India’s submarine production

The Sindhurakshak tragedy raises many issues, among them, the danger of close-berthing of warships and submarines in the crowded Mumbai docks and the need urgently to commission the Karwar base to host most of the Western Fleet and take the pressure off Mumbai harbour and, given the dangerous depletion in submarine strength, the urgency to lease Kilo subs from, say, Vietnam, which has acquired six of them and whose submarine crews are being trained here, and move quickly on Project 75i – the supposed final step before full indigenization of diesel submarine design and production.

Strangely, while the navy’s strategic-minded leadership has a firm grip on issues relating to surface combatants, confidence deserts them when it comes to in-country production of conventional submarines (SSKs). This is perplexing considering the expertise the navy has gained in designing, project management, and system integration in the programme to produce nuclear-powered submarines. As follow-on to the three Arihant-class ballistic missile-firing boats (SSBNs), a bigger, more advanced, SSBN is in the pre-production phase, and a design for nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine (SSN) is nearing firm-up. Navy’s plan was to learn from and absorb the best attributes of the western and Russian submarines and to gain from their differing design philosophies and manufacturing techniques, and to use them to come up with a wholly new design and indigenous production regime for a diesel hunter-killer submarine (SSK) to constitute the navy’s bulk sea denial force. The concept of parallel production lines realized with the selection of the HDW 209 German submersible quickly unravelled with the financial scandal attending on that deal struck during the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency of the mid-1970s – a fore-runner of defence scams that have blotted defence acquisitions ever since. Its local production proceeded with the customary delays and cost-over-runs the defence public sector units (DPSUs) are habituated to until it was abandoned. The corpus of hard-gained production competence and industrial skills by the Mazgaon shipyard in disciplines such as high-pressure welding to achieve micron tolerances, were thus wasted because successor governments, including those headed by the Congress party, distanced themselves from the taint of the original scandal. In the meantime, the Russian Kilos were acquired to fill the breach.

Some twenty years on another western submarine was chosen, Scorpene from France. A deal was finalized in 2006 by yet another Congress government and, once again, allegations of illegal payoffs surfaced. But just when the aspect of alongside production of a Russian boat came up and the Amur-class SSK identified as appropriate to the country’s needs, global tendering was introduced. Russia discovered it had to compete for the Project 75i contract with a number of western suppliers, and needed to provide incentives/sweeteners to surpass whatever the competition can muster. In the event, it has made a clever offer the Indian Navy cannot refuse and which consolidates its presence.

This offer is rumoured to have the following features: Russia will lease for $1.5 billion a second nuclear powered Akula SSN – Irbis, lying mothballed in Severodvinsk, to be delivered by end-2014; both INS Chakra and Irbis will be upgraded to Akula-III standard by incorporating the latest technology, including hull-mounted sensors to, for instance, detect thermoclines – thermal layers in the Indian Ocean that make sonar detection difficult and enable submarines to “hide” in them. These sensors will be retrofitted on the Arihant, and equip the two follow-on sister ships. Irbis SSN will moreover come equipped with the Shtil (Storm) torpedo (to also equip Chakra) that can close in on targets at uninterdictable speeds touching 280 knots, and a vertical launch system “plug” accommodating a mix of 40 K-15 land attack missiles and the first of the Indian submarine-launched K-4 ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It will in effect convert the Akulas from exclusively warship and submarine hunters into more versatile platforms able also to reach deep hinterland targets and take out littoral sites with land attack cruise missiles.

The new 75i design will boast of similar weapons profile with Indian naval designers and engineers invited to work alongside their counterparts in the Russian design bureau right from conception all the way to design and delivery stages, thereby enhancing the Indian Navy’s all-round skills and competence to handle submarine design and oversee submarine production generally. In the wake of the Sindhurakshak mishap, moreover, the additional safety of a double hull (permitting high reserve of buoyancy) and platform versatility enabling a single boat to carry out multiple missions – central to Russian design philosophy, have obvious appeal.

