The sinking of INS Sindhurakshak early Wednesday has focused attention on the Indian Navy’s ageing and fast deteriorating underwater force levels, at a time when China is swiftly scaling up its submarine fleet to expand its footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The tragedy — one of the worst to hit the navy since the sinking of INS Khukri during the 1971 Indo-Pak war — couldn’t have come at a worse time for the navy as its submarine fleet is currently at its most vulnerable, according to a top secret defence ministry report.
The navy’s submarine force levels would be the lowest in its history by 2015, as reported by HT in April, quoting from the ministry report.
With the Sindhurakshak likely to be written off, the navy’s submarine arm will be left with a mere 13 conventional submarines and a nuclear-powered attack submarine INS Arihant leased from Russia in January 2012.
A senior official acknowledged that the “viable strength” of its submarine arm is much less, factoring in the “operational availability” of the boats. He admitted that the accident on board Sindhurakshak had dented the navy’s undersea capabilities severely.
Worse, the navy will be left with merely seven to eight submarines as it begins phasing out the older Russian Kilo class and German HDW Type 209 submarines.
In contrast, China operates close to 45 submarines, including two ballistic missile submarines.
It is planning to construct 15 additional Yuan-class attack submarines, based on German diesel engine purchases.
New Delhi is wary of the Chinese navy building “expeditionary maritime capabilities” in the form of nuclear-powered submarines and area denial weapons (anti-ship ballistic missiles) with deployment focus in the IOR.
What is worrying for the navy is the size of India’s submarine fleet will roughly be the same as that of Pakistan’s in a couple of years.
Six Scorpene submarines are currently being built at the Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai in collaboration with French firm DCNS under a Rs 23,562-crore project codenamed P-75. But the first of these boats will not be ready before 2016-17.
The navy plans to induct six more next generation submarines to deter China but the defence ministry is yet to float a global tender for the Rs 55,000-crore project.
Defence minister AK Antony had in May acknowledged limitations in the country’s ability to deploy its entire fleet.
“There are some operational constraints regarding conventional submarines,” Antony had said.