WHY NUCLEAR SUBMARINES
The recent tensions with China have once again brought into focus the need for India to maintain its primacy in the Indian Ocean while also improving and expanding the underwater arm of its naval fleet as an unassailable hedge against any naval adventurism by Beijing. The Indian Strategic Nuclear Submarine program is key to Indian deterrence and to the maintenance of Indian naval primacy as a guarantor of peace in the Indian Ocean Region. In recent years the development of nuclear weapons and the requirement of a triad of delivery systems has naturally given renewed impetus and additional responsibility to the Indian Navy as stewards and guides of the creation of a capable nuclear missile submarine force that will serve as an assured 2nd strike deterrent while sailing undetected in the deep waters that surround India. A nuclear submarine force also gives India the opportunity to conduct long range submarine expeditions into the Champa Sagar Area (South China Sea) in essence letting the Chinese know that their naval forays into the IOR can be matched by the Indian Navy.
The requirement of a nuclear submarine fleet is increased manifold by the fact that the Chinese Navy has a declared intention to challenge the primacy of the Indian Navy in the IOR, the reason for this challenge lies in the fact that the Indian Ocean carries the bulk of trade between East Asia and the Middle East, Europe ,Africa and it is worth noting that 95% of India’s own trade by volume is carried by vessels crisscrossing this ocean as well. The geography of the Indian Ocean forces the incredible volume of ships using this route to travel through “choke points” that force vessels into well-defined maritime highways while entering or leaving this great body of water. This in turn creates risk as well as opportunity for any nation that can control aforementioned passages.
The Indian Navy acts as a guarantor of trade in this Ocean and of the greater security of India by the ability to close off trade to China, if asked to do so in an India China conflict. Beijing has long planned to overcome this geographical impediment to its hegemony by establishing a series of naval outposts in the Indian Ocean to forward place naval assets that will act to stop the Indian Navy from impeding any flow of maritime shipping to and from China in Conflict. To further these plans China has built naval outposts in Djibouti and Gwadar and it is in the process of building a deep economic military relationship with Iran with some reports indicating China has secured a 25year lease on the Iranian Island of Kish1 with the view of building a major naval outpost at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which India gets almost all her Oil Supplies.
An Indian nuclear Submarine fleet is essential to undertake sustained undersea operations designed to frustrate and foil these plans. The development of this capability is now at a seminal stage with the first indigenous SSBN INS ARIHANT completing a decade of sailing with the Navy. A 2nd SSBN titled INS ARIGHAT should be commissioned later in 2020, this year should also see the first Submarine of an enlarged design carrying 8 launch tubes called the S4 class take to the water2. This article is designed to look into the past at the nascent steps that made this possible as India moves into a larger nuclear submarine capability.
THE EARLY YEARS
It’s interesting to note that even as the first nuclear submarines were just setting sail in the USA and USSR the planners in India were already worrying about the impact such a system could have on American Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean. That said nothing much came of this due to financial and technological constraints until 1971 when the role of Soviet nuclear Submarines in deterring a USN CBG from interference in the liberation of Bangladesh added new fuel on a nuclear fire long put away.
The first approval for a naval nuclear reactor was actually granted in 1971 soon after the “Enterprise Incident” and development of an indigenous nuclear submarine was well underway before India had even tested its first nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974. In fact, as far back as in 1968 Admiral A.K. Chatterji had laid out plans that if put into motion smoothly could have seen the first Indian SSN sail out in the late 80’s to early 90’s if support could be garnered3. That said no nation was ready to help India develop nuclear submarines during that time and up to 1983 the soviets themselves offered India nothing more than foxtrot class SSKs4 whenever the topic of support with submarine development came up. That rapidly changed as economic constraints forced the Soviet Union onto the table and India signed deals to acquire ten modern KILO class SSKs also there were reports by 1987 indicating that India would acquire on lease five Soviet nuclear submarines for a total cost of Rs3000cr5.
