An official step by state-owned Mazagaon Docks Ltd (MDL), which is a prime contender for India’s Rs 43,000 crore submarine building project, has thrown potential global contenders into disarray, with a technical specification that would make most of them ineligible to bid. One of the two Indian contenders for the mega project—the other being Larsen & Toubro—MDL last week issued a request for information (RFI) to five shortlisted global manufacturers to forge partnerships for the upcoming contest to manufacture six conventional submarines.

ET has learnt that the RFI, which goes into the technical details of the project, specifies that it is looking for a global partner that has a functioning Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system that has been tested and proven on an operational submarine.

This AIP technology is at the heart of the P 75I project as it gives conventional submarines the ability to remain submerged for over two weeks, against the current endurance of a few days. The MDL letter to all five contenders specifies that “OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to offer their own designed and developed AIP, which should have been installed and tested on operational submarine. OEM should be able to demonstrate the Field Evaluation Trial (FET) if the AIP system on operational submarine to the Indian Navy and MDL during the technical evaluation committee stage”.

However, out of the five global contenders shortlisted for the project, three do not have any functioning submarine with an AIP. While the final specifications required by the navy are expected to come out later in the month when a Request for Proposals (RFP) is floated, this clause could eliminate France, Russia and Spain from the contest, leaving only Germany and South Korea that have operational submarines with AIP.

The remaining contenders do have land-based AIP that have demonstrated capability to power submarines for long endurance underwater but these have not been fitted onboard a submarine yet. An option to integrate an indigenous AIP developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRD) on these next generation submarines has also not been accepted, with the contention that it could delay the programme as the system has not yet been proven on sea.

In June, after over two decades in the making, the defence ministry cleared plans to go ahead with the Rs 43,000 crore project, which is the first under an ambitious Strategic Partnership (SP) Model to involve the private sector in large military projects as well.

At the earliest, it would take at least two years before the selection of a winner, given complex discussions that lie ahead. Under the SP plan, the two Indian bidders will now have to thrash out a techno-commercial proposal with any of the five shortlisted foreign collaborators. The MDL request for information was the first step in identifying a foreign collaborator for the project.