The long-held ambition of India’s strategic and political establishment to join the big boys in the global power stakes got a major fillip on July 26, 2009 when the country formally unveiled and launched its first nuclear-powered and nuclear weapons capable submarine.
India’s effort to develop a nuclear submarine, the Advanced Technology Vessel or ATV Project, has been one of its worst kept secrets. Officials have stoically denied the existence of any such project despite the numerous articles and commentaries in circulation internationally, many speculative but some even naming Project managers. Yet, the project was supposedly so hush-hush that photography was banned and no official photographs were released at the launch.
The INS Arihant (“destroyer of enemies” in one rendering of the Sanskrit translation) leapfrogs India into a tiny set of countries that can build and operate such a submarine, USA, UK, Russia, China and France being the others. The significance of the ATV straddles both the military-strategic and the industrial-technological spheres wherein the true weight of the former will always be judged in the context of capabilities in the latter.
The Arihant The Arihant is a 6,000-tonne vessel, 110 metres long and 11 meters across, powered by an 85 MW pressurized water reactor (PWR) fuelled by 40% enriched uranium of Indian origin. With a crew strength of 75, it has a submerged speed of 30 knots and surface speed of 10 knots. It can stay underwater for theoretically unlimited periods, restricted only by food supply, since a nuclear sub does not need to surface periodically to “breathe” in fresh air and evacuate noxious carbon dioxide from diesel engines.
The Arihant is equipped to carry submarine-launched ballistic nuclear missiles (SLBM), at this stage believed to be DRDO’s K-15 Sagarika-series missile with a range of 700 km, besides an assortment of conventional anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.
The Arihant will of course not be actively deployed for a few years yet. Its first major challenge will be its nuclear reactor achieving criticality, followed by harbour and then sea trials, and finally thorough testing of the full range of its weaponised capabilities. By that time, work on another two similar submarines now being built would have been completed. Whereas three subs are the minimum required to ensure that at least one is actively deployed, it is likely that a further two or three may also be built. These subs are to constitute the third leg of the famed triad of nuclear weapons delivery systems from surface, air and undersea. The undersea capability would complement India’s land-based nuclear missiles of the Agni series, and its fleet of jury-rigged — that is, the aircraft do not come with this capability but are subsequently modified for it — Mirage 2000 and Su-30 MkI aircraft.
Technology Development The idea of India developing a nuclear-powered submarine (SSN in the parlance for submersible ship nuclear-powered in the parlance) goes back to the the Indira Gandhi government in the early ‘70s. Indian security circles felt the need for SSNs to counter the growing US naval presence in the Indian Ocean and also to project Indian naval power in the region and across the Malacca Straits. Although the basic idea was to develop a nuclear-powered submarine rather than a nuclear-armed one (SSBN with the B for ballistic missile), the latter idea was not far from the minds of the military, scientific-technological and political establishments. Yet probably because of this early start, at a juncture when unanticipated technological challenges and diplomatic hurdles lay ahead, the Project as a whole had a chequered history.
The early years were devoted to developing the nuclear reactor rather than the submarine, the main tasks being to miniaturize the reactor to fit a small space and handling the concentrated weight of the reactor and its containment vessel, together about one-tenth the submarine weight, in one small part of the vessel. The tortuous saga of disagreements about reactor design between BARC and the Navy, and later the arrest of the Navy scientist on espionage charges subsequently dismissed by the Courts, is a sorry story symptomatic of the high drama and internecine bickering that flourished in the atmosphere of secrecy, whimsical decision-making and poor accountability that have characterized the ATV and so many other defence projects. (See “Betrayal of the Defence Forces”, 2001, by Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat whose abrupt dismissal by the NDA government was also at least partly triggered by his “revelation” of the ATV project, even though it had been formally outed as early as 1994 by former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission M.R.Srinivasan, whose newspaper article is also appended in Adm. Bhagwat’s book!)
