India’s nuclear submarine dream, still miles to go
The unveiling of India’s top secret nuclear-powered submarine, three decades after it was conceived, has been greeted with much tub-thumping.
Even for a nation hungry for success and even more than that, global recognition, some of the adulation seems excessive and perhaps premature as many are starting to point out.
INS Arihant, or destroyer of enemies, has just made contact with water, as it were, with the navy flooding the dry dock at last weekend’s launch in the southern port city of Visakhapatnam. It has to be tested in the harbour, then out at sea. The nuclear reactor, the heart of the new technology, has yet to be fitted. Perhaps a bigger moment will be when that reactor goes critical.
“The Arihant is far from reaching operational status, as it currently is little more than floating hull,” as this piece in defence professionals says.
To say that the launch by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh completes the third element in India’s nuclear triad based on missiles, aircraft and underwater strike capability is jumping several years ahead.
As former navy commander Premvir Das notes, an underwater vertical launch system is about the most sophisticated and complex weapons and it is not going to happen any time soon.
Das is worth quoting just to put things in perspective. “For the present, a few years are needed to prove the platform and its systems, first on the surface in harbour, then on the surface at sea and finally, under water, progressively at increasing depths. All along there will be need for corrections and modifications.”
What is significant about the launch is perhaps the announcement itself. For years New Delhi has refused to confirm the existence of the Advanced Technology Vessel project, although anyone who covered the defence ministry got to know about it, sooner or later.
Part of the reluctance was because of the stiff sanctions on import of technology that were already in place because of the nuclear programme. And it really made little sense to show off a project as cutting edge as this, when you are already blacklisted.
Some of that has changed, with the India-U.S. nuclear deal that virtually recognises India’s nuclear weapons programme. Is that why the project has been unveiled? Or is New Delhi making a declaration of intent, to raise the game in the Indian Ocean as China begins to extend its reach there.
“What is significant about the launch is that now India has publicly acknowledged its quest to acquire a nuclear submarine and has shown it has the ability to design and build such a platform,” Uday Bhaskar, a former naval commander and now head of the National Maritime Foundation, is quoted as saying in defence professionals.
To be sure the ability to build a nuclear submarine that allows you to remain underwater for long periods and hence travel great distances is a game-changer for any military. For a nation committed to no-first use of nuclear weapons this allows you to disperse your nuclear weapons deep at sea.
As foreign affairs expert C. Raja Mohan notes here ; “Building a submarine is one of the more complex arts. Powering it with an atomic reactor and arming it with nuclear tipped missile that can be launched from underwater is the acme of modern industrial skill.”
Only five nations — the U.S., Russia, France, Britain and China — have mastered the technology so far. India took a small step last weekend,.
(Photograph of a an old Russian aircraft carrier that was bought by India and Indian military exercises)