In April an Indian shipyard launched the last of six Scorpene-class submarines. India expects to have this ship in service by 2024. That will mean all six locally built Scorpenes will be in service 19 years after the construction contract was signed. Based on past performance, that 2024 date may be too optimistic.
For example, it wasn’t until 2019 that the second of six Scorpene submarines was 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 relief of many and the amazement of some.
The problem is mainly poor management by the Indian firms building components for 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.
While the original purchase contract was signed in 2005, construction of the first sub began in 2009. 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.
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).
The original plan was to have the last Indian Scorpenes equipped with an Indian made AIP. That AIP was delayed and now the plan is to have the AIP installed during the mid-life upgrade for each sub. That typically takes place after a diesel-electric sub has been in service for 10-15 years. Such updates keep a sub out of action for two or three years. One midlife submarine for an Indian Russian built Kilo class sub took ten years. India now plans to do all its own midlife updates and the ones involving the installation of an Indian designed AIP are more likely to take a lot longer.
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 work. The twisted tale of the tardy submarines is particularly painful.
All this grief is no surprise if you consider the problems India had with the ten Kilo class subs they received from Russia between early 1986 and mid-2000. These boats had more than their share of accidents and one (the Sindhurakshak). which entered service in 1997 exploded and sank in 2013, a year after its midlife update in Russia. Sindhurakshak was brought to the surface as part of the incident investigation. The cause of the sinking was mishandling of weapons by the crew. Sindhurakshak was officially decommissioned in 2017. The second-oldest Kilo, which entered service in 1987, is soon to be retired. India is keeping the Kilos in service longer than usual because of the problems in building new subs, like the Scorpenes.