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Relevance of Submarines as the Game Changer in Future Wars – Indian Context By Cmde V Venugopal (R)

Image Courtesy: The Economic Times

Article Courtesy : Geopolitics

Article: 55/2022


By the end of the Second World War the submarine and the aircraftcarrier had established themselves as the dominant weaponsof war at sea. The American carriershad soundly defeated the Japanese Navy and the submarines had decimated their commercial ships. Over 60 % of Japanese freighters sunk by the Americans were accounted for by the submarines. Submarines are deterrent platforms and can be a force multiplier to any Navy when deployed judiciously. Also it can frustrate an opponent ‘s war waging effort by their presence or even the perceived absence.

Role of Submarines

Submarines are versatileplatforms at sea and can contribute to all areas of maritimeoperations viz Sea Denial, Surveillance, Intelligence Gathering missions, Offensive Mine laying operations, Anti SubmarineWarfare, Land attack missions, Specialboat operations, Interdiction of Naval & commercial shipping and most importantly a Submarine is a deterrent platform which ties the adversary’s assets in a “search for the unknown “. Today, the advent of conventional submarines with Air independent propulsion and nuclear powered submarines are a force multiplier and a deterrent platformfor any credible Navy. Enhancement in endurance combined with the weapon punch has made these platforms nearly invincible in the maritime domain.

Concepts of Maritime Operations Sea Control Vs Sea Denial

Modern Navies are governed in their conceptof maritime operations which are based on Sea Control or Sea Denial during hostilities. These two concepts are not strait-jacketed and are not to be viewed in isolation. A credible Navy may require to exercise both these concepts to achieve their maritime objectives. Broadly speaking, Sea Control can be understood as the capability to use a defined sea area, for a defined period, for a defined purpose, and simultaneously deny the sea to the enemy. It is exercised using a combination of Aircraft Carriers,Destroyers, Frigates, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and amphibious ships. It is an expensive affair and requires adequate number of platforms to achieve the task. On the other hand, we may define Sea Denial as attemptsto deny the enemy’s abilityto use the sea for a certain duration without necessarily attempting to control the sea for its own use. It is a part of sea control and could be used offensively to lower an adversary’s war-waging capabilities by limitingits freedom to navigate. Submarines and mines are optimal tools for exercising sea denial and are a relatively inexpensive option in comparison with sea control which requires sustained capital investments. Integrating these two aspects of sea control and sea denial optimally can serve as a foundation for operational design to achieve maritime objectives in support of a war.

The sea itself cannot be explicitly controlled as it encompasses surface, air and underwater dimensions. There have been extensive debates over the past 70 years on the efficacy of sea denial and sea control. Althoughit is partially ideological, it is highly relevant to a country which has maritime challenges and is restricted with limited resourcesto spare for defense procurements. For example,in the case of India, the debate gained renewed impetus since the rise of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA) as one of the strongest naval powers in the Indo-Pacific region in the past 20 years. Further, their increasing engagement in the Indian Ocean has complicated India’s strategic calculus in the region.

The Indian Naval Doctrine categorically states that “Sea control is not an end in itself. It is a means to a higher end and very often a prerequisite for other maritimeoperations and objectives, including power projection, SLOC ( Sea lanes of Communication ), protection, SLOC interdiction and amphibious operations.” In effect it is an enabler that affords freedom of action to those who possess it, but denies it to those who do not,” reads the Indian Naval Doctrine. Furthermore, the doctrine defines the Indian Ocean Region as its area of interest / influence and amplifies sea control as a capability to use a defined sea area, for a defined period, for a defined purpose, and simultaneously deny the sea to the enemy.

Indian Navy Modernization Plans

India’s naval modernization plans have taken a back seat due to shrinkingdefense budgets. Althoughthe Navy has emerged as the biggest beneficiary with the capital budget enhanced by a huge 44.53 % in FY 2022-23 with a total outlay of Rs 46,323 Crores, it may not be adequate to meet the acquisition costs of new platforms, creating operations and strategic infrastructure, bridging critical capability gaps and building a credible maritime force for the future. There is an apparent mismatch between the ambitionsto control our maritime area of interestand the current capital expenditure. Our intent to be the net securityprovider in the region also assumes significance in this regard.

