Friday, September 3, 2010

Battle Rages in India over New Warship Construction

An increasingly three-way bitter battle is raging in the Indian Navy between supporters of aircraft carrier construction and those who favor submarine building. The latter group is further split between those submariners who wish to concentrate on nuclear submarine construction and those who wish to see additional production of diesel-electric submarines.

It is this three-way fight that has seriously delayed the second phase of India's Project 75 diesel-electric submarine program.

Project 75 envisioned building 24 conventional submarines in India. Six were to be built from Western technology and six with Russian collaboration; then Indian designers, having absorbed the best of both worlds, would build 12 submarines indigenously.

Project 75, to build six Scorpene submarines (the "Western" six), was contracted in 2005. The Indian MoD believes it is still four to six years away from Project 75I; i.e., beginning work on the second six submarines. In addition, the wisdom of building the second group of six boats using Russian technology has been questioned.

However, the Indian Navy carrier lobby, headed by the last two naval chiefs, has no interest in using the Navy’s limited budget for building submarines. So the lobby has exploited the division of opinion among submariners over whether to concentrate on nuclear-powered versus conventional submarines to push submarine building into the future.

The lobbyists have argued that India needs SSBNs to make the long-sought-after Indian nuclear triad a reality and provide a secure second strike capability. However, SSBNs are not a part of the fighting navy; they constitute a country’s nuclear deterrent, and fire their nuclear-tipped missiles on orders from the national leadership. The Navy therefore argues that the service should be funded from Indian government sources, not as part of the Indian Navy budget.

Supporters of nuclear submarine construction argue that SSNs are necessary to protect the SSBNs. They also point out that while diesel-electric submarines are quiet and hard to detect while submerged, they are easily picked up when they surface to charge their batteries. Furthermore, they move slowly underwater. These considerations allow a single nuclear submarine to do the job of multiple conventional submarines, which give their position away when they surface at regular intervals. Diesel-electric submarine supporters reply that India’s coastal waters are so shallow that SSNs, which typically weigh 4,000-5,000 tonnes, run the risk of scraping the bottom. Conventional submarines, which normally weigh around 1,500 tonnes, are needed for dominating the coastal areas.

This split in the submarine lobby has left the aviation supporters dominant in current Indian Navy policy decision-making. This factor may well see construction of India's indigenous aircraft carriers accelerating at the expense of the submarine fleet.

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