India’s Quest for a Subsurface Strategic Deterrence Capability

On 27 January this year, an event occurred which went largely unnoticed within the country but caused ripples amongst the naval analysts community. This was the handover of a submarine from Russian to Indian hands. Nothing unusual there, one may be tempted to say, considering that the Indian Navy has been operating Russian and German submarines for nearly four decades now. Wrong; for the submarine in question is a nuclear one, whose entry in our region in March 2012 heralds a game-changing reality in the Indian Ocean.

India’s journey towards nuclear status in the sub-surface sphere has been a tumultuous one. Credible accounts suggest that the idea took hold soon after the infamous ‘Smiling Buddha’ nuclear tests of 1974. Realizing that a nuclear launch capability from land and from the air was only a matter of time, Indian attention got focused in pursuing the elusive third leg of the nuclear triad, so vital towards achieving true strategic deterrence.

The task was a formidable one. For one thing, it required the designing of a submarine hull capable of housing a nuclear reactor. For another, special quality steel was needed for fabrication of the submarine’s pressure hull. By far the stiffest test was the fabrication, testing and miniaturization of a pressurized water reactor capable of being installed inside the designed hull. Building a Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR), which uses natural unenriched uranium as fuel and heavy water as the coolant and moderator is tough enough, but building a downsized Pressurized Water Reactor that used enriched uranium as fuel and light water as both coolant and moderator stretches technical expertise to the limit. Mating this with the boat’s hull is no less challenging a feat.

As it stood, India’s fledgling attempts proved unsuccessful on all three counts. Collaboration with Russia had to be resorted to, with a large number of Indian scientists and sailors being trained in Russia throughout the eighties. It was presumably the unrealistic optimism of the Indian project team engaged in developing a nuclear submarine, codenamed ATV (Advanced Technology Vessel) that led the Indian Navy to speed up the process of training it’s crew by obtaining a Charlie I class Guided Missile Nuclear Submarine (with a submerged displacement of around 5000 tons) from the Soviet Union on a 3-year lease in January 1988.

Though the submarine in question (which was recommissioned as INS CHAKRA) had reportedly been stripped of weapons prior to the handover, a core group of Russian technicians and maintainers was attached with the submarine to impart practical training on the operation and maintenance of it’s nuclear propulsion.

Speculations are rife that as part of the lease deal, India managed to obtain detailed designs of the craft prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union. The uncertain post-breakup conditions which prevailed also put some sort of a dampener on the ATVs progress, despite the continued presence of the Russian technicians. Withcollaboration having been revived by the early 2000s, India sought to obtain another training platform for preparing crews for manning it’s own indigenously – constructed submarines. A golden opportunity presented itself in the shape of the K-152 Nerpa, an Akula II class submarine whose construction at Komsomolsk-on-Amur shipyard had been frozen midway due to a funding crunch. India went on to sign a lease agreement with Russia in January 2004, by agreeing to offer huge monetary assistance to complete it’s construction prior taking over the vessel on a 10-year lease. This submarine, which was finally taken over at the eastern Russian seaport of Vladivostok in January this year and recommissioned as INS CHAKRA II, could have been inducted nearly 3 years earlier, had it not been for a freak accident during the vessel’s sea trials in the Sea of Japan. A wrong temperature data entry for the submarine’s living quarters apparently caused the fire suppression system to release the freon gas without first triggering the alarm, which resulted in the deaths of some 20 Russian sailors and injuries to as many others.

INS CHAKRA II , like it’s predecessor, has most likely been handed over without any weapons, particularly the long-range nuclear cruise missile SSN-21 of over 2500km range which it was meant to carry. This submarine too will be used as a training platform to generate crews for it’s own indigenous program, the first of which, Arihant, was launched on 26 July 2009 and is expected to be inducted in the Indian fleet by early 2013.

The Indian nuclear submarine program, codenamed ATV (Advanced Technology Vessel), remained under wraps for over 3 decades, with word of it’s progress coming out in measured trickles. It came somewhat to the surface during it’s launching ceremony, graced by the Prime Minister of India, on 26 July 2009, timed with what the Indians call Kargil Victory Day, whose significance it was undoubtedly meant to impress.

