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India’s Submarine Fleet: A Dwindling Force by Cmde S Govind

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Author: Cmde S Govind (Retd)
Submarines, with their second strike capability as well as the ability to operate in unfriendly waters covertly, form a vital component in any nation’s arsenal. Since the mid-1990s, the PRC has emphasised the submarine force as one of the primary thrusts of its military modernisation efforts. It is estimated that due to this focused approach, the Chinese have been producing and commissioning more than 2 submarines on an average per year.

Indications are that at this rate, the Chinese submarine fleet would stabilise around 80 modern boats in the next 5-7 years. It was only in 1999 that the CCS approved the “30 year submarine building programme” which envisaged construction of 24 submarines in India. The scope of the programme included simultaneous construction of six submarines under project 75 using Western technology and six submarines under project 75(I) using Eastern technology. This was to be followed by another twelve submarines based on an indigenous design, which was to incorporate the best of both Western and Eastern designs. These programmes are a decade behind schedule.

The commissioning of INS Chakra on 4 April 12, a nuclear powered Akula class SSN on lease for 10 years from Russia, is the only addition to the Indian submarine fleet in the last decade. Compounding this fact are the recent reports of delays in the Project-75 Scorpene submarine building programme and the bureaucratic hurdles coming in the way of issuance of RFP for the next submarine Project-75(I), which are likely to affect the submarine force levels.

India not only shares a common land border with China but also shares its ambitions and aspirations of becoming a super power. However unlike the Chinese, the intent does not seem to be backed up by the will to transform the aspirations into reality, atleast in the context of power projection capabilities. This becomes rather evident when viewed against the backdrop of the Chinese naval modernisation programme with particular reference to its indigenous submarine construction programmes.

 

Submarine Building Programme

The Chinese submarine building programme started in the 60s and initially relied on Soviet assistance. Whilst the decline in the Sino-Soviet relations may have temporarily set back their acquisition plans, the Chinese continued with their indigenous effort due to which the development periods were rather long. The first Han class SSN was launched in 1977 and entered service in 1980. Three more boats were commissioned in the next 10 years. The lone Xia class SSBN was launched in April 1981 and commissioned in 1987. Construction of the Ming class diesel submarines based on Romeo class design was also commenced around the same time.

Work on three new classes of submarines – the Jin class SSBN, the Shang class SSN and the Song class conventional boat, seems to have started in the 80s. The first Jin was launched in 2004 and commissioned in 2008. Whilst two more have already entered service in 2010 and 2012, three more are set to be commissioned in the next 5 years. Two Shang class SSNs were inducted in 2007 and 2010. There are conflicting reports on the number of Shang class with some saying 4 being in service. It is believed that 5 boats of Type-095, a third generation of SSNs, are to follow the Shang class. In all probability the Chinese have acquired advanced technologies as well as greater assistance to overcome the deficiencies in reactor design in the last few years, since the first of the Type-095 is expected to be ready by 2015-16.

Even though work on the Song class diesel submarine commenced in the 80s, they appear to be based on the Russian Kilo class of the 80s. It is no coincidence that two Kilo class boats were commissioned in December 1994 and the first Song class was commissioned in 1999. It appears that the Chinese have successfully copied various design features from the Kilo and its successors and incorporated them in Song and Yuan class, including the quieting technologies. The latest in the construction line is Yuan class of which 20 are likely to be built and the last few of them are likely to be equipped with AIP. There are reports of a joint design and development effort with the Russians for acquisition of 4 Lada class submarines with AIP.

The August 2009 ONI report states that “since the mid-1990s, the PRC has emphasised the submarine force as one of the primary thrusts of its military modernisation efforts.” It is estimated that due to this focused approach, the Chinese have been producing and commissioning more than 2 submarines on an average per year. Indications are that at this rate, the Chinese submarine fleet would stabilise around 80 modern boats in the next 5-7 years.

 

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