India’s emphasis on undersea warfare is growing, but too slowly for many experts. Today, the Indian navy’s submarine fleet – India’s “silent service” – is beset with numerous problems and delays.
In China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shows no sign of backing off its plans to gradually increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. This influx of Chinese naval vessels does not pose an immediate threat to India’s national security, but the situation could change.
Russia, however, may wield considerable influence over the flow of events. While Russia continues to serve as a vital cog in the vast machinery that is driving the PLAN’s construction and development of a modern submarine fleet, American submarine historian and expert Norman Polmar sees ample evidence that Russia is selling India better undersea systems than those it is selling China.
“China, unlike India, is a natural enemy of Russia, and despite China’s distrust of Russia, the Chinese deal with the Russians because the Russians possess submarine and antisubmarine technologies that the Chinese want,” said Polmar. “This is solely an economic relationship involving China as a customer whereas the Russian’s longstanding military assistance relationship with India is based on a need to sustain both its economic and geopolitical bonds that Russia deems very important to its overall security.”
At the same time, the US decision to sell India sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft known as P-8 India (P-8I) is significant as well in terms of countering any Chinese sub activities in the Indian Ocean. Although US Defense Secretary Robert Gates might have a submarine surprise up his sleeve for Indian Defense Minister A K Antony who is currently in Washington for talks, this seems unlikely given the current restrictions on high-tech exports to India.
“Keep in mind that in the P-8I aircraft, India is getting an ASW platform from the US, not comprehensive and advanced ASW systems such as sonar, or magnetic anomaly detectors,” said Polmar.
China is well aware that India has another option at its disposal. Polmar agrees that India could quickly adopt and update the naval aviation strategy that the Soviet Union devised in the 1950s. By adding several 21st-century refinements and technological advancements – the P-8I takes India in that direction – India’s degree of control over the Indian Ocean could be reinforced considerably, far surpassing what the Soviets achieved in the Western Pacific and elsewhere.
The naval aviation model looms large because India has only 16 submarines today, including 10 Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines; four German Shishukumar-class subs; and two Russian Foxtrot subs which are used primarily for training purposes.
In June, India signed a US$80 million contract with Russia’s Zvezdochka shipyard for the fifth in a series of overhauls and upgrades of its Kilo subs. This overhaul commenced in August. 
Then in July, the Indian government allocated US$11 billion (over 500 billion rupees) for the development of six next-generation diesel submarines under Project-75 India (P-75I). With their air independent propulsion systems, these new subs will offer major operational advantages, and much to Pakistan’s chagrin in particular, they are envisioned as stealthy, land attack subs.
“India’s submarine force has declined because a good number of older subs will be retiring very soon – the Kilos start retiring in 2013, for example – and an insufficient number of newer subs have been acquired to replace them,” said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow in security studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“India’s submarine fleet remains a coastal fleet because of a lack of nuclear-powered subs, and its reach is limited because the missiles on these subs have limited range. Finally, the focus of the Indian navy’s attention also appears to be on large surface ships rather than submarines, which is hindering development of the sub fleet.”
In mid-2009, India launched a nuclear sub, the INS Arihant. It is currently designated as an Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), and it is undergoing sea trials. If all goes well, Arihant might be transferred to the Indian navy by the end of 2011. Plans call for two more ATVs with a goal of building five or six new nuclear subs. It is still unclear whether these ATVs are nuclear strategic missile subs (SSBNs) or simply nuclear – powered attack subs (SSNs). (See India’s nuclear submarine plan surfaces, Asia Times Online, Feb 20, 2009).
“Some estimates suggest that if India is to maintain an effective nuclear triad [from air, land and sea], India would need at least a fleet of 24 subs, though this is likely out of India’s reach,’ said Rajagopalan. “Meanwhile, a Russian nuclear-powered Akula II SSN – the K-152 Nerpa – has departed Russia for India under a 10-year lease.” 
