The submarine arm of the Indian Navy is in its 50th year of existence. From a small force of Foxtrot class, it leapfrogged into high tech boats in just 25 years of its coming into being. By then it had also made forays into operating a nuclear submarine and internalised its nuances and discipline, which is quite a different way of life from that on a conventional boat. In this journey, it has also graduated to deploying submarine-launched cruise missiles and smart wire-guided torpedoes. It has come a long way in maintenance procedures and protocols and the naval dockyards are capable of handling current refits and gaining valuable insights in medium and half-life refits. The indigenous construction of the Scorpene is yet another milestone achieved. The greatest stride, even though long in coming, has been the indigenous construction of the SSBN Arihant. The conventional boats of the Shishumar and Sindhughosh class with their stand-off range weapons and missile capability had come to acquire the nom de guerre of ‘the sword arm’ of the IN. The Arihant with its ICBM capability and an assured deterrence of second strike could really be called the ‘shield’ of the nation.
Emergence of Submarine Potential
Although the submarine as a weapon platform of war made its appearance much earlier, it really came to establish its potential in the Second World War wherein the German U-boats nearly brought the Allied forces to their knees. The Battle of the Atlantic was lost by the U-boat mainly due to its inability, in the absence of a snorkel mast, to remain submerged for long durations. These boats were at best surface vessels, which were able to dive to carry out attacks on shipping. On the surface, they were vulnerable to anti-submarine forces mainly from ASW aircraft and to a lesser extent, from surface forces. The successful campaign of the USN submarines in the Pacific, which resulted in the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy, reinforced the potential of the submarine as an offensive weapon of war.
It was this tactical deficiency and the other measures such as convoy formation and the appearance of Allied Submarine Detection and Investigation Committee (ASDIC) or more aptly called SONAR that saw the defeat of the U-boats. However, it had made its eternal mark on the future of maritime warfare. It is significant to note that the two major warships Belgrano and Khukri, sunk after WW II, were at the hands of submarines.
Naval planners and designers set about to remedy this deficiency in the submarines and the appearance of the snorkel mast on the type XXI U-boat towards the end of the war seemed to be the answer. However, it came about too late to affect the course of the war.
The INS Amba was commissioned in December 1968 and the INS Nistar in 1971…
Post War Developments
Post war, there was simultaneous research on conventional and atomic fronts. In the case of the former, great strides were made in silencing techniques, improvement in under-water endurance by high capacity batteries, more efficient Precision Guided Weapons, the ability to charge batteries submerged at periscope depth due to the snorkel and hydro-dynamic profile of the hull, which enhanced the radius of operation and stealth feature of the submarines. On the atomic front, the US Navy was the first off the mark in making a marine Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) which enabled the USS Nautilus to make her famous signal on 19 January 1955 “Underway on Nuclear Power”. This development gave the submarines an unbridgeable distance from the ASW forces arraigned against it and also enabled the nuclear-powered submarine equipped with Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) or SSBNs emerge as the final arbiter of power. With this as the backdrop, let us turn our attention to the submarine arm of the Indian Navy.
Formation of the Submarine Arm
Soon after Independence, when the Plans of the Indian Navy (IN) were drawn up, the submarines did not find a place because guided as we were by the British, it was felt that being offensive platforms, the IN did not need them in keeping with our Panchsheel philosophy and also because the British felt that submarines, being advanced platforms, were beyond our competence to handle. However, having grasped the potential of the submarine, the Indian officers in the planning loop advocated the acquisition of submarines albeit for training ASW surface forces. It may be noted that till we got our own submarines, ASW training was carried out with the help of a Royal Naval (RN) boat usually as part of the annual Commonwealth exercise starting from Singapore and terminating in Trincomallee.
Nevertheless, with persistent efforts, the IN planners were successful when the Government agreed to send the first batch of officers and men to UK for submarine training in 1961 with the eventual aim of setting up our own submarine arm. The British would not agree to give us their latest Oberon class boats but offered the vintage WW II T-class boats, which were of no use to us. Eventually, the impasse was broken when the erstwhile USSR offered their F-class boats of (I) 641 design, the letter I denoting the export version.
