United Shipbuilding Corporation and India

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the foundation of a strategic partnership block called AUKUS on September 15, 2021. The first item in the cooperation plan is giving Australia access to nuclear submarine fleet technology and the subsequent construction of at least eight nuclear attack submarines.

The fact that a country that is not a member of the unofficial nuclear club and has no nuclear power will receive state-of-the-art naval weapons is, in effect, a declaration of the openness of the nuclear submarine market.

AUKUS (an acronym for Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) is a trilateral defense alliance formed by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The announcement was published on September 15, 2021. As part of the alliance, the Australian Navy will be able to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time. According to observers, the pact is aimed at countering China's influence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Such allowances on one continent could indirectly spur activity on another, in particular through increased naval cooperation between Russia and India. India has already leased nuclear-powered submarines twice. The first time (in 1988–1991), a Project 670 K-43 boat called Chakra served in the Indian Navy. The second time (from 2012 to 2021), a Project 971I nuclear submarine K-152 Nerpa was on lease, also in the Navy, and was also called Chakra. The K-152 was the penultimate submarine to be completed from the Soviet legacy[1]. Russia made about $650 million on this lease.

Project 670 K-43 submarine

In October 2016, a preliminary agreement was signed to lease another nuclear-powered submarine to India after the K-152 has returned home. The final intergovernmental agreement was concluded in March 2019. It is planned that one of the submarines currently under repair at the Zvezdochka Center in Severodvinsk will be upgraded to Indian requirements and handed over to the Indian Navy by 2025. It is likely to be a Project 971 Samara or Bratsk submarine. The cost of the submarine modernization and leasing payment will amount to about $3.3 billion. The media reported that India was going to lease one of the Project 885M submarines under construction at Sevmash. However, the application was rejected due to the Russian Navy's urgent need for such submarines.

Project 971 atomic submarine K-152 Nerpa

In December 2019, India's ANI news agency reported on plans to expand India's submarine fleet to six nuclear-powered multi-purpose submarines and 18 non-nuclear submarines. After the conclusion of the AUKUS agreement, the number of Russian-Indian contracts in the development of the Indian nuclear submarine fleet is expected to grow. The only constraint will be the capabilities of the only Russian enterprise which produces nuclear submarines, Sevmash[2]. The machine-building company is currently implementing extensive Russian plans to build fourth-generation nuclear-powered submarine cruisers. Therefore, one can assume that Russia will offer India several more Project 971 submarines from those undergoing refurbishment at the Zvezdochka Center in Severodvinsk.

In addition to developing a nuclear submarine fleet, India has plans to increase and upgrade its non-nuclear submarine force. The Indian Navy possesses eight Project 877EKM[3] boats built in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the USSR and Russia[4] and four German Project 209/1500 submarines built between 1986 and 1994. The Republic of India is also building non-nuclear Scorpene type submarines under French license, two of which joined the Navy in 2017 and 2019. In total, the Indian military plan to include six such boats in the fleet. Scorpene has been under construction in Indian shipyards for about 10 years.

Project 877EKM submarines have already undergone one or two medium repairs at Russian enterprises. Indian mariners are actively operating these ships and Zvezdochka specialists gained tremendous experience working with this class of submarines and used it in the repair of three similar ones for the Russian Navy.

In 2008, Indian authorities announced a tender for the construction of six modern non-nuclear submarines. One of their requirements was the ability to strike ground targets with missiles. The tender itself is called “Project 75I” and estimated at about $6 billion. The boats are to be built in Indian shipyards with the transfer of construction technologies.

In general, Indian tenders for supply of arms and weapons, when there is a choice between several suppliers, take a very long time and sometimes end in a very unexpected manner. For example, India's long-running tender for the purchase of more than 100 combat fighters (so that about 18 are to be supplied by the winning country and the rest assembled in India) has so far only led to the purchase of Mig-29s from Russia out of the Russian Air Force inventory and to the delivery of additional kits for the assembly of Su-30MKI[5] in India.

At the same time, India's current submarine force is rapidly aging[6]. Russia has already expressed willingness to transfer three Project 877 submarines from the Russian Navy's inventory to India, and repair three Indian boats at its shipyards. India's attempt to overhaul Project 877EKM on its territory with the help of Russian specialists has not been successful so far. Only one boat has been repaired in 10 years; Zvezdochka plant carries out similar repairs in three years.

Vikramaditya Aircraft Carrier

The strength of Russian proposals under Project 75I is the joint design of a non-nuclear submarine based on Project 677 and Amur 1650 with the maximum possible transfer of construction technologies. The other participants are in no hurry to offer similar or at least comparable terms of partnership integration. One more strong point of Russian proposals is the existence of the BrahMos cruise missile, a joint Russian-Indian venture, that may be used on the boats of this project. The lack of a ready-made air-independent power plant is cited as a weakness of the project. In general, the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) has good prospects for cooperation with India in the submarine fleet, both nuclear and non-nuclear.

Russia’s and India’s experience in cooperation in the segment of surface warships is no less impressive than what has been previous mentioned so far. Between 1976 and 1988, India built five 61ME destroyers based on the Soviet Project 61 big anti-submarine ship. In contrast, the 61ME was capable of permanently deploying a helicopter aboard and equipped with anti-ship missiles. The Indian Navy still has three such ships in service. This project was the first major export of domestic warships.

The Soviet Union also provided Indian shipbuilders with advisory and technical assistance and supplied various types of ship armament, including missile systems[7]. As a result, the Indian Navy was supplied with rather interesting Godavari frigates, similar in appearance to the British Leander, but equipped with Soviet weapons and avionics. Subsequently, with the help of Russian specialists and on the basis of the unrealized Soviet Project 11000 destroyer, six Project 15 Delhi and Project 15A Kolkata destroyers were built in India in 1987–2016.

In the early 1990s, Severnoye PKB specialists developed and offered to importers the frigate 11356 based on the Soviet Navy's Project 1135 patrol ship. Between 1999–2004 and 2007–2013, two series of these ships were built for the Indian Navy, each with three units, manufactured by Baltiysky Zavod in St. Petersburg and the Kaliningrad-based enterprise Yantar. Export made it possible to retain specialists and sustain technical capabilities of Russian shipbuilding enterprises, which did not have orders from the Russian Navy at that time.

An important effect of Russian-Indian cooperation in weapons development was that combat systems developed for India were subsequently supplied to the Russian Army and Navy. This happened with the Su-30MKI fighter jet and Project 11356 frigates. From 2010 to 2017, the Yantar company built three such frigates for the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet. Due to the complete cessation of military and technical cooperation between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, the ships became ‘stuck’ at the plant as Ukraine refused to hand over the gas turbine units that had already been manufactured. India developed a design for the frigate Shivalik based on Project 11356 with the help of Russian specialists, and three such ships were built in India between 2001 and 2011.

In October 2016, an agreement was reached with India to complete two of the three frigates remaining at Yantar and to build two more in India. This made it possible to obtain from Ukraine two sets of propulsion systems that had already been manufactured and to get back the money spent on them. According to the contracts concluded by 2018, the completion of two frigates at Yantar is estimated at about $1.2 billion, and Russian participation in the construction of two frigates in India, about $500 million[8]. The frigates Tushil and Tamala, now under construction at Yantar, will be handed over to India in 2022–2023 and the ships laid in India in 2021 will join the Indian Navy in 2026[9].

Another Indian tender for minesweepers has been dragging on for years. The Indian Navy has no such ships, and now it intends to acquire three or four minesweepers on short notice from other navies or decommissioned ships that could be re-equipped for Indian Navy requirements before handing them over. So far, there is no talk of acquiring new destroyers. Russia might transfer naval minesweepers of Project 266M, now being withdrawn from the Indian Navy. Fortunately, the Indian Navy had 12 export versions of the same project minesweepers in service. In the future, it might be possible to offer India export versions of Project 12770 minesweepers under construction in Russia.

In the next few years, India may need to replace Project 1241RE class missile corvettes that remain in service. Five of these ships were built in the USSR, and six more corvettes have been assembled in India. Russia may propose the project of small missile ships 22800E, which will be armed not with Kalibr missiles, but with the BrahMos system.

From 2005 to 2017, Russia’s share in the Indian military equipment market was 45% at an estimated cost of $38.7 billion. During that period, in the naval sphere, India received from Russia a fully modernized aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (the former Soviet heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov), a nuclear submarine Chakra, and three Project 11356 frigates. Moreover, a number of Indian non-nuclear submarines were repaired.

Today, the Indian government is developing the defense industry under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. Russia is ready to support its partner both by transfer of military technologies and joint development of armaments and military equipment. Good examples are the BrahMos missile system and the Su-30MKI multirole heavy fighter.

At the same time, Indian industry is not yet able to fully develop and produce the entire range of naval equipment, so USC should be ready for direct deliveries of modern warships and submarines in export versions, both those built specifically for India and those currently in service with the Russian Navy.


Author: Dmitry Boltenkov
©New Defence Order. Strategy  №1 (72) 2022

[1] The last nuclear-powered submarine from the Soviet legacy was the special-purpose Belgorod, which is currently being completed.

[2] Under the Soviet Union, the construction of nuclear submarines was carried out at four plants.

[3] India received a total of 10 such subs, but one was lost due to an accident on board and another was transferred to the Myanmar Navy.

[4] Between 1969 and 1976, the USSR delivered eight Project 641I submarines to India. This project was the first domestic purpose-built submarine project for export.

[5] If there is no choice between several suppliers, India makes a decision fairly quickly. This was demonstrated by the purchase of Russian S-400 long-range air defense systems and American P-8I Neptune base patrol aircraft. No one else in the world offers analogues of these weapons.

[6] Most of India's non-nuclear submarines are at least 20 years old and clearly need to be replaced in the coming years.

[7] And in the 21st century, Russia supplied India with large batches of Uranium and Club missiles.

[8] Figures are based on the materials of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

[9] In October 2020, it became known that a buyer was found for the last frigate of the project, unfinished for Russia.