Saturday 16 February 2019, 01:02 PM
Some Reflections on India’s Submarine Arm
By ViceAdmiral Pradeep Chauhan (Retd) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 12/22/2017 3:02:42 PM
Some Reflections on India’s Submarine Arm

The Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm commemorates Submarine Day on the eighth of December of each year.  This was the day, in 1967, upon which the country’s first submarine, INS Kalvari — one of a Class known by NATO as the Foxtrot Class — was commissioned into the Indian Navy.  As the White Ensign of the Indian Navy was unfurled, the 78-man crew of the submarines stood at stoic attention in the bitter winter cold of Riga, in what is now the Republic of Latvia but was, at that point in history, part of the Soviet Union’s westernmost coast.  They had travelled far, these 78 Indian Naval officers and sailors of the commissioning crew, starting their journey in the heat of the port city of Visakhapatnam on India’s eastern coast.  Their journey first took them to Vladivostok on the eastern coast of the erstwhile USSR, for their shore-based submarine training.

They then set off westwards, traversing the entire width — of over 10,000 kilometres — of that mammoth country, to the submarine base in the closed city of Baltiysk, the westernmost port of the Soviet Union, before finally ending-up in Riga.  But even as they trudged through the icy days and nights of Russia’s winter, they were travelling in the footsteps of earlier Indian Naval visionaries and pioneers who, in 1959 itself, had made the first serious bid to convince the government that the fledgling Indian Navy needed a submarine arm.  It was proposed to acquire four submarines from the British Royal Navy.  It took the Navy three years of stubborn battle with the Indian bureaucracy before the government agreed to take at least the first step and commence the process of submarine training by nine Indian officers, in the UK.  This training with a mature navy that possessed decades of experience in the operation and maintenance of submarines proved invaluable.  The navy then encountered a fresh and formidable hurdle.  Although the actual acquisition of the four submarines was finally approved by the Government of India in 1963, the British turned out to be obdurate, condescending and grossly unreasonable in their negotiations.

The net result was that these negotiations were terminated without the procurement of the desired submarines.  However, the very next year, the Soviet Union, seeing a major opportunity to draw India into its fold, offered four of its very successful and contemporary ‘Type-641’ submarines (whose NATO designation was the ‘FOXTROT’ Class) as alternatives to the Oberon Class boats that the UK was unwilling to sell. New Delhi, still smarting from the demeaning attitude of the British, viewed the Soviet offer as a godsend and accepted with alacrity, thereby dramatically changing the geopolitical maritime landscape. It was in execution of this offer that our intrepid band of 78 officers and men set out to not commission merely the Kalvari, but also the Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm itself.

The boldness of the Indian Navy’s decision to raise its own Submarine Arm,and the risks inherent in this choice, were vividly driven home in the preparatory-phase of the three-month-long maiden passage from Riga to Visakhapatnam that would soon be undertaken by the Kalveri between 18 April and 16 July 1968.  In January of that very year, the French Navy suffered the loss of its new Daphne Class submarine,the Minerve, which vanished without a trace while barely 50 kilometres short of her base at Toulon, killing her entire crew of 52.  As the intrepid crew of the Kalvari were engaged in their preparations for their maiden voyage home came another stark reminder of the perils of submarine operations — including those to be encountered in a maiden homebound passage.  Barely had the magnitude of the loss of the Minerve sunk in, when news came in that the Israeli Navy’s brand new submarine, theDakar, along with her crew of 69 persons, had been lost in the same month, while on her first voyage home from Scotland.

Coincidentally, the Israeli Navy, like its Indian counterpart, uses the prefix INS to denote its commissioned warships and submarines, and a host of soothsayers were soon muttering darkly about the ill-omen of an INS-prefixed submarine having been lost on its maiden voyage home. In deep empathy for their brethren from the French and Israeli navies, the crew of that first Kalvari said a special prayer, then gritted their teeth and got on with their voyage-planning with even greater thoroughness.  In so doing, they lent permanence to some sterling characteristics that typify India’s submariners — thoroughness, steely-determination and unshakeable resolve.  It should not be imagined for a moment that the hazards of submarine deployments are limited to nascent navies alone.  Indeed, in the course of the three months that the Kalvari took to sail home, both of the world’smost advanced submarine-operating navies of that time — those of the USA and the Soviet Union — were themselves rocked by shocking losses of their respective submarines.  First, the nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Scorpion,was lost in the Atlantic on 22 May 1968, with a death toll of 99 crewmen.  Then the Soviet Union’s Golf Class diesel-electric submarine, the K-129 sank while on deployment in the Pacific. As if all this was not bad enough, thanks to the Suez Canal being closed on account of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the Kalvari’s own voyage was a protracted one of some 19,000 nm (35,188 km) that was marked by dreadful weather and some of the heaviest seas that many of the crews would ever see in their lives.It was as if some higher power was warning the Indians that they had chosen a profession that accepted not mediocrity but only sustained excellence in the face of clear and ever present danger.

