Asia Defense | Security | South Asia

The Trouble with India’s Slow Naval Buildup

Though India is trying hard to enhance its naval capabilities, it continues to be slow work.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
The Trouble with India’s Slow Naval Buildup
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

India has been trying hard to enhance its naval capabilities over the past few years, both in recognition of its own needs as well as an understanding of evolving trends in the strategic environment. But despite New Delhi’s best efforts, doing so continues to be slow work.

A case in point is India’s submarine program, which was in the spotlight again recently when the second of the Indian Navy’s six Scorpene submarines, INS Khanderi, was inducted into service on September 28. The first Scorpene submarine, called INS Kalvari, was commissioned in 2017. The third submarine, INS Karanj, launched in January 2018, is undertaking sea trials now.  INS Khanderi was manufactured by Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited at a cost of 187.98 billion rupees (about $2.6 billion) under an India-France bilateral agreement in 2005 to build six Scorpene class submarines in India. Not including the Scorpenes, India currently has two other older types of diesel-electric submarine types, the Sindhughosh (Kilo) class and the Shishumar (HDW 209/1500) class diesel-electric submarines, and the nuclear-powered Arihant class (as well as the leased Chakra class nuclear submarine).

But the induction of the new submarine belies the fact that the size of India’s submarine inventory has been declining for years. The Scorpene acquisition has undergone significant delays – more than six years – even though it remains an important addition to the Indian naval capability. Even though there have been triumphant comments from many senior Indian officials on the significance of this induction, it is far from sufficient given the growing naval and maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

Commissioning the submarine into service, the Indian Defense minister Rajnath Singh talked of the importance of the submarine and Indo-French defense cooperation, though he framed the acquisition primarily as a message to Pakistan. But the Scorpene submarines still do not have a modern torpedo, making do with the older SUT torpedoes. India cancelled a deal for the heavy-weight Black Shark torpedoes, built by the Finmecannica subsidiary WASS, as a result of an unrelated corruption scandal that involved another subsidiary of Finmecannica, Augusta-Westland. In a makeshift arrangement, the Indian government approached the German defense company, Atlas Elektronik to upgrade 64 torpedoes, which were procured in the 1980s and 1990s for the Indian Navy’s four Shishumar-class submarines.  The already-insufficient number of torpedoes in the Indian Navy’s arsenal is to be now also shared with the Scorpene submarines.

An additional issue comes from the slow development of the air independent propulsion (AIP) system. AIP allows submarines to stay under water for longer periods of time without being detected.  However, the development of the indigenous AIP system by Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has been delayed, which should not come as much of a surprise given the history of DRDO’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver.  The last two of the Scorpene submarines were to be equipped with the indigenously developed AIP systems but because of the delay by the DRDO, the plan is now to have them in the next six submarines that will be developed under Project 75-I.

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But Project 75I has also been very slow. Under Project 75I, India plans to build six additional advanced conventional submarines in collaboration with a foreign manufacturer.  But this has also run into difficulties.  The Swedish defense firm SAAB, which was seen as one of the top foreign contenders, pulled out its bid because of onerous conditions the India has imposed regarding indigenous partnerships and instead South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering has entered the fray.

The South Korean decision possibly flows out of the visit of the Indian Defense minister Rajnath Singh to South Korea in September where defense industry cooperation was a major highlight. South Korea joins four other contenders: Naval Group (France), Navantia (Spain), Rosoboronexport (Russia) and TKMS (Germany) who are all bidding for the 450 billion rupee (about $6.32 billion) contract. During the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to Russia, the Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to undertake a “joint design and development of conventional submarines through an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA).” But it has been more than a decade since Project 75I started, and it will be years more before these submarines enter Indian Navy service.

The long, hard work of building up India’s naval capabilities is not just limited to its submarine program. On the same day as the INS Khanderi induction, there were two other developments that are critical to the Indian Navy: the launching of the first of the P-17A frigates, ‘Nilgiri’ and inauguration of a dry dock, located within the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. According to Rakesh Anand, head of Mazagon Dock Limited, the new frigates come with “new design concepts for improved survivability, sea keeping, stealth and ship manoeuvrability.” The new dry dock will be the Indian Navy’s biggest one, capable of holding India’s aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. It is state of the art, made of 1.5 meter-thick reinforced concrete and almost 300 meters into the sea. But it has taken more than a decade to complete the dock.

The slow nature of India’s naval buildup is the product of broader trends that are well-known. Much of the Indian budget is focused on the Army, with the air force being a distant second and the navy a poor third. And with naval capability building proving time-consuming and capital-intensive, that leaves New Delhi stuck with a continued slow pace of development of its naval capabilities relative to other actors, even as competitors such as China forge ahead more quickly.

The solutions are also well-known. Some of them involve process: for instance, India needs to change its decision-making processes and its complicated acquisitions process to halt the slide in its relative capabilities. Others relate to outlook, with India needing to focus on the right threats to its national security rather than leaving itself looking broad but being overextended as a result. Whether or not these solutions will be adopted or not remains to be seen. Until then, developing India’s naval capabilities will likely continue to prove to be slow work irrespective of the incremental gains that are seen in the headlines.