Defence Industry

A Strategic Dilemma: Fast Depleting Submarine Force Levels
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Issue Vol. 29.4 Oct-Dec 2014 | Date : 09 Sep , 2015

INS Arihant

As far as submarine design expertise is concerned – India is at present at the initiation point of the learning curve. The submarine design capability curves of others like USA, Russia, UK and France have more or less peaked to a plateau. After the Cold War ended – the design effort in that direction tapered off and accordingly the availability of skill levels have also deteriorated. A serious debate is raging among the major maritime powers as to how to sustain the submarine design capabilities built up painfully over the years. The USA is re-orienting its build strategy to a process involving a seamless design exercise termed Integrated Product and Process Development (IIPD)

Historical Perspective

The Indian Navy (IN) has had a long standing aspiration for building a credible submarine arm. The government on the other hand, initially opposed the idea on ideological/ethical grounds. It considered the submarine as an offensive weapons platform. The policy went to the extent of blocking the acquisition of submarines even for purposes of preparing the IN for anti-submarine warfare. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the IN had to make do with British Royal Naval (RN) submarines once a year, during the Commonwealth Joint Exercises off Trincomalee (JETEX). The Navy’s weakness in this domain was manifest in the loss of INS Khukri during a submarine active search operation against Pakistan Navy’s Daphne class submarine in 1971.

The Scorpene contract concluded in 2005 with DCN of France was to form Phase I of the long-term programme…

It was only in the early 1960s that the government relented on its stand and for the first time agreed to depute a group of officers for submarine training to the UK. However, by then, the UK government had changed its mind about selling a modern submarine to the IN. Fortunately, around the same time – the erstwhile USSR expressed its willingness to make available a contemporary submarine to the IN. The induction of I641 class (F class) submarine commenced in December 1967. Since then, the IN has steadily built up its submarine arm. Further induction of submarines of Project 877EKM from the USSR and HDW/IKL type 1500 SSK submarines from Germany, was initiated in the 1980s. In the intervening period, the tactical, operational and strategic skills of the IN on submarines were honed to perfection. Maintenance and repair skills up to Medium Repairs of I641 class submarines were also developed.

In anticipation of building indigenous capability for design and development of submarines – academic training on design was initiated at the RN College at Greenwich and the Grechko Naval Academy at Leningrad in the USSR. This was included as part of the Post Graduate courses for Naval Architects abroad. In the 1980s, the IN took another baby step forward by including design know-how and know-why transfer as a part of Transfer of Technology (ToT) in the HDW contract. Under that clause, a multi-disciplinary design team was deputed to Professor Aben Gobbler’s unit at Kiel/Lubek. This team has been the backbone of the Submarine Design Group (SDG) with the IN.

The design group had the confidence of undertaking any modification that could come up during the service life of the Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft (HDW) boat. They also considered themselves capable of taking on a single hull submarine’s design ab initio. Since this would have been the first such attempt in India, validation of design and linked hydro-dynamic model tests would perforce have had to be undertaken by a reputed design agency with an established track record.

Australia has never designed a submarine before…

Another handicap was the non-availability of basic information including technical specifications and vendor details of machinery, equipment and components that form part of a submarine, in generic and specific terms. This would have been essential for taking on any fresh systems design. Progress on such a strategic objective got derailed due to the political/contractual fallout linked to the alleged Bofors/HDW scam.1 Regrettably, the first casualty was the production process itself and Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) was left high and dry. In course of time, all the production skills acquired were dissipated through retirement/migration of personnel with the appropriate technical knowledge and skills to other industries.

At the time of kick off of the follow on Direction des Construction Navale (DCN) Scorpene submarine programme – MDL had to start from scratch and train/acquire the basic skills and infrastructure all over again. Providentially, the design competence imbibed by the individuals trained in Kiel and Lubeck was meticulously preserved in the Submarine Design Group (SDG) archives at NHQ. Additionally, the timing coincided with the launch of the indigenous nuclear submarine programme. The core element of HDW trained design team could be conveniently, redeployed for this strategic programme. Considerable reorientation had to be undertaken in view of the conflicting design route chosen (i.e. single hull vs. double hull configuration). This collaborative engagement with the design consultant has now fructified into INS Arihant going critical and is scheduled to commence sea trials by end of the year2.

In 2002, an in-principle approval of the Cabinet Committee was accorded to the IN’s thirty year submarine building programme. In the first ten years, it was envisaged that there would be licensed production of submarines followed by indigenous design, development and production.3,4 The Scorpene contract concluded in 2005 with DCN of France was to form Phase I of the long-term programme. To build up the fast depleting force level – a parallel submarine building programme was also conceived for the East coast.

Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s imagination – the Scorpene project has slipped drastically and totally put out of gear the approved long-term, force building programme for which Acceptance of Necessity (AON) was accorded in November 20075. This has put severe pressure on the need for accelerating the induction of the Project 75I programme. Assuming that we are already nearing the half-way mark of the long-term programme initiated in 2002 – legitimate questions being seriously asked now are:

The IN has adequately proved its credentials with regard to its commitment to indigenisation…

  • Where do we stand on building the requisite indigenous design capability which forms an important non-negotiable technological strategic requirement and was planned to be implemented by 2032?
  • What needs to be done to ensure adherence to that commitment – not forgetting the other overbearing strategic requirement of maintaining the minimum submarine force levels i.e Order of Battle (ORBAT)?
  • Why is a design, development and production Joint Venture partnership still a necessity for Project 75I in spite of:

i. Submarine design know-how and know-why having been transferred as part of the HDW contract by mid-1980s.

ii. The TOT in respect of the ongoing Scorpene project.

iii. Submarine design, development and construction expertise consolidated in context of INS Arihant.

iv. Medium repair capability acquired in the late 1970s at great expense/effort by Naval Dockyard Vishakhapatnam on I641 submarine and capital repair capability on all submarine machinery and equipment.

The strategic need for expeditiously building up of the submarine force level and establishing full indigenous design and development capability are two sides of the same coin. In this paper, the thrust is on identifying ways and means of accelerating the creation of indigenous design capability.

Global Scenario

Study of submarine programmes of the US clearly show that in spite of their long experience in submarine design and development and a well established industrial base – the estimated duration for their next generation of nuclear powered submarine is estimated to be as follows6:

The traditional distinct design phases involved in the US practice are as follows. These are very similar to that followed by India too – except that the nomenclatures used may be slightly different:

  • Concept design
  • Preliminary design
  • Contract design
  • Detail design

As far as submarine design expertise is concerned – India is at present at the initiation point of the learning curve. The submarine design capability curves of others like USA, Russia, UK and France have more or less peaked to a plateau. After the Cold War ended – the design effort in that direction tapered off and accordingly the availability of skill levels have also deteriorated. A serious debate is raging among the major maritime powers as to how to sustain the submarine design capabilities built up painfully over the years. The USA is re-orienting its build strategy to a process involving a seamless design exercise termed Integrated Product and Process Development (IIPD)7.

Australia is going through a similar predicament. Its oldest Collin Class submarine will reach the end of its thirty-year service life in mid-2020 and the remainder five of the Class would follow suit sequentially. Australia has never designed a submarine before. The Australians engaged RAND to evaluate their capability and capacity to design conventional submarine. The study estimated that the design task would call for an estimated twelve million man-hours over a period of fifteen years and followed by a period of seven years for construction. At its peak, this would mean a pool of approximately 900 submarine-proficient draftsman and engineers in the industry and 170 oversight personnel in government departments.8,9 India needs to seriously consider all these developments while deciding on its strategy.

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Indigenisation Perspective

At this stage, it is interesting to take note of the comparative indigenisation particulars in respect of the leading Indian aircraft manufacturer Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (HAL) and ship builder MDL. For the year 2010–2011, the import content in respect of HAL and MDL is reported to have been of the order of 69.65 per cent and 37.38 per cent respectively. In the case of HAL, the level of consumption in respect of import raw material, components and spare parts works out to almost 87 per cent of the above figures.10,11

Comparing the above data with those achieved by the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) programme in respect of Arihant and the indicative figures for the follow-on submarine would be very revealing. It is expected that by the end of the present series production, the project would achieve an across-the-board indigenisation level of over 95 per cent on cost basis. That model needs to be emulated in other ship and submarine building and other indigenisation projects as well.

INS Scorpene

The achievements of its work centre, the Defence Machinery Development Establishment (DMDE) would be an eye opener. It would be well worth the while for the IN to study this model and incorporate the same in its indigenisation programme including establishing a DMDE clone. Other work centres have also performed equally well.

