Submarines are game changer in maritime warfare: How’s India placed

Updated: Jun 27, 2019 2:34 PM

In the post- Cold War world order, with bipolarity a thing of the past and a more inclusive multi-polar world order beginning to emerge, the virtues of the submarine are becoming increasingly apparent as more and more nations are investing in this capability.

Submarines, maritime warfare, US Submarine campaign, strategic ballistic missile submarines, indian navy, SSBN INS Arihant, INS ChakraIndia is the leading maritime power in the Indian Ocean and has an increasingly important role to play in the Indo-Pacific.

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, IN ( Retd)

Submarines have played an integral role in naval warfare ever since their potential to shape the maritime battlespace with their inherent virtues of stealth, concealment and lethal firepower became apparent. In World War 1 it was submarines, rudimentary though they were, that shaped the course of that conflict at sea. In World War 2 , the legendary German U-boats almost won the war for Germany whereas the US Submarine campaign in the Pacific dealt decisive blows to the mighty Imperial Japanese Navy which accelerated the Allied victory in that theatre. However, it was in the post-World War 2 period, with the successful harnessing of nuclear power for military applications, that submarines really came into their own and were principally responsible in ensuring that the Cold War which ‘raged’ for over four and a half decades remained cold.

In the post- Cold War world order, with bipolarity a thing of the past and a more inclusive multi-polar world order beginning to emerge, the virtues of the submarine are becoming increasingly apparent as more and more nations are investing in this capability. The extent of this investment in submarines depends upon a nation’s threat perception, its area of operations and its budgetary limitations. While the larger nations are developing and augmenting their nuclear submarine capability, smaller nations are putting their money on conventional diesel-electric submarines which may be more relevant to their concept of operations.

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Submarines are of basically three types – the large nuclear powered and nuclear armed strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the nuclear powered and conventionally armed attack submarines (SSN) and the conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines (SSK). India is one of only six countries that operates nuclear submarines – the others being the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – USA, Russia, UK, France and China. Of these, only Russia, China and India operate all three types of submarine because of the nature of the maritime threat in their littoral.

India is the leading maritime power in the Indian Ocean and has an increasingly important role to play in the Indo-Pacific. which, as its very name suggests, has a distinct maritime orientation. Amongst all the countries in the region, only China has embraced the complete geographical extent of the Indo-Pacific. It has established a base at Djibouti in the western extremity of this construct; it is focussing on infrastructure development in East Africa, the island states of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific; is dominating the South China Sea and has adopted a belligerent posture in the East China Sea. The Belt and Road Initiative has been extended to include the Polar Silk Route. The US has of course always been present in both oceans but its Indo-Pacific Command’s geographical limits extend only to the west coast of India from where the US Central Command’s area of responsibility begins As for the other leading powers in the region, they are resident in the Pacific and are more focussed on the ‘Pacific’ with their ‘Indo’ extending only to the west coast of India. For India however, the Indian Ocean remains its primary area of interest.

On more than one occasion, India has expressed its concern at the more-or-less permanent presence of the PLA(Navy) in the Indian Ocean and the frequent forays by its submarines into the area. As the PLA(Navy) grows and establishes more bases in the region, this presence is bound to grow. While the Indian Navy is more than capable of blunting any Chinese or Pakistani aggression from seawards, the growing disparity in numbers and capability between the PLA(Navy) and the Indian Navy is of concern for the future.

Perhaps, more than the threat from seawards is the clear and present threat posed by its continental neighbours -China in the north and Pakistan in the west. The border dispute with the former remains live and simmering and Pakistan’s stubborn intransigence is a thorn in India’s flesh. The unholy nuclear nexus between these two nations poses a distinct threat to India which is now further compounded by the Chinese investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This not only gives China a direct access to the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean but has ridden roughshod over India’s sovereignty concerns in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

India has a unique strategic location in the Indian Ocean – it juts almost a 1000 miles into the sea and its peninsular geographic conformation notwithstanding, its economic and strategic dependence on the sea actually makes it a maritime nation. Hence, while paying close attention to the continental threat, naval development must also continue centred on a balanced blue water force with full spectrum capability across the strategic, operational and tactical domains. Submarines, which straddle this entire spectrum are therefore integral to the navy’s force construct.

At the strategic level, the presence of two adversarial nuclear powers requires a credible response strategy. The ‘No First Use Policy’ which is the cornerstone of India’s nuclear doctrine makes it imperative for India to have a multi-dimensional deterrence and a credible second-strike capability. The first successful deterrent patrol by the indigenously built Indian SSBN INS Arihant last year completed the nuclear triad of land, air and sea response vectors. SSBNs are the most credible second-strike platforms because of their attributes of stealth, concealment and enough firepower to deliver devastating effect. However, for this to be credible, continuous deterrence-at-sea is essential. To ensure this, the Indian Navy plans to induct five SSBNs over the next few years.

SSNs constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s offensive capability. Their high speed, stealth characteristics, unlimited endurance and lethal weaponry make them the ideal platforms to shape the littoral maritime battlespace besides being an asset for expeditionary deployments, either alone or in formation with a Task Force. India first acquired a SSN in 1988 on a three year lease from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Commissioned as INS Chakra, this Charlie-1 class SSN provided valuable lessons in understanding the complexities of operating and maintaining such submarines. A long hiatus followed till the arrival of an Akula-2 class SSN in 2012 on a 10-year lease, also from Russia, and was also christened as INS Chakra. Recently, India has signed a 10-year lease with Russia for another Akula-2 class submarine which should arrive in 2025 till which time the present Chakra’s lease is likely to be extended.

In 2015, the Govt of India approved a plan for the indigenous construction of six SSNs. Work on its design is already in progress. It is expected to have a much larger reactor than the 83 MW reactor on Arihant. These submarines should begin entering service by the end of the next decade. This decision could not have come a moment too soon if India is indeed to be capable of shaping the geopolitical contours of the region by that time.

India has a force level of 14 conventional submarines (SSK), most of which are of considerable vintage. Five more are at various stages of trials, fitting out and construction and should enter service over the next few years. These will replace some of the older submarines thereby greatly enhancing the navy’s undersea warfighting capability in the shallower waters of the littoral. Another 12 SSKs armed with land-attack missiles and Air Independent Propulsion Systems are likely to follow.

The proliferation of submarines amongst large, medium and small navies as instruments of limited sea control and sea denial will be a major game changer in influencing the nature of the maritime battlespace in the future. The Indian Navy, by wisely investing in this capability (SSBNs,SSNs and SSKs) will, in the next two decades or so, further consolidate its pre-eminent position in the Indian Ocean and be a force to reckon with in the Indo-Pacific.

(The author is Vice President and Head-Delhi branch, Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)

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