THE INDIAN GAMBIT
The home country for the legendary captain and a brilliant game is on the way to building nuclear-powered Nautiluses
Earlier our magazine published excerpts from the book “Journey Beyond Three Seas. Cruiser Submarine K-43’s Swan Song” (see Issue 2 (15)). Its author is commander of a Project 670 nuclear submarine Alexander TERENOV, who shared his memories of the three years of close cooperation with Indian mariners. The book is entering a new enlarged edition and today we are publishing excerpts from a new chapter in which the famous submariner reflects on modern shipbuilding in India, the country that he has experienced and loved with all his heart.
Once upon a time Crown Prince Dakkar of Bundelkhand, getting excellent technical education in Europe, returned home and led the Indians’ fight against British colonizers. When the last guns became silent, marking the end of the Sepoy Rebellion, he together with a handful of faithful people left India and took refuge on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. He built the submarine Nautilus from his own drawings here and went on a subsea trip on the seas and oceans in order to never set foot on the ground. The whole world knows him as Captain Nemo.
The symbolic figure of the great Indian — engineer, shipbuilder, scientist, oceanographer, navigator, the first submariner — and the image of his fantastic submarine still excite the imagination of shipbuilders and submariners around the world.
A century later, the Jules Verne’s fantasies became reality. The first U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Nautilus, beholden much to Admiral Rickover’s engineering and organizational gift, reached the North Pole under water. Trying to chase their American colleagues, Soviet shipbuilders built the fastest, the most beautiful, the largest and the most deep-sea submarines. Our country built the most numerous nuclear submarine fleet, exceeding the wildest Jules Verne’s dreams. Soon the Soviet submariners surpassed the Americans in the number of underwater world cruises and were able to make the first surfacing at the geographic North Pole.
30 years later after the emergence of the U.S. Nautilus, India leased its first nuclear boat, Charlie-Chakra, and within another 25 years - the latest Akula-Chakra submarine, which still prowls the Indian Ocean. Captains R. Ganesh, S. Anand, R. Sharma, P. Ashokan, S. Roy, and others - the worthy heirs to Captain Nemo - came around.
Today, India designs and begins building these technologically sophisticated ships on its own thus challenging the world’s shipbuilding leaders. The country's leadership has realized that creating a strong link between the public shipbuilding sector and private companies is the key to the development of the industry. And not only money is important here; precise and systematic use of the administrative resources to mobilize domestic capital for implementing strategic projects recognized by the country's leadership as the priorities is also of importance. The problem is certainly not simple. For example, in Russia we are still in search of a formula for an effective participation of private capital in the management of defense assets. However, we must remember that the Indians are not only the heirs to virtual Nemo, but also skilled merchants and, which is equally important, are the inventors of chess, the first and greatest strategy game. A strategic approach to planning is their most critical know-how. They are able to tie in the technical solutions, government objectives and private companies’ interests in the long-term national, regional and sometimes global-scale projects in quite an incredible way.
A drastic upgrade of the three largest state-owned shipyards, Hindustan Shipyard, Mazagon Dock and Goa Shipyard, is nearing the end. The private sector is awakening: for example, Larsen & Toubro, a private company engaged previously in the construction of houses, ports, airfields, bridges, and irrigation systems, has now joined the shipbuilding program. The company has built two ultra-modern shipyards from scratch near Chennai and in Gujarat. Today it is the world's largest manufacturer of military items - from self-propelled guns and soldier equipage to submarines and surface ships. Larsen & Toubro is involved in the most important Indian shipbuilding projects and holds licenses to build all types of warships.
Pipavav, another private company participating in the Indian shipbuilding program, is building a huge shipyard with the world's largest 700-meter dry dock in its home Gujarat State. It is known that a special economic zone has been registered for this company. The Indian Government does not give it money directly, but guarantees orders. The Pipavav Shipyard is currently seeking permission to build submarines for the country’s Navy. The company management's desire to master defense technology is largely driven by the Government's intention to invest approximately US$ 14-16 billion in the construction of 24 new submarines in the coming 15-20 years.
ABG owned cement plants at one time. Knowing that the country needs to conduct industrialization in the shortest time, the company has engaged in shipbuilding, too. The ABG Shipyard is now manufacturing commercial marine equipment of dozen types, tankers, oil rigs, medium- and small-displacement combatant ships.
