On June 4, Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh approved the issuance of Request for Proposal (RFP) for construction of six conventional diesel-electric submarines with air independent propulsion system (AIP) at the cost of Rs. 43,000 crore. This is approved under the Project 75 I (P 75 India), which is a 30 year submarine construction programme with the aim of making India self-reliant in submarine construction. The indigenous submarines will be constructed by collaboration under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model, under which Indian defence manufacturing firms can tie up with the foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). The SP model was established under the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) with the aim of promoting defence industrial ecosystem in the country by having transfer of technology from leading foreign OEMs to Indian companies. So, the success of Project 75 I will hinge on how SP model fares.
There is no doubt that this is a welcome measure as India needs to heavily invest in its submarine construction programme to boost its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities in the wake of rapid modernisation being done by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its increasing influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which is a cause of concern for India. Submarines by their nature possess unique capabilities, thereby showing their lethality. They can remain submerged underwater for a considerable period and can be used for both offense and defence (difficult to detect, can launch cruise as well as ballistic missiles, can enforce blockade etc). Thus, submarines form a crucial strategic component to keep a check on Chinese influence in IOR and to deter aggression.
However, Indian submarine construction programme is facing a significant delay, coupled with some shortfalls with which submarines are equipped. India have 15 conventional diesel electric attack submarines (SSK), one nuclear attack submarine (SSN) that is INS Chakra and one ballistic missile attack nuclear submarine (SSBN) that is indigenously built INS Arihant (part of nuclear triad). As compared to it China have 46 SSKs, 6 SSNs and 6 Jin class (Type 094) SSBNs.
There is also technological shortfalls in Indian submarines. The 3 of the 6 scorpnene class submarines which India have acquired yet (INS Kalvari, INS Khanderi and INS Karanj) are all devoid of air independent propulsion (AIP) system. The AIP system is a marine propulsion technology due to which they can remain submerged under water for months and thus don’t need to come to surface. However, they will get DRDO developed AIP during their mid-life refit. But, still India needs to avoid this kind of technological lag.
Thus, to keep pace with Chinese submarine programme India needs to enhance its submarine capabilities. One area which will be important in time ahead will be the ballistic missile attack nuclear submarines (SSBNs). The SSBNs are third leg of the nuclear triad and India is the only country outside of P5 to have it. They are an important part of sea based nuclear deterrence. The indigenously built INS Arihant is equipped with 12 K-15 Sagarika ballistic missiles which can launch nuclear warheads and have maximum range of 750 km. It is also equipped with 4 K-4 ballistic missiles having maximum range of 3,500 km. So, Indian submarines are capable of hitting Chinese or Pakistani land based strategic targets. Further, India will get its second SSBN INS Arighat commissioned later this year.
The IOR is surrounded by choke points and all the trade of East Asia passes through it. So, India sit on a heavily strategic area, by having SSBNs it can get more control of the sea and will get advantage in its littoral waters of Bay of Bengal and Arabian Ocean. China is building ports in both this parts of IOR and it needs to cross the straits which are marked with shallow waters, where these submarines can be lethal. The SSBNs are also an important part of sea denial capability which can further enhance sea control (it should be noted that both sea control and sea denial are not mutually exclusive and sea denial is a subset of sea control) in IOR. Another plus that SSBNs offers are in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) which can again become an area of contestation in the wake of great power competition between US and China in Indo-Pacific and India being the pivotal part of it needs to have fine ASW capabilities.
Seeing the importance of IOR and the China’s growing influence in it, India needs to ramp up its submarine construction programme, if it wants to play the role of net security provider in the region in time ahead. Further, the emphasis should be laid on SSBNs considering their lethality and stealthiness.