Tag Archives: submarine

India’s Submarine Situation: Evolving Capabilities and Opportunities

The Future of Undersea Competition Topic Week

By Vidya Sagar Reddy and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Two events set the stage for India-China strategic competition going underwater – one is the docking of China’s submarine in Sri Lanka’s Colombo port and the other is the loss of India’s submarine INS Sindhurakshak in a major fire incident.. These and subsequent events showed that China is signalling its strategic intentions in the Indian Ocean via its submarines while the resident power is scrambling.

The claim by China that its submarines are deployed as part of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden has been refuted on the grounds of overmatching capability of these platforms and the timing when piracy is coming down.

Protection of sea lines of communication in the vast Indian Ocean region is in the interest of every state and therefore naval cooperation would be both economical and reassuring. Such an outlook is however not forthcoming from China. Rather it is undertaking unilateral actions without establishing proper communication with other navies in the region.

The submarine deployments can therefore be considered as geopolitical signalling of a rising China. First, the long range deployments showcase the capabilities of a blue water navy. The Indian and Pacific Oceans are the primary theatres of such deployments. Second, the timing of deployments showcases intent.

A Chinese submarine docking in Colombo coincided with the visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Sri Lanka. The docking in Karachi came on the heels of India’s Prime Minister Modi’s first official visit to China. It sent warships inside the U.S. territorial waters off Alaska when President Obama was visiting.

A People's Liberation Army Navy submarine . Photograph: Guang Niu/Getty Images
A People’s Liberation Army Navy ballistic missile submarine . Photograph: Guang Niu/Getty Images.

The intent behind these strategic signals cannot be missed. China consistently opposes any partnership between the navies of India, Japan, and the U.S. given their capacity to challenge its unlawful assertions in the East and South China Seas.

India’s economic growth and influence in the international order are dependent on the reawakening of its maritime culture. Accordingly, it is taking a number of policy and investment actions in this direction.

The success of these initiatives is dependent on a peaceful and stable neighborhood along with a secure Indian Ocean region. China’s presence and intentions in this region carried out through its submarine deployments signals the contrary. It even finalized a deal to sell eight submarines to Pakistan with little regard to India’s sensitivities.

Considering these developments, India decided to augment its current underwater fleet of only 13 aging diesel-electric (SSK) submarines (nine of Soviet and four of German origin). These submarines constructed during the Cold War have already reached their replacement period. Commissioning new submarines into the force is critical at this juncture  as India’s national interests expand and threats multiply across the Indian Ocean.

India therefore initiated Project 75 and Project 75(I) to strengthen its submarine arm. The Project 75 will deliver six SSK of French Scorpene design with the last two added with indigenously developed air-independent propulsion system (SSP). There is also a provision for adding three more platforms.

The Project 75(I) is follow-on to the Project 75 to build six advanced SSP submarines fitted with vertical launch systems to fire BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles and torpedo tubes. India is also designing six nuclear powered attack submarines.

The first of Project 75, INS Kalavari, is undergoing sea trails and is expected to be commissioned by 2016. The remaining five boats will be delivered by 2020. Unfortunately, the INS Kalavari will be commissioned without its main weapon, the torpedo, since the government decided against buying them from a company under investigation.

It will be quite some time before these projects mature and the submarine arm of the Indian navy operates at its full potential. The Project 75 itself is running almost four years behind schedule. Additional Poseidon P-8I anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft can be acquired to fill the gap initially and to later form a three dimensional force to counter submarine threats.

The P-8I is the Indian variant of P-8A Poseidon operated by the U.S. Navy for long range maritime reconnaissance and ASW requirements. India contracted Boeing to build eight of these aircraft for the Indian Navy. Indeed, the first platform arrived in 2013 just as the Indian Ocean’s subsurface started heating up.

Its speed, range and endurance enables India to mount rapid surveillance missions deep into the Indian Ocean. It was deployed recently for surveillance in the exclusive economic zone of Seychelles and had been pressed into action to hunt for Chinese submarines probing near the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar islands. The P-8I boasts advanced sensor and communication suites and is armed with missiles, torpedoes, and depth charges.

Boeing P8I long range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft of the Indian Navy being welcomed at INS Dega in Visakhapatnam. Photo by The Hindu.
Boeing P8I long range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft of the Indian Navy being welcomed at INS Dega in Visakhapatnam. Photo by The Hindu.

The P-8I is a key platform enabling interoperability with the U.S. Navy that shares India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. Both countries have decided to upgrade their defense relationship to include submarine tracking, communication, and ASW capabilities. The next joint naval exercise will see enhanced ASW practice.

India should also enhance its submarine interoperability with Vietnam, Indonesia, and Australia while  extending the scope of partnership beyond the Indian Ocean. Australia recently finalized an agreement with the French firm DCNS to deliver 12 submarines to replace its aging Collins class submarines. Vietnam and Indonesia are set to acquire six and at least two Russian Kilo submarines respectively.

India has already trained Vietnam’s submariners and is in talks with Russia to establish Kilo class submarine maintenance and modernization infrastructure in the country. South East Asian countries are weary of China’s intentions and are visibly frustrated with its use of force in the South China Sea (SCS). Vietnam is on the frontline while Indonesia is closely monitoring the situation but is also perturbed.

