the Arihant class strategic submarines by as much as a decade. The DRDO seeks to leverage its experience with the Varunastra, a surface ship-launched torpedo, to develop a submarine-launched torpedo.

“However, there is room to invoke the Emergency Procurement process for a direct contract for the Black Shark if the requirement is categorized as urgent, enabling part-fulfilment of the numbers required,” it was further explained.

The ban on Leonardo was lifted shortly after a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Rome on October 29 on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit. The ban on Leonardo was lifted with the proviso that ongoing investigations into the Agusta Westland helicopter scam will continue, and that the group cannot invoke liability against the Government of India with respect to its previous dealings.

The re-entry of the Italian giant widens India’s options for several military procurements. WASS itself could address several Navy requirements, including Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and sonar systems. In the naval sphere, OTO Melara could resume its partnership with BHEL on naval guns.

Leonardo is one of the top 10 Defence contractors in the world, and is partly owned by the Italian Government. Following the scam, the Finmeccanica group was restructured and renamed Leonardo. Besides the heavyweight torpedo tender, Leonardo has been unable to participate in the multi-billion dollar Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) procurement process.

Naval Group, the Scorpene OEM, has developed the F-21 as a derivative and an alternative to the Black Shark, which arms Scorpene submarines sold to Chile and Malaysia. Incidentally, the F-21 has been developed in partnership with Atlas Elektronik, which is competing against the F-21 with the SeaHake Mod 4 in the Indian competition.

The Black Shark, F-21 and SeaHake are comparable on technology and performance. All operate on fibre optic guidance and claim a strike range of 50 km and a speed of 50 knots. Incidentally, Pakistan Navy’s Agosta 90B submarines are equipped with the SeaHake Mod4 torpedoes.