In early January 1988, All-India Radio announced that the Soviet Union had leased a nuclear-powered submarine to India with India taking delivery in the Soviet port of Vladivostok. These moves would be still born though, the collapse of the Soviet Union and near financial collapse of India itself in the late 80s to early 90s ending all hopes of an Indian Navy Nuclear flotilla sailing by the mid-nineties.
However, all was not lost and many key learnings had been imbibed in the few short years the Chakra-1 served with the Indian Navy. Even as the plan to develop an SSN force for the Indian navy had not run smoothly, this had highlighted the enormous technological and financial barriers for a developing country in acquiring and operating nuclear submarines. To begin with, the shore-based facilities needed for nuclear submarines are significantly more complex than those for conventional submarines because of the need for reactor maintenance. There was then no harbor facility in India capable of handling radioactive materials, and the submarine reactor for the INS Chakra had to be shut down when the vessel was in port. This caused India to build a Soviet-designed facility called the Special3 Chatterji was one influential voice arguing that the growing vulnerability of surface ships inevitably led to the development of submarines and air forces. Chatterji was also of the belief that India should seek to build nuclear-powered submarines by the late 1980.
This would be particularly so if along with a supply of power reactors, the Soviet Union also provided technical and design assistance to make Indian production of its own submarine reactors feasible. The lease of SSNs would give India early operating experience with such reactors. The lease arrangement may be a convenient way of guaranteeing return to the Soviet Union of the submarine reactor fuel. At the same time, other motives may be part of the appeal of this arrangement. The price that India is paying to lease these submarines is considerable (estimated Rs3,000 crores for 4 to 5 submarines).
STARTING TO GROW
Even as the Chakra returned to the USSR in 1991 western reports suggested that India had managedto induct a number of Russian specialists into its own indigenous nuclear submarine program6. The then editor of Jane’s fighting ships Richard Sharpe in 1995 noted that “The initial design strategy was to copy a leased Russian nuclear submarine (Charlie II) using an Indian built nuclear reactor for propulsion. The Russians are said to have provided detailed drawings of the leased submarine minus the reactor design 7 (providing reactor design details would have been a violation of the NPT)”
By 1996 parliamentary records indicate that India had already spent $285.7 million to develop a nuclear submarine. DRDO officials then estimated that the submarine would be completed in five years and would require an additional $714.3 million in financing to complete the project8. Even as success seemed near, official reports in early 1996 indicated the ATV project was reported to be frozen. That said it is worth noting In July of 1996 it was reported by Delhi All India Radio that India had successfully developed a nuclear-powered submarine for the navy. The report went on to say that the submarine named the Advanced Technology Vehicle had been tested successfully somewhere along the East coast in that same timeframe, however this was soon denied by the defense ministry at Delhi. Pressure from the United States and ASEAN9alongside financial problems facing the Indian navy were reported as the main reason for the freeze in 1996. It must be noted here that India had four different Prime ministers from three different political parties ruling the roost from January 1996 to March 1998 which derailed military development during this time.
In the midst of all this lower cost developmental work was carried out by the Indian Navy using existing assets, for example the acoustic tiles being developed for the ATV were trialled on existing Type 209 and KILO hulls10. The USHUS Sonar was similarly refined by having it installed into and used operationally on KILO submarines, reactor development work continued in parallel and by 1997 the first hull fabrication work had officially begun. It is worth noting that the initial metal cutting and designs were for a SSN and not a SSBN, this in turn necessitated a complete redesign as the requirement changed to that of a SSBN to support the nuclear triad following the tests of 1998. The Arihant class was subsequently designed and a first boat was laid down at the SBC Visakhapatnam in 2004, this initial design with four launch tubes was launched in 2009 and after seven years of rigorous trials finally joined the Indian Navy fleet in 2016, a 2nd submarine of the same design will be commissioned later in 2020 while the third boat of the modified Arihant class (S4) which has an extended design to incorporate 8 launch tubes should be launched later in 2020 as well. A fourth vessel of this S4 type is expected to be launched in 2021.
