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Navy’s sub induction plan suffers blow
New Delhi, November 17, 2008
A mass of tangled wires, loose plates and scaffolding surround a shabby, ferrous hulk sitting at a dry dock at the public sector Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. (HSL) in Visakhapatnam.
A few workmen amble around the yard disregarding the chaos around. Welcome to the navy's 'dry dock queen', the INS Sindhukirti. For close to five years, this submarine has been sitting in a medium refit-conducted when a submarine completes half its operational life of 15 years-manned by a skeletal naval crew.
She can rejoin the fleet only after another five years by which time this steel shark would have spent a third of her useful life of 30 years, in a refit. "We have written off this submarine," shrugs a naval official.
Even as the navy awaits a formal report on the accident onboard the Akula-2 nuclear powered attack submarine Nerpa (to be leased to India as the INS Chakra next year), it worries about the sorry state of its conventional arm.
On paper, the Indian Navy, the world's fifth largest, boasts a fleet strength of 16 submarines. In reality, only six submarines are operational-available for combat or classified surveillance missions. At least four other submarines like the Sindhukirti are stuck in prolonged and messy refits.
The navy's worst kept secret was highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its 2006-07 report, tabled recently in the Parliament.
"In what could seriously impact on the operational preparedness of the Indian navy, more than 50 per cent of its submarines have completed 75 per cent of their operational life of 30 years and some (the INS Vela and INS Vagli) have already outlived their maximum service life," says the report.
This hole in the navy's capabilities comes at a time when it is on the cusp of acquiring critical leap in underwater strategic capability-three nuclear- powered ballistic missile submarines representing India's second strike capability or the ability to deter an adversary with nuclear retaliation in case of a first strike.
The first submarine is to be launched on January 26 next year, just two months from now and two others, currently building at Hazira, Gujarat, are to follow in the next five years.
The Chakra - the quietest, deadliest Russian attack submarine-- was meant to not only to boost the navy's underwater attack capability but rapidly train crews to man the three ATVs (All-Terrain Vehicle).
Each nuclear submarine requires over 100 personnel and the arm needs over 500 specially trained personnel to man the submarines over the next five years. But with the submarine arm, which has a strength of 2,850 officers and men, already facing a 30 per cent shortage in personnel, it is unclear how this deficit will be met quickly.
Now, as the navy is set to investigate into possible glitches in systems common to both the ATV and the Akula, it has to wrestle with a dip in the operational preparedness of its conventional submarine arm.
Due to an ageing fleet and prolonged refit schedules, the average operational availability of the submarines is as low as 48 per cent (The ideal availability is 66 per cent). This is a fleet tasked with defending a 7,600 km coastline and patrolling a sphere of influence which stretches from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Straits.
The CAG report notes: "If the construction plan for new submarines is not expedited, 63 per cent of the existing fleet would complete their prescribed life by 2012, when the first new submarines (six Scorpene class submarines being built at Mazagon Docks Ltd. in Mumbai, will be inducted in intervals of 18 months from 2012 onwards) will be inducted as per the present schedule."
That's not all. Back of the envelope calculations show that between 2016 and 2018-less than a decade from now-seven, or 60 per cent of the remaining fleet, will have to be phased out. How did things come to such a state?
To only be able to maintain its existing fleet strength of 16 submarines, the navy needs to add one submarine every two years. It is an accepted equation that to keep one submarine at sea, a navy needs to have one in refit. The navy has failed on both counts. It has not added a single new submarine for the last eight years. By the time the first of the six Scorpene class submarines start rolling off the production line at MDL Mumbai, the damage to a conventional submarine arm would already have been done.
Timely refits are essential for ensuring operational availability and readiness of a submarine but according to the CAG, most of the refits could not be completed within the prescribed time period.
It is a sad story of political dithering, bureaucratic bungling and ineptitude of public sector shipyards. It is a story that nearly cost the country its indigenous submarine-building capability in the wake of the HDW bribery scandal in the mid-1980s when the German submarine maker was black-listed.
The navy's 30-year plan to build 24 conventional submarines indigenously was approved nearly a decade back but never implemented. The government did not explore the option to build more submarines at MDL and wasted 12 years, nearly allowing a carefully nurtured precision-engineering capability, possessed by only a handful of nations, to wither away.
This impressive force of 24 submarines is unlikely be realised even a decade from now. Officially, the Sindhukirti, for whose refit the navy has already paid Rs 650 crore, is to join the navy in 2010. But with barely 30 per cent of her medium refit-where the submarine is stripped of all equipment, her hull inspected for wear and tear and machinery replaced-completed since 2004, officials say there is no way she can join before 2015.
Six of India's fleet of ten Soviet-built Kilo class submarines have been refitted at Russian shipyard Zvezdochka with the last such refitted submarine, the Sindhuvijay, set to sail to India next month. Though the programme has been severely indicted by the CAG which called it, "Piecemeal modernisation and upgradation of submarines at an aggregate cost of Rs 1,560 crore undertaken by the navy without taking approval of the competent financial authority," it seems to be outstanding when compared to domestic refits.
It took the Russian shipyard between 24 and 28 months to refit each Kilo class submarine while it takes an Indian shipyard nearly a decade to complete the same refit. A Russian shipyard deploys over 200 workers in three shifts to complete the refit in two years while HSL-a yard for building commercial ships and with little experience in refitting submarines-deploys just 50 workers.
It took the naval dockyard Vizag and HSL nearly a decade each to refit the INS Vela and the INS Vagli, the last surviving pair of Soviet-supplied Foxtrot class submarines acquired in the mid-1970s, which means the two submarines have already spent a third of their lives in medium refits.
Despite objections from a section of the navy which questioned the yard's competence, the Sindhukirti was transferred to the HSL in 2004. The reason given was to develop refit capability within the country to service future submarines.
"Developing indigenous refit capability is laudable, but should this be done at the cost of operational readiness?" says a senior naval official. Clearly, operational readiness is not an issue that concerns a public sector shipyard insulated from accountability. It is not clear why the navy is soft on HSL.
Is it the fact that the yard is a cosy retirement posting for naval officials? Or is it because the Naval Dockyard Visakhapatnam has proved to be equally incompetent in speedily repairing submarines? It undertook medium refits of three Kilo class submarines, all of which took at least three years to complete.
In a bid to arrest declining numbers, the navy this year floated a request for information asking foreign submarine builders to bid for building six more conventional submarines within the country. It will take at least five years for steel to be cut on the first such submarine and then again, it is unclear exactly where these submarines will be built.
The only submarine yard at MDL is full-up building six Scorpene submarines. In the interim, the navy is flogging its two ageing Foxtrots, the Vela and Vagli which are already five years past their operational usefulness, eagerly awaiting the arrival of its nuclear boats.