In line with its national strategy, the country has moved from simple purchases to the higher and more complex forms of relationships with its partners in military-technical cooperation, including licenses, co-production, construction of various military facilities in India, the implementation of many offset programs, joint R&D projects, etc. Now the case in point is not the acquisition of even the most advanced ship or aircraft. The question is posed differently: what the national industry, including its research & technology sector, will benefit from each specific purchase? For example, when a series of ships or submarines is ordered abroad, a mandatory prerequisite is put forward: 30% of the equipment installed already on the first ship should be Indian-made. The scheme is simple: if ten ships are purchased, two ships shall be built abroad with parallel training of Indian professionals, four - in India using foreign components and systems, and the final batch of four ships shall be built exclusively at Indian shipyards with the maximum use of locally manufactured components. India's ten-year shipbuilding plan provides for the construction of approximately 75 ships and submarines exclusively at domestic shipyards.
In recent years, India has been investing heavily in its own shipbuilding industry. As of today, its defense industry sector is 100% open to private Indian capital. Previously India was a simple buyer, whereas now it surely demonstrates its own developments, becoming a more active and competitive participant in the international market. Time will tell whether the country is able to win over orders from Korean, Chinese and Japanese shipyards to its side. The chances are great, especially when there is great demand in the domestic market. However, our Indian partners (like the Russians) will have yet to defeat corruption to gain the full and lasting victory.
The designer and captain of the fantastic submarine Nautilus invented by Jules Verne would be proud of the achievements of his compatriots who have turned modern India into a state with a formidable nuclear missile shield, a powerful ocean-going fleet, a fast-growing shipbuilding industry, and a quickly fledging maritime culture. The Indus civilization is rapidly reviving as a global powerhouse.
But is the situation with shipbuilding in India so rosy? I’m not an expert on strategic planning and backbone projects and I hold only limited information about its shipbuilding program taken from published sources. But I care about the fate of the Indian fleet to which I gave many years of my commander's period of service. Almost thirty years ago, we were discussing a nuclear submarine construction program with the Indian commanders during hot debates in the wardroom, the control room and on the bridge of our submarine. We hoped that two decades later India would have a few nuclear-powered attack submarines. That's why for me and several of my colleagues watching the emergence of India as a maritime power with sympathy and interest, it is regrettable to see the slow pace implementation of this important program. When a lease of the first nuclear submarine Charlie was negotiated in the early 1980s, it was clear everything: after the prolonged doubts India had decided to develop its own nuclear submarine fleet, prepared the infrastructure and trained crews. During the three-year lease the Indian Navy acquired extensive experience in using nuclear submarines, interacting with surface ships and aviation, maintenance, repairs and docking. ASW aircraft crews learned how to search and track nuclear submarines. In fact, India's Navy gained the experience in operating nuclear-powered ships within a few years whereas it took our country more than two decades to acquire it. Indian designers, planners studied the first nuclear attack submarine K-43 Chakra day and night, in the home base, at sea and in the dock, so that to design and build their own nuclear-powered ship on its model. The lease ended in 1991. However, of 80 well-trained Indian officers (excellent engineers with knowledge of the Russian language) – three Indian crews that underwent the three-year course of training in the Soviet Union, a precious core of the domestic naval “nuclear” elite, which none country in the Asian region and the Indian Ocean region had – only five or six persons were involved in the ATV program.
25 years have elapsed. The Indian Navy officers - even those who served as lieutenants aboard Chakra - retired. The widely advertised indigenously-built nuclear-powered ballistic missile (SSBN) submarine Arihant has not yet entered service with the Navy, although more than 30 years have elapsed since the political decision on its construction was made (it took the USSR 5 years to do this). Maybe India takes the example of modern Russia - we, too, are building for 20-25 years? But we have a strong justification - the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of the former integration systems and cooperation.
India had to lease another nuclear submarine, the Akula-Chakra, build a coastal infrastructure on a new site from scratch, train crews and maintenance personnel. Indian civilian technical personnel for the new nuclear submarine, which underwent training at a shipyard in Russia, have largely changed the place of work, while the lease of the new Chakra is slowly nearing the end. Is it necessary to train another generation of designers and submariners before the next nuclear-powered attack ship will appear in India (after all, more than one year will elapse since the start of the contract negotiations to contract realization)? According to the Indian military, the country is still in need of at least 5-6 Akula-type nuclear attack submarines. But our Navy, too, needs submarines badly. However, rumors about extending cooperation in this area appear regularly in the Indian and Russian press, but this is just rumor and nothing more.
Another question — why have the Indians immediately begun to build an SSBN submarine, whereas the whole world was moving “from simple to complicated”? SSBN submarines require escort and protection by diesel-electric attack submarines having increased submerged endurance. The Indian strategists have no such “guards” yet meaning that SSBNs may potentially be an easy target for enemy ASW forces. It is necessary to develop new submarine tactics, establish protected areas, underwater surveillance and target acquisition systems. All of that can and should be received in close cooperation with Russia’s Navy and shipbuilding industry. There is a long overdue need for deep integration not only in the development of the BrahMos family of missiles, but also in the design and joint construction efforts in high-tech shipbuilding branches, in even closer cooperation between the Navies of both countries.