The Arihant and S4 classes are stepping stones to a larger and far more capable class of SSBN called the S5 currently under development. These submarines are expected to displace nearly 13500 tonnes while carrying 16 intercontinental range SLBMs with MIRV warheads. Up to four of the S5 class have been approved for construction and the first vessel should begin construction soon after the final S4 class SSBN has been commissioned by 2024. It is worth noting that a 1992 study authored by Brigadier Vijai K. Nair, VSM (Retired) called for the production of Five SSBNs as a minimum deterrence capability against both China and Pakistan with three SSBNs on patrol at all times and two on reserve. Brigadier Nair called for each SSBN to be armed with a minimum of 16 SLBMs, a capability the Indian Navy should finally have with the S5 class11.
A SSBN is only as useful as its missile component and India has at least three different Submarine launched Ballistic missiles in service and development. The K15 SLBM which currently serves as the primary armament for the INS ARIHANT is a short-legged missile with a 750-1000km range depending on the payload carried, that said the INS ARIHANT carries upto 12 K-15 in its four launch tubes with each tube holding three missiles as these tubes are already configured for larger SLBMs which remain in development. The INS ARIGHAT on being commissioned later in 2020 is likely to be the first SSBN to field the K4 missile, this missile has reportedly cleared all its trials in January 2020 and been cleared for induction 12. The K4 is a much heavier weapon than its predecessor and is reported to have the ability to carry a 2Ton payload for up to 3500km13, with lighter nuclear payloads that range is likely to be much greater. An even larger heavier Submarine launched missile called the K5 with 5000km range14 remains in development and should come into service as the SSBN fleet grows.
The Government of India in February 2015 approved the design and subsequent production of a class of six indigenous SSNs, a report in the Economic times dated February 2020 indicated that the preliminary design of this SSN class has been completed and detailed design studies are currently in progress. Apart from this India has already operationalized an ELF communications facility at INS Kattabomman Tamil Nadu. It is interesting to note this same facility housed a VLF facility set up using US support in the early 1980s. An additional ELF facility has been approved and is expected to come up at Donakonda in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh15. In June 2020 India also operationalized a deep submergence rescue vehicle complex at Vizag. This is the only such facility in the Indian Ocean Region, this complex is equipped with two James Fisher Deep Submergence rescue vehicles and is a key component in creating the infrastructure for sustained deep ocean Nuclear Submarine operations.
India is also ramping up on nuclear submarine base infrastructure in parallel with the first dedicated nuclear submarine base called INS Varsha coming up at Rambilli near Visakhapatnam. This base once complete by 2024 is likely to incorporate degaussing facilities while also having underground submarine pens cut into a mountain with direct access into the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal. This feature is likely designed with a Bastion model of SSBN deployment in mind with the Bay of Bengal serving as a deep-water bastion for the Indian Navy SSBN fleet. INS Varsha is likely to help decongest the Visakhapatnam naval base and could be used as a dedicated submarine base with Eastern command SSK assets also being based in the facility. Some reports in 2017 also indicated the construction of a new nuclear submarine production facility adjacent to the Rambilli base16. However, nothing much has been heard on that front post the initial reports. A similar massive Naval Base called INS Vajrakosh with up to 20 underground submarine pens has already been partially operationalized and commissioned at Karwar in Karnataka 17. This base once complete will spread across 1000acres and is slated to become the premier naval Facility for the western fleet of the Indian Navy.
In conclusion we can say that the Indian nuclear Submarine program is now one of the four largest and fastest growing nuclear submarine fleet construction programs in progress globally now. Once complete the already approved strength of 14 Indian nuclear submarines will be the fourth largest in the world after the USA, Russia and China. The Arihant is but the first of many, the harbinger of a nuclear age in the Indian Navy !