In the two years between December 1967 and December 1969, the Indian Navy commissioned all four submarines of the newly-named Kalvari Class (the NATO nomenclature of ‘FOXTROT’ Class continued simultaneously).  Right from their advent, each of these boats did the Indian Navy proud, continuing in the same vein for the next three decades, winning respect and fame for their skill and daring.  For example, the second boat of the Class, the Khandheri won global accolades in her own maiden voyage when, disdainfully disregarding earlier failed attempts by British and American submarines, she successfully navigated a treacherous 80 nm up the Congo River to become the world’s first submarine to reach Congo’s Port Matadi, which is arguably the highest seaport in the world.

Much has changed in the half-a-century that has since elapsed.  The Soviet Union has moved from geography into history, even as the Baltic Republics, including Latvia, moved from history into geography! Amidst all this geopolitical turbulence, the Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm has matured and its submariners have experienced the crests and troughs that come with a coming-of-age, from heady successes to heart-wrenching moments of near-despair.  The four Kalvari Class submarines (Kalvari, Khanderi, Karanj and Kursura) were commissioned between 1967 and 1969.  Within the next four years, they had been augmented by four upgraded ones of the Vela Class.  A dozen years later,in 1986, came the next great leap, with the acquisition by India of two new Classes of SSKs.  The first comprised the very modern Shishumar Class (HDW 209-1500) from Germany.  Four SSKs of this Class (Shishumar, Shankush, Shalki and Shankul) were acquired between 1986 and 1994, with the last two being built in Mumbai, by Mazagon Docks Ltd.  The second Class of submarines was once again from Russia. This was the much vaunted Sindhughosh Class (better known by the NATO designation KILO Class).  

The Class was populated over the next fourteen years between 1986 and 2000,by which time the Indian Navy had an impressive ten of these formidable undersea predators (Sindhughosh, Sindhudhvaj, Sindhuraj, Sindhuvir, Sindhuratna, Sindhukesari, Sindhukirti, Sindhuvijay, Sindhurakshak, and Sindhushastra). Thus, as the new millennium dawned, the Indian Navy with a total of 19 SSKs (including two Kalvari Class boats and three Vela Class ones) seemed well placed as a submarine power to reckon with.  Sadly, bureaucratic machinations, political vendettas and geopolitical forces intervened and theNavy’s dream began to unravel with disconcerting rapidity. As the timely provision of spares began to fail, time required to be spent at sea, especially when required for continuity training of the crew of the submarines, began to become scarcer with each passing year.  As training inadequacies began to accumulate, accidents — both minor and serious — began to occur, leading to punitive actions and further curtailment of deployments.

A vicious cycle began to establish itself, greatly exacerbated by bureaucratic apathy if not ineptitude.  It has taken another decade and a half and the resignation of a fine Naval CNS for some semblance of stability to return.  And yet, through it all, successive generations of naval personnel, proudly sporting upon their shirts, the dolphins-badge that denotes their calling, have built assiduously upon the foundations laid by the pioneers of the Arm.  They have imbued an uncommonly high degree of professionalism, commitment, dedication and resolve in the men and women — whether in uniform or in civilian attire — who man, repair and service India’s submarines — the silent sentinels of the deep.  Today, as the Arm prepares to celebrate its Golden Jubilee, it is entirely fitting that a new Kalvari stands ready to be commissioned — once again as the latest submarine of the Indian Navy.

