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Is India’s Submarine Fleet Defenseless?

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Asia Defense

Is India’s Submarine Fleet Defenseless?

The Indian Navy’s most advanced submarines still lack adequate armament.

Is India’s Submarine Fleet Defenseless?
Credit: MoD Spokesperson via Twitter

With the recent cancellation of a $200 million contract for 98 Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes at the end of May, the Indian Navy’s new submarine fleet continues to lack adequate defense capabilities against enemy subs and surface warships in the event of a conflict.

India’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has canceled the order for Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes, built by torpedo maker Whitehead Alenia Systemi Subacquei (WASS), a subsidiary of Italian arms manufacturer Finmeccanica, due to corruption allegations involving another Finmeccanica subsidiary, Agusta Westland. According to the Indian MoD, Agusta Westland representatives allegedly paid bribes for a 2010 purchase of 12 AW medium lift helicopters, which resulted in the termination of the contract in 2014 and the purported blacklisting of the company.

The recent cancellation of the torpedo order was a direct result of the corruption allegations involving the European defense contractor and the Indian National Congress political party. The Black Shark torpedo was specifically purchased for the Indian Navy’s future fleet of six Scorpene-class (Kalvari-class) diesel-electric attack submarines. A second batch of 49 Black Shark torpedoes was also to be installed aboard India’s domestically developed and built Arihant-class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

According to Indian media reports, at least three of India’s future fleet of four to five Arihant-class SSBNs were expected to carry the new torpedoes. The cancellation of the order could mean a two- to three-year delay in the launching of the second sub of the class, the Aridaman, due to torpedo tube modifications. Alternatives to the Black Shark torpedo are the German-made SeaHake heavyweight torpedo and France’s F21 Artemis. Given the lack of transparency regarding the Indian’s MoD blacklisting policy vis-à-vis, the Black Shark torpedo could also participate in a new bid. Furthermore, the Indian Navy inducted the domestically-produced Varunastra 533 millimeter heavyweight torpedo last summer. The Indian-made weapon is currently adopted to fit the torpedo tubes of Indian submarines. (The Indian Navy has ordered 73 Varunastra torpedoes.)

Senior naval officials say that it will take time to select a new heavyweight torpedo and an interim solution will be sought. “There will be some alternate torpedoes as an interim solution. The heavy weight torpedoes will take some time. Those which are already in use in other platforms will be used in these (Kalvari-class) submarines,” a senior Indian naval official told The Economic Times in early June. However, the Indian Navy’s existing stock of Russian-made torpedoes (as well as the Varunastra) cannot be fired from subs of the Arihant-class or Kalvari-class without substantial hardware and software modifications.

As I reported last week, the second Scorpene-class (Kalvari-class) diesel-electric attack submarine, christened Khanderi, has recently begun sea trials off the coast of Mumbai. The lead submarine of the class, Kalvari, is expected to be commissioned in July or August following the successful completion of sea trials and weapons tests, which includes the test firing of a German SeaHake torpedo and French-made Exocet SM39 anti-ship missiles. As I explained elsewhere:

The acquisition of the Exocet came under intense scrutiny following the August 2016 disclosure of a data leak at French shipbuilder Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), which publicly revealed sensitive details on the anti-ship missile including launch details, the number of targets the missile is capable of processing, and how many targets could be downloaded before firing.

Nevertheless, the Indian MoD insisted that the leaked data does not constitute a security compromise and reiterated its intention to procure the missiles for the Kalvari-class.

The INS Arihant was secretly commissioned in August 2016. The lead ship of the Indian Navy’s new class of SSBNs primarily serves as a technology demonstrator. “In comparison to the lead ship of the class, subsequent boats will be larger (e.g., they will boast eight rather than four launch tubes), operate a more powerful reactor, and feature a host of other technical improvements,” I explained in October 2016. Arihant-class subs are expected to be armed with K-4 and K-15 Sagarika nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).