China’s turning out of   large number of submarines each year and the associated basing facilities in Hainan and their proximity to SCS islands easily overwhelms other claimants and concerned parties in and beyond the region.

It is absolutely essential to exchange information for forming a joint operational picture of the undersea domain of the Indo-Pacific. Submarine interoperability between the concerned parties is critical to deter and defeat fast emerging threats. India should take advantage of its diplomatic and material capabilities to realize these objectives for the purpose of maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Vidya Sagar Reddy and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Research Assistant and Senior Fellow respectively at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Indian Navy’s first Scorpene submarine being launched in Mumbai, April 2015. Photo: Reuters.

Could Robot Submarines Replace Australia’s Ageing Collins Class Submarines?

This article originally featured on The Conversation. It can be read in its original form here.

By Sean Welsh

The decision to replace Australia’s submarines has been stalled for too long by politicians afraid of the bad media about “dud subs” the Collins class got last century.

Collins class subs deserved criticism in the 1990s. They did not meet Royal Australian Navy (RAN) specifications. But in this century, after much effort, they came good. Though they are expensive, Collins class boats have “sunk” US Navy attack submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers in exercises.

Now that the Collins class is up for replacement, we have an opportunity to reevaluate our requirements and see what technology might meet them. And just as drones are replacing crewed aircraft in many roles, some military thinkers assume the future of naval war will be increasingly autonomous.

The advantages of autonomy in submarines are similar to those of autonomy in aircraft. Taking the pilot out of the plane means you don’t have to provide oxygen, worry about g-forces or provide bathrooms and meals for long trips.

Taking 40 sailors and 20 torpedoes out of a submarine will do wonders for its range and stealth. Autonomous submarines could be a far cheaper option to meet the RAN’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements than crewed submarines.

Submarines do more than sink ships. Naval war is rare but ISR never stops. Before sinking the enemy you must find them and know what they look like. ISR was the original role of drones and remains their primary role today.

Last month, Boeing unveiled a prototype autonomous submarine with long range and high endurance. It has a modular design and could perhaps be adapted to meet RAN ISR requirements.

Boeing is developing a long range autonomous submarine that could have military applications.

Thus, rather than buy 12 crewed submarines to replace the Collins class, perhaps the project could be split into meeting the ISR requirement with autonomous submarines that can interoperate with a smaller number of crewed submarines that sink the enemy.

Future submarines might even be “carriers” for autonomous and semi-autonomous UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UUVs (unmanned undersea vehicles).

Keeping People on Deck

However, while there may be a role for autonomous submarines in the future of naval warfare, there are some significant limitations to what they can achieve today and in the foreseeable future.

Most of today’s autonomous submarines have short ranges and are designed for very specific missions, such as mine sweeping. They are not designed to sail from Perth to Singapore or Hong Kong, sneak up on enemy ships and submarines, and sink them with torpedoes.

Also, while drone aircraft can be controlled from a remote location, telepiloting is not an option for a long range sub at depth.

The very low frequency radio transceivers in Western Australia used by the Pentagon to signal “boomers” (nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines) in the Indian Ocean have very low transmission rates: only a few hundred bytes per second.

You cannot telepilot a submarine lying below a thermocline in Asian waters from Canberra like you can telepilot a drone flying in Afghanistan with high-bandwidth satellite links from Nevada.

Contemporary telepiloted semi-autonomous submarines are controlled by physical tethers, basically waterproof network cables, when they dive. This limits range to a few kilometers.

Who’s the Captain?

To consider autonomy in the role of sinking the enemy, the RAN would likely want an “ethical governor” to skipper the submarines. This involves a machine making life and death decisions: a “Terminator” as captain so to speak.

This would present a policy challenge for government and a trust issue for the RAN. It would certainly attract protest and raise accountability questions.

On the other hand, at periscope depth, you can telepilot a submarine. To help solve the chronic recruitment problems of the Collins class, the RAN connected them to the internet. If you have a satellite “dongle on the periscope” so the crew can email their loved ones, then theoretically you can telepilot the submarine as well.

That said, if you are sneaking up on an enemy sub and are deep below the waves, you can’t.

Even if you can telepilot, radio emissions directing the sub’s actions above the waves might give away its position to the enemy. Telepiloting is just not as stealthy as radio silence. And stealth is critical to a submarine in war.

Telepiloting also exposes the sub to the operational risks of cyberwarfare and jamming.

There is great technological and political risk in the Future Submarine Project. I don’t think robot submarines can replace crewed submarines but they can augment them and, for some missions, shift risk from vital human crews to more expendable machines.

Ordering nothing but crewed submarines in 2016 might be a bad naval investment.

Sean Welsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Robot Ethics at the University of Canterbury. The working title of his dissertation is Moral Code: Programming the Ethical Robot. He spent 17 years working in software engineering for organisations such as British Telecom, Telstra Australia, Fitch Ratings, James Cook University and Lumata. He has given several conference papers on programming ethics into robots, two of which are appearing in a forthcoming book, A World of Robots, to be published by Springer later in the year.

Sean Welsh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Featured Image: HMAS Rankin at periscope depth. United States Navy, Photographer’s Mate 1st Class David A. Levy