Birth of the Arm
After negotiations and contract conclusion for four boats of the Kalveri class, the first batch of Indian officers and sailors were deputed in 1966 to Vladivostok under the charge of Cdr K Subramanian. The Indian Navy’s submarine arm formally came into existence on December 08, 1967 with the commissioning of INS Kalveri under the command of Cdr K Subramanian. Simultaneously, sanctions were also accorded to acquire a submarine depot ship and a submarine rescue ship as also to set up shore support facilities of a submarine base INS Virbahu. During the next few years, the rest three boats viz the INS Khanderi, the INS Karanj and the INS Kursura under the command of Cdr MN Vasudeva, Cdr MN Sawant and Cdr A Auditto were also inducted. The INS Amba was commissioned in December 1968 and the INS Nistar in 1971. The submarine base INS Virbahu was commissioned on May 19, 1971. The 8th submarine Squadron comprising these four boats was stationed at Visakhapatnam under the charge of Captain K Subramanian, VSM. IN submarines Khanderi and Karanj under the command of Lt Cdr Roy Milan and Lt Cdr VS Shekhawat (later Chief of Naval Staff) played their part in the 1971 war and both the commanding officers were decorated with Vir Chakra.
The decade of the 1970s was a period of consolidation of the submarine arm…
Induction of the 9th SM Squadron
Based on the experience gained, the Government of India accorded sanction to acquire four more of the F-class submarines called the Vela class. These were improvement on the Kalveri class in terms of better sonar, improved stealth features and better Fire Control System (FCS). These boats were inducted from 1973 to 1974 with the last of them INS Vaghsheer commissioned on December 26, 1974. They were based in Bombay as the 9th Submarine Squadron with INS Amba as the base support ship under the command of (once again) Captain K Subramanian.
Period of Consolidation
The decade of the 1970s was a period of consolidation of the submarine arm. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), operational doctrines, maintenance and repair regimes were validated. Training was another priority area and complete training was carried out in-house at INS Satvahana at Visakhapatnam, which was commissioned on December 24, 1974. Till then the alma mater of the arm INS Virbahu fulfilled that function. The submarine arm had an excellent track record of safety of operations as it was ingrained in each person that the DOs and DON’Ts laid down were written in the blood of a submariner and were inviolate. This became the ethos and creed of every submariner. In the past couple of years, this record has been marred a bit due to a couple of serious accidents including the loss of a boat. It is hoped that the right lessons have been drawn to prevent any recurrence.
Modernisation: Shishumar Class
In the late 1970s, it was felt that the submarine arm must diversify as also induct the next generation of boats to keep with contemporary technology. Accordingly, German type 209 boats (Type 1500 after incorporating IN requirements) were to be inducted and built indigenously. The first two of the Shishumar class, called Shishumar and Shankush, were to be built at HDW in Kiel with personnel from the Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), design team, overseeing team and the Dockyard team for maintenance aspects participating in the construction. These were inducted in September 1986 and March 1987 under the command of Cdr P Bhate and Cdr OP Sharma. The latter two built at MDL were inducted in October 1992 and May 1994 under the command of Cdr KN Sushil and Lt Cdr PK Chatterjee respectively. This induction represented high-end technology with wire-guided torpedoes and sophisticated combat systems.
In 1984, a contract was also concluded with the erstwhile USSR for acquiring six boats of the EKM 877 (Kilo class) called the Sindhughosh class. These were extremely silent and highly automated boats just like the Shishumar class with advanced weapons and vastly improved sea-keeping qualities submerged. Initially six boats were contracted for; but eventually eight of them were inducted till 1992 and two more in December 1997 and July 2000. The last of the boats inducted viz the INS Sindhushastra hailed a landmark as it was the first conventional boat in the IN to be equipped with the anti-ship cruise missile of the ‘Klub’ family. This represented a paradigm shift in the sense that the sphere of influence of its weapon exceeded a range of 200 km.