The IN has adequately proved its credentials with regard to its commitment to indigenisation. To effectively and efficiently exploit the indigenous potential further, there is a need for a mindset change within the IN and particularly in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The entire Higher Defence Management (HDM) organisational structure needs to be re-oriented on a functional basis – similar to the global practice. The recommended organisation structure to fulfil such a requirement with specific reference to the IN is illustrated at Figure-1.12,13 This, in principle, is also in conformity with an objective set in the Kelkar Committee report. It recommended the restructuring of the acquisition wing of the MoD along the lines of Direction Generale de L’armament (DGA) – the French defence procurement organisation.

INS Arihant going critical on August 10, 201314 gave further impetus and confidence to the competence level of the ATV model. The model clearly demonstrates how a professional autonomous body, devoid of any conventional bureaucratic baggage, can deliver such a complex object, as a nuclear submarine. The core content of the organisational model would need to be adapted and incorporated in the restructuring process recommended.

At this point of time, a legitimate question being asked is as to where India stands on giving priority to building indigenous submarine design capability. It would seem that we are once again seriously considering going in for a Joint Venture (JV) production agreement for the Project 75I. The need for building up of the submarine force level at an accelerated pace is strategically unquestionable. It is reported that the IN has reconciled itself to living with the situation and manage the interim by modernising the existing boats.15 With the dismal record of HSL in undertaking Medium Repairs (MR) of one 877EKM boat, presumably, all the modernisation of the remaining 877EKM boats would be offloaded to Russia, as hitherto.

Where does India stands on giving priority to building indigenous submarine design capability?

The tragic loss of INS Sindhurakshak is a serious body blow to the IN pushing the submarine ORBAT level below acceptable norms. At the same time, the issue of acquiring indigenous submarine design capability is an equally compelling strategic technological objective and forms part of the approved thirty-year submarine capability building exercise.


In the above circumstances, it is suggested that in the debate leading to the evolution of the strategy for formulating the Request for Proposal (RFP) for Project 75I and finalising the JV Agreement, the following overriding criteria should be seriously considered and conflicting interests duly resolved. Such an opportunity is rare and India must not miss the boat again:

  • The urgency of filling up the fast depleting submarine force levels.
  • The strategic necessity for establishing an alternative construction site on the East coast of India.
  • The strategic technological compulsions of acquiring an autonomous submarine design capability.
  • Since the ATV programme has attained reasonable confidence in design capability in respect of a nuclear powered submarine with double-hull configuration, priority be accorded to acquire single-hull design capability also.
  • Make a professional and pragmatic judgement regarding choice between the two categories i.e. single hull/double hull that would optimally meet the Navy’s operational requirement.
  • Taking into account India’s past experience with licenced production of HDW type 1500 SSK submarine and DCNS Scorpene submarine, ensure that no compromise is made on the issue of TOT on design know-how and know-why. A conscious and determined decision may be taken to ensure that this opportunity is not allowed to slip out of hand.
  • For achieving India’s indigenisation goals, the proposed RFP should incorporate the requirement of using the Indian pressure hull steel on 75I submarine. This should be introduced at least commencing with those submarine proposed to be built in the new shipyard. Indian designers must be fully involved with the design/professional assessment of the implications and if called for, with any process of consequential redesigning work. With one stroke of the pen, incorporation of such a provision in the Agreement would, on its own, provide on a platter an estimated 15 to 20 per cent indigenous component to the overall cost of the boat.
  • Expeditiously cloning ATV’s DMDE model and going piggy-back on all the indigenous vendors that the ATV project has painstakingly developed, could be a bonanza on the indigenisation front.
  • If necessary, negotiate a separate comprehensive Government-to-Government Protocol intrinsically linked to the main Agreement-/Contract. The leverage that India has at this stage of negotiation should not be squandered. Such an opportunity will not repeat itself. All loose ends must be clearly resolved including:

i. Access to design software, linked empirical formulae/design coefficient and a comprehensive catalogue of submarine component data along with global vendor particulars in the NATO Codification System (NCS) format.

ii. Full joint design collaboration with the parent Design Bureau including systems design, design validation at all stages and in all disciplines, model hydro-dynamic/acoustic/shock/vibration testing.

iii. Whether these are achieved under the offsets clause or otherwise, is a matter of detail.

iv. Need for raising the FDI cap under the ToT on cutting edge technology clause.