Threat Perceptions

There is no denying the fact that the Navy will play a key role in the future wars especially given the fact that China’s focus is on maritime power. We also cannot ignore the increasing impetus given by Pakistanon their Submarine acquisition program. PN has completedretro fitment of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) on their three Agosta 90 B Submarines. They have also contracted for eight Hangor class diesel electric AIP fitted submarines with China. This class is a modified derivative of Type 039 B submarines, a follow-on of 039 A (NATO name Yuan class) operated by the PLA Navy. Four Submarines are to be built in China by the China Shipbuilding Trading Company (CSTC) and the remaining four are to be built in Pakistan by Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KSEW). The first four submarines are expected to enter servicein 2023 with all eight Submarines scheduled to be delivered by 2028. It goes without saying that an inventory of eleven AIP fitted Submarines is a major concern and would affect the balance of power in the maritime domain.

Prioritization of Acquisition Plans

It is crucial that the navy prioritize its acquisition plans based on the risk assessment of the region. Given the limited funds for modernization, we need to focus more on sea denial capabilities, which is cost effective, ratherthan developing sea-control capabilities. Submarines are one of the most effective tools for sea denial. They are the means to harrying and tiring the enemy.

Their stealth capabilities make them hard to detect in the open seas and are the best platforms for Anti SubmarineWarfare (ASW) Sea Denial Role during Operations -An Indian Context India Pakistan Stand off Pakistan has structured their Navy based on the concept of Sea denial with increasing focus on submarines. They are likely to deploy their boats for surveillance, offensivemine laying, mid ocean missions for interdicting our surface ships and commercial shipping carrying vital cargo. Their AIP fitted boats would give enhanced enduranceof 50-60 days minus the transit time. Single kill of a high value IN platform at sea can send shock waves across the country and affect the morale of Indian Navy severely. This threat is real and cannot be brushed aside under the carpet. Further, during hostilities, the presence of a singlesubmarine in our area of interest can tie down our surface ships, helicopters and LRMP aircraft for search effort which would adversely affect achievement of our maritime objectives in support of the war.

India China Stand off – Indian Ocean Region

India China stand-off spilling into the maritime domain cannot be ruled out in a total war. The author is of the view that considering the distance, logistics, sustenance levels and the threat factor due to exposure , it is unlikely that PLA Navy would deploy their surface forces in the Indian Ocean Region. It will be prudent for the PLA Navy not to risk such exposure even with their Carrier Strike Group. Hence. the most effectiveplatform for this task would be their Submarines. In this scenario, conventional boats can be ruled out due to limitations in endurance. That narrows down the choice to nuclearsubmarines viz SSBNs or the SSNs. The former follows the bastion deployment pattern which restricts their positioning in all probabilities to South China Sea. Hence, from the PLA Navy’s perspective, the ideal choice would be to deploy SSNs in Indian Ocean tasked for offensive roles and to protect their vital cargo and energy flow in transit. Although these boats would have an unlimited endurance at station, their transit from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean would be a major challenge. Routing would be either through the Malacca, Sunda or Lumbok straits. As per UNCLOS, it is mandatory for the Submarines to transit through the straits on surface. It can be surmised that they would choose either the Lumbok or Sunda Straits for transit to their deployment area due to shorter passage through these straits. This is a severe limitation which would be exploited by the IN planners and factored for deployment of P8i MR aircraft. Initialdetection data of the Submarine by the MR aircraft holds the key and would be a precursor to deploying our submarines to track and engage the hostile submarine at an area of our choosing. As mentioned earlier in the paper, Submarines are the best ASW platform and this is a crucial factor which need to be considered whilst planning the future force levels.

India’s Submarine Program

In 1999 the Government had approved a 30 year program for a force of 24 conventional submarines for the Navy. This has now been modified to 18 conventional boats plus six nuclear powered (SSN) boats. The submarine buildingplan consisted of, six Project75, followed by six Project75(I) and six Project76 conventional submarines. The plan was to achieve capability and expertise through Project 75 and 75(I) by transfer of technology and the gained competence be utilized to design and build the indigenous submarine under Project 76. Both Project 75(I) and Project76 are envisaged to be powered by diesel electricpropulsion with AIP system.

