Outmatched 4:1, Indian Submarine Surfaces Near China Chokepoint; Expert Says ‘Woefully Short Of Subs’

In the last two days, the Indian Navy has displayed its submarine prowess. Eight of its submarines operated together in the Western Indian Ocean Region, a first in three decades, and one of its Scorpene submarines sailed to the Andaman Nicobar Islands, overlooking the Malacca Strait, a critical choke point for China. 

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The story of the Indian Navy’s submarine arm presents a dichotomy between its ambitions and capabilities. The submariners have an adage – “In the sea, there are two types of vessels – submarines and targets.”

Despite the frenzy in the media, eight operational submarines do fall woefully short of the 76 platforms of China’s submarine force comprising 8 SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines), 13 SSNs (nuclear-powered attack submarines), and 55 SSKs (diesel-electric submarines).

Over the weekend, the Kalvari class (Scorpene) submarine reached INS Baaz, India’s last base in the Eastern Indian Ocean Region, for an inaugural visit. While it is a significant milestone for the Kalvari class submarines, projecting it as the representative of the Indian Navy’s reach leaves a lot for wanting as the Chinese submarines frequently foray into the Indian Ocean Region.

In November 2023, the PLA-Navy’s Type-093 Song class diesel-electric submarine participated in a joint maritime patrol with Pakistan Navy in the Western Indian Ocean Region.

On March 24, the Indian Navy announced that a Kalvari-class submarine visited Campbell Bay, India’s southernmost port in the Nicobar group of islands. The port overlooks the Strait of Malacca, the sea lane connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. The narrow lane is important for China both economically and strategically.

The island of Campbell Bay is just 145 kilometers north of Indonesia and can control the ‘six-degree shipping channel’ between Great Nicobar and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

“This marks the first-ever visit by a submarine of this class to this strategic port, amplifying the Indian Navy’s reach far away from the mainland, allowing planners pivotal reach and operational flexibility in rapidly deploying stealth submarines in our areas of interest and beyond,” the Eastern Naval Command said on its social media handle. The post made it clear that it was only a first for this submarine class.

India has been expanding the runway at INS Baaz, an airstrip in the islands, to help operate maritime surveillance planes like Boeing P-8I. In 2022, the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) C-130 J special operations aircraft landed at INS Baaz.

An official refusing to be identified said: “The Chinese have already been sending their diesel submarines to the IOR. This is not the first time an Indian submarine has reached Andaman and Nicobar. Campbell Bay is located 1500 kilometers from mainland India, roughly the same distance at which the Indian Navy conducted an anti-piracy operation near the Gulf of Aden while inducting the marine commandos through a paradrop.

Operational Availability Of Indian Navy Submarines

On March 25, the Indian Navy released stunning photographs of a pod of its submarines on the western seaboard. The eight submarines operated together in a recently concluded exercise in the Arabian Sea.

Before this, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Hari Kumar revealed that the Indian Navy had simultaneously deployed 11 conventional submarines for operations in different parts of the IOR.

“Operation Sankalp has broken the myth of short and swift operations and stressed the need for sustained operations to ensure safety and stability in the oceans. The pace of operations is quite high, and we have 11 submarines and 30 warships operating in different parts of the ocean to ensure coverage of all areas of interest,” Kumar said.

The Western Seaboard witnessed eight submarines operating together in a recently concluded exercise in the Arabian Sea, demonstrating their high levels of Op Readiness.

This has been the highest number of operational submarines for the Indian Navy in the last two decades. The submarine arm has been facing dwindling strength, accidents, and write-offs. As against the required 24 conventional submarines, the Indian submarine fleet has only 16 submarines, and apart from the six recently-built submarines, the rest are over 30 years old and approaching their decommissioning date.

With Beijing making no bones about its intentions to dominate the Indo-Pacific and, more specifically, the Indian Ocean Region, India’s submarine capability remains woefully short. It has only 16 conventional and one SSBN (INS Arihant). One SSN Akula class submarine on lease from Russia is yet to come.

The Indian conventional submarine fleet includes five Scorpene class (French), four HDWs (German), and seven Kilo-class (Russian). An additional Scorpene class is still to be commissioned.

The Indian Navy’s issue is the submarines’ operational availability. A general naval rule of thumb is that for every vessel operating, two more are required—one preparing for deployment and one standing down from recent operations. The numbers are needed to keep up with the maintenance and crew’s rest and training schedule.

Only one-third of the fleet is expected to be deployed during peacetime. More vessels can be deployed in wartime, but it is still prudent to assess the availability realistically. The Chinese Navy is not only forging ahead with the induction of submarines into its fleet but also equipping India’s neighbor Pakistan with state-of-the-art technology.

The Indian Navy’s adoption of AIP technology will put its fleet in a better position than Pakistan’s. All three of its French Agosta-90B (PNS Khalid, Saad, and Hamza) are powered by AIPs. Pakistan is also expected to receive eight 39 A Yuan-class AIP-powered submarines by the end of 2023 under a US$5 billion deal with China.

By next year, the Indian Navy will have 17 conventional submarines in its fleet. However, the older Kilo-class submarine’s availability ratio is low.

Ten of the Russian submarines were commissioned in the 1980s, and they are getting old. One of them has already been decommissioned, the second was refurbished and gifted to Myanmar, and the third was lost in an accident in 2013.

The Future Of Submarine Arms

The Chinese undersea fleet has been growing exponentially in quantity and quality. For the first time, China has been able to deploy at least one nuclear-armed submarine constantly at sea.

Compared to this, the Indian submarine program has been growing steadily, albeit a tad bit slower, making it difficult to catch up with its giant assertive adversary in the East.

The Indian Navy plans to construct six more conventional diesel submarines under Project-75 I.

Considering it took 11 years for the first Scorpene class submarine to enter the Indian Navy’s fleet after signing the deal, the subs to be built under Project 75I are at least a decade away from entering operations.

What adds to the woes is that India remains the only submarine-operating country that has not designed and built its submarines despite operating them for over five decades.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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