The initial efforts towards nuclear powered propulsion on submarines were started in the early 1970s with little headway…
Modernisation of In-service Submarines
Regular half-life refits were undertaken for all classes of boats as and when they fell due. However, as the F-class boats were ageing and due for their capital refits, they were to be phased out gradually. Greater focus was given to modernisation of the Shishumar and Sindhughosh classes during their modernisation so as to significantly enhance their effectiveness. Towards this end starting from 1998, modernisation of both these submarines were planned to continue well into the next decade. The Sindhughosh became the first Kilo class to be upgraded to a land attack capability with it being equipped with the 3M-14 land attack missile of the Klub family. Progressively the other Kilo class boats were also upgraded. The Shishumar class boats were upgraded in their sensors and weapons capability.
Cognisant of the need to become self-reliant, it was also envisaged to revive the submarine building line at MDL which had gone idle ever since the last of Shishumar class viz INS Shankul had been launched in end-1992. The plan to build the fifth and the sixth boats had suffered a grievous setback due to the HDW scandal. As a result, the country lost out on skilled workers and absorbed practices in submarine building to the benefit of other countries to which many workers migrated. Accordingly, a 30-year submarine building plan was conceived to enable the series production of submarines indigenously. This plan got the Government’s approval in 1999. Under this plan, Project 75 for construction of six submarines based on a Western design and six submarines of a design sourced from Eastern origin (Russia included) under Project 75(I) were to be constructed with the participation of the Indian industry both, Private and Public.
A contract with Thales/DCNS International was concluded to construct six submarines based on the Scorpene design at MDL in October 2005. Although there are some delays, the first of these boats to be named Kalveri is likely to be delivered by the end of 2016 and one boat every nine months thereafter. These boats are highly sophisticated and of contemporary design. The weapons envisaged on these platforms are state-of-the-art torpedoes and the Exocet anti-ship missile.
The Project has been inordinately delayed and it is hoped that the powers that be, address the issue to implement this at the earliest especially in view of the depleting force levels due to ageing of the in-service boats. It is hoped that the logic of having two sources of design would be followed so that in future we are not held hostage. Further, we would be enabled to incorporate the best of the features from the two designs when we design indigenously.
The first of the indigenously-built boats under the ATV programme, Arihant, represents a quantum leap in our capability…
It is understood that to obviate the delay in execution of the indigenous building plans, capital refits (Repeat Medium Refits) of the existing boats are being undertaken.
The Nuclear Saga: Initial Efforts
The initial efforts towards nuclear powered propulsion on submarines were started in the early 1970s with little headway. Earnest steps were taken only in the 1980s when negotiations were started with the erstwhile USSR on a possible lease of a nuclear-powered submarine to train personnel as also to help indigenous development efforts. These negotiations led to an agreement for training our crew in the operation of a nuclear boat. A large contingent of officers and sailors was deputed to Vladivostok in 1983 for comprehensive training in this discipline unknown to the IN. The author of this article was part of this group and also formed part of the commissioning crew as the First Lieutenant and Operations Officer. The submarine christened INS Chakra, a Charlie class nuclear-powered submarine with cruise missiles (SSGN, was inducted into the Indian Navy on January 05, 1988, on a three-year lease. It played a very significant part in our efforts to operate and develop a nuclear-powered boat. The submarine was returned to the USSR on expiry of the lease period on January 04, 1991.
The first of the indigenously-built boats under the ATV programme, Arihant, represents a quantum leap in our capability. It has been a purely indigenous effort of many years with a little nudge from our strategic partner Russia. The missile system and the underwater launch capability are fully indigenous and that must be commended. The submarine, classified as a SSBN, is capable of launching K-15 Missile with a range of 750 km and K-4 ICBM with a range of 3,500 km. For a nuclear weapon nation, with a declared policy of ‘No First Use’ the Arihant gives us a truly deterrent second strike capability as the essential part of the nuclear triad. As is understood, the boat has nearly completed all the trials and should be commissioned in near future. The series followons are also well on the way.
The second nuclear submarine known as Chakra II was inducted, as understood, on a ten-year lease in April 2012. This is a vast improvement on the Chakra I as this boat displaces twice the amount compared to the former, has maximum speeds in excess of 30 knots and with a reactor twice as powerful as that of the Chakra I, and more advanced weapons including tube-launched missiles. The Government has also in the recent past, given the go-ahead for the construction of six SSNs or nuclear powered attack submarines.
