On 5 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted a series of tweets about India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) having completed her maiden deterrence patrol. Project 932 –studies and projects to understand the feasibility of building nuclear submarines— was initiated in the 1970s by India, and later became the ATV (Advanced Technology Vessel project). I met the few members of this Project 932 team in 1982, when undergoing basic training under Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) scientists for our deputation to Vladivostok, then USSR, for training on a nuclear submarine.
My 30 months in Vladivostok, along with another 160-odd submariners, exposed us to the task of mastering nuclear physics, reactor physics, radiation safety and, of course, a year of sea training on the anti-ship cruise missile-firing Charlie class (Project 670) submarine, which was later leased to the Indian Navy on 5 January 1988 for three years, as INS Chakra (not to be confused with the Russian Akula class Project 971 SSN, also named INS Chakra, which was commissioned into the Indian Navy in 2012, and is currently serving on a 10-year lease).
The 30-month (1983-86) nuclear submarine training in freezing Vladivostok, where winter temperatures dropped to -32 degrees centigrade, was invaluable as it laid the foundation for India’s nuclear submarine force.
The lessons learnt from the training in Soviet Russia and operating INS Chakra in India (1988-91) were put into good use by the ATV project, which involved BARC (for the reactor), numerous private companies to make the parts (pumps, pipes, cables, hydraulics etc.), PSUs (to make propulsion turbine, generators), Larsen & Toubro to fabricate hull sections. All of these were transported and assembled in a new submarine building run by the Indian Navy. It was launched in June 2009 by Gursharan Kaur, wife of former PM Manmohan Singh.
The submarine underwent ‘fitting out’, the reactor was then made critical followed by extensive harbour trials and she finally commenced sea trials end 2014. INS Arihant completed her maiden deterrence patrol Monday. It means that the INS Arihant is fully ready for her role as a strategic deterrent. This entire process, from steel cutting in 1998 to completion of deterrence patrol, took about 20 years. It is expected that the next lot of nuclear submarines will drastically reduce this time based on the experience gained.
Three more SSBNs are reported to be under construction and should join the fleet in a decade. Four SSBNs are needed—one at sea for 2-3 months, another one in port getting ready, while the third and fourth undergo short and long-duration repairs.
The Arihant is reported to embark a 750 km-range nuclear-tipped SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), while another SLBM with a range of 3,500 km has been undergoing sea trials and should be ready soon. China has 5 SSBNs, each capable of launching twelve JL-2 SLBMs (in the first two SSBNs) and 16 JL-2 SLBMs, each having a range of 7,000 km, and is expected to carry multiple nuclear warheads (so that a single SLBM can hit up to 3-5 targets). American, Russian, French and UK have SLBMs with ranges of 10,000 km.
Clearly, the 6,000-tonne INS Arihant and her 3 follow-ons (which may be slightly larger as per media reports) are insufficient to deter both Pakistan and China simultaneously. An SSBN operating in the northern Bay of Bengal would be 2,500 km from Pakistan and 3,600 km from Beijing. However, to retain its stealth and avoid detection, an SSBN needs to operate from a larger sea area, and hence would need SLBMs with far greater range than what Arihant and her successors will possess.
Press reports do indicate that a much larger SSBN (12,000-13,000 tonne) with SLBMs having ranges of 5000-7000 km are in the pipeline. In addition to the 4 large SSBNs, India will need a force of 6 to 8 tactical attack nuclear submarines (SSNs) to track Chinese and Pakistani subs and warships prowling the Indian Ocean and also to patrol the distant waters of the western Pacific Ocean.
This is not reflected in the Indian Navy share of the defence budget, which is at an all-time low of about 12 per cent (the defence budget, also in terms of GDP, is the lowest since the disastrous 1962 India-China war). A lot still needs to be done after INS Arihant has completed her first deterrence patrol. China has realised the importance of undersea warfare and is producing one SSBN or SSN every year, in addition to three conventional subs annually and has invested heavily in unmanned subs. It’s not the time to pop the champagne bottle yet. India has a long way to go, though the INS Arihant deterrence patrol is a significant milestone.