India’s Scorpène-class submarines

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Sultan M Hali

THE sea trial of Indian Navy (IN)’s second Scorpène class submarine Khanderi began last week. India chose the Scorpène design in 2005; purchasing six submarines for US$3 billion (US$500 million per boat). Under a technology transfer agreement, the state-owned Mazagon Docks in Mumbai was scheduled to manufacture the submarines, and deliver them between 2012 and 2016, however the project faced a four-year delay with IN likely to receive its first Scorpène class submarine Kalvari in July/August 2017. Construction started on May 23, 2009. Khanderi is the second of the six Scorpène class submarines being built in India at Mazagon Dock Limited with the collaboration of French shipbuilder DCNS. The project was delayed due to difficulties in absorbing technology from DCNS.
The Indian government had expressed unhappiness over not up to the mark indigenization in the Scorpène project. The fact is that the Scorpène submarine deals were hit by allegations of kickbacks paid to Indian middlemen, including politicians, bureaucrats and even Navy officials. The Scorpène-class submarines are a class of diesel-electric attack submarines jointly developed by the French Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN) and the Spanish company Navantia, and now by DCNS. It features diesel propulsion and additional air-independent propulsion (AIP). India plans to incorporate phosphoric acid fuel cell-powered AIP modules designed by the Naval Materials Research Laboratory of the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) onto the last two submarines being built. For the follow-on requirement of six submarines, DCNS plans to offer a larger version of the submarine to the Indian Navy.
Some of the characteristics of the Scorpène are as follows: Displacement 1,870 tonnes; Length 61.7 meters; Beam 6.2 meters, Draught 5.8 meters, Propulsion Diesel-Electric, Batteries and AIP. While submerged, it can attain a maximum speed of 37 km per hour while on surface, it can reach a speed of 22 km per hour. It has a maximum range of 12,000 km at 15 km per hour surfaced and 1,020 km at 9.3 km per hour while submerged. Its endurance varies, 40 days (compact), 50 days (normal), 50+21 days (AIP). It requires a crew complement of 31.
The Armament on board can be a combination of 6 x 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes for 18 heavyweight torpedoes / Varnastra torpedo or SM.39 Exocet antiship missiles or 30 mines in place of torpedoes. Indian ambitions of developing a naval force date back to the days of Chandragupta Maurya, whose mentor, the wily Chanakya alias Kautilya, in his treatise of war and statecraft, Arthashastra devotes a full chapter on the state department of waterways under navadhyaksha (Sanskrit for Superintendent of ships). The term, nava dvipantaragamanam (Sanskrit for sailing to other lands by ships, i.e. Exploration) appears in this book in addition to appearing in the Sanskrit text, Baudhayana Dharmasastra as the interpretation of the term, Samudrasamyanam.
According to its defence planners, IN needs at least 24 submarines to maintain a minimum force level but it has only about 15 subs. Of the 15, half of them are used in a restricted manner or not at optimum level and are kept as war reserves. Indian experience with submarines has been fraught with accidents. In August 2013, The INS Sindhurakshak sank in Mumbai’s naval dockyard after a series of explosions in the forward torpedo bay, killing 18. The Sindhughosh, berthed nearby, suffered some minor damage due to the explosions but more bad luck was in store for the ill fated sub. In January 2014, INS Sindhughosh, the first of the series after which the class is named, had run aground due to low tide while entering Mumbai’s Naval dockyard. In February 2014, a fire broke out aboard INS Sindhuratna, a 25-year-old Russian-made Kilo Class submarine, 50 km off the Mumbai coast. Two officers were killed and seven hospitalized. IN Chief Admiral Joshi had resigned hours after the accident, accepting moral responsibility for the debacles. IN expects the Scorpène class submarines, which operate very silently and are capable of multifarious roles, to add teeth to the might of the Indian Navy by strengthening its crucial Submarine Arm. Due to delayed projects and indecisiveness in procurement, IN is unlikely to achieve its target of 198 ships and submarines by 2027. The present force level in the Navy is 121 ships, 15 submarines and 232 aircraft.
In August 2016, over 20,000 confidential pages of the submarine’s manual were leaked by Australian media, stirring up a controversy about the impact of India’s ambitions of fielding a blue-water navy. Indian Naval Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba considered the breach as serious but downplayed the consequences.
The fact is that India harbours ambitions for developing a blue-water Navy so that it acquires the ability to carry out operations much farther than its territorial boundaries, across the deep oceans and flex its muscles. India is being egged on by the United States, which is keen to balance China by diverting an increasing share of its naval fleet to the Pacific Ocean under its so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. In light of its own shrinking defense budget, the United States realizes the difficulty in materializing its intentions of extending its own naval presence in the region. To overcome this constraint, a quadrilateral naval alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the United States is part of the US impetus to push ahead for India to take a larger role in the West Pacific Ocean. India thus is on its way to enhancing its naval power..
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
Email: sm_hali@yahoo.com