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OPINION | India to Pour $15 Billion in Submarine-Building and Lease Nuclear Submarine from Russia, But China Still Far Ahead

The reasons of India being far behind China in terms of submarine fleet despite its China-specific endeavour, is not far to seek. India has 15 submarines operational, including two nuclear subs, in contrast to China’s 70 operational submarines.

Rajeev Sharma |

Updated:September 14, 2017, 1:31 PM IST
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OPINION | India to Pour $15 Billion in Submarine-Building and Lease Nuclear Submarine from Russia, But China Still Far Ahead
File photo of Indian Navy's Scorpene submarine INS Kalvari being escorted by tugboats as it arrives at Mazagon Docks Ltd, a naval vessel ship building yard, in Mumbai on October 29, 2015. (REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade)
India is trying its hardest to play catch-up with China in the field of submarines, particularly nuclear submarines.

New Delhi is going to spend $15 billion with the objective of significantly augmenting its fleet of submarines by the targeted year 2023-24, a very stiff target indeed because of (a) the involvement of foreign vendors and (b) because of India’s own very notorious red tape.

And as I argued about the Indo-Russian strategic ties having been rebooted

Russia is set to play a pivotal role in the context of India’s quest for submarines too. Russia has already been roped in to lease out a nuclear submarine — third one for India.

India is going to acquire its third nuclear submarine on lease from Russia for 10 years at a cost of $2.5 billion. Russia will take six years for delivering it to India.

Besides, India is on the cusp of launching its second nuclear submarine in two or three weeks which is likely to be operational in 2019. Over and above this, India is working on a $12 billion project for constructing six nuclear-powered submarines with conventional warheads under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India programme.

But all of this put together may prove to be far too inadequate, even if presuming that all the above-mentioned projects are completed on time, something that has never happened. Read on!

Consider the following measures that India is taking to beef up its submarine power.

— India's second indigenous nuclear submarine will be launched in two or three weeks and will be fully operational by 2019. In Navy’s parlance launching of a boat refers to the process of transferring the vessel to the water from a dry dock. Once launched, the boat will undergo extensive sea trials before it is commissioned. The launch is likely to be done by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in keeping with the tradition that a boat is launched by a woman – much like the first indigenous nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, which was launched in 2009 by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's wife, Gursharan Kaur.

— India’s only operational nuclear submarine INS Arihant was commissioned in the Indian Navy in August 2016 — a proud moment which made India the first country outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to have indigenously built a nuclear submarine.

— Russia will lease out a nuclear submarine to India for ten years after retrofitting it. The to-be-leased submarine will be stripped down to the hull and then rebuilt in the presence of Indian shipbuilding team at Russian shipyard Severodvinsk to witness the complex refitting and modernization process of nuclear attack submarines.

— It will take six years for Russia to hand over the retrofitted submarine to India. However, the Russian track record in meeting its deadlines has been abysmal and a delay of one or two years, if not more, should be factored in. The new boat will be named INS Chakra-III.

— The total cost of Russia’s third nuclear submarine lease to India in with retrofitting is pegged at $2.5 billion and Indians have told the Russians to deliver the boat within the agreed timeline and the cost. If India had gone for a completely new nuclear submarine it would have cost the double and pushed the deadline to almost a decade. Indian viewpoint is that considering the current geopolitics, it made more sense to have the nuclear submarine retrofitted and also keep the cost down.

— However, the presence of Indian shipbuilding team at the Severodvinsk yard to witness and assist in the refitting and modernization of the third nuclear submarine India intends to lease from Russia is not a done deal yet and negotiations are still under way. If the negotiations are successful, as is the optimism in New Delhi, the Indian shipbuilders would get the vital experience which would hold them in good stead as they are being tasked with the responsibility of constructing at least six nuclear-powered submarines in India at an estimated cost of over $12 billion. India has contacted six foreign shipyards in Russia, France, Japan and Germany with a formal request for information about building six non-nuclear submarines equipped with air-independent-propulsion systems.

The reasons of India being far behind China in terms of submarine fleet despite its China-specific endeavour, is not far to seek. India has 15 submarines operational, including two nuclear subs, in contrast to China’s 70 operational submarines.

Moreover, the current gap between Indian and Chinese submarine strength is only going to increase further as China has built a nuclear submarine mass production superfactory at Bohai Shipyard which builds submarines by using modular fabrication techniques. This will enable China to build as many as a dozen nuclear submarines in just three years' time.

India's submarine project is largely China-specific as Pakistan is no match. For years India has been pin-pricked by China which has significantly increased its submarines activities in the Indian Ocean and the African coast, ostensibly for anti-piracy missions even though it’s hard to fathom how a strategic asset like a submarine can be used against pirates.

The United States has decided to help India in a big way as far as this particular problem is concerned. Washington will soon be making off-the-shelf sale of surveillance drones which are going to be paired with the Poseidon military aircraft to track Chinese maritime movements in the area — particularly those of submarines.

Besides, there have been reports suggesting that the Trump administration is also working to build radar stations on islands in the Indian Ocean and an "undersea wall" of sensors between southern India and northern Indonesia to track the activities of the Chinese submarines.

The US-led international community keen on reining in China is finding a golden opportunity to do this through India as Washington’s traditional allies like Japan and South Korea have proven to be far too inadequate in meeting this strategic objective of containing China. Not just the US but other willing Indian partners like Russia and Japan too have been lending vital diplomatic and military support to India to meet the Indian deficiencies and counterbalance China.

This is the biggest dilemma for China. Even though China is far more superior than India in military terms, China is still not able to milk this advantage because of India's rapidly increasing diplomatic footprints. The Doklam episode demonstrated this Chinese dilemma.

(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha. Views are personal)
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