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In Passage From Foxtrot to Arihant, 50 Years of Indian Submarines

As the Navy celebrates 50 years of its submarine arm, Suresh Bangara dwells on the illustrious journey of warships.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
The Indian Navy’s submarine arm has come a long way from the Foxtrot to indigenously-made nuclear submarine Arihant. (Photo: Rhythum Seth/ <b>The Quint</b>)

Year: 1969. Destination: A remote island in Vladivostok.

It was the era of the mighty Soviet Union. A large contingent of Indian Navy officers and sailors, including myself, was taken by boat to our final destination. An unusually long journey – first by an Air India chartered flight from Mumbai to Moscow, followed by a long wait at the airport, before embarking a large turbo-prop aircraft for an even longer flight to the far eastern coast of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

A contingent of the would-be ‘Killer’ squadron of missile boats was received by a cheerful lot of Indian submarine officers and sailors who had spent considerable time on the island. They were happy to embrace their brethren after a long absence from home.

Letters from their dear ones, which took over a month to reach via the Indian embassy in Moscow, were delivered along with goodies and eatables from home. Thus started my association with the Indian naval submariners – a special category of pioneers of the newly born, long awaited, third dimension of the navy.

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Journey from the Foxtrot-Class to Kilo-Class

The golden jubilee of the submarine arm, scheduled in December 2017, is exactly a year after my commissioning date of December 1966. Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would, soon after the 1971 war, be sent to specialise in Anti Submarine Warfare.

But then I was to work even closer with the submarine arm as we fed on each other's strengths and weaknesses to hone our respective combat skills. Tactics to encounter stealthy denizens of the deep had to be evolved through numerous exercises at sea. Conversely, the submarine evolved its combat procedures by analysing numerous encounters with her hunters from all three dimensions, i.e. surface, air and underwater.

And so it was that we graduated from the F Class submarines to the Kilo Class from the Soviet Union, and from the HDW-SSK bought and built in India from Germany and finally to the Scorpene Class, ex-France now being built at the Mazagaon docks at Mumbai.

First Indigenous Nuclear Submarine

The journey, as expected, has been tenuous, rewarding, frustrating and exhilarating all rolled into one. It would be difficult to segregate the indigenous nuclear submarine from this saga. After all, the foundation was laid from the experience gained by our intrepid submariners who trained and manned a Soviet nuclear submarine on lease, as early as in 1988. The transition from the conventional to nuclear is by no means an easy one, as was the experience of a handful of proud owners of the nuclear submarines.

That the Arihant, our first nuclear propelled submarine was monitored and operationalised by the submarine arm is as vital as the participation of the DRDO, BARC, the indigenous partners in production of the hull and numerous suppliers of various parts of the platform. Most of them would never know how the parts they manufactured fit into the complex platform.

The combination of warship building which commenced in the late 1960s and submarine building which commenced in 1987 and finally the nuclear submarine building has supported and nurtured a whole range of SME/MSME segments of industry in India. Some day this little known statistics will be compiled for us to really appreciate the laborious process.

Also Read: ‘Mission Arihant’ Accomplished, Still a Long Way to Go

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The Pitfalls

Were there down sides to the saga? To start with, our attempts to build two of the most advanced design of the German HDW submarines under the ‘buy and make’ concept had to be prematurely abandoned after the two submarines supplied and two built were successfully inducted. This was triggered by the infamous HDW scandal which surfaced at a crucial period of our development.

We now know that whenever the country is poised to acquire a state of art platforms or equipment, a scandal surfaces when the process is completed. It has taken decades for the procurement procedures to be revised to address issues related to blacklisting and the role of agents. Transfer of technology and involving indigenous private sector partners to pursue the "Make in India" concept has just been reformulated, the success of which will be tested in due course of time.

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Manpower Constraints

Second, rapid modernisation and acquisition has a telling effect on the manpower constraints related to sanctions and recruitment, followed by training which is a long term process that defies instant solutions. Decommissioning old platforms to compensate for the immediate requirement of new induction has its own predicaments.

A new platform demands not just trained manpower for operational needs but a host of administrative, logistics and repair support facilities which are manpower-critical. Short cuts may well result in unintended consequences of accidents and losses.

Wishing away mid-term implications to overcome mandatory sanctions from a not so responsive sanctioning authority, has attendant ramifications of a grave nature. Balancing the short and long term implications on manpower may well turn out to be the biggest challenge for the navy.

(The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command. He can be reached @scsbangara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: India Joins the Big Boys’ Club with INS Arihant at Its Command

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