Harsh V Pant & Suchet V Singh
For two and a half decades, India has stumbled and dithered with its submarine development programmes. A combination of structural inefficiencies, budgetary changes, tendering problems, delays, and institutional ad-hocism have hindered India’s submarine manufacturing ambitions. It is now time for India to reinvigorate its arc on submarine building.
These problems have plagued both iterations of the Indian Navy’s submarine manufacturing programmes—the 1997 launched Project 75 or P75 and the more recent Project 75 (India) or P75(I)—which was cleared in 2019.
The original P75 proposed the domestic construction of six Scorpène-class conventional diesel-electric submarines by Mazagaon Docks Limited through a transfer of technology collaboration with what is now known as France’s Naval Group. The project was supposed to be completed by 2017. However, far from completion, the lead boat of the P75 project, INS Kalvari, was only commissioned in 2017. Only recently has the country commissioned the fifth submarine out of the proposed six submarines; the final one is expected next year.
The more recent P75(I) programme budgeted at approximately Rs 40,000 crore to build six conventional submarines with state-of-the-art sensors and weapons and, most importantly, with an air-independent propulsion system (AIP)—that empowers submarines to reduce their surface-level exposure and increase their underwater endurance—is also lagging behind schedule, currently stuck in the tendering stage.
A spate of early exits from the P75(I) programme, including the Swedish and French, compounded by complaints regarding the technical demands of the programme from the Russians, has shrouded its future in uncertainty. Further, the project seemed to be on the brink earlier this year when rumours suggested the government was cancelling it. As a consequence of this scenario, the Indian Navy now finds itself in a situation where it could face submarine shortages in the future, while also being endowed with submersibles with outdated technology.
Data suggests the Indian Navy has only 16 functional submarines, with a significant portion older than 30 years. Further, India doesn’t currently operate a nuclear-powered-attack submarine (SSN)—the INS Chakra—its last deployed SSN returned to Russia in 2021. Though, it does have two nuclear-powered-ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).
Contrastingly, China’s submarine capacity has grown exponentially in the past two decades. Currently, Beijing commands a total of 56 submarines. This includes six nuclear-powered-attack submarines (SSNs). While estimates suggest that China also deploys 17 AIP-enabled Yuan-class submarines. Given Beijing’s growing posturing in the Indo-Pacific under the garb of anti-piracy missions, such a situation creates a detrimental naval asymmetry for India—undermining its position.
However, the trajectory of India’s submarine manufacturing capacity has not entirely been downward. There seems to be some forward movement on the P75(I) programme. Recently, reports have suggested that two competing bids have been registered with the Ministry of Defence to manufacture the six submarines. These have reportedly come from state-owned Mazagaon Docks Limited, tying up with Germany’s Thyssenkrupp AG, while the other has been from a private firm, Larsen & Toubro, aligning with Spain’s Navantia.
It is now essential for India to reinvigorate the P75(I) programme and capitalise on the reported bids. Central to the way forward is first resolving the overarching issues preventing progress. The Navy and the Ministry of Defence must sort out impractical delivery schedules, stringent technology transfer requirements, detrimental liability clauses, restrictive contractual practices, and penalties that have, until now, impeded the programme.
Further, the AIP technology criterion seems to be a stumbling block. Many of the original contenders for the programme, like France and Russia, backed out as they did not have the technology. Complicating the matter further is the development of an AIP system by DRDO. While noteworthy, the indigenous system must first be installed and trialled on a submarine before its contribution to the P75(I) can be assessed.
Further, if it meets the requisite standards, the AIP system will have to be located in the contours of the P75(I) programme, adding another layer of contractual and structural dealings. Currently, the DRDO-developed system is being qualified by the Naval group for the Kalvari class submarines. The sooner the Indian establishment can solve the AIP issue, the faster the project could move.
Given the slow pace of progress, New Delhi must ensure adequate institutional thrust on overcoming impediments and moving ahead with the P75(I) programme. The country needs to have its submarine capacity and underwater capabilities at full strength to deter any threats from China in the Indo-Pacific and protect its regional ambitions.
Suchet V Singh is an associate fellow (national security) at, Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
The article was first published by The Financial Express as P75(I) programme: India’s rocky submarine-making voyage on August 28, 2023.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
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