The Indian Navy quietly added the much awaited INS Arihant, India’s first indigenously-built nuclear submarine, to its fleet in August. The significance of this addition to India’s depleting fleet of submarines cannot be overstated, especially at a time when tensions with Pakistan are running high and China is flexing its muscles in the Indian Ocean. The INS Arihant is a 6,000-tonne submarine that is capable of launching nuclear weapons from underwater. Arihant is an SSBN, that is a submarine that can carry ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. SSBNs are equipped with better stealth features and are larger compared to SSNs, which are nuclear-powered attack submarines. SSBNs are also said to be the “best guarantor” of a second strike capability in a nuclear exchange.
The submarine is propelled by an 83 MW pressurised light-water reactor at its core. In 2013, the nuclear reactor of the submarine went ‘critical’ and from December 2014 onwards, the sea trials began, which included the test firing of K-series of missiles. The K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile has a range of 750-km and the K-4 has a range of up to 3,500-km. But the weapons integration will take some more time, which means that the INS Arihant is not yet fully ready to be deployed for deterrent patrols with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in its silos, says a TOI report.
But even as India gets the INS Arihant and prepares to induct the Scorpene-class INS Kalvari, there are major concerns over its ability to deter and counter the enemy with such a poor number of subs. India has only 13 conventional submarines, and these too are ageing. Indian Navy also has a nuclear-powered submarine, INS Chakra, that is on lease from Russia. In 2015, the government had approved the construction of six nuclear-powered submarines, the SSNs, that is attack submarines that are not equipped with ballistic missiles. Add to that, the fact that there was a major data leak with regards to the stealth capabilities of Indian Navy’s upcoming Scorpene-class submarines.
This paints a very grim picture of India’s submarine strength and its ability to check the enemy in its waters. To put things in global perspective, US has over 70 nuclear submarines and Russia has around 30. China has 5 nuclear submarines are over 51 conventional subs. It is already on course to induct around five SSBNs with missiles that have a range of up to 7,400 km!
PK Ghosh, a retired Indian Navy officer, and Senior Fellow at ORF feels that India’s submarine fleet is an issue of grave concern. “We are lagging behind in a big way when it comes to our submarine fleet. We are positioning ourselves in the current geostrategic environment, talking about the balance of power and guarantee of security. These are big words and we are eyeing an aspirational role, but the submarine fleet is a matter of great concern,” Ghosh tells FE Online. Flagging issues with current and future projects, Ghosh says, “The P-75 Scorpene project has been delayed endlessly and we need to upgrade our submarines, the current fleet is grossly inadequate. The Scorpene data has been exposed and there is no movement on the P-75I project. One has to understand that the Indian Navy works with a lag, any new platform takes around 4-5 years to build.” “China has anywhere between 55 to 65 conventional submarines and Pakistan has 5. India has 13, and if you assume an operational capability of 50%, then this is a serious condition,” he adds.
With reference to the INS Arihant too, Ghosh says that India has been waiting for the nuclear submarine for quite some time now! “It is good that we have managed to get it. Not many countries in the world have the capability to build a nuclear submarine. But in my view, we need more teeth,” Ghosh says. “While INS Arihant is an excellent platform, a submarine is only as good as the weapons that it can fire. Currently, INS Arihant has the K-15 missiles. K4 missiles will be introduced later. See, the basic of a submarine like INS Arihant is that you can identify targets from the sea and fire on the land, or you can attack ships in the water. If you don’t have the missile capability, then even an excellent platform like Arihant cannot help much.” “So while, we have achieved a major milestone with this ‘Made In India’ submarine, the platform needs to be fully utilised. For that the K4 missile needs to be operationalised,” he rues.
Agrees Captain (Retd) SV Challapati, a defence industry expert, who believes that in the next 10 years, India needs at least 6 nuclear and 25-30 conventional submarines. “We have a grossly inadequate submarine fleet. A submarine is highly deterrent, it is an offensive weapon. And you need to rotate submarines at sea because there is a fatigue factor for the hull, the system and people. For India to be able to flex its muscles in a credible manner, especially with regards to China, we need to greatly enhance the number of submarines that we have,” Challapati tells FE Online.
Which is not to say that INS Arihant and the programme involved in building it is any less important or insignificant. As Challapati notes, “The only two ways you can have a nuclear submarine is to either build it or lease it. But not many countries are willing to lease nuclear submarines like Russia has. There is a whole culture of trained manpower that is involved in a submarine programme. Whether it is a ship or a submarine, you need a lot of technical know-how, and capability to repair and operate. There is a whole doctrine around it. This has undoubtedly been a long journey for the Indian Navy and a big learning experience.”
Ankur Gupta, Vice President Aerospace & Defence at Ernst Young India, sees the INS Arihant as a critical element of national security as well as an effective-deliverable nuclear deterrent. “Approximately 17 years ago, the Indian Navy had approved a 30-year submarine capability plan which today seems to be behind schedule. The private sector has limited experience but sufficient spare capacity and the MoD should leverage the Make in India initiative to overcome the submarine capability shortfall at the earliest through the utilisation of these domestic available assets,” advises Ankur Gupta. “A quick decision on the proposed ‘Strategic Partnership Model’ in which submarines is one of the identified areas will also help boost confidence in the private sector and help the Navy in meeting its pre-set requirements,” he tells FE Online.