Going nuclear at sea

Launch of ‘INS Arihant’ is only the first step in what promises to be a long and onerous process for the navy.

Written by Iskander Rehman | Updated: March 19, 2015 6:01 am
As India’s nuclear submarine fleet gradually grows in size and importance, the challenge will be to ensure that the navy’sp new nuclear role develops alongside, rather than to the detriment of, its conventional missions. As India’s nuclear submarine fleet gradually grows in size and importance, the challenge will be to ensure that the navy’sp new nuclear role develops alongside, rather than to the detriment of, its conventional missions.

Almost six years ago, in Visakhapatnam, Gursharan Kaur, wife of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cracked a coconut on the hull of India’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). Subsequently named the INS Arihant or “destroyer of enemies”, the vessel was the result of decades of efforts by India’s nuclear scientists. For many years, bureaucratic languor, technical challenges and chronic difficulties in nuclear reactor miniaturisation appeared to ensure that progress would be painstakingly slow. Indeed, at one stage, it became unclear whether the project would see the light of day.

In August 2013, when the Arihant’s nuclear reactor finally went critical, the event was thus widely hailed, both in India and abroad, as a major technological and symbolic milestone. Currently undergoing sea trials, the Arihant is destined to be the first vessel in a flotilla of up to five indigenously produced SSBNs, and it has been reported that a sister vessel, the INS Aridhaman, is nearing completion. Since the Pokhran-II series of nuclear tests in 1998, the Indian government has repeatedly iterated its desire to attain a credible minimum nuclear deterrent, structured around what nuclear strategists refer to as a triad, that is, a mixture of aircraft, land-based mobile missiles and naval assets. India’s nuclear doctrine states that it is a no-first-use power, and it is in this light that one must view the importance attached to the sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent.

Indeed, the survivability and overall resiliency of India’s nuclear arsenal has become a growing concern for military planners in New Delhi, particularly as Beijing continues to make rapid advances in missile, space and cyber technology. Nuclear submarines, provided they are sufficiently quiet, are still considered to be the most survivable of nuclear platforms, due to their mobility and discretion. Placing nuclear assets underwater puts them at a safer distance from a crippling first strike. The development of the Arihant and its successors therefore constitutes the next logical step in Delhi’s quest for an assured retaliatory capability.

It is important to note, however, that while the launch of India’s first indigenous SSBN constitutes a great accomplishment, it is also only the first step in what promises to be a long and onerous process. India’s naval nuclear journey has only just begun.

(Illustration by: C R Sasikumar) (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

Going forward, the Indian navy will face three sets of nuclear challenges. The first set is in the technological domain, as the navy struggles to acquire the capability for continuous at-sea deterrence. The second set of difficulties will need to be addressed within the navy itself, as its officers begin to grapple with the importance of their service’s new nuclear role. Finally, Indian naval planners will also have to contend with their Pakistani counterparts’ development of what can best be described as a “naval nuclear force-in-being”.

When the Arihant is finally commissioned, it will be fitted with 12 Sagarika K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The Sagarika, however, only has a strike radius of about 750 to 800 km, which many analysts rightly consider inadequate. Indeed, with such a short range, the Arihant could not reach Islamabad, let alone China’s strategic centres. The DRDO is currently working on two longer-range SLBMs: the 3,500-km range K-4, which recently underwent a successful test launch from an underwater pontoon, and the 5,000-km range K-5, which is still in the design phase. According to sources, the Arihant is fitted with four universal tube launchers, which can each carry either three K-15 missiles or one K-4 missile. Observers have raised questions, however, over the compatibility of the K-4’s height with the submarine’s 10.4-m hull. If the length of the K-4 cannot be shortened, the Arihant may need to be retrofitted with a hydrodynamic outer development, or “bump.” Even if the DRDO’s engineers do succeed in squeezing the K-4 aboard, the missile’s range remains somewhat unsatisfactory. It would require India’s nuclear submariners to operate on the northeastern fringes of the Bay of Bengal in order to effectively target China’s major metropolises, rather than within the more sanitised waters abutting India’s eastern seaboard. The K-5 is rumoured to stand at a height of about 12 m, which rules out its deployment aboard the Arihant. The second major technological limitation is that of the Arihant’s nuclear reactor. Reportedly based on first- or second-generation Soviet technology, the 83-megawatt pressurised water reactor has a short refuelling cycle, thus limiting the length of the Arihant’s deterrent patrols.

In short, in order to enjoy an effective sea-based deterrent with regard to China, India will need to deploy larger SSBNs with greater missile carriage capacity and more powerful nuclear reactors. The fourth planned submarine in the series is projected to possess such characteristics, but it may take more than a decade for it to be successfully developed and launched, and even longer for it to be commissioned. While India’s submarine fleet has been taking shape, Delhi has also conducted a series of test firings, starting in 2000, of Dhanush-class short-range ballistic missiles from surface ships. For the time being, however, it appears that the Dhanush programme is merely a stopgap measure until the SSBN fleet comes into full fruition.

Second, history has shown that all newly nuclear navies face some difficult tradeoffs. As India’s SSBN fleet gradually grows in size and importance, the challenge will be to ensure that the navy’s new nuclear role develops alongside, rather than to the detriment of, its conventional missions. As in all nuclear navies, a debate will no doubt unfold within the service as to how many resources and platforms should be devoted to the ballistic missile submarine fleet’s protection. Tough decisions may need to be made, particularly if India’s underwater environment becomes more contested. India’s nuclear command and control procedures will also almost certainly undergo a revision, as the SLBMs will be canisterised and ready for launch, rather than de-mated.

Finally, India’s naval and nuclear planners will also have to contend with the progressive materialisation of a nuclearised Pakistani navy — albeit one with much less orthodox characteristics and undergirded by a very different nuclear posture. Indeed, Islamabad aims to eventually disperse nuclear-tipped cruise missiles across a variety of naval platforms, ranging from surface ships in the short term to conventional diesel-electric submarines in the long term. Unlike India, Pakistan’s naval nuclear ambitions are fuelled primarily by the sense of a growing conventional imbalance in the maritime domain. By nuclearising — or by appearing to nuclearise — a large portion of their fleet architecture, Pakistani military planners hope to neuter India’s growing naval power, inject ambiguity and acquire escalation dominance in the event of a limited conflict at sea. Since Independence, Indian naval officers have been accustomed to operating within a purely conventional maritime setting. Dealing with such a prospective adversary will no doubt necessitate a fundamental rethinking of the navy’s operational concepts. Perhaps more importantly, it will also require an effort on the part of both countries to further institutionalise the maritime component of their relations so as to ensure that in future, isolated incidents don’t spiral out of control.

The writer, a nonresident fellow in the South Asia Programme at the Atlantic Council, is author of the report ‘Murky Waters: Naval Nuclear Dynamics in the Indian Ocean’.