India is the first and the only country to operate leased nuclear submarines. It is because a nuclear submarine cannot be sold to another country as it will kick in various conventions and treaties of the nuclear world.
By Joseph P Chacko,
The recent announcement of the AUKUS Treaty on September 15, 2021, between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has brought the subject of nuclear submarines in Asia to the limelight. If grapevine has to be believed, Australia will initially get a few older nuclear boats followed by the construction of eight newer ones. It could involve the outright sale of the nuclear boats by the US to Australia, and the AUKUS pack countries have approached IAEA for the same. If not, these boats could be leased to Australia following the India – Russia format.
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India is the first and the only country to operate leased nuclear submarines. It is because a nuclear submarine cannot be sold to another country as it will kick in various conventions and treaties of the nuclear world. Coinciding with the AUKUS event, a book, ‘S71 INS Chakra – The Pioneer and her men’ by veteran submariner Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd), has been released on the first nuclear boat that India took on a lease from the USSR.
India is historically shy of discussing the ‘N’ word. Couple it with the secretive submarine arm and its tight-lipped personnel; we may not have ever known the nuclear submarine history of the Indian Navy. The first book on the subject ‘Under three flags -The Saga of the submarine Cruiser K-43/Chakra,’ written by a former Russian Naval officer and the captain of the boat, Alexander IvanovichTerenov, recounts his side of the story as the Commanding officer of the SSGN K-43. This book was limited in quantity, and fortunately, I have a copy personally signed by the author.
More about the author of the book
I first came into contact with Cmde Arun Kumar while I was writing the first-ever history of the Indian Navy’s submarine arm titled ‘Foxtrot to Arihant – The story of Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm’. With his credentials, he was the right person to consult for the book. Cmde Arun Kumar graduated from the National Defence Academy in Dec 1971 and joined the Submarine arm in 1975 to serve the arm for the next 28 years. He has served and commanded all classes of conventional boats and assumed duties as the commander of the submarine base INS Virbahu, Submarine School, INS Satavahana and as COMSUB East Commanded the 8th and 11th submarine Squadrons as also the 10th Submarine Squadron as Capt SM. Cmde Arun Kukar played a key role in the growth of the arm as ‘The Principal Director of Submarine Acquisition’ in steering the 30 year SM building Plan at NHQ in his last appointment. During his final tenure, he steered the Scorpene Submarine contract and mid-life upgrades of other conventional submarines. The icing on the cake is that he was closely associated with the first nuclear Submarine S71 INS Chakra. He was part of the Commissioning and Decommissioning crew of Chakra as the First Lt and Executive Officer, respectively.
The book – S71 INS Chakra – The Pioneer and her men
Logically, this book is the first-hand account of the first nuclear-powered submarine of the Indian Navy, the Charlie class SSGN, leased from the USSR for three years, and of course, the Indian version of the story.
In the book, Cmde Arun Kumar writes about the lease of the SSGN that enabled the Indian Navy to base, maintain and operate nuclear-powered submarines. The lease facilitated the development of design for the indigenous construction of nuclear submarines. The experience also created an ecosystem for radiation monitoring, safety services and waste management.
The second aspect is the training of the crew in Vladivostok from 1983 – 1986, which is detailed in Part 1 of the book.
The third aspect was the commissioning in Jan 1988 and exploitation of the boat in India till its return to the USSR in Jan 1991, which is covered in Part 2.
One of the criticisms is the lack of information on the operational part of the nuclear submarine. But such information is detrimental to the safety and future operation of submarines by India. In addition, the book has gone through the scissors of naval intelligence, which is mandatory as per the service rules.
Available as a hardbound coffee table book in India and paperback worldwide, the pricey book debunks many falsehoods on the lease floated by the so-called experts, especially the anti-proliferation websites, contents of which has been repeated in most write-ups later.
Cmde Arun Kumar explained that education is key to dispelling myths, referring to falsehoods, during my interaction with him. The book covers the extent of access to the nuclear reactor in the submarine for the Indian personnel, the role of the Soviet crew, the accidents and the repairs, which have been the key points of contention with the analysts. Much of the criticism which appeared in the Western media was borne out of misinformation and deliberate distortion as they could not stomach a “3rd world country’s” Navy operating a nuclear-powered boat. The radiation safety and monitoring standards were very much in line with International Standards. The data on the boat’s performance during her lease period debunks the criticism of the Western media.
The Command and Control of the boat, in its entirety, including the access and operation of the reactor and associated systems, during the entire period of the lease, was vested in the Indian Navy and the crew. The presence of a few Soviet specialists on board was only to meet the legal requirements of the ‘Lessor’. The Soviet crew was not on board during the lease, and they were termed ‘Specialists’.
Other former submarine and Chakra officers who have contributed to the book are the boat’s first captain RN Ganesh, VADM SV Bhokare, who recently retired as the Inspector General Nuclear Safety Integrated Headquarters; CMDE Samuel Daniel; the Russian Captain AI Terenov; RADM SC Anand and RADM RK Sharma (both are Captains of Chakra, RK Sharma the last captain); and CMDE PG George and CMDE Mukesh Bhargava (on Special Safety Services and Berthing Facilities for Chakra). A chapter on the indigenous training for replacement crew which was on board in the third ops cycle has been contributed by Cdr. KG Prasad (R) who was the Torpedo Officer in that period.
In addition to the Chakra crew, the book is dedicated to Cdr MP Bopaiya and to a very dynamic and efficient senior sailor, and the ‘Coxswain’ designate MCPO I, Gaj Raj Singh Nears, for their respective roles during the training and commissioning of the submarine in the USSR. Cdr. Bopaiya was the XO of the detachment during training in the Soviet Union.
The book will keep history alive for future generations. I hope more reclusive submariners will come forward and document their side of the narrative.
(The book reviewer is a publisher, columnist and author. He writes on defence and strategic affairs and occasionally other topics. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).