As for the submarine, India in fact had no experience of building one, leave alone designing one, till the Indo-German HDW programme of the early 1990s to build and transfer technologies for 1500 ton diesel-powered submarines. Two submarines were custom-built in Germany with many Indian personnel gaining invaluable experience at both technician and supervisory levels. A few more submarines were subsequently built in the Mazagon Docks but the process of acquiring design capability did not take off. The travails in the Indian economy, allegations of kickbacks, and what some insiders have termed a loss of vision and determination on both military and civilian sides combined to scupper the Project, so much so that the entire submarine yard in the Mazagon Docks closed down.
So while SSBN capability has been acquired, available but hopefully never to be used, technologies and capabilities for design and manufacture of nuclear-powered attack submarines that are of greater day-to-day operational relevance, have not yet been developed. There are apparently no plans to pursue this dimension of the programme as originally conceived, especially in view of the impending acquisition of French Scorpene submarines and leasing-in of Akula-class SSNs from Russia.
Finally, the missile for use with the SSBN has been as shrouded in mystery as the ATV project. Notwithstanding the prolonged speculation in the international strategic community, it now appears clear that the K-15 missile is a ballistic not a cruise missile from within the Sagarika series of missiles. Trials of the K-15 have had middling success so far, with the implication that several steps remain before the missile is fully developed and can be integrated into the Arihant and other SSBNs.
Numerous defence establishments, public and private sector companies, and academic institutions have played major roles, by themselves or in collaboration with international partners in a manner such that important capabilities and know-how have been acquired and built in to significant parts of the Indian scientific and industrial establishment, contributing to self-reliance in submarine design development and manufacture to an extent regrettably not evidenced in other military technologies.
Special steels used in construction of the hull have been developed at the Mishra Dhatu Nigam Ltd in Hyderabad while some special steels have continued to be imported from Russia. Larsen & Toubro’s Hazira plant has played a major role right from the inception and much of the hull for the Arihant and its successor vessels have been built at L&T. Tata Power for some control systems, Walchand Industries for the systems integrating the reactor with the steam turbines, and Tata Consultancy Services in weapons platform and systems integration are some of the major private sector players involved whereas BARC, BHEL, BEL and a number of DRDO establishments are among the major public sector partners, besides a number of university departments and laboratories that have undertaken specific parts of the total project. Of special significance are the indigenous sonar and the acquisition of quietening technologies from Russia.
Russia connection In this entire process, the ATV Project owes a great deal to assistance from the erstwhile Soviet Union and Russia. It is no wonder that, at the launch ceremony, the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, DAE head Anil Kakodkar, Chief of Navy Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta and ATV Project Director Vice-Admiral (retired) D.S.P.Verma all were fulsome in their praise of Russia’s “consistent and invaluable cooperation” which has covered all dimensions of design, construction, training and technology transfer relating to the submarine as well as, perhaps to a lesser extent, to the nuclear reactor.
The nuclear submarine Project in the real sense took off only after the lease of a Soviet SSN to the Indian Navy in 1988, following a long process of inspections by Indian teams, construction of a special training facility near Vladivostok, and training of two full crews of naval personnel there for operation of the vessel, decontamination and safety. India paid for the refurbishment of the Project 670 K-43 (NATO designation Charlie class) submarine which entered into service with the Indian Navy as INS Chakra. This experience was to prove invaluable to Indian Navy and other technical personnel, and also put to rest any doubts about the SSN project. Although India was keen to renew the lease on its expiry in 1991, then Soviet President Gorbachev, already weakened, refused and recalled the submarine under severe US pressure. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the HDW project already in doldrums, the ATV project again went into limbo between 1991 and 1998. Pokhran-II and the decision to develop the triad of nuclear delivery systems revived it.