Command and Control
Taking into account the expanding footsteps of the submarine force levels and operations, the IN leadership kept abreast of the situation and created the post of Flag Officer, Submarines (FOSM) in 1987 with his headquarters at Visakhapatnam. He was to be the Line Officer to lay down doctrines, SOPs, Inspection protocols, Policy Directives, Promulgation of Submarine General and Temporary Memoranda, Training, conduct of Operational Readiness Inspections (ORI) and cadre management. Similarly, ACNS(SM) at Naval Headquarters was put in place to coordinate the staff aspects related to the Submarine Arm. As the nuclear part of the submarine arm progressed a 3-star Admiral, as Inspector General Nuclear Safety (IGNS) was instituted to look all matters related to this discipline. The Submarine operating authorities continue to be the FOs C-in-C who, discharge their functions through the respective Commodore Commanding Submarines (COMCOS).
Optimization of Force Levels
What is the optimum force level of a submarine fleet? This is not an easy question to answer. It depends on a variety of factors such as the missions and roles envisaged, radii and theatres of operations, availability of trained manpower and its turnover, types of weapons deployed, perceived threats, enemy’s ASW resources, hydrological conditions in the envisaged area of operations, maintenance philosophy and capacity. There is no exact formula but empirical iterations can give a reasonable estimate of the numbers needed. In a nuclear deterrence role, the problem is simpler. The usual deployable ratio is taken as two-thirds of the total number that would be available for deployment and a third would be under maintenance. This would be possible provided the maintenance capacity is working to optimum efficiency. Any slippage in that will skew the deployable ratio.
In a nuclear deterrence mission, if one platform has to be on station, then a minimum of three are needed. If there are two operational theatres as in our case (West and East) then this number goes up. In our scenario, one would require at least five strategic boats with adequate weapon reach. In case of conventional boats, the problem is more complex. Based on an analysis, it is envisaged that we should have a sustained inventory of 24 conventional submarines to cater to our two-theatre scenario. Given the deployable factor, eighteen boats should be available at a given time. From our existing force levels, it would be seen that even with the induction of Scorpenes as planned and the foreseen retirement of older submarines, we would still be short. This, therefore, adds to the criticality of the accelerated implementation of the 30-year plan. In fact, we may have to resort to short-term measures such as outright acquisition of a couple of conventional platforms.
Ratio of SSNs to Conventional Boats (SSKs)
The availability of SSNs can ease the pressure to maintain the desired force levels of conventional platforms. This is simply because of the mobility, reach and the endurance it provides. Because of this characteristic, the SSN can easily cover twice the area of influence of a conventional boat if not more. Thus, if there is a combination of SSNs and SSKs that is available, then optimisation could be done in two-third to one-third ratio, i.e. two-third conventional and one-third SSNs. This is the rule of thumb that must be validated by operational research techniques.
The submarine arm of the Indian Navy is in its 50th year of existence. From a small force of Foxtrot class, it leapfrogged into high tech boats in just 25 years of its coming into being. By then, it had also made forays into operating a nuclear submarine and internalised its nuances and discipline, which is quite a different way of life from that on a conventional boat. In this journey, it has also graduated to deploying submarine-launched cruise missiles and smart wire-guided torpedoes. It has come a long way in maintenance procedures and protocols and the naval dockyards are capable of handling current refits and gaining valuable insights in medium and half-life refits. The indigenous construction of the is yet another milestone achieved. The greatest stride, even though long in coming, has been the indigenous construction of the SSBN Arihant. The conventional boats of the Shishumar and Sindhughosh class with their stand-off range weapons and missile capability had come to acquire the nom de guerre of ‘the sword arm’ of the IN. The Arihant with its ICBM capability and an assured deterrence of second strike could really be called the ‘shield’ of the nation.
It has been a phenomenal journey of grit, determination and growth. However, a lot of ground is yet to be covered. The growth has to be sustained, the indigenous series construction accelerated, development of critical systems such as sensors and combat systems indigenously given the necessary impetus, short-term measures to correct the imbalance in force levels taken and above all, maintain an impeccable safety record. Given that all such measures are taken, the Golden Jubilee of this formidable arm will be truly epic in December 2017.