- In February 2020. Alef.ir, a news site affiliated with conservative parliamentarian Ahmad Tavakoli, quoted Hassan Norouzi, a parliamentary hardliner, announcing that he had written to Rouhani to explain why “Negotiations [have been] underway by the government to hand over Kish Island to the Chinese for 25 years.” https://www.aei.org/op-eds/chinas-next-military-move-a-base-in-the-persian-gulf/
- The next ships in the Arihant class, the S4 and S4* are expected to be launched in 2020 and 2022 respectively. But they have to undergo extensive live testing before they are commissioned and ready for operations. https://southasianvoices.org/second-strike-sea-based-deterrence-in-south-asia/
- Chatterji was one influential voice arguing that the growing vulnerability of surface ships inevitably led to the development of submarines and air forces. Chatterji was also of the belief that India should seek to build nuclear-powered submarines by the late 1980s. https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- In 1980 and 1982 the only submarines offered seem to have been refurbished Foxtrot Class. As a result, India began evaluating possible alternative conventionally powered submarines to replace the Foxtrot submarines in service. https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- By selling reactor technology to India, the Soviet Union may have wanted to get foothold in a strategically sensitive Indian domain. This would be particularly so if along with a supply of power reactors, the Soviet Union also provided technical and design assistance to make Indian production of its own submarine reactors feasible. The lease of SSNs would give India early operating experience with such reactors. The arrangement may be a convenient way of guaranteeing return to the Soviet Union of the submarine reactor fuel. At the same time, other motives may be part of the appeal of this arrangement. The price that India is paying to lease these submarines is considerable (estimated Rs 3,000 crores for 4 to 5 submarines). https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- DRDO is also reportedly seeking design assistance from former engineers and defense workers of the former Soviet Union. Several Russian naval engineers are reported to have been in India since 1991. https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- The initial strategy was to copy a leased Russian nuclear submarine (Charlie II) using an Indian built nuclear reactor for propulsion. The Russians are said to have provided detailed drawings of the leased submarine minus the reactor design (providing reactor design details would have been a violation of the NPT). https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- By mid-1996 India had already spent $285.7 million to develop a nuclear submarine. DRDO officials have estimated that the submarine will be completed in five years and will require an additional $714.3 million in financing to complete the project. https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- In early 1996 the ATV project was reported to be frozen. Pressure from the United States and financial problems facing the Indian navy were reported as the main reason for the freeze. As previously stated in the introduction it has been reported that ASEAN wants India to stop work on the ATV as a condition for entry into ASEAN and for India to be invited to future Asia-Europe summits. https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- India has been reported to be experimenting with the use of non-reflective tiles to reduce sonar returns. Experiments have been carried out on both Kilo and Type 209/2000 submarines using both coatings and tiles- https://fas.org/nuke/guide/india/sub/ssn/part01.htm
- For delivery, besides bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft, he recommended five SSBNs with sixteen SLBMs each, and 48 ballistic missiles—twelve SRBMs and 36 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/30/india-s-nuclear-force-structure-2025-pub-63988
- Officials said that after testing the 3,500km-range K-4 missile twice in one week, the weapon is now fully developed with fixed parameters and is ready to be inducted on INS Arihant class of nuclear submarines. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-plans-5-000-km-range-ballistic-missile/story-bystz09QSaHJwYvAtlbNeI.html
- It is 12-metre long with a diameter of 1.3 metre and weighs around 17 ton. It can carry a warhead weighing up to two ton and is powered by solid rocket propellant. The underwater missile was test fired in operational configuration for its full range of over 3,500 km- https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2020/jan/25/sub-launched-k-4-ready-for-induction
- The new K-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile is expected to have a strike range of between 5,000 to 6,000 kilometres which will match the AgniV. https://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php/news/defence-news/2020/february/8002-india-continues-to-develop-new-k-5-submarine-launched-ballistic-missile-slbm.html
- The Indian Navy is likely to set up an advanced system for communicating with its fleet of submarines, including those propelled by nuclear reactors, at Donakonda in Prakasam district. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/indian-navy-likely-to-set-up-submarine-communication-facility-in- prakasam/article32629214.
- Reliance Group will be investing Rs 5,000 crore in phases to set up a proposed state-of-the-art naval shipbuilding facility in Rambilli, near Visakhapatnam. https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/anil-ambanis-reliance-defence-to-set-up-rs- 5000-crore-naval-shipbuilding-facility/191619/
- Over 20 submarines in underground pens and 47 warships are slated to become the premier naval Facility for the western fleet of the Indian Navy. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/now-on-indias-west-coast-the-largest-naval-base-east-of-the-suez-canal-1215952
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