The Indian Navy’s expansion plans are way behind schedule. In stark contrast is the case of the Chinese. There are also major issues with armaments that the submarines need to carry in order to be optimised in employment. The author carries out a detailed assessment of the current status and chalks out a way forward for the Navy’s future submarine induction programme.
A FRAMEWORK FOR THE NEXT 50 YEARS OF THE INDIAN NAVY’S SUBMARINE ARM
The golden jubilee of the Indian Navy’s submarine arm having been celebrated fittingly on 9th Dec 2017, and with the commissioning of the second INS Kalvari on 14th Dec, it is time to seriously look at the next fifty years from 2018-2068.
Sometimes Bold, at times Tentative
The decisions of the naval leadership of the late 1970s and ‘80s to build nuclear submarines were bold and visionary. There is not even a close parallel of this in the other two Services. In comparison, the “Make in India” flavour of setting up the HDW Type 209/1500 (Shishumar) class assembly line in Mazagon Docks was relatively less bold. As is well known, the termination of the class with just two boats built in India was an egregious decision dictated by allegations of a scam. From a peak of over 20 boats (one leased SSN, four Type 209, ten Type 877 (“Kilo”) and a declining number of the ageing Type 641(“Foxtrot”) the current numbers are alarmingly low, a point that need not be laboured further. Despite the boldness in taking resolute—if slow—steps towards designing and building nuclear submarines, not showing similar determination for conventional boats remained a drawback. Kalvari’s commissioning deserves celebration. Nonetheless, the boats do have some limitations in effectiveness.
Insufficient Sting in the Scorpene?
While new, they are not as future- ready as they could have been. A few drawbacks are discussed here. First, the lack of air independent propulsion (AIP). The IN is to be admired for being enthused early enough for the best type of AIP, nuclear propulsion. From an analysis of media reports and some papers in seminars, it seems that there were difficulties in deciding which type of conventional AIP was most suited; some divided views whether AIP was really needed; and perhaps the dilemma between imported systems versus those being developed by DRDO. Fortuitously, those naval leaders and scientists as well as industry partners in the nuclear propulsion programme decided early on that perfect is the enemy of good enough. They developed reactors that, while not of the potency or unrefuelled endurance of later versions in some navies, had the great virtue of being Indian. That attribute does count.
Contrast this with the Pakistanis who decided early enough to retrofit all three of their Agosta 90B boats with the French MESMA. It meant money, uncertainty, technical and war risks for them. In the event, it seems to have paid off. MESMA may not be the most sophisticated AIP, but it is an AIP! And that counts as well. Had similar impetus, involvement and encouragement existed between the Navy, DRDO and industry as did in the ATV project, perhaps a conventional AIP could have been tested much earlier. Perhaps it might have been fitted from the third boat onwards with the first two with what the French might have offered. The tactical advantages of AIP under almost all conditions of submarine operations will be discussed in a later article.
Second, the Scorpenes do not have the significant operational and tactical benefits that towed array sonars bring in
both anti-submarine (ASW) and anti- surface warfare (ASuW) roles. None of our conventional boats (SSK, i.e., a submarine hunter-killer; an emphasis on their ASW role) seem to be so equipped and that is a pity. One hopes that this shortcoming will be overcome in the Kalvari class at the first opportunity as retro-fitment. Even if a reel-in array is no longer feasible, a clip-on array could be considered. The suggestion is by no means new to the sub-continent. The Pakistan Navy has had towed arrays for its boats for a long time. A related point: while navies did not call it that, LOFAR (low frequency analysis and recording) was de facto the initial step into “big data” analytics, requiring complex algorithms, machine- learning and even AI. Submarine arrays are sources and consumers of big data.
Third, although the Kalvari class will be in active service even in the 2040s- 2050s, they will have limited missile attack capability. Several manned submarines currently being designed/ building will be equipped with a separate vertical launch system module (VLS). Although similar to the VLS capability of SSBNs, a SSKs’ missiles are primarily for land-attack with anti-ship versions as well.
Why a VLS? Quite simply, a VLS enables rapid salvo-launch at a few seconds intervals. It reduces the “indiscretion” time because launches could be detected quite rapidly by air/ground/ space-based sensors. Launching such missiles through torpedo tubes is much slower and increases “indiscretion”. Also, fewer can be launched with the weight of ordnance on targets reduced. In turn, this weakens the power-projection (focussed on land) as well as other roles. With a VLS salvo, the submarine can deliver a significant load of long-range PGMs and then disperse from there as expeditiously as possible for SSK patrols. The US Navy is even increasing the VLS capacity for cruise missiles on some of its existing and newer SSNs as well as SSGNs.
Fourth, it is not clear if the Scorpenes can be “mother” ships for small special operations craft or for small futuristic unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) with some modifications. These roles enhance the versatility, reach, survivability and lethality of SSKs and a few navies are putting in very serious efforts into these.