Unfortunately, the 30 year program is running behind schedule by over 20 years. Since 1999 the plan has only deliveredfour Scorpene class submarines of Project 75 which are being constructed by the Mazagon Docks. The project suffered initial delays in award of contract and also in execution by the shipyard and the French partner,the Naval Group. The Fifth boat is expected to be commissioned by end 2022/early 2023 and the sixth is expected to be commissioned in early 2024.

Project 75(I)

Project 75(I) has had its own share of problemsand is not even on the starting blocks as on date. In 2016 the Project was made part of the new Strategic Partnership Model for major projects to be executed by the PrivateSector. In January2020, two shipyards, L&T and MazagonDocks Limited (MDL) were shortlisted as Indian partners for the project. Five foreign OEMs shortlisted for the Project were Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (South Korea),Naval Group (France),Navantia (Spain), Rosoboronexport (Russia) and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (Germany). A proven fuel cell AIP system and the need for Vertical LaunchingSystem (VLS) to deploy under water launchedBrahmos missiles were two significant Qualitative requirements of the project.This has led to a single vendor situation with only the South Korean firm qualifying in the race. Other firms had to drop out due to stringent norms in the AIP system, VLS configuration and clauses in the SPM. Under the current circumstances an option for Indian Navy would be to revisit the QRs & clauses in the SPM. It would be also prudent to take a call on the need for latest AIP technology or to examine the suitability of the newest propulsion technology like the Lithium ion battery. Alternately, the conventional diesel electric variant of the Barracudaclass with AIP (Naval Group, France) may be re- examined with modifications in the SPM model and Qualitative Requirements since we already have a functioning production line at MDL which may require only minor modifications.

SSN Program

The Indian Navy aims to procure /construct six nuclear powered submarines under Project 75A based on the Government approval in 2015. These will be designed by the Navy’s in-house Directorate of Naval Design and built in India at the Ship Building Centre, Vishakhapatnam . The construction is expected to commence in 2023-24, while the first boat is expected to enter service in 2032. The Submarines are likely to be powered by a miniature pressurized water reactor (PWR) which will be designed and built by BARC at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) Kalpakkam. A similar 83 MW reactor was designed and built by BARC for the Arihant classof SSBNs. Expertise gained in construction of SSBNs would be very useful in conceptualizing our indigenous SSN program. SSBN Program

The Arihant class of nuclear powered ballistic submarines are classified as strategic strike nuclear submarines to complete the nuclear triad. The first of the four plannedsubmarines is operational, the second is expected to be commissioned in early 2023, the third is being fitted out and the fourth is expected to be launched in 2024. The first two boats are of 6000 T and the last two would be of 7000 T. These boats are envisaged to be armed with short range K-15 SLBM which will later be upgraded to K4 missiles with an extended range of 3500KM.

Indigenous Expertise in Submarine Construction

The Nation has made huge investments and developed two submarine building lines. The conventional submarines are being built by MazagonDocks at Mumbai.Initially it built two SSK Type 209 submarines with the assistance of Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems of Germany and are now building Six Scorpene class with assistance of Naval Group of France.The nuclear submarines (SSBN) are being constructed by Submarine Building Centre along with L&T, DRDO and the Navy. The author is of the view that conventional submarines should continue to be built by Mazagaon Docks and nuclear-powered boats by SBC. This will ensure that the nation will retain the expertisegained in construction of conventional and nuclear submarines which have been set up with huge investments both in development of skilled work force, expertise and infrastructure

Way Ahead

The establishment at Delhi cannot afford to view the critical deficiency in Submarine force levels lightly. There is an urgent need to expedite and revive the long-term submarine building plans under Project 75(I) ,76 & the 75 A in a time bound manner with approvals and budgetary support. Plans for further additions of SSBNs, after the four boats, may be shelved and the production line diverted for indigenous construction of SSNs. The status of current submarine force level is alarming and we need to address the threat perceptions expeditiously. Inordinate delay indecision making would, in addition, cause the submarine building lines to remain idle at the shipyards thereby losing the gained expertise in addition to wastage of huge sums invested towards setting up of the specialized infrastructure.

(Commodore V Venugopal IN (Retd.) is a Senior Non Resident Fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation, Manila and a Distinguished Member, C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S)

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