NEW DELHI: Does the buck simply stop at Admiral D K Joshi’s doorstep? The Navy had repeatedly sounded a red alert over its ageing and depleting submarine fleet but the politico-bureaucratic combine’s utter lack of long-term planning and timely decision-making has ensured India is down to just nine operational diesel-electric submarines.
The mismanagement of projects as well as huge delays in refits to extend operational lives of submarines further compounds the problem, say experts. Apart from one nuclear-powered submarine on lease from Russia, the Navy has 13 conventional submarines but all except for one are over 20 years old. INS Sindhuratna, on board which two officers were killed and several others injured on Wednesday, in fact, is among the eight submarines over 25 years old.
At present, three of the submarines are undergoing long refits to extend their operational lives, while INS Sindhuratna has limped back to Mumbai and will be out of action for some time. “A submarine’s design life is 25-30 years. With age, the risks of material failures or malfunctions go up despite repeated refits. It’s like flogging a dying horse deep underwater under tremendous pressure,” said a senior officer.
Consider this: The Navy’s case for six new stealth submarines called ‘Project-75India’, valued upwards of Rs 50,000 crore, got the “acceptance of necessity” way back in November 2007. Since then, defence minister A K Antony has set up at least three committees to examine issues related to the project, showing no sense of urgency, with Admiral Joshi time and again being forced to sound an alarm over the huge delay in the project.
“Now, to get a fresh approval in-principle from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the file is shuttling between the defence and finance ministries, with repeated objections and clarifications. The CCS approval is needed since unlike the earlier plan, two of the submarines are now to come from the foreign collaborator, while four will be built in India,” said a source.
“So, the tender or RFP (request for proposal) for Project-75India is yet to be even floated. If the tender is floated today, it will take at least three years to select the foreign vendor, and another seven-eight years after that for the first submarine to roll out,” he added.
The 30-year submarine-building plan, approved by the CCS way back in July 1999, had in fact approved the induction of 12 new submarines by 2012, with another 12 by 2030. But not a single one of the 24 submarines has come till now, with the Navy struggling to keep ahead of Pakistan, which has eight submarines, and falling further behind China that has around 50.
Of the four projects to construct six submarines each, which was planned in 1999, only one is currently underway. It also kicked off after a huge delay. The first of the six French-origin Scorpene submarines being built at Mazagon Docks under the Rs 23,000 crore Project-75 will be ready only by November 2016, over four years behind schedule. The rest will follow, hopefully one every eight months.
Meanwhile, the Navy is making do with submarines at the end of their operational lives. When INS Sindhurakshak, a Russian-origin Kilo-class submarine like INS Sindhuratna, had sunk due to internal explosions, killing three officers and 15 sailors at the Mumbai naval dockyard last August, TOI had asked whether the country’s old underwater combat arm was going the MiG-21 way.
The fears are coming true now. India’s four German HDW or Shishumar-class submarines were inducted between 1986 and 1994, while eight of the 10 Russian Kilo or Sindhugosh-class vessels were inducted between 1986 and 1991. While INS Sindhurakshak came in 1997, INS Sindhushastra was the last in 2000.