NEW DELHI: Is India’s aging fleet of conventional submarines threatening to go the MiG-21 way? The Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA), already 30 years in the making, was slated to replace the obsolete MiG-21 in the 1990s but is still at least two years away from becoming fully-operational. Similarly, the Navy too was to induct 12 new diesel-electric submarines by last year, with another dozen to follow in the 2012-2030 timeframe. This was the 30-year submarine building plan approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) way back in July, 1999. But the Navy has not inducted even one of the 24 planned submarines till now, and is forced to soldier on with just 14 aging conventional vessels. “The Navy is steadily modernizing in the surface warship and aircraft arenas. But our aging and depleting underwater combat arm is a big worry. But it also must be kept in mind that INS Sindhurakshak’s accident is the first such incident we have had in over four decades of operating submarines,” said a senior officer. Sources said INS Sindhurakshak, after Wednesday’s accident, is “a clear write-off”. Of the 13 submarines left now, as many as 11 are over 20 years old. The setback comes when China and Pakistan are systematically bolstering their underwater combat capabilities, with the former being armed with over 55 submarines. 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. The last two Russian submarines INS Sindhurakshak and INS Sindhushastra were inducted in 1997 and 2000, respectively. Even CAG reports have alarmingly held that the operational availability of the Indian submarines is as low as 48% due to the aging fleet and prolonged refit and life-extension programmes. With the design life of a submarine being 25-30 years, projections show just six-seven of the existing submarines will be fully-operational by 2020. Successive governments’ sheer inability to take decisions in time and gross project mismanagement – with inevitable huge cost escalations â€” has led to this dismal situation. The first of the six new Scorpene submarines being built at Mazagon Docks will be ready only by 2016-17 at the earliest, over four years behind schedule. The other five â€” under this Rs 23,000 crore programme called “Project-75″ â€” are scheduled to progressively follow by 2020-21. The next six of the remaining 18 submarines are yet to be even ordered. Despite being granted “acceptance of necessity” in November 2007, “Project-75India” to construct six advanced stealth submarines, armed with both land-attack missile capabilities and air-independent propulsion for greater underwater endurance, is still stuck in political apathy and bureaucratic red-tape. Defence minister A K Antony says P-75I, which will cost upwards of Rs 50,000 crore now, is currently awaiting CCS approval. But the reality check is that even if the global tender for it is issued today, it will take at least three years to select the foreign collaborator. Then, after the contracts are inked, it will take another seven years for the first submarine to roll out. Another critical concern is that the Navy has rudimentary submarine rescue facilities. The force’s endeavour to procure two deep-submergence rescue vessels (DSRVs) or “mini submarines”, which “mate” with disabled submarines underwater to rescue trapped sailors from depths up to 610 metres, has been stuck for over 15 years. The Navy does have diving support ships like INS Nireekshak to help in such situations but they are useful at relatively shallow depths. In 1997, as an “interim measure” till the Navy could get its own DSRVs, India had also inked agreement with the US for its “global submarine rescue fly-away kit” service. Under it, the US Navy will transport rescue equipment “within 72 hours” if an Indian submarine got disabled deep underwater. The Indian and American navies had conducted an exercise just last year to practice this drill.
Source: Times of India