India’s French submarines – and what we can learn

At the Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd (MDL) yard in Mumbai, ‘Venki’ Venkatesan is considered something of a tyrant. He’s the quality control manager and a key part of the team overseeing every tiny stage in the construction of six conventionally-powered Scorpene submarines, in collaboration with the French ship builder DCNS. (DCNS changed its name to ‘Naval Group’ last month.)

Venkatesan is well aware that decisions he makes now may well impact the lives of the submariners, some as yet unborn, who will operate these boats in three decades time.

There are abundant lessons at this yard in far off India for those negotiating the $50 billion contract for the Royal Australian Navy’s 12 new submarines.

Against competition from Japan, Germany and, earlier on, Sweden, the French company won the contract to design and perhaps build 12 very large Shortfin Barracuda submarines in Australia. The Shortfin is a conventionally-powered version of the nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine.

One issue is the view that lingers, mainly in South Australia, that 100% of the components of Australia’s new submarines must be made locally. The Mumbai dockyard has a very strong focus on the ‘make in India’ policy of the Modi government but, despite its best efforts, local, or ‘indigenous’ content is expected to reach just 30% in the sixth boat.

The Indians are very conscious of a weakness in their national economy that hindered early efforts to get the project moving. India made a major jump from an agrarian economic base to one heavily focussed on IT, but along the way it didn’t develop manufacturing capability on the same scale.

The Modi government is strengthening the manufacturing sector with a big push to skill the population. Naval group says that if it gets to build more Scorpenes for India after the currently contracted six, its goal will be to meet the government’s target of at least 50% local content.

The major Indian effort to modernise and significantly increase the size of its own submarine fleet is driven by concern about a steady increase in Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean with regular visits by the PLA Navy to the port of Karachi in neighbouring Pakistan. The strong Chinese naval presence comes amid a standoff between Chinese and India troops on the Sikkim-Bhutan border region.

The six Scorpenes may be followed by three more, and then by another six conventional submarines to be designed in India as it focusses on strengthening its own strategic industry capability. At present India’s Navy operates 13 conventional submarines and two nuclear-powered boats, one of those leased from Russia. Older Russian conventional submarines used by India are likely to be extensively refurbished to extend their lives.

Naval Group clearly wants to convince those sceptical about its Australian project that if its submarines can be built in India, they can be built in Australia.

Captain Rajiv Lath, a retired Indian Navy submariner who leads the engineering side of the project, said that, after initial problems and delays, it had come together very effectively. Each boat got easier, Captain Lath said.

The first boat, INS Kalvari, was launched in October 2015 and has test fired a torpedo and an Exocet anti-ship missile and carried out diving trials. The second, INS Khanderi, was launched in January. Simultaneous work is underway on the other four boats and the goal is to launch them at nine month intervals.

Captain Lath said he believed that while Australia had ordered 12 conventional submarines, it was likely that a decision would eventually be made to include some nuclear-powered boats.

For Australia, the details in the contract now being drafted would be crucial, he said. ‘I’m now wearing the sins and benefits of a contract they started drafting in the 1990s’.

The Indian project was a big test of the technology transfer process, Captain Lath said. ‘The first of class was very tough. We had a lot of problems in the beginning but we’ve got through the difficult part and learned from our mistakes. After initial problems with some quality assurance protocols and an unacceptably high level of defects as steel was rolled and welded for the first hull sections, by boat three the Indian yard was producing work as good as that in France, he said.
‘It was all red marks and now it’s all ticks.’

Three welders were initially sent to France to learn the high level skills needed to assemble the pressure hull. These ‘gurus’ then trained dozens of Indian welders. It would have been better to send 15 or 20 welders to France to start with, Captain Lath said.

On the issue of technology transfer, Indian engineers said they could fully understand why, after building submarines for 100 years, a nation such as France would be reluctant to hand over its technology for nothing.

The goal in future would be to design as much as possible of the technology in India. ‘We want to acquire the capability to make the platform here.’

French engineers said a major early lesson was underestimating the difficulty of building the first boat in the purchasing country.

The key was to allow enough time at the start of the project to learn the basics. ‘Don’t set out to build a submarine,’ said a Frenchman intimately involved in the transfer of key technology to India who declined to be named because he worked in high security areas. ‘You must go from bottom up. Start with the smallest design details and build upwards from there. And don’t go too fast. It takes time to build the skills your workforce needs and you can’t buy that.’

Naval Group has overseen the modernisation and expansion of the Mumbai yard that has been building fighting vessels since 1774. The managing director of the French company’s arm in India, Bernard Buisson, said he was proud that the first in the series was built from scratch in India.
Keys to that were the technology transfer process, the development of crucial quality control skills and the training of skilled local manpower.

The submarines are built in five large sections which are then welded together. Cutting and rolling the steel for the first section took several months and then that section was rejected because the work did not meet the stringent standards required. Since then the rate of defects has declined rapidly.

The government-owned shipyard, and the French company, want to build the three more Scorpenes that they hope the Indian government will order. But they are up against a Modi administration policy obliging any foreign companies building in India to operate with a local private sector partner. MDL is now considering relaunching as a majority public company.

Indian scientist are working on a new version of an air independent propulsion system to increase the time the submarines can stay deeply submerged and safe from hunting warships and aircraft.

If they succeed, a 10-metre long section to accommodate the AIP system will be added to each of the submarines still under construction at the time. That’s likely to be numbers five and six. Those already built will have the additional sections added when they undergo a two year refit after four years of operations.

A conventional diesel-electric submarine uses its electric motor for propulsion while running deep and silent. It uses its diesel engines to recharge its batteries, and to collect the oxygen necessary to run the diesels it travels on the surface or submerged at periscope depth and uses a large snorkel to suck in air. How often it has to do that compared to the time it can spend submerged is called its ‘indiscretion rate’. While snorkelling, the submarine is noisy and at its most vulnerable to searching aircraft or surface warships, and it may be spotted by satellites unseen and far above.

AIP systems are fuelled by tanks of liquefied gases such as hydrogen and oxygen which are burned in a closed unit to provide the energy to drive the boat. The latest AIP systems allow a submarine to remain submerged for three or four weeks if it ‘loiters’ at low speed to save energy.

A submarine without AIP, such as Australia’s Collins Class, can stay submerged for two or three days before it runs out of battery charge. The disadvantage of AIP is that the system takes up a lot of space and the submarine can travel no faster than about four knots while using it, compared to a top speed on batteries of over 20 knots, though only for short periods.

Because of the enormous distances its submarines range over, the RAN has so far opted for extra diesel fuel and to go without the AIP system, relying on increasingly efficient batteries to increase their submerged time.

With two of the Indian Scorpenes undergoing trials and construction of the others moving rapidly along, a French specialist compared building the first submarine to assembling a piece of flatpacked Ikea furniture. ‘You’re up ‘til midnight shouting in frustration at the first one–but once you’ve got it right the rest are much easier.’