Submarines: How Not To Build A Scorpene


June 20, 2016: India's effort to build six French Scorpene submarines under license finally got the first of these Kalvari class subs into the water in late 2015. This sub is currently undergoing sea trials and is expected to enter service by the end of 2016 and the other five by 2020. This project was mismanaged by Indian procurement bureaucrats and is over budget and at least five years late. It wasn’t supposed to be that way but it almost always is when the Indian military procurement bureaucracy is involved.

Some of the overruns and delays were also the fault of poor management by the Indian firms building the Scorpenes. One of the worst examples of this occurred in 2013 with the departure of ten Spanish technical advisors for the Scorpenes. 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.

Building the subs in India was very important for India because it would provide thousands of Indian workers and specialists with the skills and practical experience needed to build modern submarines. But it appears that all this will be wasted because the defense procurement bureaucrats seem to have learned nothing from the past. These officials already caused 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. The purchase contract was finally signed in 2005. The delays and mismanagement have so far increased the cost of the $4 billion project by 25 percent (to $834 million per sub).

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. Instead it arrived in 2016. The decade delays in signing the deal to buy the Scorpene in 2005 caused problems, The French found there were now much higher prices on some key components. 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 ordered in 1994. The first of the Agostas was built in France and entered service in 2003. The other two were built in Pakistan and both were in service by 2008. The Indian Scorpene 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). 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. 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 or so in service by then. The procurement bureaucracy is still seeking a supplier for the second batch of six diesel-electric subs. 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, but long-time observers are not expecting speed.

Because of the Scorpene delays, some of the elderly Type 209s are being kept in service (but not allowed out to sea much) for several more years. Meanwhile several of the older Kilos have reached retirement age. Thus, by the time the first Scorpene enters service in late 2016, India will only have five or six working subs. India believes it needs at least 18 non-nuclear subs in service to deal with Pakistan and China.


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