India's 4th Scorpene submarine to touch waters on May 6

INS Vela was under construction at Mazagon Dock Limited, Mumbai

In a bid strengthen Indian Navy's underwater capability, a fourth submarine of the Scorpene class is going to touch waters next week. Named as INS Vela, the submarine, under construction at Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL) Mumbai, has completed its out fittings and is going to be launched on May 6 in the Arabian Sea.

INS Kalveri, the first Scorpene was already inducted in 2017 while two other submarines—INS Khanderi and INS Karanj—are in the advanced stages to join the Navy fleet. The last two submarines—INS Vagir and INS Vagsheer—are in advanced stages of manufacturing on the assembly line at MDL.

The contract to build six submarines in India was signed in 2006 between the French firm Naval Group, formerly known as DCNS, and Mazgaon Dock Limited under Indian Navy’s $3 billion Project-75. The first submarine was scheduled to be delivered by 2012, but the project witnessed repeated delays.

"On May 6, the submarine will touch waters for the first time. Then the sea trials will begin," a Navy officer said.

The strength of the Indian Navy's submarine fleet has dwindled from a total of 21 submarines in the 1980s to 15 conventional submarines plus one homemade Arihant-class nuclear submarine and one Russian Akula-class submarine operating on lease. To make the situation worse, at a time, Indian navy is operating with half of its submarine fleet strength as most of the vessels are in the last leg of their active operational life and are on mid-life upgrades. The matter raises serious concerns when it is compared with neighbouring China, which has a strength of 65 subs.

The Navy needs at least 24 submarines to meet the 30 year submarine building plan, which was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 1999, months after Kargil conflict. The approved acquisition programme was divided into three sections: first, six Scorpene submarines to be procured under the Project 75; second, additional six more submarines to be built under Project 75 India, and third, remaining 12 to be built indigenously.

The state-of-the-art technology utilised for construction of the Scorpene class submarines has ensured superior stealth features such as advanced acoustic silencing techniques, low radiated noise levels, hydro-dynamically optimised shape and the ability to launch a crippling attack on the enemy using precision guided weapons.

The Scorpene submarines can undertake multifarious types of missions i.e anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, intelligence gathering, mine laying, area surveillance etc. The submarine is designed to operate in all theatres, with means provided to ensure interoperability with other components of a Naval Task Force. It is a potent platform, marking a generational shift in submarine operations.

Besides enhancing Navy's underwater capabilities, the Scorpene class submarine project will be a big leap towards India's self reliance in the defence sector under the "Make in India'' initiative. The Navy got its last Indian made submarine in early 1990s when two HDW class submarines—INS Shalki and INS Shankul—were joined the fleet.

India got its first of the eight Foxtrot class submarines, also known as INS Kalvari, on December 8, 1967 when it was commissioned at then Soviet Union’s naval base Riga in Latvia.

The 66-metre long submarine is made up of a special kind of high-tensile steel which ensures that the warship can withstand high yield stress allowing it to dive deeper. The submarine can operate at a depth of 300 metres under water and travel 1,020 km underwater. It can carry 18 torpedoes and tube-launched anti-ship missiles underwater or from the surface.

Naval operational planners are welcoming the Vela, given their dire shortage of submarines. Against a requirement of 24 conventional submarines, the navy makes do with just 13, which include four HDW German-origin, Shishumar-class boats that are in their fourth decade of service. There are also nine Russian Kilo-class boats, some of them older than three decades.

This shortfall of submarines is exacerbated by the six-year delay in Project 75, as the Scorpene programme is called. The contract in 2005 required all six Scorpenes to be delivered by 2015. Navy sources say even 2021 is an optimistic target now.

Time overruns are accompanied by cost overruns. The original Rs 18,798 crore cost of six Scorpenes has now gone up to Rs 23,562 crore.

In wartime, the navy’s surface warships – aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes – obtain “sea control”, by dominating the ocean with superior numbers, sensors and firepower. Meanwhile the submarine fleet engages in “sea denial” by preventing enemy warships and submarines from leaving harbour, or entering the waters in India’s vicinity.

In a hypothetical conflict with China, Indian submarines would block the Chinese navy from crossing from the South China sea into the Indian Ocean by interdicting the major south east Asian straits – Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Ombai Wettar.

In a war with Pakistan, the Scorpenes would operate in the shallow Arabian Sea, where large submarines cannot move freely. They could blockade Pakistani harbours, or prevent shipping from West Asia from entering the Arabian Sea.

A submarine’s key attribute is stealth, since it can be torpedoed once detected. Stealth comes from reducing noise from the engine and the boat’s internal systems. The Scorpenes have a quiet “Permanently Magnetised Propulsion Motor” that drives it underwater at 20 knots (37 kmph), or 12 knots (22 kmph) when surfaced.

Confusion has attended the purchase of torpedoes, the Scorpene’s primary weapon. The navy had chosen the Black Shark torpedo, built by Italian firm, WASS. But the defence ministry banned contracts with Leonardo group companies (including WASS) after Italy began investigating corruption by Agusta Westland (a Leonardo company) in selling VVIP helicopters to India.

Consequently, the Scorpenes make do with the old, Surface and Underwater Target (SUT) torpedo, acquired in the 1980s for the four Shishumar-class submarines.

Besides the outdated SUT torpedo, the Scorpenes carry MBDA Exocet SM39 missiles – a deadly option for striking ships and targets ashore.

There were plans to equip the last two Scorpenes with “air independent propulsion” (AIP), allowing them to remain underwater for much longer, making them harder to detect. But, with the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) late in developing an indigenous AIP, the plan has been pushed back to the next six submarines that will be constructed under Project 75-I.

Naval tradition holds that warships inherit names from earlier, illustrious vessels. The Scorpenes have taken their names from the Foxtrot-class submarines that India bought from the Soviet Union, which were decommissioned at the turn of the century. The first four Foxtrots, commissioned between 1967-1969, were INS Kalvari, Khanderi, Karanj and INS Karsura. The second batch, commissioned between 1973-1975, included INS Vela, Vagir, Vagli and Vagsheer.