Absent any replacements or additions to its existing fleet, the most upbeat assessment is that India’s sub fleet could be reduced to around nine by 2014 or 2015. In fact, the Indian navy has already notified the government that there is strong possibility that only nine subs might be in service by 2012, and just five in the coming years. No matter which projection proves to be accurate, the result is still a single digit total.
India is in the process of getting six Scorpene subs from the French – with an option of six additional subs – to be built at the Mazagon facility in Mumbai under the supervision of French technicians, but this procurement is experiencing a slowdown. Mazagon Docks in Mumbai will construct three of the six, Hindustan Shipyard Ltd in Visakhapatnam will construct one, and the other two may be procured from foreign sources or built by another private shipyard in India
“The delivery of the first of the French Scorpenes, which was supposed to enter service in December 2012, has been delayed. Antony addressed this situation in parliament only a few weeks back. This will clearly impact upon India’s undersea force levels,” said Rajagopalan. “India has about 35 private shipyards, of which L&T [Larsen & Toubro Ltd] and Pipavav are believed to be competing to build the two submarines, of the six planned.”
Some doubt that these two will be built in India after all.
India must focus on meeting its planned timetable for new submarine deployments to avoid critical challenges in the next decade. Among those who argue for submarines, there have been disagreements over whether to pursue nuclear-powered or conventional submarines. In fact, under the original P-75I program, there was a 30-year Submarine Construction Plan approved in 1999.
“Internal disagreements within the navy, however, have substantially undermined that plan. The fact that last two naval chiefs were naval aviators who did not appear to have great interest in allocating limited available funding for sub programs did not help matters,” said Rajagopalan.
According to some reports, once Antony became defense minister in 2006, all the decisions relating to the nuclear triad were put on hold. Antony reportedly was of the opinion that decisions involving India’s strategic nuclear program should be taken by the Prime Minister’s Office. In the process, there was little or no real progress concerning any additional SSNs and SSBNs.
“Dr VK Saraswat, director general of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization [DRDO] is of the view that SSNs can be developed easily once DRDO gets the go-ahead. He had noted that the essential difference is the weaponry and accordingly the size, but the technology for design and integration remains the same,” said Rajagopalan. “Meanwhile, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission is continuing with its work on nuclear steam reactors for the ATVs which are powered by light-water reactors using enriched uranium as fuel.”
According to Dr Bharath Gopalaswamy, a researcher in the Arms Control and Non-proliferation Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the principal challenge facing India is India’s own bureaucracy and its lack of vision in formulating long term strategic goals.
“The Comptroller and Auditor General’s recent report seriously criticized the Indian navy about its aging fleet – 63% of the subs would be past their operational life beyond 2012 – and highlighted that due to this aging fleet and its refit schedules (which has been consistently delayed), the average operational availability of India’s subs is as low as 48%,” said Gopalaswamy.
To make matters worse, a test check on certain submarines revealed that prescribed standards for operational patrol, tactical exercises and individual work ups were either not in play or loosely followed.
“Piecemeal modernization and upgradation of submarines at an aggregate cost of 1,560 crore rupees [15.6 billion rupees] was undertaken by the navy without taking approval of the competent financial authority,” the report said. And according to its findings, most refits were not well managed and seldom completed within the prescribed time period.
The looming sub gap that India will confront from 2013 to 2016 cannot be sidestepped. Delaying the retirement of existing subs is a very risky strategy at best.
As India starts to build its own nuclear submarines, very complex construction programs and prolonged at-sea trials will strain existing resources including manpower. Building indigenous submarine reactors is one thing, integrating them into modern undersea battle platforms in another even greater challenge. Nevertheless, despite enormous obstacles, confidence is running high and the objectives are deemed achievable in the required timeframe by many Indian naval experts
Others including Nathan Hughes, director of military analysis at Texas-based Stratfor a global intelligence company, raise serious questions about the submarine force which the Indian navy intends to deploy. 