It is agreed that VLS and ‘mother’ ship capabilities would have been difficult to incorporate at the design and build stages since the boats are not really large. They are not easy in mid-life updates either. Nonetheless, these lacunae should form part of the ‘to- do’ list for future manned submarines.
More Roles, Reach, Jaws & Claws
‘Mission India’ approach to making our own submarines, has to be have widespread acceptance that submarines are important platforms not only for sea denial but for sea control, and naval power projection as well. Networking, real-time one-way operational and tactical connectivity, longer endurance, higher weapon loads, longer reach as well as greater precision of ordnance are all evolving rapidly. These features, combined with the attribute of relatively high stealth and survivability in the likely tactical environments of future peer or near-peer level conflicts make them a formidable instrument.
Add to all this greater boldness in deployments, imagination in training and aggressive spirit in the crews for a winning combination as we move up the spectrum of conflict. It is likely, of course, that there could be breakthroughs in submarine detection using quantum science, artificial intelligence (AI) and nano technologies. These would first affect, and with much greater ease, all that may be on the surface. Submarines, especially in concert with UUVs, would still have a stronger hand.
A framework for a submarine arm for the coming fifty years, therefore, is outlined here. Some aspects would be elaborated subsequently.
- Determine, create, and perpetuate commonalities between nuclear and conventional submarine production lines rather than emphasise the differences. Reduce the silos between designers, engineers and manufacturers in the public and private sectors while maintaining information security.
- Ironically, the private sector played increasingly vital roles in the SSBN (ship submersible ballistic, nuclear), SSN (ship submersible, nuclear) programmes years before the impetus for “Make in India” started. Not surprisingly, ISRO also managed to reach into space with even greater passion, self-reliance, participation of PSUs and private players. So, it is only us stopping ourselves from achieving similar outcomes for conventional submarines.
- Think of somewhat larger SSK (diesel-electric attack submarines) designs. There is a need to consider 8m hull diameter to enable easier modular fitment of AIP, VLS, Spl Ops, UUV capabilities and higher ordnance capacity. In our thinking, we have over-played the trade-offs for the considerable advantages.
- Strictly speaking, a 8m hulled boat needs about two- four metres more depth of water than a 6m hull; not a very significant negative. Its target echo does increase, but this is compensated by easier incorporation of stealth features, more sensors and more counter-measures.
- The 75(I) should, therefore, be somewhere in the region of 4000 t. The navies that are tending towards this could not all be wrong! could they?
- Examine how follow-on versions of missiles like Brahmos and long range high- performance torpedoes of truly Indian designs could become the primary weapons on board. Let us not forget the need for mines either.
- Insist on more effort and accountability in indigenous designing. We have had a large Submarine Design Group for many years. It now ought to be tasked to deliver in conventional areas as well.
- The way in which the Imperial Japanese Navy harnessed foreign expertise in the 1920s to design their own boats of considerable sophistication, is a good one to emulate. Current models and suggestions are really not much more than licensed manufacturing. This is a necessary kick- start but ill-advised for the next 50 years and more.
- Develop the host of ancillary suppliers of materials, motors, compressors, sensors, pumps, periscopes, fire control systems etc. This is not kite- flying! From what can be gleaned from media reports, this has been achieved to a very, very satisfactory degree in the nuclear submarine programme, not to talk of ISRO again.
- Look hard at the related areas of what may be called ‘underwater domain awareness’ (UDA) in terms of sea- bed and tethered surveillance and command – control systems, for UUVs with AI, for the laying and protection of underwater cables, for the gathering of scientific data useful for multiple agencies from peaceful, humanitarian dividend to better combat capabilities.
- Move away from the conservative approaches of half-dozen to several dozens of submarines. Money will need to be found, not in the least by focusing on the need for a future-ready rather than a ‘past-perfect’ Navy. In doing so, dispassionate thinking about the likely tactical environments in which different platforms would operate in decades ahead is necessary. Such analyses would help us determine opportunity costs across the spectrum of conflict for capability v/s vulnerability estimates.
- Move as early as possible for retro-fitment of some form of AIP (and preferably indigenous) and towed arrays into the Kalvari class. If necessary, the last two or three being assembled should have these as initial fits.
It is very likely that a conflict along the higher ends of the spectrum of warfare will see adversarial submarines play leading roles in the pursuit of their own interests. To counter them as well as to go on the offensive, the IN would find it very necessary to bolster its submarine strength in quantity as well as evolving quality.
As suggested above, the near-term major steps in this direction should include synergies between the nuclear and conventional R&D and manufacturing lines; modification and retro-fitment plans for the Scorpenes and very careful drafting of Project 75(I) NSQRs to make them effective for future requirements and to see that the ‘I, also significantly means ‘indigenous’.
If we have done so much in the SSBNs being built and for SSNs being planned, why can we not do the same for SSKs? As the Navy looks towards the next fifty years of the submarine arm, may these sharks run silent, run deep and be the instruments of ruin for our adversaries should it come to that!
Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande, IN (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)