It is most unlikely that the desired extent of cooperation would be forthcoming from any submarine industrial base enshrined within a capitalist economy. In the case of France, both the Defence Minister and the Ambassador, on separate occasions, have indicated their limitations in agreeing to part with submarine design know-how and know why to India.16,17 The signals from USA are not much different.19

It is most unlikely that the desired extent of cooperation would be forthcoming from any submarine industrial base enshrined within a capitalist economy…

  • To meet the immediate shortfall in submarine ORBAT status following out-of-the box options could be considered. These, however seem to have already been discounted18.

i. Suitable lease arrangement from friendly countries.

ii. Outright off-the-shelf purchase of submarine.

iii. Offloading additional submarine supply from OEM shipyards.

  • Over and above, all the options discussed earlier, in case the negotiations fail to achieve the break through expected from the Western sources, India should not then hesitate in taking up a joint submarine design collaboration agreement as an adjunct to the production contract with a Russian shipyard-cum-design bureau consortium. This would carry forward our proven valuable experience and confidence levels already built up in the sister ATV programme. If in the Indian context, the single hull configuration has an overwhelming operational advantage, even that could be accommodated in the Russian collaboration option. Adapting such a route would also have the additional advantage of furthering our indigenisation goals by being able to use without great difficulty, the submarine pressure hull steel already developed and cleared for use on Indian SSBNs. Large numbers of Indian vendors meticulously nurtured under the ATV Programme could be usefully harnessed to meet the requirements of 75I and follow-on project.
  • When selecting the second production line for 75I submarine, due consideration could be given to private sector shipyards also. Taking into account the serious limitations that the IN would have in creating and retaining the required large additional design cadre personnel, due consideration be given to offloading most of the design functions to private partners. L&T, for example, has established credibility in this field in the ATV programme. The IN could retain the responsibility of formulating the concept design and offload the tasks of Preliminary, Detail design and Production/working drawings under a PPP arrangement. All these must be seriously considered and incorporated at the RFP stage and concluded as an adjunct and intrinsic to the 75I Agreement.
  • Also, extract the maximum from Navy’s long-standing warm relationship with the Russian Design Bureau Neptune and Krylov Design Institute. This has been further strengthened by the technical cooperation agreement struck between the National Institute of Research and Development in Defence Ship-Building (NIRDESH) at Chinliyan near Calicut and the Krylov Institute.


1. A.P Revi, “India’s Indigenous Submarine – The Design Dilemma”, Indian Defence Review, Vol. 27(3), July-Sept 2012, p. 52.

2. Revi, “Arihant, The Annihilator,” Indian Defence Review, Vol. 24(4) Oct-Dec 2009, p. 45.

3. TNN; 25 Jan 2002. <>

4. V.Adm R.N Ganesh, “Future Tense, S/M As A Potential Instrument Of Sea Power,” Indian Defence Review, V. 20(3)

5. Cmde Ranjit Rai, “Indian Navy’s Second Submarine Line Will Witness Strong Competition”, Indian Strategic,

6. John F Sehank and Co, Sustaining US Nuclear s/m Design Capability. RAND Report. National Defence Research Institute USA. Figures 3.6 and 3.7.

7. Ibid, p. 15.

8. RAND Report:

9. John Birker, Industry & Infrastructure for Future s/m: An International Perspective Speech presented at the s/m Institute of Australia’s Biennial Conference in Perth, Nov 2010. Some of the suggested actions for Australia are already part of India’s ATV Programme.

10. Laksman Kumar Behra, Indian Defence Industry – Issue of Self Reliance, IDSA Monograph series 21, July 2013.

11. S.N Misra, Ship Building, India Strategic.

12. Revi ‘Restructuring India’s Military – Out of Box Option’. Figures 5.3 & 6.46. Chapter 5, 6 and 10. Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi. June 2012.

13. A.P Revi, Faultlines in Civil Military Framework: in India & Way Forward, Defence Studies, London, Vol. 14 Issue 2, June 2014. pp. 134–160.

14. T.S Subramaniam Critical Feat. Front Line 06 September 2013.

15. Rajat Pandit ‘Navy Drops Call for Foreign Subs After Project Delayed’. TOI 08 September 2014.

16. Francois Richier the French Ambassador to India. During an interactive session after his address to the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi on ‘What Makes the Indo-French Relation Special – Understanding the Dynamics of Strategic Partnership’, 11 Feb 2013.

17. Jean Yves Le Drian – the French Defence Minister at an interactive session after a lecture at the IDSA on Indo-French Partnership: The Choice of Strategic Autonomy, 22 July 2013.

18. Joint Statement at the end of the Indo-US Strategic Dialogue of 24 June 2013 are not encouraging in respect of any possibility of going beyond coproduction.

19. Serial 14 Ibid.

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