For some time now, much media-time has been devoted to lamenting the several perceived inadequacies in the country’s submarine prowess, especially after the tragedy that struck INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai on 14 August 2013, resultingin the loss of 18 precious lives and the loss of an invaluable combat platform.  The imminent commissioning of the Kalvari , embodying the impressive capabilities of the Scorpène Class of submarines, designed by the French conglomerate, M/s DCNS,  is, therefore, an especially timely portent of happier times for the underwater sentinels of our freedom.  

Warfare at sea differs markedly from armed combat upon the land.  ‘Terrain’ is arguably the most important determinant of land-based combatand, as a consequence, armies almost invariably have goals involving ‘occupation’ or ‘possession’ or ‘eviction’.  At sea, however, the effect of terrain diminishes sharply as the distance from the coast increases.  The sea is fundamentally a medium of movement and cannot be ‘fortified’ or ‘occupied’.  Navies cannot ‘dig-in’ and ‘hold’ sea areas that have great intrinsic value.  Consequently, the aims of naval operations revolve around the ‘use’ or ‘denial-of-use’ of specific areas of the sea for a specific period of time.  If we want to use a specific area of the sea for a specific period of time AND we don’t want the enemy to interfere with our use, we must exercise what is called ‘Sea Control’ in that sea area and for that period of time.  If, however, we do not have any interest in using a specific area of the sea for a specific period of time, BUT we merely do not want the enemy to use it, we must exercise what is called ‘Sea Denial’ — once again in that sea area and for that period of time.  Submarines (along with sea-mines) are classic platforms for sea-denial operations.  Another feature of combat at sea is that the hunter and the hunted can operate in totally different mediums (surface, sub-surface, air / aero-space), each pretty much unaware of the presence of the other — as in the case of submarines versus ships or submarines pitted against aircraft — whether fixed-wing or rotary-wing, manned or unmanned.  

Submarines have traditionally been used as a counter to surface ships — both, merchantmen (which constitute easy pickings) and warships (which are a far more difficult proposition).  This is where they have the most advantage, operating in a different medium from their adversary and being able to vary their depth to take advantage of the various density-layers that lie between the surface and the sea-bed and affect the propagation of sound underwater.  Weapons employed in such cases are typically anti-ship torpedoes and/or anti-ship cruise (i.e., non-ballistic) missiles.  Submarines can also be used against targets ashore (on the land) — i.e., for land-attack.  They must then be equipped (or be retrofitted) with suitable land-attack missiles with either conventional or nuclear warheads.  Naturally, this impacts the size of the submarine’s hull and imposes restrictions upon how close it can approach the coast.  

When submarines are designed or deployed to operate against other submarines, the advantages accruing from disparity of medium no longer apply, for both opponents are now within the same (underwater) medium and torpedoes become weapons-of-choice. Since submarines generate underwater sound in a variety of frequencies, the factor determining surprise is relative noisiness — more usually expressed as ‘stealth’. Nuclear-powered submarines that are capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles are commonly known as SSBNs.  SSBNs are very large and somewhat inherently ‘noisy’.  Consequently, smaller and equally speedy but much quieter submarines that are nuclear powered but equipped with missiles and torpedoes instead of nuclear-tipped, long-range ballistic missiles — such submarines are known as SSNs— are deployed to detect and continuously track an adversary’s SSBNs.  Likewise, modern diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) are often far quieter than an SSN and are designed to track and, where necessary, attack not just surface ships but also SSNs — or even other, relatively-noisier diesel-electric submarines.  

Nuclear propulsion maximises underwater speed and endurance, but demands a larger hull and constrains the submarine in littoral waters.   Diesel-electric submarines are far smaller than SSNs and SSBNs and can, consequently, operate both, in the deep seas and in relatively-shallow littoral waters.  They make-up for their relative lack of underwater-endurance by one or another type of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) package, but nevertheless yield enormous underwater speed-advantages to both, SSNs and SSBNs. 

There is a great deal of research in progress worldwide to enhance the underwater speed of submarines that are powered by diesel-electric power, using a technique called super cavitation.  Essentially, the submarine is encased in a continuously generated air bubble that minimises the drag of sea water, allowing the craft to proceed at very high speeds.  Several countries have experienced some success in super cavitation, with objects the size of a torpedo.  However, a submarine is many times the size of torpedo and the continuous generation of such an enormous air-bubble has defeated developmental efforts thus far.  

