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Explained: Why India decided for 3 more Scorpene submarines

Indian Navy is extending the service lives of its HDW and Kilo-class submarines through the Medium Refit with Life Certification (MRLC) project. Girish Linganna deep dives into why the additional procurement of three Scorpene submarines was necessitated rather than deliberate.

Why India decided for 3 more Scorpene submarines
First Published Jul 15, 2023, 12:25 PM IST

The Indian Navy operates a total of sixteen conventional submarines, seven of which are of the Kilo class, four are of the HDW class, and the remaining five are of the French Scorpene class. Because of the delay in purchasing new submarines as part of Project-75I, the Navy has been forced to extend the service lives of the Kilo and HDW as an interim measure. The Medium Refit with Life Certification (MRLC) project aims to stretch the time that seven submarines can remain in service. These submarines come from Germany and Russia and are of the HDW class and the Kilo class, respectively.  

MRLC adds 10–15 years of additional service life to a submarine after it has been completed. The submarine's hull, machinery, weaponry, and sensors are all inspected comprehensively as part of the MRLC protocol. If there are any flaws or signs of wear and tear, they are either fixed or replaced, and the apparatus and technology of the submarine are both modernised. It finally incorporates Submarine Life Recertification.

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A contract for the MRLC of the HDW-class submarine INS Shankush was signed in July by the Ministry of Defence and the Mumbai-based Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL). 

The first submarine of the HDW class, the INS Shishumar, has been undergoing life extension work since October 2018, and it is predicted that the work will be finished in August of this year. Following the MRLC method, the second submarine of the HDW class, the INS Shankush, is anticipated to be ready for combat and to join the active fleet in the year 2026. 

In the meantime, the fourth submarine of the Kilo class that is destined for MRLC is currently waiting for its transport to Russia. This transport, which has been delayed owing to a lack of transport facilities caused by the situation in Ukraine, is scheduled to take place soon.

The Kilo-class INS Sindhukesari, initially commissioned in 1989, was the first submarine to go through the MRLC process. At the same time that the INS Sindhukirti was being worked on at the Hindustan Shipyard Limited in Visakhapatnam to have its life extended and maintained, the INS Sindhuratna was being shipped to Russia.

INS Sindhuratna was left stranded in Russia earlier this year due to a lack of transit, which prompted the Navy to consider sailing it to Norway and then moving it to Mumbai onboard a sea-lift vessel after it arrived there. Before arriving on its own in Mumbai, the submarine was at sea for 97 days and approximately 10,000 miles, during which time it docked in two different ports in France and Spain.

The Kilo Class submarines were bought off the shelf from Russia, whereas the two HDW submarines and all five Scorpene Class submarines were built at MDL. The sixth Scorpene Class submarine is expected to be commissioned sometime this year.

India is set to purchase three Scorpene submarines from France. Having said that, this is hardly a brand-new contract. In October 2005, the Indian Navy placed an order for six Scorpene SSK submarines at a cost of Rs 12,022 crore, as stated in the book 'Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of the Indian Navy's Submarine Arm'. According to the terms of the contract, the Indian Navy will also have the opportunity in the future to purchase four additional submarines of the same type. 

At first, India requested that France provide it with MBDA SM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles for its HDW Sishumar Class submarines, but France was hesitant about installing them on the German vessel. Initially, the P-75 designation referred to the fifth and sixth submarines of the Sishumar class that the Indian Navy planned to fit with Exocet missiles. Despite this, France successfully persuaded India to purchase an unproven Scorpene-type submarine design rather than the older model of Shishumar Class. 

The additional procurement of three Scorpene submarines was necessitated rather than deliberate. The Indian Navy is in dire need of additional submarines, but the two submarine production lines in MDL are inactive while the final Scorpene from the initial order is being outfitted. 

The P-75I submarine tender is already in stasis due to manufacturer objections to certain tender specifications. If the Indian government continues to procrastinate, the country's hard-won submarine capability will be lost, and India will be forced to recommence the process in future tenders. 

Russia had offered India the opportunity to rehabilitate three diesel-electric submarines of the 877EKM project (code "Halibut") from the Indian Navy and purchase three more diesel-electric submarines of the same project from the Russian Navy following the completion of appropriate repairs. TASS reported this on March 24, 2020, citing a source within the military-industrial complex. 

The agency's interlocutor noted that the $1.8 billion agreement under the "three plus three" formula was to be discussed at the March meeting of the Russian-Indian intergovernmental commission on military-technical cooperation. Nevertheless, the ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. This could have satisfied the Navy's immediate requirements but would have depleted its capacity to construct submarines.

The order for three Scorpene submarines is contingent on the Naval Group enabling India to deploy the Air Independent System (AIP) developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on the submarines. In addition, the previously constructed submarines will be retrofitted with the AIP as part of their Mid-Life upgrade procedure, which is approaching for the first submarine in 2025.

AIP technology enables conventional submarines to remain submerged significantly longer than conventional diesel-electric submarines but imposes weight, speed, and operational limitations. However, the Indian Navy appears to have considered the advantages and disadvantages and decided to proceed with the AIP. The contract for the P-75I project may not be finalised before 2030. Lithium-ion battery-based initiatives will have been established by then, and AIP will no longer be necessary.

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