It is, in fact, the differences in the western and the Russian design philosophies that have seriously divided the Directorate-General Naval Design-Submarine Design Group at the Naval Headquarters (NHQ), stalemating for long the crucial decision on standardizing the diving depth and delaying indigenization. These differences persist, according to Vice Admiral K.N. Sushil (Retd.), an experienced submariner and former head of the Southern Naval Command, who personally prefers the western single hull design, despite the fact that Western suppliers will not transfer sensitive technologies (such as optronic masts) or do a “lot of hand-holding” that diffident Indian production companies still require, which only the Russians are prepared to do.

The indecision has prevented, he maintains, the establishing of other standards such as for “the operating pressures of the hydraulics and high pressure air systems, pressure hull materials, weld normative, hydraulic and high-pressure air pipelines, manifolds, valves, etc.” common [to nuclear and conventional submarines] and deterred the build-up of local capacity. Were it otherwise, the “scale” of work would prompt investment in the latest tooling and other manufacturing wherewithal to produce different types of submarines by private sector companies, such as Larsen & Toubro, Tata, and Pipavav without whose participation fully indigenized production, Sushil believes, will languish at the elementary level of assembling from imported CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits the DPSUs are stuck at. The under-utilization of the more capable and efficient private sector, as the regressive-minded defence production department in the ministry headed by the leftist A.K. Antony would have it, means the country can kiss self-reliance in armaments Good Bye.

[Published in the New Indian Express’Aug 23, 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, russian military, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to India’s submarine production

  1. A clarification: The Irbiss Akula SSN can potentially have an on-board mix of a total of some 40 weapons, including torpedoes and 12-16 vertically-launched K-4s, and K-15s.

  2. joydeep ghosh says:

    @Karnad saheb

    A few things

    For the depleting sub numbers

    It will be much better idea to cancel P75I and increase the number P75 Scorpene subs to 18 with first 6 currently left alone and next 6 being AIP powered (provided Stirling AIP is selected and money on DRDO/NMRL AIP is stopped, which is probably a waste of public money).

    By the time the last batch of 6 P75 Scorpenes enter production it will be time for the 1st P75 scorpene for upgrade/refit, this is the time when we can try and add a VLS missile firing capsule / module into it and test it, if its successful then remaining 5 of the first batch of P75 Scorpenes can be added with missile firing capsule / module and with the facility of AIP module as addon already there in 2nd batch Scorpenes, the 1st batch of 6 P75 scorpenes will have immense potential.

    Once that is done the 3rd batch of P75 Scorpene can easily include AIP and missile firing modules.

    Similarly when it will be time for 2nd batch of P75 Scorpenes (AIP powered) to be upgraded then we can add the missile firing modules in to them (which would have been successfully tested by then, if opted for).

    This will mean that all 18 scorpenes will eventually be AIP powered and missile firing subs.

    Believe me if this pattern is adopted then not only we will be able to develop a wide knowhow on sub building but eventually the cost incurred for P75 will be recovered.

    Once that is done India could refocus on making Type 209 SSK, 12 in all (on whose ToT we have sat long enough) with missile & AIP modules with more indian elements (india made steel), much the same way as we are now doing with the Bofors guns. This way we can touch 30 sub by 2030

    This doesn’t include SSN/SSGN/SSBN the total number whose number should be about 15


    Joydeep Ghosh

  3. Your scheme Joydeep will, as you know require the junking of the navy’s parallel lines plan. You may also consider its viability considering we’ll have to import in perpetuity (or until the Scorpene becomes dated) some of the cutting-edge equipment/tech from France. You may also be shortchanging the DRDO AIP system that, according to at least one reliable source, has already been successfully tested at the Issykul Lake naval research facility in Kazakhstan and which item Russians have offered to upgrade to remove all emission of combustible hydrogen gas. HDW Type 214 — follow-on to the Type 209 — which was on offer as Project 75 option would have been a far better fit, for many reasons.

