labels: Defence production, Defence general, Indian Navy
Scorpene v/s. Agosta: Silent killers of the deep news
26 February 2008

To meet India's stated objective of being recognised as a 21st century superpower, the country must have a blue-water navy, an integral part of which is a modern submarine fleet. Sourya Biswas profiles the Indian Navy's latest acquisition the Scorpene vis--vis the pride of Pakistan Navy's Agosta 90B.

submarineSome of us may remember the fable of the two kingfishers fighting over a fish and asking a cat to make an equal division, whereupon the cat gave one kingfisher the head of the fish and the other the tail, and kept the fleshy body as his fee.

One can think something similar regarding the current scenario involving the Indian and Pakistan navies, where both of them are spending millions to acquire different submarines from the same French manufacturer. Yes, we are talking of the Pakistan Navy's recently acquired Agosta submarines and the Indian Navy's soon-to-be-acquired Scorpene submarines.

Both these submarines are built by DCNS (Direction des Constructions Navales Services), which is a naval defence company based in France and promises to provide ''strength at sea''. But what are these machines that these cash-strapped economies are spending millions on?

Utility of submarines for the modern navy
Any modern navy worth its flag cannot do without a modern submarine fleet, especially so when it harbours ambitions of being recognized as a regional power. Submarines, with their ability to ''shoot-and-scoot'' and to remain hidden under the ocean depths for months, provide a nation with an unparalleled capacity for inflicting damage on the enemy. Nuclear-armed, they provide the all-important second-strike capability if land-based missiles and airfields are destroyed in a pre-emptive attack. They are truly the ''silent killers of the deep''.

Even in this nuclear age, the utility of conventional diesel-electric submarines hasn't diminished. This is because nuclear submarines, though providing vastly improved range and speeds, are inherently noisy. So for stealthy operations, conventional submarines are preferred over nuclear ones. With the introduction of AIP (air-independent propulsion) systems like the French MESMA (Module d'Energie Sous-Marine Autonome) and German fuel cells, even the durations they can stay underwater can be increased substantially. They also have the added advantages of being smaller and cheaper than nuclear submarines. That is why under Indian Navy's ambitious 20:20 plan for the future, it proposes to have a mix of twenty-four nuclear and conventional submarines.

India enjoys a considerable advantage in conventional forces over its smaller neighbour, and this military superiority has enabled it to win three wars against Pakistan, four if one includes the Kargil conflict. In such a scenario, the Pakistan military is always on the lookout for the latest technologies to negate the opponent's numerical superiority. And it finally got its answer in the Agosta 90B submarine.

Even during the humiliating defeat of 1971 when the Indian Navy had effectively blockaded Pakistan Navy's homeport of Karachi, the lone submarine PNS Hangor managed to slip through and sink the Indian frigate INS Khukri, which till date remains India's biggest wartime casualty. Drawing on these experiences and the perceived threat posed by a larger Indian Navy, Pakistan has been continuously investing in its submarine force, within the constraints posed by its economy, and found in the Agosta an ideal fit to its requirements. The Pakistan Navy ordered three of these submarines, in the advanced 90B version, in September 1994, at a cost of 750 million dollars.

The Pakistan Navy's new acquisitions
The first, Khalid (S137), was built at DCN's Cherbourg yard and was commissioned in 1999. The second, Saad, assembled at Karachi Naval Dockyard with French assistance, was launched in August 2002 and was commissioned in December 2003. The third, Hamza, indigenously constructed and assembled in Karachi, was launched in August 2006. The Hamza has been fitted with the MESMA AIP system, which will be retrofitted to the previous two Agosta 90B submarines.

Pakistan's acquisition of the modern Agostas was a severe jolt to the superiority enjoyed by the Indian Navy vis--vis its traditional opponent. At the same time, China's expansionist tendencies could not be ignored, s acknowledged in the recently publicized Indian Maritime Doctrine. This document reiterates earlier calls for a stronger deterrent capability against foreign intervention by non-littoral navies, i.e. navies with which India doesn't share a coastline.

The Indian Navy's response
With this in mind, India has been modernizing its fleet and has been continually interested in procuring nuclear attack and diesel submarines, establishing two aircraft carrier groups, and developing new cruise missiles like the Brahmos. While India's much-hyped nuclear submarine ATV project is still undergoing tests, the navy has decided to lease an Akula nuclear submarine from Russia.

submarineIn such a scenario, India's ageing Foxtrot and Kilo class submarines and German-made HDW submarines were found to be lacking when compared to more modern conventional submarines like the Agosta 90B. This prompted the India Navy to go for the Scorpene, six of which are going to be built at the Mazgaon shipyard under a ToT (Transfer of Technology) programme, now officially called Project 75. The order cost is to the tune of $3.5 billion, with the MESMA AIP systems to cost extra, at around $55 million dollars each if India should opt for them.

At the recently concluded Defence Expo in New Delhi, DCNS executive vice president and chief operating officer, Bernard Planchais, announced that the first of the Scorpene submarines would be launched in 2012. The company also aimed to address Indian concerns by stating that the Scorpenes could be fitted with the Brahmos cruise missiles, if India so desired. DCN also aims to compete for a future Indian Navy order of six more diesel-electric submarines, along with a Russian-Italian offer based on the Russian Amur class and the latest German HDW 214-type submarines with Siemens polymer exchange membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cell AIP (air-independent propulsion).

Which is better the Agosta or the Scorpene?
As to which one is better, the Agosta or the Scorpene, the question can be answered by the simple axiom that ''newer is better''. Submarine technology, like that for fighter aircraft, keeps improving every day, and hence it's logical that a design of the 90s will be better than one of the 70s, albeit improved in its 90B avatar. Even at the Defence Expo, DCNS project director Xavier Marchal was emphatic when he said, ''Of course Agostas are inferior than Scorpenes''.  Pakistan Navy officials also acknowledge this fact, pointing to the later design elements included in the Scorpene.

Of course, this happiness that we may feel on obtaining a better product has to be tempered with the fact that we haven't got it yet. The Indian Navy will receive the first Scorpene only by the fag end of 2012, a full four years later, and that too subject to the unlikely situation that everything proceeds according to plan. If the current military development projects are anything to go by, the deployment of the stealthy Scorpenes are likely to undergo procedural delays, even under the relative advantages of a ToT program. Such bureaucratic red-tape characteristic of India's defence projects almost makes one wish for a Pakistan-like dictatorship where such delays would be non-existent, although some bribery of senior military staff may be required.

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Scorpene v/s. Agosta: Silent killers of the deep