India’s submarine challenges in the Indian Ocean Region

Recent developments concerning submarines in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) hold considerable importance for Indian security strategists in the near and medium future.
India’s submarine challenges in the Indian Ocean Region

 Dipak Kurmi

(The writer can be reached at

 Recent developments concerning submarines in the Indian Ocean Region
(IOR) hold considerable importance for Indian security strategists in the near and medium future. This matter demands prioritisation by the incoming government set to take office in June.

In late April, the Pakistan Navy marked a milestone with the launch ceremony of its first Hangor-class submarine at the Wuchang shipbuilding group’s Shuangliu base in Wuhan, China. This submarine, an export version based on the Chinese PLA Navy’s Type 039A/041 Yuan class, is slated for induction into the Pakistan Navy by 2028. Notably, it boasts air-independent propulsion (AIP), offering a substantial increase in underwater endurance compared to conventional diesel-electric submarines. This advancement is poised to significantly bolster Pakistan’s sea-denial capability in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Despite the Indian Navy’s recognition of the need for an air-independent propulsion (AIP)-capable submarine since 1999, it has yet to possess one. It wasn’t until June 2021 that the Defence Acquisition Council of the Ministry of Defence finally approved the long-awaited acquisition of six conventional submarines for the Navy under Project 75(I). With most of the Navy’s conventional submarines ageing over 30 years, their operational efficiency is significantly compromised. Therefore, Project 75(I) holds paramount importance for enhancing the Navy’s underwater capability.

In the Modi 2.0 era, there has been a notable push towards achieving self-reliance, or atmanirbharta, in the defence sector to mitigate import dependency. However, the execution of this initiative has not met expectations. Under the concept of ‘strategic partnership’ projects, four significant platforms have been designated for collaboration between Indian entities and foreign manufacturers. These include AIP-enabled submarines, along with fighter aircraft, helicopters, and armoured vehicles.

The Project 75 (I) submarine agreement is anticipated to hover around $5 billion (roughly Rs 44,000 crore), signifying a considerable investment. Over the last three years, two foreign manufacturers, one German and the other Spanish, have been pinpointed, marking the commencement of the final evaluation phase. The German conglomerate TKMS (Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems) has forged a partnership with the public sector unit Mazagon Docks Ltd. (MDL), a collaboration that enjoys robust backing from the German government.

Another competitive partnership in contention involves the Indian private sector firm L&T and the state-owned Spanish shipbuilding yard Navantia. Field evaluation trials of the TKMS offer were conducted by Indian naval teams in March, with the Spanish trials anticipated to conclude by June. With Project 75(I) representing a significant techno-commercial endeavour, intense competition is expected between the final contenders: the MDL-TKMS partnership and the L&T-Navantia team.

The importance of India procuring AIP-capable submarines is evident, yet recent experiences with significant defence acquisitions paint a less-than-encouraging picture. The acquisition of Rafale fighter aircraft from France serves as a notable example. The suddenness of the final decision and the opacity surrounding the technology transfer did little to further India’s quest for self-reliance.

While numerous factors come into play beyond just technological and commercial considerations when finalising decisions on major military platforms, a brief assessment reveals a checkered history in the indigenous development of India’s submarine program. In the mid-1980s, India procured its first HDW-Type 209 conventional submarine from West Germany with the aim of establishing an indigenous submarine production line at MDL. However, this endeavour was marred by a bribery scandal, which also implicated the Bofors artillery gun deal with Sweden. Consequently, the Rajiv Gandhi government abruptly terminated the entire submarine acquisition programme, dealing a significant blow to indigenous efforts and resulting in substantial fiscal losses. The subsequent Project 75(I) with France for the Scorpene-class submarines faced challenges, including cost escalations, delays, and disagreements regarding the extent of technology transfer.

In the realm of underwater maritime propulsion, AIP technology holds a unique position, with its expertise even scarcer than that of nuclear propulsion. While India has successfully entered the exclusive group of nations capable of nuclear propulsion design and manufacturing, with assistance from Russia, AIP technology still eludes its grasp. The indigenous AIP project undertaken by the Defence Research and Development Organisation is currently underway and shows promising progress, with hopes for successful certification in the near future.

At present, Germany holds the top position globally in AIP technology. India faces the challenge of balancing its immediate tactical needs, such as the urgent induction of AIP-equipped submarines into the Navy, with the overarching strategic goal of bolstering indigenous AIP design and manufacturing capabilities for the long term.

Navigating this endeavour poses significant challenges, as expertise in underwater technology is closely guarded and collaboration opportunities are scarce. The collaboration between China and Pakistan on the Hangor-class submarine exemplifies strategic cooperation between the two nations dating back to the 1970s. This partnership has posed challenges to Indian interests, highlighting the complexities of regional dynamics.

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is on the brink of witnessing a surge in Chinese-designed submarines, with both Pakistan and Bangladesh set to acquire vessels from the PLA Navy. These submarines, alongside underwater drones and UDA systems, will significantly shape the evolving naval competition in the region, spanning from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. To effectively navigate this dynamic landscape, New Delhi must demonstrate greater agility and resolve in its decision-making processes compared to previous approaches.

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