Project 75i submarine — How defence monies are squandered

Image result for pics of Project 75i submarine

(an illustration of a possible 75i sub)

India has indigenously designed and built (mostly in the private sector) the Arihant-class nuclear powered ballistic missile firing submarine (SSBN), the most potent weapon system in any arsenal. And yet the Government has agreed with the Navy that India cannot build the 70 per cent less complex conventional diesel submarine (Project 75i) and that another Scorpene-like exorbitantly-priced contract costing tens of billions of dollars is necessary.

In 1998, the country obtained the Kilo-class boats from Russia for Rs 100 crore each, but
subsequently forked out Rs 6,000 crore per French Scorpene submarine (Project 75) put
together by the defence public sector unit (DPSU), Mazgaon Dockyard Ltd (MDL). It took
15 years to build the first Arihant SSBN, and only 12 years to construct the second of this
type (Arighat), exactly the time taken by MDL to deliver the first Scorpene submersible
(Kalvari). This is normal for DPSUs with no known talent for technology absorption. The
private sector giant Larsen &Toubro (L&T), having mastered the complicated production
schemata of multiple redundancies for each system in nuclear-powered vessels, has
produced the Arihant with 80 per cent indigenous content by value; and Arighat with 85
per cent. Compare this with the Indian Scorpene with 85 per cent foreign content, which
will decrease to 30 per cent by the sixth and last Scorpene.


Compare this state of affairs with the country’s design, development and production capabilities where SSBNs are concerned: India is completely self-sufficient in propulsion systems, control technology, and most of the assemblies in the boat. What will continue to be imported for the foreseeable future are diesel engines for support functions, motors, the optronic head of the mast, and a communications sub-system. L&T, moreover, has a 3-D fully digitalised submarine design facility that is as technologically advanced as any in the world, and can convert a ‘basic’ design into a production-ready engineering design.

It would have been commonsensical, under these circumstances, for the conventional diesel submarine project to be also assigned to L&T, which has the requisite production experience, design-development wherewithal, and excess manufacturing capacity. It would be in line with the trend to consolidate national resources in single submarine design-cum-production units, like Kockums in Sweden, the Vickers-Barrow combine in the UK, and the Rubin Bureau-Severodvinsk complex in Russia.

The previous Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, keeping in mind economies of scale and a viable indigenous industry, surveyed the existing capabilities in the country, analysed the cost advantages, and concluded that L&T would spearhead the Project 75i. A combined L&T-Defence Ministry team was then to negotiate the purchase of just the design of an advanced conventional submarine from interested suppliers along with the few select technologies the country is still deficient in. The German firm, Thyssen-Krupp, with its HDW-series of submarines—the HDW 209 submarine bought in the 1980s is still in service and a darling of the Navy—was identified as a firm that could be induced to sell the design of its HDW-214 boat. This was an imaginative tweaking of the foreign ‘strategic partner’ concept central to the Defence Procurement Procedure, 2016.

Once Parrikar departed, Arun Jaitley, reassuming concurrent charge as Defence Minister, reverted to global tendering and the lowest tender (L-1) process. This tendency will be reinforced by the current Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s declaration at the 2018 Defence Expo in Chennai that the armed services can’t be compelled to buy Indian.

What L1 also means is that there will be no scrutiny of the technical capacity and capability of the Indian companies bidding for the contract, and permit a company with no experience in building submarines. The lowest bidder will become hostage to the interests of the foreign submarine supplier who will decide what technologies to pass on, including those that India already has, and what to sell as ‘black boxes’ for the duration of the production run, as has happened with all defence Transfer-of-Technology deals to date. So the 75i boat will have 100 per cent foreign-sourced content because the supplier knows the bid-winner has zero assets, zero production experience, and untested specialised manufacturing capacity.

India and the Indian military will remain foreign dependencies, national wealth will continue to be drained to enrich foreign defence industries, and the empowered supplier countries, holding all the high cards, will ensure that indigenous capabilities are scuppered and India’s national security compromised. The newly founded Defence Planning Committee, under the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval can, in theory, insist on the Parrikar prescription as the defence procurement template but, the odds are, it won’t.

