INDIA'S UNDERWATER PREDATORS
Geopolitics|December 2021
While the Indian Navy requires a sizable submarine fleet for countering a two-front war with Pakistan and China, the union government needs to lay more stress on building more nuclear-powered ballistic missile boats and nuclear-propelled attack vessels while quickly finalising the P-75I programme’s roadmap, argues
AMARTYA SINHA

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, submarines have always played a pivotal role in both strategic and tactical level battlefields. From launching cruise missile strikes on enemy’s high value assets, facilitating amphibious landing of special forces commandos in hostile territories, attacking and sinking enemy warships, and even launching devastating nuclear weapon strikes on enemy cities when required, underwater military capabilities of a nation can tip the balance in the aggressor’s favour during the beginning moments of the war. Thus, an undersea striking capability plays a very important role in shaping a nation’s strategic doctrine. Submarines are popularly known as ‘Sharks of Steel’ due to their predatory nature in stealthily detecting targets and destroying them.

A legacy to reckon with

The history of the Indian Navy’s submarine fleet dates back to 1967 when the first of the boats of the Soviet Foxtrotclass were inducted. The diesel-electric submarines were constructed under ‘Project 641’ in the USSR. The Foxtrot class was comparable in performance and armament to most contemporary designs of that time. However, its three screws made it noisier than most Western designs. Moreover, it was one of the last designs introduced before the adoption of the teardrop hull, which offered much better underwater performance. Also, although the Foxtrot was larger than a Zulu-class submarine, the Foxtrot-class had two of its three decks dedicated to batteries. This gave it an underwater endurance of ten days, but the weight of the batteries made the Foxtrot's average speed a slow two knots at its maximum submerged time capability. Due to the batteries taking up two decks, onboard conditions were crowded with space being relatively small even when compared to older submarines such as the much older American Balao-class submarine. The Foxtrot-class was completely obsolete by the time the last submarine was launched. The Indian Navy inducted two variants of the Foxtrot-class of submarines: the Velaclass and the Kalvari-class.

The Kalvari-class consisted of four boats inducted between 1967 and 1969, namely the INS Kalvari (S-23), INS Khanderi (S-22), INS Karanj (S-21) and INS Kursura (S-20). The class of boats actively participated in the India-Pakistan war of 1971 and executed many patrol missions in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. The boats had an overall length of 91.3 metres, a beam of 7.5 metres and a draft of 6 metres and was able to displace 1,950 tonnes (while surfaced), 2,475 tonnes (while submerged). The submarines could dive at a maximum depth of around 300 metres and could carry up to 75 personnel (including 8 officers and 67 sailors). It had three shafts, each with a six-blade propeller and was powered by three ‘Kolomna - 2D42M’ diesel engines, each with 2,000 horsepower (1,500 kilowatts). The boats also had three electric motors, two of them with 1,350 horsepower (1,010 kilowatts) and one with 2,700 horsepower (2,000 kilowatts). It could achieve a maximum speed of up to 16 knots (30 km an hour) when on surface, 15 knots (28 km per hour) when submerged and 9 knots (17 km an hour) while snorkeling. It had a range of about 32,000 km at speeds of 8 knots (15 km an hour) when surfaced and 610 km at speeds of 10 knot (19 km per hour) when submerged. There were 10 torpedo tubes to carry 22 units of Type53 torpedoes. Kalvari-class boats could also lay 44 mines instead of torpedoes, and were configured with a snoop tray and I-Band radar for surface search.

The Kalvari-class was soon followed by the Vela-class of diesel-electric submarines during the 1970s. The Indian Navy inducted INS Vela (S-40), INS Vagir (S-41), INS Vagli (S-42) and INS Vagsheer (S-43) between 1973 and 1974. This version of the Russian Foxtrot-class was inducted to augment the numbers of Kalvari-class of boats.

The nuclear journey

With the growing battlefield requirements of precision strike weapons in theatre level warfare, in 1987, the Indian Navy leased a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) armed with cruise missiles and torpedoes, christened as the ‘INS Chakra’ (K-43). The deal was stuck with Russia for a 10-year lease period. The boat had an overall length of 94 metres, a beam of 10 metres and a draft of 8 metres. It displaced 4,000 tonnes (while surfaced) and 5,000 tonnes (while submerged). It was equipped to carry around 100 crew members. The boat had one five-blade propeller powered by a VM-5 pressurised water nuclear reactor. It was capable of achieving a maximum speed of 16 knots (30 km an hour) when surfaced and 23 knots (43 km per hour) when submerged. The K-43 could carry up to 8 SS-N-7 Starbright nuclear capable anti-ship cruise missiles. It had six 533 mm torpedo tubes which could carry 12 torpedoes or 12 SS-N-15 Starfish anti-submarine missiles.

Although the Indian Navy personnel acquired some first-hand operational experience of handling a nuclear-powered submarine, the gains were not significant as the boat was partially manned by Russian navy sailors and Indian troops were not allowed to enter the missile room and the reactor compartment. The 10-year lease agreement was finally terminated by India in 1990 and the submarine was handed back to the Russians.

Contemporary capacity buildup

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