August 25, 2016 4:29:09 am
The story of India’s submarine acquisition has progressed in fits and starts, resulting in the waxing and waning of capability. In 1957, the then Defence Minister asked Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, to provide India with a target submarine — the oldest and cheapest available. It didn’t come, and in 1959, the Navy asked the UK for three operational submarines — but was refused the soft credit terms it sought. The submarine arm finally materialised on December 8, 1967, with the commissioning of the INS Kalvari, a Foxtrot class (Type 641) submarine, at Riga in the then Soviet Union. The USSR went on to supply 8 submarines to India between 1967 and 1974 — four of which, commissioned until 1969, participated in the 1971 War. All have been decommissioned now.
Submarines are essentially of two types: conventional and nuclear. Conventional submarines (SSKs) use a diesel-electric engine, and must surface daily for oxygen for fuel combustion. If fitted with an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, the sub needs to take in oxygen only once a week.
Nuclear submarines are powered by a nuclear reactor, and can remain submerged for months. Nuclear powered attack submarines (SSNs) are different from those that carry ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads (SSBNs) — the latter are larger, with more stealth features, and are the best guarantor of a second strike capability in a nuclear exchange.
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But SSKs score over SSNs and SSBNs in littoral waters where effectiveness in relatively shallow water is a critical requirement. SSKs are optimised for stealth, and their weapons and sensors provide for effective operations close to the shore.
A Navy needs a mix of SSKs, SSNs and SSBNs in its fleet. Indian Navy sources say a force level of 3-5 SSBNs, six SSNs and 20 SSKs is required to fulfill its mandate of a blue water navy. The guiding principle of submarines is to have one on patrol, one on transit to patrol and one in the harbour for maintenance. For adequate strategic deterrence, one SSBN should be underwater at any given time, needing a minimum of three SSBNs in the fleet.
The three aircraft carrier battle groups, envisaged for potent force projection and expeditionary capacity, will need two SSNs each.
Assuming 60% operational availability, 12 out of 20 SSKs will be available for both the coasts, the minimum required for India to maintain a credible tactical and operational presence in the littoral.
The Navy currently has no SSBNs — under-construction INS Arihant is undergoing sea trials — and just one SSN, a Russian Akula class submarine taken on lease in 2012 for 10 years. It has only 13 SSKs: 9 Sindhughosh Class (Russian Kilo Class) and four Shishumar Class (German Type 209) subs.
The first 8 Sindhughosh Class SSKs were acquired between 1986 and 1991; the other two in 1999 and 2000. The ninth, INS Sindhurakshak, was lost in Mumbai in 2013.
The first 2 of the 4 Shishumar Class subs were acquired from HDW in Germany in 1986. The other 2 were built in India: INS Shalki in 1992 and INS Shankul in 1994.
With only 13 SSKs left — 10 of them of pre-1990 vintage — the government has decided to go for a refit of four Sindhughosh and two Shishumar subs to extend their life. But even then, the SSKs will suffer from performance degradation during operations.
Navies in India’s maritime neighbourhood have been boosting their submarine and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. China has 5 SSNs, 4 SSBNs and 53 SSKs; Pakistan is acquiring 8 subs from China. India desperately needs more subs, and the leakage of information about its under-production vessels will not add to confidence.
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