“For all its various interests and challenges, India does not have a competitor like the US-USSR rivalry of the Cold War that drove massive investment and the frantic pace of development and competition. There is a certain lack of urgency to India’s drawn out effort to design a nuclear submarine of its own,’ said Hughes. “Russian assistance including leasing nuclear subs to India has been more direct and overt than Russian-Chinese cooperation, although this is also quite significant. Indeed, with China working to increase its independence from Russia and refine its own designs, Moscow may have extra bandwidth in terms of advising and design assistance and expertise from which India might benefit,”
However, the Indian navy does not now possess a viable submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and this gap cannot be dismissed or overlooked. While the new Arihant-class ATVs may carry Sagarika SLBMs, they may do so only on a very limited basis.
“Some development work has been done with the Sagarika, but this has been from a submerged pontoon. Much more work remains for an SLBM to be integrated into a submarine and made operationally capable, said Hughes. “The only ship of the Arihant class so far will have only a very limited – if any – capacity for vertical launch of any kind. She is a technology demonstrator and more ships of the class will need to be built with modified designs before India fields a meaningful SSBN capability.” 
And while India is planning a Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) variant of the Brahmos cruise missile with a range of about 300 kilometers or more – Brahmos was jointly created with Russia – several issues must be addressed and resolved before this SLCM is deployed on Indian subs.
“Yes, this will likely be the last variant tested and certified. Ground and surface ship-launched variants have already completed testing, and preparations are being made for testing of an air-launched version. However, the Brahmos is simply too big to be fired from the 21-inch [533mm] torpedo tubes used by India’s current sub fleet, but the 25.6-inch [650 mm] tubes of the Nerpa would be sufficient in theory to do so,” said Hughes. “Other submarines India might acquire from Russia might also be tailored to carry a vertically-launched Brahmos.”
Otherwise, it is unclear if the recently leased Russian Nerpa sub is going to have Indian or Russian cruise missiles aboard.
“The inclusion of the RK-55 Granat [SS-N-21 Sampson], a medium-range land-attack cruise missile, is not likely. The inclusion of the 3M-54 Klub [SS-N-27] short-range anti-ship cruise missile is more likely, but also uncertain,’ said Hughes. “It is not clear if Indian armaments might be fitted.” 
Regardless of weaponry, the Indian navy needs place more emphasis on simply getting its submariners aboard their subs for longer periods of time at sea, according to John Pike, director of Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org.
“Submarines are more difficult to operate than surface ships, and this requires more time at sea to remain proficient. India has had an easier time mapping out ambitious plans than in actual implementation, and an easier time putting submarines into service than in keeping them in service,” said Pike. “Delays and other problems have been the rule not the exception over past decades, so this seems to be business as usual. India’s naval programs, like so many other Indian military acquisition efforts, are remarkably leisurely.”
From the standpoint of flexibility, while India seems to be relying on French and Russian submarine purchases thus far, these countries do not enjoy a preferred supplier status.
“India might turn to Germany, and possibly eventually to South Korea,” said Pike. “If Japan started exporting subs, it might also export aircraft carriers.”
Pike sees little chance that Japan will start exporting subs to India or any other country for that matter anytime soon, however. Other experts agree. Japanese submarines are for Japanese use only.
Regardless, India cannot hold its breath and wait to see what does or does not happen in Kobe, where Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd is concentrating its submarine construction activities. As India focuses its attention on China instead, it must realize at the same time that some prefer to depict China as totally unprepared to churn the waters of the Indian Ocean.
“China poses no naval threat to India either on the surface or beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. China is not seeking a naval confrontation with India there for a variety of reasons despite much talk of China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy involving its development of port facilities in countries surrounding India,” said Polmar. “China does not intend to try and outmatch the Indian navy in India’s own backyard. China wants access to vital resources, not a series of unwanted engagements at sea. China is simply not prepared for any heated naval engagements so far from its coast at this time.”
In a nutshell, India must forge balanced submarine and anti-submarine programs, and inject them with the same energy and enthusiasm that has propelled its space program. India must also define what it expects from a true 21st-century submarine fleet. Sustained dependence on legacy undersea systems seems out of the question. Leaks in India’s submarine strategy By Peter J Brown .
Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.