India’s announcement of a maritime nuclear strike capability Monday comes in the midst of increasing submarine activity in its neighbourhood.
The INS Arihant, nuclear-powered and able to launch nuclear missiles, has just returned from its first deterrence patrol — a Cold War-era practice where nuclear-armed submarines are deployed in waters from where they can fire on the adversary if attacked.
Since the Chinese deployment of a nuclear submarine in 2013 for so-called ‘anti-piracy missions’ off the east coast of Africa, there has been a firming of belief in New Delhi that development of the ‘nuclear triad’ — a stated policy for more than 30 years — must be treated with urgency.
Like India, China also professes a ‘no first strike’ policy in its nuclear doctrine. It believes that its maritime capability to launch nuclear weapons complements its variants of land-based road and rail-launched strategic missiles.
Chinese and Pakistani capability ::
Despite Monday’s announcement, Indian naval capabilities fall short of Chinese asset-building in terms of numbers. Yet, China’s vulnerability is that most of its energy (oil) supplies have to traverse busy sea lanes of communication close to India from West Asia and Africa.
India is also keeping a close eye on China’s support to the Pakistan Navy. There are reports that China has offered to build eight submarines, in addition to assisting in the naval facility at Gwadar, and the activity over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The Pakistan Navy is estimated to have about 10 submarines, of which five French-origin Agosta 90B class (Khalid class) conventional boats are assessed by Indian Navy sources to be fully operational.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is estimated to have four Jin-class SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines) plus nine SSNs (nuclear-powered submarines).
It is estimated to be maintaining a fleet of 40-plus diesel-electric submarines. However, it is beset with maintenance issues and many of the boats have to be docked months for overhauls, according to a think-tank study.
India has 14 conventional submarines, half-a-dozen of which are now going through upgrades of different kinds. Plus, it has the INS Chakra SSN on a 10-year lease from Russia, and now the Arihant. At least two more of the Arihant class are in the works.
But India’s progress on long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) is a secret, with little or no information put out officially. A variant of the Sagarika missile that arms the Arihant is estimated to have a range of 750 km. The Chinese JL-2 missiles that arm its Jin-class SSBNs are said to have a range upwards of 4,000 miles (over 6,400 kms).
In addition, India is building a new base on the east coast, called Project Varsha, which will harbour its strategic boats in pens in a hillside about 50 km south of the Eastern Naval Command headquarters in Visakhapatnam.
Far short of traditional powers ::
In terms of sheer numbers, the Asian powers are far behind the US in sustaining a large fleet of submarines — both ‘boomers’ (as SSBNs are called) and SSNs.
The US is estimated to be maintaining 14 ‘boomers’, Russia 12, and the UK and France four each. Different estimates put China’s number of SSBNs between four and seven.
All navies maintain a shroud of secrecy on their submarine fleet, especially around the nuclear boats. The numbers are approximate and collated from different studies by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre on Global Policy and the Federation of American Scientists.
In addition, the US is estimated to have 60-odd SSNs, Russia 33 and the UK 11.