Strenthening defence ties with Paris provide hope for French submarine deal - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 15 September 2022

Strenthening defence ties with Paris provide hope for French submarine deal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with France's Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna, in New Delhi

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 16th Sept 22


Paris is pressing home an opportunity to consolidate its strategic defence partnership with India. Through visiting French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, President Emmanuel Macron has conveyed the offer to New Delhi of a “no-limits” defence and security partnership, with full operational cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.


For France, which is still reeling from Australia’s cancellation of a $90 billion order for Shortfin Barracuda conventional submarines from French shipbuilders, Naval Group, India offers an irresistable strategic opportunity.


This lies in the Indian Navy’s proposed acquisition of six submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP), designated Project 75-I – a tender that is currently in the doldrums. Of the five foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that responded to New Delhi’s tender, only two met the tender requirement of having a “sea proven AIP.” The other three handed over lists of about 20 reasons for not bidding.


A common reason was the MoD’s insistence on “impossibly high indigenisation”. The ministry demanded 45 per cent indigenisation in the first submarine and 60 per cent over all six boats in the order. OEMs say such high indigenisation is impossible.


In the circumstances, former navy admirals say that Project 75-I should be cancelled and the acquisition of six AIP submarines begun anew, alongside the acquisition of six nuclear-propelled attack submarines (known by the acronym, SSNs).


Paris would once never have considered the sale of nuclear submarine technology to India. But now, with the UK and US  closing ranks against China in the Western Pacific, there is a precedent for supplying nuclear submarines to India. In Sept 2021, as incentive for joining AUKUS, the US and UK undertook to provide Australia with nuclear submarine propulsion technology.


With Canberra wasting no time in cancelling the Barracuda order, France termed this “a stab in the back”. It has set the stage for Naval Group to offer New Delhi the technology that goes into its Barracuda nuclear submarine, as well as conventional Shortfin Barracuda boats.


India’s oceanic geography, spread over 7,500 kilometres of coast, requires the Indian Navy to operate small, short-range, conventional submarines; as well as large, long-endurance, nuclear-propelled boats (submariners call their vessels boats).


The Pakistan-centric Project 75-I seeks six submarines for operations in the shallow Arabian Sea. Like the six Scorpene boatsbuilt in Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) under Project 75, the Project 75-I tender seeks submarines that can operate in just 8 metres of water. This is essential, since the waters 25 kilometres seaward from Karachi are just 40 metres deep. Only small boats, such asthe 1,565-tonne Scorpenes, can operate in such shallow waters without scraping the bottom.


India also needs larger submarines for the Bay of Bengal coast, where the continental shelf falls sharply and, just 5 kilometres seaward from Visakhapatnam, the ocean bed is 3,000 metres deep. These submarines would need to be nuclear powered, possessing the endurance to sail submerged to four crucial south-east Asian straits – Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar – to block Chinese warships from entering the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea.


With a requirement of both nuclear and conventional submarines, India cannot replicate the all-nuclear submarine model of the US and France. Not having built conventional submarines for decades, Washington cannot participate in Project 75-I. That leaves only Russia and France with the technology and building infrastructure to supply India both conventional and nuclear propelled submarines. However neither has a conventional submarine with a sea-proven AIP system.


In 1999, the cabinet committee on security (CCS) pegged the Indian Navy’s sanctioned submarine strength at 24 boats, to be built in 30 years, i.e. by 2029. With 23 years gone, not even the first six submarines – the Scorpene-class – have been fully delivered.


Project 75-I, which was classified as a Strategic Partner (SP) category procurement, is moving even slower. Five OEMs --Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) of Korea; Navantia of Spain; Rosoboronexport of Russia, HDW of Germany and Naval Group of France -- responded to New Delhi’s request for proposals (RfP) by the due date of July 2021.


Three out of these five – the Russians, French and Spanish -- were eliminated since they failed to meet the MoD’s technical requirement of having a “sea proven air independent propulsion (AIP).” That left only HDW (Germany) and DSME (Korea) in the fray, but even these two shipyards are facing problems.


Korean Banks, with are owed large sums by DSME, may not allow it to bid, as the banks see too many financial risks in the current Indian RfP. 


Industry sources say that DSME hasn’t got Korean government approval to sell India submarines, even though Seoul is a major defence ally of Washington. Furthermore, Korea may be reluctant to see India to emerge as a rival submarine builder in Asia.


That leaves just HDW of Germany as a foreign partner in the SP tender. The MoD, which is wary of the idea of proceeding with a single bidder, has asked HDW to make two bids – one bid to each of the two Indian SP shipyards: MDL and Larsen & Toubro.


Industry sources say that, if the Indian RfP founders, New Delhi would have to find a political solution for getting both nuclear and conventional submarine technology. That would probably mean a government-to-government arrangement with Paris, or the involvement of an Indian business house.


  1. You’d think that they would just build another six ssks of block 2 kalvari class eventually with the drdo aip and focus on the ssns . No, that would be too simple. We have to reinvent the wheel. Some in the late 2030s we’ll have 2015 tech when everyone else has moved on to uucvs.

  2. Sir,
    The best option for India is to order immediately 3 more scropene class submarine with DRDO make AIP. To be built at Mazagaon Dock as present infrastructure is there and another 4 Nuclear submarine to be built by a constorium consists of LNT and Vizag ship yard.
    We can bargain a very god deal.

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