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Blow to Navy’s operations, fleet expansion plan

Thursday, 15 August 2013 | Rahul Datta | New Delhi
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The mishap aboard the Sindhurakshak submarine is a major blow to the Indian Navy, which is depended on a handful of such stealth vessels to guard the country’s vast coastal swathe. At present the Navy has a fleet of 15 submarines, and it wants to increase the force level to 25-26 in the next one decade.

While the Navy’s existing fleet of diesel-powered submarines has remained static for several years the acquisition plans are also running behind schedule. Incidentally, this is the first mishap of this magnitude involving a submarine in the last 45 years since India started operating them. India lost a submarine, INS Khukri, in the 1971 War with Pakistan. The present loss is all the more severe as Sindhurakshak was a frontline submarine with state-of-the-art weapons, including Russian-made Klub sea-to-land missiles capable of hitting a target at 350 km besides sensors and torpedoes.

The mishap figured in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday with Shiv Sena MP Bharat Kumar Raut and BJP member Chandan Mitra demanding a statement from Defence Minister AK Antony. Voicing concern over the incident, Raut said it is a serious incident and many Naval personnel on board the submarine were trapped and the Defence Minister must inform the House about the status.

“The House should be informed immediately. The Defence Minister should come here and make the statement,” Raut said. He was joined by Mitra, who demanded that the Defence Minister inform the House on Wednesday itself. “He should make a statement today itself, as the House will not function on Thursday,” Mitra said. Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien, who was in the Chair, then said: “This is a very serious incident. The Defence Minister has gone to the spot. Let him come back. As soon as he comes back, he will make a statement.”

Of the existing fleet of submarines, ten are Russian made Kilo class submarines, four are German made HDW submarines, and the nuclear powered INS Chakra leased from Russia for ten years. At any given time only six to seven submarines of Sindhu range are operational while others have to undergo maintenance or refits.

The ill-fated submarine was fully operational after undergoing refit worth over $80 million in Russia for nearly two years. Its loss, therefore, is more significant as the Navy will have to press in more submarines for patrolling its area of strategic interest compromising maintenance.  The first submarine of this class, Sindhughosh was inducted into service 1986 while Sindhurakshak costing over $100 million joined the fleet in 1997.  All these ten submarines are diesel-powered. Six of them have so far undergone mid-life upgrade while the remaining units are scheduled to go through the process in the next three to four years.  The upgrades increase the operational life of the submarine by eight to ten years.

India inked a deal worth over $3 billion with France for manufacturing six French-designed Scorpenes at Mazagon Docks, Mumbai in 2005.  The project is running two to three years behind schedule and the first submarine is likely to join service only in 2017.

The Navy’s plans to build six more submarines besides Scorpenes in India is yet to fructify as the global tenders have not been issued despite the Government giving the go-ahead in 2005. This programme envisages building four submarines in the country and buying two from the short-listed vendor.  Even if the Navy issues the request for proposal or tender now the technical trials and others processes will take another four to five years or more before the vendor is selected. This delay is hindering the next step of building 12 more submarines within the country, sources said here on Wednesday.

Explaining the complexities involved in building a highly sophisticated submarine, they said the planners will have to make up their mind whether to go in for a European model as India is already manufacturing Scorpene or opt for a Russian design. At present, the Navy is operating ten Russian made platforms and the crew is well versed with the building philosophy of Russia. With huge amounts involved in setting up building facilities like the one at Mazagon, the planners will have to do a very difficult balancing act, they said adding the mishap has now compounded their problems. 

The Navy will now put pressure on the Scorpene builders to stick to timelines as the force cannot leave operational gaps due to paucity of submarines, officials said.Moreover, the indigenously-designed INS Arihant will join service in the next three years after its nuclear reactor went critical last week.  Two more Arihants are in the pipeline and this class of submarines will not be operational before 2020, they said.  

 
 
 
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