  4. joydeep ghosh says:

    @Karnad saheb

    i am saying so

    simply bcoz selecting the P75I design to production will take 12 yrs with 2 yrs for RFP, 3 yrs for ToT and setting up production line and 7 yrs to roll out the first sub, do you think we have that much time with 8 of the 13 subs already beyond 20 yrs in service

    i dont understand the need to go for type 214 when we are sitting on ToT docs of type 209

  5. You have a point re: the time frame. Because HDW sub architecture is modular based, addition of new modules and tech will update the 209 to about 214 standard with minimal difficulty, and hence time-wise extend the resulting sub’s operational relevance. That aside, there’s no doubt IN has a real problem on its hands,compounded by continuing indecision on 75i design metrics. I am a little queasy about going fully French, simply because France, its rhetoric notwithstanding, has been miserly in TOTing technology, even when it is contracted and paid for — which’s not the case with other suppliers. In any case, that’s the reputation France has gained over the years.

  6. joydeep ghosh says:

    @Karnad sir

    whatever their reputation, they offered full ToT & thats what matters

    since Scorpene is also a modular design with option for adding AIP module (Striling AIP preferred) already there; all is needed is the validating of VLS missile launch module from Scorpenes. once that is done it can be applied to the Type 209 (if made serially in India) after the 18 Scorpenes are rolled out. the indian AIP module can well be added into type 209 by this all the Scorpenes and Type 209 will have AIP module & VLS missile launch


    Joydeep Ghosh

  7. You may want to check, but France may have offered full TOT in terms of the hull, perhaps, but not sensors. The HDW option in any case is out. And if you mean then that the Scorpene, by default, becomes the SSK standard and constitutes the bulk force, well, I am apprehensive for the reasons alluded to in previous response.

  8. RV says:

    @Joydeep Ghosh: Continuing with building further Scorpenes keeps the program in the grasp of MDL, thus foreclosing any attempt to involve companies like L&T and freeing critical programs from the clutches of the wretched DPSU’s. This is the gist of this article which is supported by the opinions of two respected submariners. Adm. Ganesh is not a professsional whose opinions can be taken lightly, and his comments and those of Adm. Sushil need to be heeded in this context.

    Next, there is a limit to modular designs of a given design. For the stretched Scorpenes (the 5th&6th boats), the IN has opted for AIP instead of VLS. IMHO to have AIP+VLS one needs an entirely new design. Finally, with due respects, WRT your statement: “whatever their reputation, they offered full ToT & thats what matters”, all I can say is that your trust is touching, though I do not doubt its intentions!.

    As things stand today, the Scorpenes provide India with a boat costing about as much as an Akula-2, and with a capability with isn’t much greater than the Agosta class operated by the Pakistani Navy!

    • RV says:


      My statement above:

      “Next, there is a limit to modular designs of a given design.”,

      should read as:

      “Next, there is a limit to which the modularity of a given design can be pushed”.


  9. joydeep ghosh says:



    you say ‘Next, there is a limit to modular designs of a given design. For the stretched Scorpenes (the 5th&6th boats), ‘ are you sure bcoz as far as i know all 6 Scorpene hulls have fabricated already

    As far as i know AIP was to be used for P75I and not the P75 and even if AIP is selected which one Stirling AIP or any other

    please keep in mind that simply selecting the P75I design to production will take 12 yrs with 2 yrs for RFP, 3 yrs for ToT and setting up production line and 7 yrs to roll out the first sub, do you think we have that much time with 8 of the 13 subs already beyond 20 yrs in service frankly we dont have that much time.

    you also say ‘IMHO to have AIP+VLS one needs an entirely new design.’

    for that please read the first response i gave to the @Karnad saheb where i also mentioned that Scorpene is a modular design with provision for adding AIP module already existing, only thing needed is to add a VLS module and validate it, and how that be done i mentioned that too.

    please read my response & @Karnad saheb’s response


    Joydeep Ghosh

    • RV says:

      @Joydeep Ghosh: Perhaps, it might be better if you stopped referring to me as “Dude”. Yes, I think I’m pretty sure about what I said, though I believe that there are merits about your discussion about the HDW type 214. However, that option is unfortunately unavailable, as far as I know which has also been stated by Karnad. The delay that you state is the cost of indecision. The point is that increasing the Scorpene order to 18 ties the whole Indian SSK program to a DPSU. That is the gist of this entire article which you have not addressed. BTW, you keep dropping terms like “modular design”. This means different things when applied to different boats. For example, the HDW type 214 is a far more modular design than the Scorpene.

  10. joydeep ghosh says:


    Dear RV & not the dude 🙂

    what you say about type 209/214 is accepted but i will still go for 18 Scorpenes despite that its sensors are probably being sourced off the shelf simply bcoz by 2018 IN will be left with 9 & by 2020 just 6 subs exactly the time by which the last Scorpene will role out. It will mean we will have just 12 subs by 2020 (6 new & 6 old) the time by which we were supposed to have 24 subs under 30 yrs sub program (only max. 8 of those may be on operational duty as 4 of them maybe doing HAT/SAT by then). Decision / indecision or whatever fact is we are acutely short of subs and selecting new design for P75I will take long (if selected by 2026 we will be left with just 6 Scorpenes) do you really think we have that much time. Reports say to tide over that problem IN may be forced to lease 2 brand new SSKs from Russia. Which one as per you is better idea (lease 2 SSKs or build 18 SSKs).

    I leave it upto you to decide


    Joydeep Ghosh

    • RV says:

      @Joydeep Ghosh: The choice of submarines is really a toss up, since the most capable one might not be chosen. India is a kleptocracy in an advanced state of decay. However, if the Indians do decide to go the Scorpene route all the way, then setting up a parallel production line at Pipavav might be a good choice. As far as I know, DCNS has either already picked up, or is in the process of picking up a sizable stake in Pipavav. This will, at least lessen if not end the stranglehold of the wretched DPSU’s on the SSK programs.

      I do not think that Pipavav’s skill sets can compare with those of L&T. So, there can be some sort of arrangement to rope L&T into the deal. BTW, there is a Kilo class submarine which has spent about 1/3 of its operational life in HSL undergoing an overhaul or modification. I wonder whether any thought has been given to have this boat shipped off to Russia to bring it up to the standards of the stricken boat. Finally, for reasons I do not wish to delve into herein, I believe the Indians should be extremely cautious in gong in for a Stirling engine for AIP boats, for reasons I cannot voice in an open forum.

  11. joydeep ghosh says:


    AS far i know for P75I it will and must go to S80 the big brother of Scorpene that way there will a lot of commonality between Scorpene & S80 and with DCNS taking up stake in Pipavav a lot of materials that are now being sourced from France maybe and can be built in house.

    If you ask me how to bring L&T into sub making i would have give all ToT docs of Type 209 before 2010, it has huge facility in katupally not to mention its already into ATV sub hull

    Btw the sub you are talking about is INS Sindhukirti which has been sitting in HSL since early 2000s and is now a rusting hulk that cant be even mothballed

    i support Stirling bcoz as far as i think its the most deployed AIP worldwide


    Joydeep Ghosh

  12. RV says:

    @Joydeep Ghosh: Just because the Stirling is the most deployed AIP worldwide doesn’t make it suitable for Indian use. The mere fact that DCNS is taking up a stake in Pipavav doesn’t dramatically alter the skill sets at that shipyard, which though good and perhaps in excess of those of MDL, do not compare with L&T.

  13. Parag says:

    what is the relevance of conventional submarines. what are their roles. what can we deploy them for.

    • US can afford an all nuclear-sub fleet. India can’t but it still has to have a fleet of more affordable submarines for adequate maritime density for “sea denial” to work. Hence a mix of conv and n-subs — the latter for strategic missions and SSNs to trail and take on enemy aircraft carriers in war.

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