India operates both types of nuclear-propelled submarines, i.e., SSBNs and SSNs, but currently has only a single submarine of each type:

The Arihant is an indigenously built SSBN and is the lead submarine of a follow-on set that will be known as the Arihant Class.  

The Chakra, on the other hand, is an Akula-II Class SSN that is on a ten-year lease from the Russian Navy, where she was in service as the Nerpa.  She is, in fact, the second SSN to bear this name within the Indian Navy.  The earlier Chakra was a Charlie-I Class SSN which, too, had been taken on lease from the Russian Navy before being returned, upon expiry of the lease period.  There is intense speculation that the Indian Navy will shortly lease a second SSN from Russia, to bridge the gap until India can acquire the six SSNs for which the Modi government has accorded political approval. 

As stated earlier, the Indian Navy has half-a-century of experience in operating and maintaining diesel-electric propelled boats.  Although all eight original boats of the Kalvari and Vela Classes (known by NATO as the Foxtrot Class) have since been decommissioned, the contemporary holdings include two classes of diesel-electric SSKs (the KILO or Sindhughosh Class, and the Type 209/1500 Shishumar Class).  The third class — the Scorpènes — will come to be referred-to within the Indian Navy as the new Kalvari Class.

As the Scorpène programme ran into time overruns and as the People’s Republic of China began submarine forays into the Indian Ocean, breathless TV anchors and defence correspondents have invoked ‘Upgrade’ as a new and urgent mantra against Chinese machinations.  The truth is, of course, somewhat more prosaic.  ‘Upgrades’ are part of a normal naval response to the technological and tactical changes wrought by the evolution of naval operations through which armed combat is prosecuted upon, over or under the sea.  Where upgrades to India’s conventional submarines are concerned, two overarching aspects need to be borne in mind:

•The first is that contrary to some mildly hysterical reports in the electronic media, these upgrades are not a knee-jerk reaction to the large Chinese submarine inventory or Pakistan’s submarine programme.  Nor are they some desperate measure being taken to counter inadequacies in the numbers of submarines held by India.  Even if the Indian Navy had three times as many submarines as it does, periodic upgrades would still be the norm.

•The second is that contrary to the alarmist lament that India’s diesel-electric submarines — especially the nine surviving boats of the Sindhughosh Class — have crossed their designed-life and are not much better than floating coffins the truth is much more reassuring.  The authorised total technical service life of each submarine is actually 35 years. At or around the 13th year of service, each boat undergoes what is known as a ‘Medium Refit’ (MR).  This takes two-to-three years, during which time, major upgrades are effected and the submarine is made ready to operate in the contemporary environment for another decade-plus.  Then, around the 26th year of service, each boat undergoes a 27-month Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP), which enables it to be materially and operationally viable — once again within the prevailing contemporary environment — for the next 9-10 years.

Most MRs of the Sindhughosh Class, have been undertaken in Russia.    However, two — Sindhudvaj and Sindhukirti— underwent MRs at the Naval Dockyard, Visakhapatnam, while the Sindhukirti suffered a dreadfully protracted MR in HSL.  The Sindhukesari is the first to have has commenced her SLEP. The residual life of the Class may be assessed through the following tabulation:  

With ‘alarm’ having been removed from the equation, it is possible to dispassionately examine a few major thrust lines relevant to ongoing and planned upgrades. For the professional naval submariner — planner and practitioner alike — upgrades-of-choice are those that enhance:



Sensor Performance:

o Radar

o Sonar



External Situational Awareness (Combat-Information Management Systems)

Internal Situation Awareness and Control of the Internal-Environment (Platform-Management-and-Control Systems)

Weapons and weapon-delivery systems

Safety and Survivability Systems

These upgrades may be either through indigenous or foreign replacements of the original equipment.  Obviously, the former is preferable and, indeed, has yielded laudable results.  Even as the country awaits — with bated breath — the arrival of the Indian Navy’s Scorpènes, the process of upgrading the combat capability, safety and survivability of our existing sub-surface assets is continuing apace.  So while the situation is not as grim as is sometimes made out, it is most certainly a fact that the induction of the Kalvari and her follow-on submarines is coming not a moment too soon. 

ViceAdmiral Pradeep Chauhan (Retd)



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