India again took on lease from Russia two deadly and much quieter Shchuka-II (NATO codename Akula class) nuclear-powered attack submarines. Training of Indian crews was again provided as before, but what was new was the link-up to the renewed Indian interest in a nuclear-armed submarine. The deal between Russia and India was very complex and took into account the technological and financial needs of both countries. Financial arrangements including several transactions not made public were interwoven across several Projects, notably the contract for the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier which was also being negotiated at the same time. The Russian submarine yards were financially starved, and the orders from India helped not only to build the two SSNs but also in reviving the shipyards especially at Amur. In return, Russia provided across-the-board technical assistance for design-development and construction of the first Indian SSBN, now the Arihant, as well as important aspects of the nuclear reactor even though the latter assistance has been euphemistically described as “just consultancy” by BARC officials.
Strategic significance The Arihant will be entering service during a period of substantial expansion and modernization by the Indian Navy, for long the neglected arm of the Indian defence forces. While the notorious problems of enormous delays bedeviling defence acquisitions have meant that several past decisions are yet to translate into reality, causing serious security gaps, the Indian Navy will have visibly strengthened during the next decade, with about 160 fighting vessels and 400 aircraft. Apart from several battleships and three aircraft carriers, the Navy is also acquiring additional submarines not just to beef up the fleet but actually to replace badly depleted submarine strength due to ageing and degradation. Apart from the two Akula class SSNs on 10-year lease from Russia, 6 Scorpene diesel-powered submarines are being acquired from Armaris-Thales and MBDA of France and are expected to enter service around 2015 onwards. Overall, this would be a nascent blue-water navy capable of defensive deployment or even some power projection in the wider Indian Ocean from the eastern African coast to beyond the Malacca Straits.
The Arihant and its sister SSBNs are expected to find their place within this naval force. India’s declared no-first-use nuclear doctrine calls for a reliable second-strike capability, that is, if all land-based launch platforms are destroyed by a pre-emptive strike, then virtually undetectable SSBNs can launch a counter-strike from anywhere, this very capability supposedly being a deterrent. But all such “nuclear gaming” scenarios should be taken with the proverbial barrel of salt because of the dubiousness of the very concept of nuclear deterrence. Fact is that India’s nuclear-armed subs would be on permanent stand-by, hopefully never to be used, while nuclear-powered subs more necessary and useful for regular security duty, would continue to be leased-in at high cost with little accompanying indigenous capability. This is questionable security policy with a thin but high-powered strike capability masking a serious lack of depth in basic strength.
Even within this framework, there are several questions surrounding the capability of the Arihant and sister SSBNs now being built or planned. The 700 km range of the K-15 missile or the 1000 km being spoken for an updated version means that the SSBN must get pretty close to its target landmass, increasing the risk of detection. Even the 2500 km range of the SLBM version of the Agni-III currently being developed or the extended range of 3500km of the K-5 pale in comparison with the 5,000 – 12,000 km range of missiles on comparable SSBMs operated by the US, Russia, UK or China which operates 3 SSBN and 6 SSNs in a fleet of 62 submrines. The reactor too is quite small at under 90 MW while comparable SSN/SSBNs in other countries not only have more power but also have lifetime fuel supply of over 30 years whereas the BARC reactor has only 10 years’ supply of nuclear fuel, with refueling entailing major costly and time-consuming work.
The military significance of the Arihant therefore should not be over-rated especially in the contemporary global and regional security environment. It should be seen, rather, as a demonstrator of the potential strengths and depth of the Indian scientific-technical and industrial capability. It would be better for India if it applied these strengths to a strategic vision and security policy characterized by robustness rather than hubris.
One must also not miss the irony that India is taking these steps towards a nuclear triad which can only expand in the years to come when major powers such as the US and Russia are scaling down their nuclear arsenals, when a US President has spoken for the first time in over five decades about universal nuclear disarmament. Those who think India has entered a new power zone after it went overtly nuclear may feel this is an odd time, just when India has gate-crashed into the big league, to be speaking about disarmament or a non-nuclear security policy. But nuclear capability can have several goals, and there was a time when India’s covert capability served as an example of what India could be but did not want to be, and as a reminder to others of a promise made long ago to work for disarmament. After all, Jain monks and scholars drew attention after the launch to the word arihant being of Jaina origins and meaning not destroyer of enemies but “destroyer of enmity”.