Submarines: Scorpene Stumbles Towards The Finish Line

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August 28, 2010:  India's effort to build French Scorpene submarines, under license, has been further delayed, and the price has now 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, 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 six Scorpene diesel-electric submarines. The bureaucrats have 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 two years, with one a year after that until all six are delivered.

There's some urgency to all this, because by 2012, 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.

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 boat. 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 Scorpene purchase was seen as a response to the Pakistani Agostas. The Scorpene are a more recent design, the result of cooperation between a French and a Spanish firm. The Agosta is a 1,500 ton (surface displacement) diesel-electric sub with a 36 man crew and four 21 inch torpedo tubes (with 20 torpedoes and/or anti-ship missiles carried.) The Scorpene is a little heavier (1700 tons), has a smaller crew (32) and is a little faster. It has six 21 inch 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.

Both of these modern subs are very lethal weapons against surface warships. With well trained crews, Agostas and Scorpenes can get close to just about any surface ship, no matter how good the defenders' anti-submarine defenses are. But it's the AIP boats that are the real killers. Without AIP, subs spend most of their time just below surface, using their noisy diesel engines (via a snorkel device that breaks the surface to take in air, and get rid of the engine exhaust.) Snorkels can be spotted by modern maritime patrol aircraft, and both nations are getting more of these. The noise of the diesel engines can easily be picked up by other subs. The introduction of the Agostas and Scorpenes was seen as an escalation in the naval arms race between Pakistan and India.

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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