“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
India commissioned its first submarine, a Soviet foxtrot class boat, on 08 Dec 1967. Thereafter the country kept buying submarines from Soviet Union and later Germany in the 1980s. The submarine is one of the most complicated equipment of machinery on earth. Capability to construct a submarine has basically four levels in the value chain.
The ability to repair a submarine.
The ability to assemble a submarine from knocked down kits built to a foreign design.
The ability to construct a submarine built to a foreign design.
The ability to design and build a submarine to own design.
An attempt was made in 1980s to build the submarines in India with the assistance of HDW of Germany. Two submarines were assembled at Mazagon Dock Limited in an attempt to develop submarine building capability in India. The project was cut short for reasons beyond the scope of this article.
Thereafter, a second attempt was made and six Scorpene submarines are being constructed at Mazagon Dock Limited with the first boat expected to be commissioned by end 2016. Recently, the government also shortlisted two private shipyards for construction of another six conventional submarines.
Though, these programmes involve construction in India (Make in India) it is not enough. Though the country is not acquiring submarines directly from foreign yards, all the submarines built, being built or planned to be built would be using foreign designs. First HDW, then DCNS and next may be one from HDW, DCNS, Rubin, Navantia or Kokums.
In effect, the country is still buying fishes. Though we may be learning how to cook them in our kitchen, we are still not learning how to fish.
In my opinion, the aim now should move ahead to designing the submarines in India rather than building them to foreign design. To develop this capability we need institutions in the country which can conceptualise and design a submarine, and follow it up with testing and validation of the design.
The country should not remain dependent on foreign sources for designs, which may not always reflect the requirements projected by the Indian Navy. The country should endeavour to establish design and research establishments whose only job is to assimilate the requirements projected by the Navy and develop futuristic designs of submarines.
With private companies now being shortlisted for construction of submarines, such a design bureau may be established on a PPP basis wherein the Govt of India and the interested shipyards could fund establishment of such a facility. The shipyards should be permitted to sell submarines to foreign navies to make the venture commercially viable and to ensure a steady stream of revenue to the design bureau. This model would prevent individual shipyards from being forced to develop their own design capability. The design bureau could charge a royalty for its design. The bureau could also prepare and sell designs to shipyards abroad or provide them design consultancy.
If such a bureau is established, it could free a large number of officers of the Indian Navy involved in design for operational duties, their core area of responsibility. Also, the bureau could indulge in research and development of other types of underwater craft like midget submarines, autonomous unmanned submersible, deep submergence rescue vessels and underwater robots.
In addition to a design bureau, a centre of excellence specialising in design and fabrication of underwater vessels could also be established. This facility could provide post graduate and doctoral courses in underwater robotics and submersible design. Such a centre of excellence would lead to developing a knowledge base in the field. It would further help in moving up in the value chain from being assembler of submarines to constructor and finally designer of submarines and submersibles.
Such a facility may be established with assistance of a foreign entity that has experience in these activities.
The idea is to move up the value chain in construction of submarines. If India an design, build and launch space craft, there is no doubt in my mind that the country can move up the value chain in designing submarines also.