Nuclear powered submarine, for the strength that it represents, is an essential ingredient of Navy’s structure: former submariner

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November 09, 2021 5:33 PM

Cmde Arun Kumar, who played an important part in the growth of the submarine arm as the Principal Director of Submarine Acquisition steered the 30 year submarine building Plan at Naval Headquarters in his last appointment.

Earlier, the cruise missiles were mostly non nuclear tipped, but lately, particularly the USN (US navy), Russian Navy and the Chinese navy boats can launch such missiles with a nuclear warhead.

Nuclear submarines are back in the news post the announcement of AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US) forming a military alliance. Under this alliance, the US and the UK have offered Australia their expertise to build nuclear submarines.

Cmde Arun Kumar, who played an important part in the growth of the submarine arm as the Principal Director of Submarine Acquisition steered the 30 year submarine building Plan at Naval Headquarters in his last appointment. Besides commanding the missile destroyer INS Rajput, he has also commanded two Kilo class boats INS Sindhuraj, INS Sindhughosh.

Cmde Arun Kumar shares details about the nuclear submarine operations goes into the training of the crew and much more with Huma Siddiqui.

Following are excerpts from an interaction:

What is the significance of a SSN vis a vis a conventional boat?

An SSN is a nuclear powered attack submarine armed with non nuclear weapons. Usually, the nuclear powered boats are classified wherein N stands for nuclear powered. SS is the usual nomenclature for Submarines. An SSK signifies a conventional diesel-electric powered submarine. If an SSN is armed with cruise missiles (Missiles that do not leave the Earth’s atmosphere), then it is nomenclature as SSGN. If an SSN is armed with nuclear tipped ballistic missiles (Missiles that leave the atmosphere and re-enter), then the boat is termed an SSBN. Earlier, the cruise missiles were mostly non nuclear tipped, but lately, particularly the USN (US navy), Russian Navy and the Chinese navy boats can launch such missiles with a nuclear warhead.

Conventional submarines are usually powered with storage batteries of high capacity and, in the submerged state, use them as the energy source, which needs to be periodically charged with the help of a diesel generator. Since the diesel generator is an ICE (Internal Combustion engine), it requires air as the oxidant for the combustion to take place. Consequently, a conventional boat needs to come up to periscope depth from where it raises a ‘Snorkel Mast’ to suck in atmospheric air for the diesel generator to work. It, therefore, follows that a conventional submarine is handicapped in the amount of power it can use in one charge of the battery. The main characteristic of a submarine is its stealth, and the moment it exposes some part of its structure like the Snorkel Mast or the Periscope, it becomes susceptible to detection by various surveillance sensors, including satellite based. In the submarine parlance, this exposure in the duration of 24 hours as a ratio is called the indiscretion rate of the submarine.

Another limiting factor is the rations that are carried on board. After many psychological studies, the optimum time of a Patrol for a crew in an SSN is about six weeks though it could be stretched to 60 days. This is as regards the endurance concerning the crew. Operationally, an SSN has unlimited endurance at speeds in excess of 20 knots (One knot is 1.8Km), unlike a conventional boat which can do a maximum speed of about 20 knots only for an hour or so before its battery runs out of capacity. This affords the SSN a great amount of flexibility in attacking a surface force. Whereas a conventional boat can approach a surface force only from the head sector, an SSN can approach it from any direction. It can even overtake a surface force. Therefore the threat circle in the case of an SSN is all round the surface force. Further, because of its speed and endurance, the area that an SSN can sanitize in a given area of operations is enhanced manifolds compared to a conventional boat.

Another aspect is the radiated noise of the submarines. Conventional boats are more silent compared to nuclear powered boats. However, the silencing techniques employed on the latter have also made them very silent and effective over the years. They still enjoy an advantage against the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) measures that are employed by the surface forces. These constitute the primary difference between an SSN and a conventional submarine. I am not going for further incremental advantages in deployments and operations an SSN has; as for the ordinary person, it would be complex to comprehend. This advantage of an SSN gives a Navy the flexibility to arrive at the optimum composition of force levels needed to carry out the envisaged role and tasks.

