Submarines: Indian Scorpene Scandal Sizzles

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April 7, 2015: India's effort to build six French Scorpene submarines under license has been delayed once again. That previous delay was in late 2014 when India said the first Scorpene would enter service in late 2016. Before that (2012) it was announced that the first Scorpene sub would not be ready until 2015. The most recent delays (caused by problems procuring components) will delay the first Scorpene until 2017, or later. The problem is mainly poor management by the Indian firms building the Scorpenes. One of the worst examples of this occurred in 2013 with the departure of ten Spanish technical advisors for the Scorpenes. Their contract expired at the end of March 2013 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.

Building the subs in India is very important because it will leave India with thousands of workers and specialists experienced in building modern submarines. But it appears that all this 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 more than 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 purchase contract was finally signed in 2005. The delays and mismanagement have so far increased the cost of the $4 billion project by 25 percent (to $834 million per sub).

In contrast Malaysia ordered two Scorpenes in 2002. These were built in Spain and France and delivered seven years later. 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 (at the earliest), with one each year after that until all six are delivered. That schedule is subject to change and probably will, for the worse.

After the bureaucrats and politicians dithered for nearly a decade India finally signed a deal to buy the Scorpene in 2005, The delays led to the French increasing prices on some key components and India has 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.

All this ineffective urgency is in play because India's submarine fleet is dying of old age and new boats are not going to arrive in time. It's not like this was a surprise, but the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy has long been noted as slow, sloppy, and stubborn, especially in the face of demands that it speed up. The twisted tale of the tardy submarines is particularly painful.

The 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.

Because of the Scorpene delays, some of the elderly Type 209s are being kept in service (but not allowed out to sea much) for several more years. Meanwhile several of the older Kilos have reached retirement age. Thus, by the time the first Scorpene arrives in 2017, India will only have five or six working subs. India believes it needs at least 18 non-nuclear subs in service to deal with Pakistan and China.

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. Moreover, 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.

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. Indian SSNs and SSBNs (missile carrying boats) are under development, as they have been for decades.

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 boats, both because of less advanced technology and less well trained crews. Pakistan noted this and recently ordered eight late-model Chinese subs. 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. But at the rate India is going, it will take some 15 years 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 can the Indian Navy.

 

 


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