With the current efforts stagnating and time running out, Delhi has a few hard decisions regarding its conventional submarine programme.
The Indian Navy (IN) is looking ahead to acquiring around six indigenously developed Project 75I submarines (P-75I) which will employ Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP). However, this effort worth ₹430 billion ($5.6 billion) has gone down the line as there stands no company lodging a response to an RFP issued in the previous year.
About five foreign shipbuilders were shortlisted to respond to the RFP, but essentially, the wording of the RFP had reduced the contenders to only two of them.
As per the document, a ‘sea-proven’ fuel cell Air-Independent Propulsion was required to be equipped by the P-75I vessels. Only Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) in South Korea and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) in Germany could hypothetically meet this stipulation.
However, based on Delhi’s seemingly good experience with the four older Type 209/Shishumar-class vessels, there is also a possibility that the RFP had been intentionally worded to provide TKMS with the greatest chance. Intriguingly, open sources note that as per TKMS, this particular chance for building on this position for the P75I has been pursued for several years now.
TMKS also noted that ‘Following the P75I request for proposal released in 2021, certain conditions were deemed to be unacceptable to ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.’ It further stated that ‘Due to certain conditions which ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems could not offer [agree] to, until now an offer has not been submitted.’
That said, the German company somehow stands convinced about HDW Class 214 submarine with its proven fuel cell-based AIP system as an appropriate choice for meeting the requirements of the Indian Navy. The company says that their submarine meets the technical demands, and jointly with local production of submarines and their unsurpassed reference list of technology transfer, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems is eager to be a part of the P-75I programme and fulfil the needs to build in India.
The German company, in the meantime, has kept its door open. In a statement available online, it said, ‘We remain engaged with the Indian Navy and Indian MoD to reach an agreement on an achievable business model and respective conditions. These discussions are ongoing, and we are hopeful that a mutually agreeable conclusion can be met to continue ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems’ participation in the P75I programme.’
With the ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems being still on the sidelines, this leaves Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering at a stage of responding to the tender. However, Delhi would not be willing to stand in a situation of having a solitary bidder. On the other hand, it is also unclear from where the DSME obtained its fuel cell technology, with a possible source being the German company technology transfer during the time the Republic Of Korea Navy developed around nine Son Won-yil-class/KSS-II boats based on Type 214.
Delhi was forced to push back the RFP submission dates from November in the previous year till the ongoing month.
Media reports in the previous month stated that precluded by the fuel cell AIP stipulation; the Naval Group would possibly not take part in the tender. The Country and Managing Director for Naval Group India, Laurent Videau, admitted to the media that the RFP requires that the fuel cell AIP be sea-proven, which is not the case for the Naval group since the French Navy does not use such a propulsion system.
In connection with India
For developing six Scorpene/Kalvari-class submarines for the Indian Navy, the French firm had worked with Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL). The contract for the Scorpene subs was placed back in 2005, while the last vessel is not due to be delivered until March 2024.
The Kalvari programme running seven years behind, comes up as alarm bells of the flaws of cooperating with the country on the complex defence projects.
On the other hand, the French government heavily backs the Naval Group, and therefore, it is better placed to decide whether reputational and financial hits from these delays, a private organisation such as the TKMS do not enjoy that luxury. The spectre of a seven-year delay is unthinkable.
Regarding the remaining two shortlisted contenders, in February, Russia’s Rosoboronexport withdrew its interest instead of offering the Indian Navy an enhanced Kilo-class submarine and decommissioned as an alternative the Kilo-class submarine boats.
Spanish firm Navantia’s interest is also not yet revealed.
Setting the contract conditions too tightly and the specifications bar too high, Project 75I reflects over-ambition on the part of India’s MoD. India might pursue indigenous manufacturing, but the foreign OEMs find Indian conditions too risky and constructive.
What is upcoming for the AIP Submarine Programme?
There are two options. One is for the Indian Ministry of Defence to allow this tender fall, a natural and quiet death, post which it should open up negotiations directly with one or more foreign OEMs.
Second, withdraw the current RFP and reissue the same with lesser impositions about the Air-Independent Propulsion. For example, that would provide its exposure to a wider range of submarine manufacturers.
This stands as the Naval Group’s hope. Videau told the media, ‘Our focus and efforts are towards the continuation of our collaboration with Indian industry in realising the vision of the government of India by supporting the Indian Navy for other future developments and projects (maintenance, indigenous AIP, high-tech tools, incremental improvements in Scorpene-designed submarines, heavyweight torpedoes, larger ships, etc.).’
This would provide additional Scorpene submarines, with or without AIP, in layman’s terms. MDL risks its submarine-building workforce lying idle, with the final Kalvari-class boat already launched, so the French OEM would be enabled to leverage a further sense of urgency by offering more than six submarines.
Media speculations suggest that India might show its interest in the Shortfin Barracuda from the Naval Group. However, given Australia’s frustration over Naval Group promises and the country’s cancellation of the Attack class, this might turn out to be risky.
Further speculations state that Japan might be allowed to enter the race with its Taigei-class submarine due to the easing of the Japanese defence exports.
India’s DRDO has made a modular AIP, but additional testing, integrating and making it seaworthy could take several years. Delhi’s submarine aspirations under the Strategic Partnership model are in tatters, whichever way one looks at it.
The foreign OEMs will not or cannot participate in the nation’s tender is very telling. The fact that India took the next step and issued a limited RFP to organisations technically unable to reach the requirements is also head-scratching.
Currently, there are 16 diesel-electric submarines operational with the Indian Navy, with additional two Kalvari-class boats on the way. However, the Navy is far behind its mandated number of submarines, with the older boats standing due for decommissioning.
India’s nemesis Pakistan in the meantime, shall be receiving eight AIP-equipped Type 039A Hangor-class boats. Half are being built in Pakistan, while the remainder is in China, with the first expected to sail in the coming year. The PN also has three Agosta 90B submarines with AIP.
Apart from this, there are indications that Delhi is looking at alternatives. MDL issued two expressions of interest (EoI) on 12 May. The first invited eligible firms to establish an engineering and design centre for the conventional submarines’ planning, design, and manufacturing, with Mazagon Dock Limited primarily looking for design software.
Another EoI was for consultancy in implementing Industry 4.0 in submarine construction, including smart tools and shipbuilding, predictive maintenance, monitoring material tracking, crew management, and project management activities.