Page 1 of 2 Leaks in India's submarine strategy
By Peter J Brown
India's emphasis on undersea warfare is growing, but too slowly for many
experts. Today, the Indian navy's submarine fleet - India's "silent service" -
is beset with numerous problems and delays.
In China, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shows no sign of backing off
its plans to gradually increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. This influx
of Chinese naval vessels does not pose an immediate threat to India's national
security, but the situation could change.
Russia, however, may wield considerable influence over the flow of events.
While Russia continues to serve as a vital cog in the vast
machinery that is driving the PLAN's construction and development of a modern
submarine fleet, American submarine historian and expert Norman Polmar sees
ample evidence that Russia is selling India better undersea systems than those
it is selling China.
"China, unlike India, is a natural enemy of Russia, and despite China's
distrust of Russia, the Chinese deal with the Russians because the Russians
possess submarine and antisubmarine technologies that the Chinese want," said
Polmar. "This is solely an economic relationship involving China as a customer
whereas the Russian's longstanding military assistance relationship with India
is based on a need to sustain both its economic and geopolitical bonds that
Russia deems very important to its overall security."
At the same time, the US decision to sell India sophisticated anti-submarine
warfare (ASW) aircraft known as P-8 India (P-8I) is significant as well in
terms of countering any Chinese sub activities in the Indian Ocean. Although US
Defense Secretary Robert Gates might have a submarine surprise up his sleeve
for Indian Defense Minister A K Antony who is currently in Washington for
talks, this seems unlikely given the current restrictions on high-tech exports
"Keep in mind that in the P-8I aircraft, India is getting an ASW platform from
the US, not comprehensive and advanced ASW systems such as sonar, or magnetic
anomaly detectors," said Polmar.
China is well aware that India has another option at its disposal. Polmar
agrees that India could quickly adopt and update the naval aviation strategy
that the Soviet Union devised in the 1950s. By adding several 21st-century
refinements and technological advancements - the P-8I takes India in that
direction - India's degree of control over the Indian Ocean could be reinforced
considerably, far surpassing what the Soviets achieved in the Western Pacific
The naval aviation model looms large because India has only 16 submarines
today, including 10 Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines; four
German Shishukumar-class subs; and two Russian Foxtrot subs which are used
primarily for training purposes.
In June, India signed a US$80 million contract with Russia's Zvezdochka
shipyard for the fifth in a series of overhauls and upgrades of its Kilo subs.
This overhaul commenced in August. 
Then in July, the Indian government allocated US$11 billion (over 500 billion
rupees) for the development of six next-generation diesel submarines under
Project-75 India (P-75I). With their air independent propulsion systems, these
new subs will offer major operational advantages, and much to Pakistan's
chagrin in particular, they are envisioned as stealthy, land attack subs.
"India's submarine force has declined because a good number of older subs will
be retiring very soon - the Kilos start retiring in 2013, for example - and an
insufficient number of newer subs have been acquired to replace them," said Dr
Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security studies at the Observer
Research Foundation in New Delhi.
"India's submarine fleet remains a coastal fleet because of a lack of
nuclear-powered subs, and its reach is limited because the missiles on these
subs have limited range. Finally, the focus of the Indian navy's attention also
appears to be on large surface ships rather than submarines, which is hindering
development of the sub fleet."
In mid-2009, India launched a nuclear sub, the INS Arihant. It is
currently designated as an Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), and it is
undergoing sea trials. If all goes well, Arihant might be transferred to
the Indian navy by the end of 2011. Plans call for two more ATVs with a goal of
building five or six new nuclear subs. It is still unclear whether these ATVs
are nuclear strategic missile subs (SSBNs) or simply nuclear - powered attack
subs (SSNs). (See India's
nuclear submarine plan surfaces, Asia Times Online, Feb 20, 2009).
"Some estimates suggest that if India is to maintain an effective nuclear triad
[from air, land and sea], India would need at least a fleet of 24 subs, though
this is likely out of India's reach,' said Rajagopalan. "Meanwhile, a Russian
nuclear-powered Akula II SSN - the K-152 Nerpa - has departed Russia for India
under a 10-year lease." 
Absent any replacements or additions to its existing fleet, the most upbeat
assessment is that India's sub fleet could be reduced to around nine by 2014 or
2015. In fact, the Indian navy has already notified the government that there
is strong possibility that only nine subs might be in service by 2012, and just
five in the coming years. No matter which projection proves to be accurate, the
result is still a single digit total.
India is in the process of getting six Scorpene subs from the French - with an
option of six additional subs - to be built at the Mazagon facility in Mumbai
under the supervision of French technicians, but this procurement is
experiencing a slowdown. Mazagon Docks in Mumbai will construct three of the
six, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd in Visakhapatnam will construct one, and the other
two may be procured from foreign sources or built by another private shipyard
"The delivery of the first of the French Scorpenes, which was supposed to enter
service in December 2012, has been delayed. Antony addressed this situation in
parliament only a few weeks back. This will clearly impact upon India's
undersea force levels," said Rajagopalan. "India has about 35 private
shipyards, of which L&T [Larsen & Toubro Ltd] and Pipavav are believed
to be competing to build the two submarines, of the six planned."
Some doubt that these two will be built in India after all.
India must focus on meeting its planned timetable for new submarine deployments
to avoid critical challenges in the next decade. Among those who argue for
submarines, there have been disagreements over whether to pursue
nuclear-powered or conventional submarines. In fact, under the original P-75I
program, there was a 30-year Submarine Construction Plan approved in 1999.
"Internal disagreements within the navy, however, have substantially undermined
that plan. The fact that last two naval chiefs were naval aviators who did not
appear to have great interest in allocating limited available funding for sub
programs did not help matters," said Rajagopalan.
According to some reports, once Antony became defense minister in 2006, all the
decisions relating to the nuclear triad were put on hold. Antony reportedly was
of the opinion that decisions involving India's strategic nuclear program
should be taken by the Prime Minister's Office. In the process, there was
little or no real progress concerning any additional SSNs and SSBNs.
"Dr VK Saraswat, director general of India's Defense Research and Development
Organization [DRDO] is of the view that SSNs can be developed easily once DRDO
gets the go-ahead. He had noted that the essential difference is the weaponry
and accordingly the size, but the technology for design and integration remains
the same," said Rajagopalan. "Meanwhile, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission is
continuing with its work on nuclear steam reactors for the ATVs which are
powered by light-water reactors using enriched uranium as fuel."