Indian Navy’s quest for one…

India is a peninsular sub-continent that straddles the Indian Ocean and therefore is in a dominant position to monitor the sea lanes of communication in this area. Safety of navigation for trade and commerce is essential for any economy, and in India’s case, even more so as 95 per cent of Indian trade is seaborne. Hence, safeguarding these lanes from hostile intent is extremely crucial. That is why the Indian Navy has progressively acquired a blue water hue to itself. A nuclear powered submarine, for the strength that it represents, is an essential ingredient of this structure. Further, for a nuclear weapons State, a second strike capability is most essential, which only a submarine can provide as its location is unknown. Second Strike is the ability of a nuclear weapons state to retaliate against a nuclear strike. The Indian Navy in particular and the nation, in general, started its quest for a nuclear powered submarine in the late 60s and early 70s, with Late Indira Gandhi spearheading this quest. Our indigenous efforts got a flip in the early 80s when the Soviet Union under President Brezhnev offered to lease a nuclear powered submarine to the Indian Navy. Accordingly, after many protracted negotiations, a detachment of 60 Officers and 140 sailors who a special Soviet team had selected in 1982, left for the shores of Vladivostok in the Far East of the Soviet Union for training in Sep 1983. The training got completed in April 1986, but the Navy had to wait for another year and a half while negotiations for the lease were underway before INS Chakra, a Charlie class SSGN, was commissioned into the IN on 05 Jan 1988 on lease for three years. It was a historic occasion as, for the very first time in history; one nation had leased a nuclear powered submarine to another. Even the US had not given one to their cousins across the Atlantic when the Royal Navy started its own nuclear submarine programme. It spoke of the close strategic ties between the Soviet Union and India, which continues to this day between the Russian Federation and the Union of India.

What are your views on the Soviet offer and the agreement signed?

The lease agreement for the Chakra was comprehensive. It transferred possession but not ownership. For obvious reasons, I cannot go into details of the deal but suffice to say that the Indian Navy had complete operational command and control of the boat with no restrictions. Some Soviet Specialists were deputed to India for the entire period of the lease, and a few from among them used to sail with us only to meet the legal aspects of the ‘Lessor’.

According to you what goes in the selection of crew and deputation which will go on such a boat?

The requirements for selection of the crew for a nuclear powered boat are very stringent. First and foremost, professional competence must be of top quality. Secondly, the aspect concerning the prolonged period of service on board and the stress that it brings both physically and mentally with it must be carefully studied in each person through stringent psychological tests. Those who clear this are subjected to medical tests, which too are stringent for service onboard nuclear powered submarines. It may be of interest to know that in the US Navy, the first lots of the nuclear submariners were personally picked up by Admiral Hyman Rickover, considered as the father of the US Naval nuclear submarine arm.

What kind of training do they have to undergo?

The training of a crew for a nuclear powered submarine, as the subject goes, has to be of a very high standard. Not only the aspects and fundamentals of submarining, in general, are to be reinforced in a person, but the capability to react instantaneously in an emergency must become second nature. This is because compared to the reaction time on a conventional boat; the time on a nuclear boat is much reduced because of the speeds of operations involved. The hazards of radiation and the safety standards to be imbibed is another aspect that differentiates the training from that of a conventional boat. I would not be remiss if I were to state that our crew received the finest training any detachment of the Indian Navy may have received in the former Soviet Union.

As regards indigenous training, the Indian Navy has consistently followed the principle of getting a training team initially in each project that would then set up the training facility and faculty locally. The same was done in this case, and some of the initially trained crew was positioned in INS Satvahana, the Submarine Training School in Visakhapatnam, to train the replacement crew for the ensuing years. Today, the facilities for training nuclear submariners in Satavahana have been expanded to cater to the Strategic boats.

Your thoughts on the mindset change and an ecosystem of basing, manning and operating such boats.

Life and service onboard a nuclear submarine requires a complete lifestyle and mindset change compared to a conventional submarine. In fact, in a nuclear boat compared to a conventional one, it is not just the change in the power source but a complete lifestyle and mindset change because it is an entirely different eco-system prevalent on a nuclear powered boat. It involves radiation monitoring of equipment, personnel and even waste (both solid and liquid), and its subsequent disposal, which has to be in accordance with international norms. To go onboard, one has to change into special clothing, undergo personal radiation monitoring, and apply the reverse process when disembarking and going ashore. Each crew member has to carry on him a personal dosimeter whose readings are recorded daily, and a record is maintained centrally and kept for years after one has ceased to serve. All equipment on board is also monitored. Access control regime is strictly put in force. The surroundings of the submarine berth are monitored for radiation safety, and readings are recorded in all three dimensions viz; land, air and water. These records are inspected by an Environmental Safety Committee at the highest Level. Special dedicated captive facilities to provide shore support to preserve running hours of equipment onboard are created. Apart from infrastructural aspects, some aspects in operations, in particular, speed endurance, need a mindset evolution. The use of speed in operations needs readjustment, which does not come easily into the mindset prevalent on a conventional boat because there, one is always mindful of the use of limited battery power. The speed and endurance on a nuclear boat give one a sense of extreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, of power. To put it colloquially, one tends to get drunk on it.

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