Pakistan’s Chinese stealth submarines set to spur Indian navy’s upgrade as Beijing eyes oceanic expansion

“The only comparable submarine to AIP-equipped subs is a nuclear-attack submarine, but they are also quite noisy and can be detected from a long range. We have nuclear submarines but those are ballistic missile submarines, they are not meant for a routine role until we have a nuclear attack.”

Indian navy sailors salute onboard the INS Vela, a French-designed fourth Scorpène submarine under the Kalvari-class submarine Project-75, at the naval base in Mumbai in 2021. Photo: AFP

The Hangor-class boats have much greater capability in underwater endurance and can remain submerged up to 10 to 14 days, far surpassing the usual 48-hour endurance of other diesel-type vessels.

While India possessed 16 conventional submarines, it recently said only six were workable and the remainder in the fleet were nearing their decommissioning date.

On the other hand, with the addition of the eight Hangor-class submarines, Pakistan’s total strength of AIP-equipped submarines would reach 11. It already installed a French AIP system in three of its existing Agosta 90B submarines in 2008.

Prakash said India was also looking into retrofitting the AIP system into its current vessels or installing it in a new class of submarines yet to come. He estimated it would take “another seven to 10 years before India has AIP submarines”.

The Indian navy is in talks with German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and Spanish Navantia under a scheme called Project 75-I to build at least six AIP-equipped submarines. Earlier, India had engaged Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) to build six French Kalvari class submarines, the last of which commenced its sea trials in May 2023.

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Former Indian naval officer Commodore C Uday Bhaskar said: “Pakistan getting submarines from China has considerable relevance for India security planners.”

Bhaskar, who is currently a director of New Delhi-based think tank Society for Policy Studies and an honorary fellow of India’s National Maritime Foundation, added: “India should really work on enhancing its composite underwater capabilities.

“It is not just submarines but a lot of other capabilities – such as sensors and other assets that give you a composite picture of the underwater domain.”

China’s influence in Indian Ocean

China’s influence in the Indian Ocean has been steadily increasing over the years, and analysts believe that supplying its long-standing ally Pakistan with the latest submarines marks part of a strategy to establish a military presence in the region.

C. Raja Mohan, a visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, said China’s interest in the Indian Ocean had been evident for nearly 20 years.

Chinese supply ship Dongpinghu taking part in a joint military exercise with Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean. Beijing is set to expand its presence in the ocean, partly through ally Pakistan. Photo: CCTV

“Since 2008, [Chinese] activity in the Indian Ocean has significantly gone up. They have their first logistical base established in Djibouti, so their military presence and impact in the region has been steadily growing in the last two decades,” Mohan said, noting Beijing was undergoing a massive naval modernisation.

“The size of its navy is dramatically increasing and it is a matter of time the number of ships, research vessels, and regular aircraft they will send to the Indian Ocean [will increase],” he said.

China’s military is expanding its fleet to nearly 76 submarines, including 8 SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines), 13 SSNs (nuclear-powered attack submarines), and 55 SSKs (diesel-electric submarines).

Noting the long-standing strategic relationship between China and Pakistan, Mohan said: “Though there is no formal Chinese military base in Pakistan. There has long been speculation on the Chinese navy having special access to Karachi and Gwadar ports where this regular construction of submarines takes place.”

Among the eight Hangor submarines, four are to be built in China and the remaining four are set to be constructed at Pakistan’s Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Ltd under a transfer-of-technology scheme.

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Five Chinese engineers killed in suicide bomb attack in Pakistan

Five Chinese engineers killed in suicide bomb attack in Pakistan

“India should expect a greater presence of China not just in the Indian Ocean but also next door in Pakistan,” Mohan said.

India has a 7,500km coastline with a peninsular part extending towards the Indian Ocean with the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east.

Baljit Singh, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Jammu, said: “While empowering Pakistan, China is empowering itself. China is not an Indian Ocean state so it is augmenting the navy capabilities of Pakistan because it cannot on its own develop such kinds of submarines in the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea.”

Singh, who has written two journals on the Indian Navy’s capabilities, said Pakistan was unable to develop such submarine technology on its own. “Even if you take into account nuclear weapons it was China which helped Pakistan to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities in 1998.”

Singh also suggested Beijing was building a South Asia pressure point on India through its Pakistani ally.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global arms sales, China as Pakistan’s top supplier of weapons delivered 82 per cent of Islamabad’s weapons from 2019 to 2023, up from 69 per cent between 2014 and 2018.

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Singh said the Hangor-class submarines for Pakistan might act as a driving force for India to overcome the delay in its manufacturing, especially after a landslide win in the Maldives for pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu’s political party.

Commodore Bhaksar echoed similar views of a security challenge for New Delhi: “When you talk about the underwater domain, China is also providing underwater platforms to Bangladesh. Hence in both the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, the tactical picture for India becomes more complex and challenging with a much higher number of Chinese-origin ‘boats’ swarming these waters.”

Bhaskar said India needed more substantial investments in its navy.

“Current funding is still very modest, if you look at the naval budget it is only about 16 to 17 per cent of the total defence budget. It has to be increased progressively to go at least up to 25 per cent over the next five to six years. But that will not be easy because India has other fiscal challenges with respect to funding the army and air force.”

The launch ceremony of the Hangor-class stealth submarines was held on Friday at Wuchang Shipbuilding Industry Group’s Shuangliu Base in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The ceremony was attended by high-ranking officials from China and Pakistan.

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