Arihant (Annihilator of Enemies) is based on the Soviet Charlie II design, though observers have pointed out it’s shape similarities with the Akula II class, with which it also most likely shares a number of advanced features in terms of propulsion, noise suppression, command & control, communications and detection. It’s submerged displacement has been reported to be around 6000 tons and it’s reported top submerged speed of 24 Kts (around 10 Kts less than the Akula II class) is linked to it’s comparatively smaller nuclear reactor (80 MWe)

Though labeled as indigenous, the Arihant project has received extensive assistance from Russia in the shape of equipment and skilled manpower. Apart from submarine design, nuclear reactor designs were also ultimately purchased from Russia after the work assigned to India’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre failed to make much headway. It now appears that even the high-quality HY80 steel used in the fabrication of the pressure hull of the ATV as well as the electrical power reactor was procured from Russia.

The Arihant class of submarines are likely to carry the 750Km Sagarika cruise missile (with eight Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) each in case

of nuclear warheads) or the under-development 3500 Km range nuclear-capable K-4 ballistic missile or a combination of both. As more vessels of similar or more advanced class are pressed into service, India will possess the flexibility of employing them in a conventional and / or a strategic deterrence role.

As far as strategic deterrence is concerned, it’s credibility can only be established if at least four nuclear submarines are earmarked for the purpose, so that at least one is deployed at sea at all times. This turns out to be an extremely expensive proposition but is an highly prized capability all the same. Even otherwise, nuclear submarines are certainly game changers or force multipliers, as they enjoy a number of advantages over conventional ones. For one thing, nuclear submarines are much larger and thus can carry heavier payloads. For another, they can remain submerged indefinitely as opposed to conventional ones which have to surface quite frequently to charge it’s batteries. The third advantage is that it can generate much faster submerged speeds, giving even destroyers a run for their money. Conventional submarines, on the other hand, have to be extra cautious in matters of speed as every extra knot of speed makes it noisier and reduces it’s submerged time.

The Arihant class of submarines would, in all probability, be ordinarily employed in a conventional intelligence-gathering, anti-surface vessel, anti-submarine, land-attack role, but can be rapidly rearmed for a strategic deterrence role, should the need arise.

If and when the first of the class, Arihant, is successfully commissioned and integrated in the fleet, it will be a dream come true for the Indian Navy, signaling a huge leap forward in it’s maritime aspirations. It has been an uphill and laborious struggle. While being lauded as a tremendous indigenous achievement, the behind- the scenes assistance provided by Russian naval personnel cannot be ignored. Help from them was forthcoming at every stage from designing through fabrication to training, guiding their Indian counterparts in navigating all technical glitches encountered. Having said that, a large number of local organizations were utilized to ensure the safe culmination of the ATV project. The nuclear reactor was developed jointly by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO), and built at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam (Tamil Nadu). The prototype testing centre at Kalpakkam will be testing the boats turbines and propellers, while a similar facility at Vishakapatnam will be running trials on the vessel’s main turbines and gearbox. Larsen & Toubro Ltd, a technology-driven private sector company, is building the boat’s hull at it’s shipbuilding facility at Hazira Works in Gujrat. The Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) at Bangalore, has been working on the nuclear-capable Sagarika missile since long.

All those who have been involved in this highly-classified project for over three decades now can heave a collective sigh of relief, now that the ultimate goal of their labour appears to be in sight. What the advent of the Arihant class of vessels bodes for the stability of the neighbourhood, the Indian Ocean region, is another subject altogether. The noticeable aspect is that apart from Pakistan, nobody else seems worried.


Note: Published in the monthly ‘ Hilal – Pakistan’s Armed Forces Magazine’ in its issue of April 2012 and in the 1 April 2012 Sunday Plus edition of the Daily Newspaper ‘ The Nation’. This was also published in the July 2012 issue of the ‘Navy News’.

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