November 10, 2013:
Desperate to do something to improve its rapidly declining submarine force, India is now talking to German manufacturers about upgrading the four German subs in Indian service so these boats can fire Harpoon anti-ship missiles. India also wants to upgrade the 48 AEG-SUT Mod-1 heavy torpedoes that (in addition to naval mines) arm the German U209 subs India owns. There is also a search for someone to supply towed sonar arrays for 16 Indian surface ships. India has delayed upgrading submarine detection equipment on these ships and now seeks to make up for that, and then some, by obtaining towed sonar array gear, which is the most effective submarine detection equipment available for surface ships.
The process of buying torpedo upgrades and towed sonar arrays is not so simple in a place like India. Consider some of the recent problems that have been encountered while trying to build six French Scorpene submarines (under license) in India. The problems are usually caused by poor management or politics. An example of this occurred earlier this year with the departure of 10 Spanish technical advisors for the Scorpenes. Their contract expired at the end of March and, despite the expiration date being well known, Indian bureaucrats were unable to get a new contract in place on time. Similar avoidable delays have occurred several times already and the price has gone up with each delay. In 2012 it was announced that the first Scorpene sub would not be ready until 2015, because of similar screw-ups. The new delays push that to 2017. The hulls of all six Scorpenes have been completed, but filling those subs up with all the necessary equipment is an even more difficult task, in large part because India insists that some of that equipment be manufactured in India, and that introduces even more complications and delays. Indian firms have a spotty track record in this area.
The overall plan was to have a dozen new subs in service by the end of the decade. At present, there will be (with a bit of luck) three or four of them in service by then. The procurement bureaucracy is still seeking a supplier for the second batch of six diesel-electric subs. This second six probably won’t even begin arriving by the end of the decade. It's hard to say, although the defense procurement nabobs speak of "fast tracking" this project, but long-time observers are not expecting speed.
There's some urgency to all this because five of India's 16 diesel-electric subs (10 Kilo, 2 Foxtrot class Russian built boats, and 4 German Type 209s) were to be retired (some are already semi-retired because of age and infirmity) by 2013. But because of the Scorpene delays, the Type 209s (which entered service between 1987 and 1994) are being kept in service (but not allowed out to sea much) for several more years, and some upgrades are being considered to keep these boats operational into the 2020s. Because the 2 elderly Foxtrots are in really bad shape India will only have 14 subs for the next few years (until the first Scorpenes are ready). Several of the older Kilos will reach retirement age because of old age or accidents in the next few years. One Kilo did have an explosive accident recently and was a total loss. Thus, by the time the first Scorpene arrives in 2017, India will only have 5 or 6 working subs unless some of the elderly but still operational ones can get some quick refurbishment. But India wants to do more of this weapons related work in India. The experience to date is that when that approach is used things always take much longer to do and the work is often sloppy. India believes it needs at least 18 non-nuclear subs in service to deal with Pakistan and China but soon only about half that number will be available.
India is also building and buying nuclear subs. India received a Russian Akula nuclear attack (SSN) sub last year. This one is on lease with the option to buy. Now India is seeking to lease/purchase another Akula. Indian SSNs and SSBNs (missile carrying boats) are under development, as they have been for decades. With the usual delays this is taking longer than in the West (or Russia and China). Part of the solution is the insistence on building the Scorpene subs in India. This will leave India with thousands of workers and specialists experienced in building modern submarines. All that will be wasted because the defense procurement bureaucrats seem to have learned nothing. These officials already caused numerous delays and cost overruns during negotiations to build these diesel-electric submarines. The bureaucrats mismanaged this deal to the extent that it is now five years behind schedule. But it is even more behind schedule if you count the several years the Indian bureaucrats delayed it even getting started. The delays and mismanagement have so far increased the cost of the $4 billion project by 25 percent (to $834 million per sub).
The original plan was to have the first Indian built Scorpene delivered at the end of 2012. But now, because of problems getting the construction facilities and skilled workmen ready, the first Scorpene won't be delivered until 2017, with one each year after that until all six are delivered. That schedule is subject to change and probably will, for the worse. The Scorpene project has been typical of how defense projects are mismanaged in India. After the bureaucrats and politicians dithered for nearly a decade, in 2005 India finally signed a deal to buy six French Scorpene class boats. The delays led to the French increasing prices on some key components and India has had some problems in getting production going on their end. The first Scorpene was to be built in France, with the other five built in India. While some problems were expected (India has been doing license manufacturing of complex weapons for decades), the defense ministry procurement bureaucrats never ceased to amaze when it came to delaying work or just getting in the way.
The Scorpenes are similar to the Agosta 90B subs (also French) that Pakistan recently bought. The first of the Agostas was built in France, but the other two were built in Pakistan. The Scorpenes purchase was seen as a response to the Pakistani Agostas. The Scorpene are a more recent design, the result of cooperation between French and Spanish sub builders. The Agosta is a 1,500 ton (surface displacement) diesel-electric sub with a 36 man crew and four 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes (with 20 torpedoes and/or anti-ship missiles carried). The Scorpene is a little heavier (1,700 tons), has a smaller crew (32), and is a little faster. It has six 533mm torpedo tubes and carries 18 torpedoes and/or missiles. Both models can be equipped with an AIP (air independent propulsion) system. This enables the sub to stay under longer, thus making the sub harder to find. AIP allows the sub to travel under water for more than a week, at low speed (5-10 kilometers an hour). Two of the Indian Scorpenes are to have Indian made AIP installed. That will cause further delays because the Indian AIP is encountering technical and bureaucratic problems.
While India was largely concerned with the Pakistani navy when the Scorpene contract was negotiated and signed, China is now seen as the primary adversary. The Chinese subs are not as effective as the Pakistani Agosta boats, both because of less advanced technology and less well trained crews. India could use their Scorpenes to confront any Chinese attempt to expand their naval presence into the Indian Ocean. Thus the delays and cost overruns with the Scorpenes are causing quite a lot of commotion in India. At the rate India is going, it will be over a decade of construction before all six of the Scorpenes are in service. At that point India would have about a dozen subs (including nuclear powered models under construction). China will have over 60 boats, about 20 percent of them nuclear. China does have a lot for its warships to deal with off its coasts and in the Western Pacific but it does retain the capability of putting more subs off the Indian coast than the Indian Navy can.