Saturday, December 26, 2009

Navy sends SOS on ageing submarines

New Delhi, Dec. 22: A top body in the military establishment went into a huddle today after the Indian Navy sounded an “SOS” — save our submarine fleet.

The navy has 16 submarines that are being retired faster than they can be replaced. The worry over the fast depleting submarine fleet occupied mindspace among the defence ministry’s top officials on the eve of President Pratibha Patil’s visit to INS Viraat, the navy’s aircraft carrier and flagship.

The carrier itself is more than 50 years old and is an example of how the navy has to operate its vessels through continuous refits. The Viraat resumed service only last month after being in the dry docks for two years.

Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma goaded the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) led by defence minister A.K. Antony to meet today after telling it that the submarine fleet of 16 vessels would be nearly halved in five years unless the Centre cleared a proposal for a new line. The proposal has been pending for more than six years.

The second line of six submarines could cost nearly Rs 30,000 crore. A 30-year submarine building and acquisitions programme, of which Project 75A is a part, was cleared by the cabinet committee on security in 1999.

The first step towards the second line of submarines is to identify a shipyard. Repeated pleas from the navy, by Admiral Verma’s predecessors Admirals (now retired) Madhvendra Singh, Arun Prakash and Sureesh Mehta, were not enough for the defence ministry to act.

But the state of the navy’s submarine fleet is now “time critical” because the latest submarine building project — six Scorpenes being built in France and India by DCN Thales — has got delayed by at least two years and the first is unlikely to be commissioned before 2013.

By that time, two Foxtrot class submarines, nearly 40 years old, would be retired and the early ones of the Kilo and HDW class would also be decommissioned despite refits to extend their lifespan.

Today’s meeting was on till late evening and a defence ministry official said it was unlikely to be conclusive. The navy wants a shipyard to be identified on the basis of experience and competence of the workers – only Mazagaon Docks in Mumbai and Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam qualify on those grounds.

But private company Larsen and Toubro, which is building a shipyard near Chennai and has collaborated in the INS Arihant nuclear submarine, has said it is also bidding for the second line. Also in contention are Kochi and Garden Reach Shipbuilders. The navy believes a yard for submarines can be built in Calcutta even if it is a riverine port.

Only after the shipyard has been identified will it be authorised to enter into collaboration with foreign submarine builders because India accepts that it does not have the knowhow.

Requests for Information to submarine builders Armaris (France), Navantia (Spain), Rubin (Russia), HDW (Germany) and Kockums (Sweden) have been sent.

Worried over the health of its submarine fleet, the navy sought an agreement with the US in 2005 for a “humanitarian” arrangement to rescue the crew of an Indian submarine if it is in distress. India paid $100,000 upfront for the services of a US Deep Submersible Rescue Vehicle (DSRV).

The agreement envisages that the US navy will fly a DSRV and ‘flyaway kit’ to Mumbai or Chennai within 48 hours after being alerted to an Indian submarine in distress.

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