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Slow, Sloppy and Stubborn
by James Dunnigan
November 28, 2011

India's submarine fleet is dying of old age, and new boats are not going to arrive in time. 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) six of them in service by then. The other six might arrive five years later. It's hard to say, because the manufacturer of the second six has not been selected yet. The defense procurement nabobs speak of "fast track" for this project, but long-time observers of these officials are not expecting speed.

India's effort to build the first six subs (French Scorpenes), under license, has been delayed several times, and the price has gone up to $5 billion ($834 million each). While this effort will leave India with thousands of workers and specialists experienced in building modern submarines, all that will be wasted because the defense procurement bureaucrats seem to have learned nothing. These officials already caused numerous delays, and cost overruns, during negotiations to build the Scorpene diesel-electric submarines. The bureaucrats mismanaged this deal to the extent that it is nearly three years behind schedule. But it is even more behind schedule if you count the several years the Indian bureaucrats delayed it even getting started. The delays and mismanagement have so far increased the cost of the $4 billion project by 25 percent. The first Scorpene is supposed to enter service in 2015 years, with one a year after that until all six are delivered.

There's some urgency to all this, because by next year, five of India's 16 subs (10 Kilo and two Foxtrot class Russian built boats and four German Type 209s) will be retired (some are already semi-retired because of age and infirmity). Two years after that, India will only have five working subs. India believes it needs at least 18 non-nuclear subs in service to deal with Pakistan and China.

But the bureaucrats and politicians dithered for nearly a decade, and it wasn't until 2005 that India signed a deal to buy six French Scorpene class boats. The delays led to the French increasing prices on some key components, and India has had some problems in getting production going on their end. The first Scorpene was to be built in France, with the other five built in India. While some problems were expected (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 recently 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 are 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 under water for more than a week, at low speed (5-10 kilometers an hour). The Pakistanis have an option to retrofit AIP in their current two Agostas.

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. India could use their Scorpenes to confront any Chinese attempt to expand their 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 be nearly a decade 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.


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