Three of the four SSBNs were to have been equipped to fire Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes, whose purchase the Ministry of Defence (MoD) cancelled last week.The scrapping of a Rs 1,800 crore contract for 98 Black Shark torpedoes last week has directly impacted a critical strategic project, the construction of four 'Arihant' class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
Three of the four SSBNs were to have been equipped to fire Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes, whose purchase the Ministry of Defence (MoD) cancelled last week. The cancellation would mean modifications to the SSBN's torpedo tubes and delay induction of the second vessel by two to three years. Torpedo maker Whitehead Alenia Systemi Subacquei (WASS) is a subsidiary of Italian arms manufacturer Finmeccanica. The MoD believes Finmeccanica subsidiary AgustaWestland paid bribes for the 2010 purchase of 12 VVIP helicopters for Rs 3,760 crore.
"Alternatives (to Black Shark) are being considered, but at this stage it will not be possible to divulge further details," an MoD spokesperson told Mail Today. The spokesperson declined to comment on the nuclear submarine project.
Torpedoes are self-propelled weapons with explosives packed in their nose. They are a submarine's primary weapon and when fired through torpedo tubes, home in to destroy their targets - ships or other submarines.
Arihant class SSBNs, a key to the nuclear triad of land, sea and air launched weapons, carry four to eight K-4 nuclear tipped ballistic missiles with a range of 3,500-km, far away from land and safe from any adversary's pre-emptive strike on Indian nuclear assets. SSBNs rely on the unlimited power of their nuclear reactors for endurance and on torpedoes as defensive weapons. The Arihant, which completed deep water and weapon trials this year, is armed with the Type 53-65 Russian torpedoes and fire control system and thus unaffected by the cancelation.
It is the second SSBN, the Aridaman, now in an advanced state of construction at the Ship Building Centre, Visakhapatnam, that has been equipped to fire the Black Shark. The Aridaman is due to be inducted by 2018.
The submarine's manufacturer Larsen and Toubro conducted nearly 20 simulated 'swim out' trials of the Black Shark from indigenously designed and torpedo tubes. The trials were conducted at a special L&T facility in Pune between 2013 and 2014.
While the 98 Black Shark torpedoes cancelled by the MoD were meant for the six Scorpene class submarines being built at Mazagon Docks Ltd, the nuclear submarines were to get a second batch of 49 torpedoes to be imported under the defence procurement procedure's option clause. The Italian torpedoes had been integrated with French assistance into the indigenous 'Saransh' submarine combat system on the Aridaman and two sister ships -- the S4 and the S4*.
FUTURE PROJECTS RISK A SIMILAR FATE
Without torpedoes, the strategic platforms will be incapable of defending themselves from enemy submarines or warships. These vessels, naval officials fear, could meet the fate of the first of the Scorpene class conventional submarines being built at the Mazagon Docks Ltd. The first Scorpene, the Kalvari, is currently on sea trials in the Arabian Sea without torpedoes. Naval officials say it will be commissioned by the year-end without torpedoes.
Five more Scorpene type submarines, due to join the Navy in intervals by 2022, risk a similar fate given the delays in the torpedo project.
"Scrapping the contract is an illconsidered move done purely for political reasons," Rear Admiral Raja Menon (retired) told Mail Today. "It (the Black Shark) is the best torpedo in present circumstances. An alternative will mean time and cost and inconvenience," he said.
The time and cost delays could flow from the fact that submarines are only configured to fire a particular make of torpedo. The weapon has to be hooked up to the submarine's fire control system (FCS) which converts electronic inputs from the vessel's sensors into geometric coordinates for it to pursue a target. The Navy's existing Russian torpedoes cannot be fired from the Kalvari or the Aridaman class submarines without hardware and software modifications in those vessels.
The MoD put the case for acquiring the Black Shark on hold after bribery allegations in the VVIP deal surfaced in 2013. Price negotiations with the Italian firm had concluded in 2013 after it emerged as the lowest bidder, edging out a German torpedo maker Atlas Elektronik.
In 2014, the Navy pushed the case to buy the torpedo citing an urgent operational necessity which was accepted by the government, but the procurement did not go through as a cautious MoD waffled over the file.
In January this year, Vice Admiral Dinesh Prabhakar (retired), Director General of the classified ATV Project which builds the submarines, wrote a letter to National Security Adviser Ajit Doval warning of delays in the Aridaman if the torpedoes did not come on time. He requested for the option clause for 49 Black Sharks to be exercised to firewall the ATV project from the bribery controversy. The strategic project is directly supervised by the Prime Minister's Office and the NSA.
The latter is believed to have communicated the project team's concerns to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. The government changed tack with the April 7 verdict of an Italian court convicting senior Finmeccanica officials of bribery and the resultant political battle in Parliament last month that saw the BJP attacking the Congress over the scandal. All contracts carried out by Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries now face the defence ministry axe. The Navy, which has five critical projects with the firm, is likely to be the worst hit (SEE BOX). But clearly it is the delays to the nuclear submarine fleet that promise to hit hardest.
The MoD's options to replace the Black Shark have narrowed down to two - government to government purchases of Germany's 'SeaHake' or France's 'F-21' future heavyweight torpedo. The most optimistic assessments within the Navy say it will take between two and three years for new torpedoes to be acquired and several hundred crores of rupees to modify the submarines to fire them. Grievous blowbacks from a kickback scandal.