Submarines: Sad Scorpene Scandal


October 14, 2019: In Mumbai, India, the second of six Scorpene submarines was recently turned over to the navy by the Mazgaon shipyard. The first one was delivered in late 2017. The bad news is that the Indian effort to build six French designed Scorpene submarines under license has been delayed numerous times. The delivery of the first sub came after dealing with yet another delay in 2015. Before that (2014) India said the first Scorpene would enter service in late 2016. Back in 2012 it was announced that the first Scorpene sub would be delayed until 2015. The 2015 delays were caused by problems procuring components. These were fixed on schedule and the first Scorpene was ready in 2017, to the relef of many and the amazement of some.

The problem is mainly poor management by the Indian firms building the Scorpenes. One of the worst examples of this occurred in 2013 with the abrupt departure of ten Spanish technical advisors essential for getting the Scorpenes built. Their contract expired at the end of March 2013 and, despite the expiration date being well known, Indian bureaucrats were unable to get a new contract in place on time. Similar avoidable delays have occurred several times already and the price has gone up with each delay.

The original purchase contract was finally signed in 2005. The delays and mismanagement have so far increased the cost of the project by more than 25 percent. Currently, these Scorpenes cost over $800 million each. In part that’s because the last two of these boats are to have Indian made AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) installed. Based on past experience the Indian AIP will cost a lot more than expected and be very late. Overall the Indian built Scorpenes cost a third more than those built in France or Spain.

Building the subs in India is very important because it will leave India with thousands of workers and specialists experienced in building modern submarines. But it appears that all this is wasted because the defense procurement bureaucrats seem to have learned nothing. These officials were responsible for numerous delays and cost overruns during negotiations to build these diesel-electric submarines. The bureaucrats mismanaged this deal to the extent that it is now more than five years behind schedule. But it is even more behind schedule if you count the several years the Indian bureaucrats delayed it even getting started.

In contrast, Malaysia ordered two Scorpenes in 2002. These were built in Spain and France and delivered seven years later. The original plan was to have the first Indian built Scorpene delivered at the end of 2012. Because of problems getting the construction facilities and skilled workmen ready, the first Scorpene wasn't delivered until 2017, At that point, it was announced that there would be another one each year after that until all six are delivered. That schedule was subject to change and, as expected, the second Scorpene arrived a year late, two years after the first. This was largely because the second Scorpene had so many defects that showed up during sea trials. These had to be taken care of before the navy would accept the sub into service. The builder promises to do better but to the navy that is more aspirational than inspirational. The third Scorpene is undergoing trials and three more are under construction,

After the bureaucrats and politicians dithered for nearly a decade India finally signed a deal to buy the Scorpenes in 2005, The delays led to the French increasing prices on some key components and India has problems in getting production going on their end. The first Scorpene was to be built in France, with the other five built in India. India insisted that all six be built in India. While some problems were expected, after all India has been doing license manufacturing of complex weapons for decades, the defense ministry procurement bureaucrats never ceased to amaze when it came to delaying work or just getting in the way.

The Scorpenes are similar to the Agosta 90B subs (also French) that Pakistan had already bought. The first of the Agostas was built in France, but the other two were built in Pakistan. The Scorpenes purchase was seen as a response to the Pakistani Agostas. The Scorpene is a more recent design, the result of cooperation between French and Spanish sub builders. The Agosta is a 1,500 ton (surface displacement) diesel-electric sub with a 36 man crew and four 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes (with 20 torpedoes and/or anti-ship missiles carried). The Scorpene is a little heavier (1,700 tons), has a smaller crew (32), and is a little faster. It has six 533mm torpedo tubes and carries 18 torpedoes and/or missiles. Both models can be equipped with an AIP (air-independent propulsion) system. This enables the sub to stay under longer, thus making the sub harder to find. AIP allows the sub to travel underwater for more than a week, at low speed (5-10 kilometers an hour). Two of the Indian Scorpenes are to have Indian made AIP installed.

All this ineffective urgency is in play because India's submarine fleet is dying of old age and new boats are not going to arrive in time. Currently, India has 17 submarines in service. This includes a leased Russian nuclear sub, an Indian built SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile), two Scorpenes, nine Russian built Kilos and four elderly German Type 209s. Three 209s were built in India, with the last one entering service in 1994 and all four were to have retired by now. Instead, they are being refurbished to keep them going into the early 2030s. One of the older Kilos is being given to Burma as a diplomatic gesture.

It's not like this was a surprise, but the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy has long been noted as slow, sloppy, and stubborn, especially in the face of demands that it speed up. The twisted tale of the tardy submarines is particularly painful.

The plan was to have a dozen new subs in service by the end of the decade. At present, there will be (with a bit of luck) three or four of them in service by then. The procurement bureaucracy is still seeking a supplier for the second batch of six diesel-electric subs after Scorpene. This second six probably won’t even begin arriving by the end of the decade. It's hard to say, although the defense procurement nabobs speak of "fast-tracking" this project, long-time observers are not expecting speed. France is offering the next generation Scorpene which is a little larger than the current ones and improved in several areas.

Because of the Scorpene delays, some of the elderly Type 209s were kept in service, but not allowed out to sea much, for several more years. Then the decision was made to refurbish them so they can serve longer and go to sea regularly. Meanwhile several of the older Kilos have reached retirement age. Thus, by the time the first Scorpene arrived in 2017, India had only had six working subs. India believes it needs at least 18 non-nuclear subs in service to deal with Pakistan and China. The current sub fleet has a 40 percent readiness (available for combat) rate.

The hulls of all six Scorpenes have been completed, but filling those subs up with all the necessary equipment is an even more difficult task. This has been accomplished for three of the Scorpenes but there seems no end to the production and quality control problems and there is no certainty when the other three will be in service. The navy is, so far, immune from political pressure to accept subs that are not ready.

Moreover, India insists that some of that equipment be manufactured in India, and that introduces even more complications and delays. Indian firms have a spotty track record in this area. This drives up costs but for the politicians, this is a benefit, not a problem, as those cost overruns mean more money and jobs for supporters. That’s how you get reelected and many government employees have jobs more to obtain votes than to get anything useful done.

India is also building and buying nuclear subs. India has a Russian Akula nuclear attack (SSN) sub on lease with the option to buy. Indian SSNs and SSBNs (missile-carrying boats) are under development, as they have been for decades. One is sort of in service.

While India was largely concerned with the Pakistani navy when the Scorpene contract was negotiated and signed, China is now seen as the primary adversary. The Chinese subs are not as effective as the Pakistani boats, both because of less advanced technology and less well-trained crews. Pakistan noted this but China is also a valuable ally and their subs are getting better and are delivered fast and on time. So they ordered eight late-model Chinese subs. India could use its Scorpenes to confront any Chinese attempt to expand its naval presence into the Indian Ocean. Thus the delays and cost overruns with the Scorpenes are causing quite a lot of commotion in India. But at the rate India is going, it will take some 15 years of construction before all six of the Scorpenes are in service. At that point, India would have about a dozen subs (including nuclear-powered models under construction). China will have over 60 boats, about 20 percent of them nuclear. China does have a lot for its warships to deal with off its coasts and in the Western Pacific but it does retain the capability of putting more subs off the Indian coast than can the Indian Navy.


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