India's fleet is growing and developing rapidly, just like this took place in the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, the first negative effects of this revolutionary growth are already evident. Accidents and collisions of ships through commanders’ fault, that is ship loss cases, became more frequent. I think that such a sad payment for the accelerated transition to the “higher naval league” was imminent. Chasing its more advanced rivals, Russia, which once also “panned out” its own experience by sacrificing the health and lives of people in the inevitable accidents, emergencies and disasters, understands the Indian friends’ problems like no other and is ready to assist in handling them as soon as possible to the best of its ability.
At the same time, Indian partners could adopt some grains of the Russian experience already today. In particular, the frequent changes of the officers in sectors where promising developments are under way obviously prevent from moving forward. The lack of permanent training officers at the training centers has a negative impact on training of new crews. Yes, the Indians are great sailors and ships spend most of the time at sea. Unlike other countries in the region, which ferry their new ships and boats built abroad to their permanent bases thousands of miles away on the floating docks and lighters, the Indians consciously make life for the new crew difficult. For example, all Russian-built Project 11356 frigates, new and upgraded ocean-class submarines leave the shipyard’s piers and go directly on a semi-world cruise with exercises, live firings, proudly showing the world their naval flag. But the competitor countries do not stand still: earlier, some 10-15 years ago, the emergence of a Chinese frigate in the Indian Ocean caused surprise, whereas today we are witnessing their presence on a permanent basis. They do not longer restrict themselves by a participation in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden, but also train their skills in tracking other countries’ submarines. Chinese Navy’s forward operating locations surround the Indian sub-continent and therefore the countries in South and South-East Asia are rapidly re-equipping their naval forces. This means, in particular, the presence of maritime patrol aircraft against which diesel submarines are simply an incapable fighting force. Who doubts this, may remember the Caribbean crisis and the impotence of our diesel-electric submarines trying to break the blockade of Cuba.
On the other hand, our defense establishment has every reason to believe that the money invested in the Russian naval shipbuilding industry will soon turn into a new quality of the fleet and the Russian Navy will be supplemented by ocean-going ships. We have retrofitted the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and today we can confidently say that they are able to build such ships without a shipyard in Nikolayev or French DCNS. We have finally resumed batch production of nuclear-powered submarines - the major striking force of the fleet. After all, if you look at the world map and assess the geographical position of Russia, even an ignorant person would understand that the formations of large surface ships have no future in modern warfare in the oceanic theaters of operations. At best, they can show Andrew's flag in peacetime (which, of course, is also important), but only nuclear-powered submarines have the real opportunity to reach out to the oceans.
We have preserved our scientific and manufacturing capabilities in missile, ice, and aviation technology. Our developments are competitive and in demand. An ordinary Russian designer from any design bureau, an engineer and worker from any Russian shipyard can teach their foreign, including Indian, colleagues. Russian shipbuilders have vast experience, knowledge and skills in such sophisticated industry niches as the construction of ocean-going nuclear fleet and unique marine equipment. The country has many world-class science and engineering schools with experience of implementing revolutionary technology projects. We have gained vast experience in the operational use of nuclear submarines, their maintenance and repair, the tactics of their use in peacetime. And we have paid a high price in blood for this experience and I would not like India to step on the same rake.
How will we deal with our national patrimony? Will we share this wealth with India, which needs us badly today and not in 20-30 years when it will become a completely self-sufficient country? Or will we keep it for internal use while probably losing its shelf life? Will India be able to realize that our achievements have been accumulated over decades and by the efforts of several generations? If we help this friendly, forward-looking and hard-working country build a modern naval fleet, we will open the door to the widest cooperation on effective and safe technologies for developing the resources of the shelf and the oceans of the world in general, still relying on a loyal and reliable ally in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment.
India's leaders have realized that creating a strong link between the public shipbuilding sector and private companies is the key to the development of the industry
India's Navy gained the experience in operating nuclear-powered ships within a few years whereas it took our country more than two decades to acquire it
The widely advertised indigenously-built nuclear-powered ballistic missile (SSBN) submarine Arihant has not yet entered service with the Navy, although more than 30 years have elapsed since the political decision on its construction was made.
I think that a sad payment for the accelerated pace of transition to the “higher naval league” – more frequent accidents, emergencies and even loss of the ship and some crew members – is unfortunately inevitable.
We have gained vast experience in the operational use of nuclear submarines, their maintenance and repair, the tactics of use in peacetime. And we have paid a high price in blood for this experience and I would not like India to step on the same rake.