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INS Arihant is a strategic asset but has little utility for India in conventional conflict

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Modi govt’s self-complimentary message on INS Arihant does not obscure the fact that the submarine alone isn’t enough.

On 5 November, India announced that its Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear Submarine (SSBN), the INS Arihant, had completed its first deterrent patrol. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “India’s pride, nuclear submarine INS Arihant successfully completed its first deterrence patrol!” marking the first official acknowledgement by New Delhi of a sea-based nuclear deterrent.

This is, to begin, a commendable achievement. It was in the early 1980s that Indian engineers and scientists first began research and development on a reactor for a nuclear submarine. The Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) was planned to be a technology demonstrator — an indigenous undertaking in which Indian planners would have little help, except from Russia that provided the nuclear reactor design. Yet, a lesser known fact is that even before it was developed as India’s first SSBN, the Arihant was planned to be a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN). Needless to say, its journey so far has been a remarkable one.

From a strategic standpoint, two aspects about the Arihant’s first deterrent patrol are noteworthy. First, it moves the nation a step closer to actualising the ‘triad’. The sea-based leg of the triad is its most survivable constituent. Unlike land and air components that could be destroyed in a first strike by the adversary, the sea-leg is relatively secure. Submerged in the depths of the ocean, submarines cannot be easily targeted by adversaries. With its nuclear propulsion and ballistic missiles ready for launch on orders from the national command authority, the SSBN represents the most credible form of deterrence. Given its invulnerability in nuclear conflict, it is regarded as the most reliable instrument of ‘assured retaliation’, vital for a country like India with an avowed policy of ‘no-first-use’ of nuclear weapons.

Second, the sea-based leg of the triad is the hardest to operationalise, not just organisationally and financially — given the huge investment needed to deliver the SSBN — but also in terms of validating command, control, and communications procedures, critical in the launching of nuclear weapons. A deterrent patrol indicates the crew is proficient in operating the submarine’s complex systems, and that important standard operating procedures have been validated, especially those related to communications with the command authority.

Importantly, there is also in India’s case a political dimension to SSBN operations. Prime Minister Modi’s speech at a ceremony meant to mark the Arihant’s return from its deterrence patrol was replete with political references. Mr Modi’s allusion to nuclear blackmail in the neighbourhood suggested an eagerness to leverage a military milestone to project strong political leadership.

The self-complementary tenor of messaging, however, does not obscure the reality that India’s sea-based leg is still some distance away from turning credible. The Indian navy would need at least three boats in the Arihant class to ensure at least one is on patrol at any given time. Moreover, the 750 kms weapon range of the K-15 missile on India’s SSBN isn’t enough to target Pakistan and China. New Delhi will have to wait for the installation of the K-4 missile (3,500 kms range) on the Arihant, and the induction of the bigger, more capable platforms (S-3, S-4 and S-5) to be able to claim credible deterrence. Already there is speculation that there may have been no nuclear weapons onboard Arihant during the deterrent patrol. With India’s nuclear warheads firmly in the custody of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) scientists, many observers remain unconvinced the former were mated with missiles before start of the deterrent patrol.


Also read: INS Arihant may be ready, but India shouldn’t pop the champagne bottle yet


Whatever the truth about the Arihant’s recent mission, the fact is that India’s SSBN program is pressurising Pakistan into nuclearising its conventional undersea fleet. Earlier this year, the Pakistan navy tested the Babur-3, a nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM), possibly intended for installation on the Agosta 90 B (Khalid class) submarines. Indian analysts worry that the presence of dual-use systems on Pakistani war-fighting platforms blurs the line between conventional and nuclear war, leading to greater strategic ambiguity at sea, and an increased possibility of miscalculation. If that weren’t enough, Islamabad’s cosy nuclear nexus with Beijing has further complicated the strategic balance in littoral-South Asia.

Yet, the dominant driver of India’s SSBN plans appears to be China’s expanding inventory of nuclear submarines. The PLAN has operationalised the Jin class (Type 94) with the JL-2 (7,400 kms range) missile, with the submarine reportedly completing its first deterrent patrol in 2015. Beijing also has a fleet of Shang class (Type 93) SSNs, regularly deployed in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Even so, China remains secretive about its SSBN development. Very little is known about the Jin, other than that some are positioned the South China Sea Fleet. Beijing, however, doesn’t seem overly concerned about India’s growing nuclear arsenal, choosing only to occasionally chide New Delhi for treating China like an adversary.

Going forward, there are challenges for Indian planners to contend with. The first is to develop procedures for a system of both positive and negative controls over the undersea deterrent. Traditionally, nuclear command and control on SSBNs is exercised through a system of negative control, usually through de-mated missile systems and permissive action links (PAL) — a device attached to a nuclear weapon system that precludes arming and launching without the insertion of a prescribed electronic discrete code or combination from the command authority. If the Arihant’s cannisterised missiles during the recent patrol had pre-mated warheads (as media reports suggest), it indicates a move towards positive control, devolving authority to the submarine’s captain to launch missiles upon clearance by the command authority. The problem for Indian planners is that SSBNs communicate on very low frequency systems and are limited in the kind of messages they can receive. With signal reception at great depths being highly irregular, there is a need for positive and negative controls to be finely balanced.

Indian security planners must also decide if they need a continuous at sea deterrent or a system of ‘bastion control’ wherein the SSBN with long-range missiles is deployed in heavily defended home-waters. The former is the more favoured option but requires considerable investment in airborne systems necessary for ensuring unbroken communication in deep waters. It is also the more risky preference as it involves operating in the adversary’s littorals, especially if missile ranges are limited. Most importantly, SSBNs require refueling every few years, and a fleet of SSNs for protection during transit to the mission area. In effect, until India does not add a few more ballistic missile and attack submarines to the arsenal, deterrence is unlikely to be deemed credible.


Also read: INS Arihant is welcome, but India is far short of Chinese nuclear submarine capability


Amidst the celebrations following the Arihant’s first patrolling mission, it is ironical that the Indian navy’s tactical war fighting fleet of diesel-electric submarines continues to languish. The Project 75 Scorpene class submarines are almost six years behind schedule and the follow on Project 75-I is yet to take off. It’s worth pointing out that as useful a strategic asset as the Arihant is, it has little utility in a conventional conflict.

Unfortunately, Indian policy makers who frequently extol India’s SSBN capability, pay little attention to the crisis of numbers in India’s war fighting undersea fleet.

The author is a former navy officer and heads the maritime policy initiative at ORF.

This article was originally published on orfonline.org.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. It has been designed to avoid nuclear conflict. Saying that it has little role in conventional conflict is like saying that tanks have little role in fighting with few terrorist.

  2. Coming from a former naval officer, the ignorance is appalling. While a civilian journo could be excused, the lack of knowledge in basic tenets such as there being no connection between sea based nuclear deterrence and convetional submarines, is appalling to say the least. Please brush up on your basics to avoid being such an embarrassment.

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