India rebuilding sub fleet amid China threat

The INS Kalvari in Mumbai in April 2015. After years of delays, the Scorpene-class submarine will be commissioned later this month.
The INS Kalvari in Mumbai in April 2015. After years of delays, the Scorpene-class submarine will be commissioned later this month.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI • After years of delay, India's navy is preparing to take delivery of one of the world's stealthiest and most deadly fighting tools: the INS Kalvari, an attack submarine named after a deep-sea tiger shark.

The commissioning later this month of the Scorpene-class submarine is a milestone in India's effort to rebuild its badly depleted underwater fighting force, and the first of six on order.

It also comes as China's military expands its fleet to nearly 60 submarines - compared with India's 15 - and increases its forays into the Indian Ocean in what New Delhi strategists see as a national security challenge.

A Chinese Yuan-class diesel-powered submarine entered the Indian Ocean in May and is still lurking, according to an Indian naval officer who asked not to be identified, citing policy.

It is an unwelcome reminder of China's rapidly expanding naval strength at a time when Indian and Chinese soldiers are engaged in a border stand-off.

The official opening last month of China's first naval base in Djibouti at the western end of the Indian Ocean, recent submarine sales to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the visit last year of a Chinese nuclear- powered submarine to Karachi have also exposed how unprepared India's navy is to meet underwater challenges.

Still, analysts say it will be years before China can pose a credible threat to India in the Indian Ocean.

"Simple geography gives India a huge strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean," said Mr David Brewster, a senior research fellow with the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra.

China's navy needs to enter the Indian Ocean through narrow choke points like the Malacca Strait that runs between Indonesia and Malaysia.

"And although China has been sending in submarines, you have to understand they are probably decades away from being able to seriously challenge India there, especially while the United States is present," Mr Brewster added.

In the meantime, India is slowly upgrading its underwater fleet. To deter both China and Pakistan, planners reckon that the fleet needs at least 18 diesel, six nuclear and four nuclear-armed submarines.

The INS Kalvari is the first of six French-made Scorpene submarines on order in a 236 billion rupee (S$5 billion) project awarded in 2005 to the state-owned defence shipyard Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders and France's Naval Group, formerly known as DCNS Group.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'India rebuilding sub fleet amid China threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe