Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Do Midget Submarines Fit Into Indian Navy’s Littoral Defence Plans?

By Vaibhav Agrawal 

The Indian Navy (IN) has not shown much interest in the program despite their requirement for two midget submarines initially and three at later stages to strengthen its underwater capability for covert operations and surveillance missions in shallow waters by the Marine Commandos (MARCOS), but SOV-400 doesn’t seem to fit the bill. 

SOV-400 is a new midget submarine design from Larsen & Toubro that was displayed at the Def Expo 2022. L&T is currently preparing to market its product abroad.

The company will continue improving its design and capabilities to draw customers from the export market. According to open sources, L&T has no further plans to develop prototypes due to the high cost required for their manufacturing without getting support from the Indian Navy.

An Age-Old Wait For Procurement

The Indian Navy still keeps quiet about its needs despite its 2009 plans to be the first to acquire Midget submarines.

According to open sources, the Navy began acquiring these vessels in 2009 and sent a Request for Proposal (RFP) to Indian shipyards, including Hindustan Shipyards Limited, ABG, and Pipavav shipyards. According to another report, the Navy initially only intended to purchase five of these ships, but later on, the number of inductions may have increased.

Following the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, in which the attackers hijacked an Indian fishing boat and killed its crew before sailing up the coast of the city in inflatable dinghies to reach Badhwar Park and the Sassoon Docks, a short distance from the city’s Gateway of India monument, it was claimed that the Navy inducted these midgets as part of efforts to improve its operational capabilities.

Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL) was nominated in 2016 to receive the $400 million contract to construct two midgets, and the tender was scheduled to be officially awarded one month later.

According to unconfirmed reports, the midgets for the Marine Commando Force of the Navy transported weapons and gear from the mother ship to attack targets like anchored ships and coastal installations. Additionally, the submarines would conduct stealth surveillance operations in shallow waters. A global tender will be launched by the state-owned shipyard to find consultants to assist in constructing two midget submarines for the IN, it was also noted.

Since the IN first stated the need for midget submarines, more than ten years have passed with no sign of any progress.

The design of a diesel-electric midget submarine was finished earlier this year by India’s state-owned Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL), Mumbai. Work on the prototype of the vessel has begun, but details regarding its specifications and displacement are being kept under wraps. Additionally, MDL had requested cooperation in the Design, Development, and Construction of Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs), which would be able to transport two small torpedoes for coastal surveillance. As low-cost alternatives, XLUUVs that could carry two light torpedoes, lay mines, and carry payloads for coastal surveillance are also rising.

Midget Submarines For India

These submarines are typically smaller vessels with fewer than 150 tonnes displaced, with a crew of only two to seven people, and are primarily employed for special operations. They frequently collaborate with mother ships, from which they are launched and recovered, and also house the crew and support staff.

They are sometimes called “SDVs” or “Swimmer Delivery Vehicles” in India. This includes two-person chariots, a type of vessel with which the Indian Navy has a long history of demonstrated proficiency, which allows marine commandos access to areas that other submarines cannot reach due to shallow waters. “Strategic Operation Vessels” (SOVs) are also referred to as hybrid low-observable, submersible-cum-surface vessels that combine the advantages of stealth and high speed from a combination of SDV and high-speed Surface vessels.

A crucial and long-overdue addition to India’s marine commando (MARCOS) capability is midget submarines.

Adversaries’ Arsenal

The new midget submarine used by Pakistan’s special forces for conducting covert operations and the likely location for a joint project to build new conventional submarines with China were revealed by satellite imagery the previous year.

For its Navy, Pakistan is currently concentrating on building new midget submarines. Pakistan’s Special Service Group (Navy) has been using the Cosmos MG110 midget for overt and covert operations. The service lives of these submarines, operating since the early 1990s, are about to expire.

Pakistan has suggested building a new midget submarine to replace these outdated submarines. Pakistan listed the creation of a midget submarine as a goal for 2017–2018 in the Ministry of Defense Production (MoDP) Year Book 2015–2016. The midget submarine project will be based on indigenous design and production, according to the MoDP documents. Since 2016, a tent has been partially covering the submarine. The submarine has been visible in the open since 2019, indicating that the construction is nearly finished and that sea trials may have started.

Speculation about the new, small midget submarine’s potential use in combat and the Arabian Sea is fuelled by its diminutive size. New midget submarines have been in use by Pakistan for a while. Pakistan’s preparation for underwater warfare is demonstrated by developing a new midget submarine, which shows its domestic capabilities.

Pakistan’s new midget submarine poses a threat to India’s maritime operations in the Arabian Sea, given India’s readiness to build reliable anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. Additionally, Pakistan may use the new midget submarine to increase its covert operations off the western coast of India, particularly in the vicinity of Mumbai and the Sir Creek region of Gujarat.

What’s Up With Beijing?

On February 8, a video of a brand-new Chinese submarine was made available online. The submarine may be highly advanced, but analysts noted it is also quite small. It needs to neatly fit into the variety of types currently deployed by other significant navies.

Both the midget submarine MS-200 and the coastal submarine S600 seem to be relatives of the new vessel.

According to Naval News, the 600-tonne “S600” was advertised as being 50 meters (164 feet) long and 4.6 metres (15 feet) in diameter. That length would be partially attributable to an Air Independent Power (AIP) system. The ambitious AIP system’s removal may be why the new boat is shorter.

A unique submarine first spotted in 2018 also has a design resemblance to this one. Its absence of a sail has earned it the moniker “sailless” submarine in the lack of any official name. The rudder has an unmistakable family resemblance and is similar in size overall. Even though it wasn’t constructed in Wuhan, it is noteworthy that CSIC also built that submarine.

Why Midget Subs & AUVs For Littoral/Coastal Defence?

According to earlier reports and defence experts, India’s littoral and coastal defence plans underwent a sea change after the terrorist attacks of 26/11; however, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how the Indian Navy views these defences.

Since conventional sea fortresses and coastal gun batteries are no longer necessary, it is essential to consider ways to strengthen, expand, and integrate the full range of submarine operations from the high seas to the Indian littoral. This would then require developing capabilities for littoral and coastal operations and acquiring the appropriate class of submersibles, such as midget/mini-submarines and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV).

Favourable Characteristics:

  • Much more manageable in shallow waters and smaller.
  • Emits a lot less noise and can operate covertly.
  • Can identify submarines and surface vessels.
  • Long endurance and high sustained speeds.
  • Squat and hump effects are countered by the small size.
  • Since they blend in well with fishing boats and other coastal shipping craft, detection is challenging.
  • Guidance can be delivered via surface vessels or from shore.
  • Keep to the bottom and watch for the adversary.
  • Depending on their ISR role, they might not be allowed to carry weapons.
  • Designated surface craft may perform turnaround maintenance.
  • Low acquisition and maintenance costs.

Due to the commercial availability of the technology and designs, midget/mini-submarines and AUVs can be mass-produced in India instead of being sent to defence shipyards. If weapon fitting is necessary, it may be sent to defence shipyards. 

These submersibles do not require the same strict safety standards as a conventional submarine because they are not required to operate at great depths, speeds, or ranges; instead, their operating range could be around 100 km, their speed could be 10 kt, their turn around and minimal maintenance could be outsourced, and their sensor packages are COTS items. The weapon packages’ modular design allows for retrofitting.

Midget/mini-submarines and AUVs should be included in India’s littoral defence plans and should be given serious consideration, especially since these vessels can be produced locally using commercial technology and deployed in large numbers affordably. The asymmetric benefits of using these submersibles to protect littorals outweigh any administrative and operational difficulties that may arise due to doctrinal issues and induction.

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