The waste of public monies may be gauged by the fact that the design of the HDW-214 (or the Russian ‘Amur’ or the French ‘Barracuda’) equipped with air independent propulsion system can be bought for some $500 million or Rs 3,200 crore, which along with the cost of the one-off buys of only select technologies will mean a total hard currency outgo not exceeding Rs 8,000 crore. Except, a nearly ten times bigger sum of Rs 70,000 crore is already allotted Project 75i, most of which will enrich the foreign vendor.

Consider also that the Scorpenes of the Navy’s Project 75 were seriously compromised as a fighting platform in August 2016 when 22,000 documents relating to the stealth, ‘signature’, and other critical aspects of this boat were published by an Australian newspaper. This leak was attributed to a disgruntled employee of DCNS Naval Group, the Scorpene supplier. But the Indian Navy and Government, risk-tolerant when it comes to Western vendors and deals amounting to humungous amounts of hard currency, shrugged it off, not even penalising or blacklisting DCNS, and requiring it to redesign and change the basic characteristics of this vessel at the French company’s cost. So instead of one or two submarines of this type being an operational liability, all six Scorpenes will be. So, India’s sea-denial force will be anything but.

This was possibly the result of 2 to 3 per cent of the total Scorpene contract (or, as much as Rs. 900 crores) as is usual in the arms business, being earmarked and available as the ‘commission’ component for parcelling out to various vested interests and facilitators within the country. For Project 75i the outgo on commissions and such would total some Rs 2,250 crores! One can see why defence acquisition decisions can be so easily engineered even and specifically at the expense of achieving arms self-sufficiency. It is a process foreign arms suppliers have turned into a fine art and roaring business with lots of help from the inside.

[A different version published with title “The Problem with Defence Acquisitions” in ‘Open’ magazine, May 17, 2018, ]

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.
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10 Responses to Project 75i submarine — How defence monies are squandered

  1. Vishnugupt says:

    Prof. Do you think the Arihant is up and running after the “hatch” incident?

    Is INS Satavahana any good as a submariner training school? From their equipment one gets an impression as if they are frozen in the 60s with their IDA-59 suits and all.Do you think they have kept up with time on other more crucial aspects?

    What about mines sweepers? What excuse could we have for not having them?
    Would i be exaggerating if i say-‘ if we don’t get them soon, then the day is not far when the Indian Navy won’t be able to enter their “own” ports, far from denying the seas to the Chinese’.

    I think Delhi should learn the Technology to run “GULAGS” for its sarkari naukars first, before it can even think of getting a good deal for the country from its corrupt babus and faujis.

    After all, there is only so far a country can go when accountability in governance is non existent.

  2. andy says:

    Even now people are pushing for 3 more Scorpene boats to be made as a follow on order to the 6 of project 75, ostensibly so that the skills of the MDL workers gained during the Scorpene construction are utilized and not allowed to go waste.This is also the reason for MDLs inclusion in the p75i project.

    The Scorpene has two major drawbacks one is the lack of AIP which affords it much lesser endurance underwater and second is lack of towed array sonars that bring in both ASW(anti submarine warfare) and ASuW (anti surface warfare)roles, these are serious shortcomings,its a shame that even the Pakistan navy has these features on some of their boats, while the newer and seemingly ‘state of the art’ Scorpenes lack them.Whats the point of procuring newer platforms when they are not up to speed on critical technologies?

  3. R Rao says:

    Now, indirect threats have started coming up in the media. See this :

    Whats your opinion on this??

    • What’s indirect about the threat? Have been warning about getting too close to the US since the Vajpayee era when Indian policy first began manifesting the America tilt. See my writings from that time and in the postings in the US section of this blog. Also see the new post following this one.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      Tell the US to stuff the Predator and develop the Rustom-2 and AURA on a war footing. The problem is that there is no money to buy a flying test bed, etc,, to develop the Kaveri engine, but plenty of go around for Modi;s continuous foreign trips, What benefits has India accrued from Modi’s trips?

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