Why INS Arihant’s First Deterrence Patrol Is Significant But Does Not Give India A Credible Deterrent At Sea

Why INS Arihant’s First Deterrence Patrol Is Significant But Does Not Give India A Credible Deterrent At SeaPrime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at an event with an image of INS Arihant, its clearest pictures, in the background. (@narendramodi/Twitter)
Snapshot
  • Why the first deterrence patrol of INS Arihant, India’s first SSBN, is a significant but only the first step towards a credible, continuous at sea deterrent.

In November last year, amid a chaotic campaign season for the elections in Gujarat, India’s nuclear submarine programme reached a major milestone. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman cracked a coconut on the fin of India’s second nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arighat, launching the boat in the drydock of the Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam in a low-profile, closed door ceremony, when a widely publicised one would have helped the government in the election season. Nearly a year later, on Monday, the government decided to break away with the tradition.

The event for which it did so — the completion of the first deterrence patrols of India’s first and only nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine (called SSBN) — is a defining moment not just for India’s nuclear submarine programme, but also the nuclear weapons programme. The change perfectly captures the significance of this development.

But why exactly is this development significant? Apart from the operationalisation of the triad — the capability to launch a nuclear weapon from land, air and water, which reduces the use-it-or-lose-it pressure on the Nuclear Command Authority, there are multiple other reasons why this is important.

One, the success of the deterrence patrol suggests India has overcome the command and control (C2) challenges of maintaining a submarine nuclear force. When deployed, submarines need to remain in touch with the command and control centre to receive the orders for launch if and when required. This becomes more critical in case of a nuclear armed submarine, like INS Arihant, which would need command from the Nuclear Command Authority to launch a nuclear-tipped missile. The nuclear chain of command, with the protocols, and physical and technical arrangements required for it, are likely to have been put to test during the patrol. Therefore, it has eliminated some questions around India’s C2 capabilities and its effectiveness.

But, among other things, the fact that the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, a key part of the nuclear command chain, serves on a part-time basis, while discharging his duty as the head of one of the three services, is problematic and needs reform.

Two, this also suggests a change (also reflected through the canisterisation of land-based nuclear-capable missiles) in India’s nuclear posture. India had, so far, chosen to keep its nuclear weapons and delivery systems (missiles) in de-mated state. However, in the case of a nuclear submarine, the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) which equip them, have to be mated with nuclear weapons. INS Arihant is likely to have carried the 750-kilometre range nuclear-armed K-15 (B-05) SLBM last test fired in August 2018.

However, the range of the K-15 is far below what is required. When patrolling in the Bay of Bengal, INS Arihant can’t strike population and industrial centres in China and Pakistan, which are at least 2,000 kilometres from the northern-most and the western-most edges of the water body, respectively. The next missile in the series – K-4 – will provide a solution. The missile, which reportedly has a range of 3,500 km, is currently under development and a test is scheduled for January 2018. This will be followed by tests of K-5 missile, a 5,000-km SLBM. Work on the fourth missile in this series – K-6 – began at DRDO's Hyderabad-based Advanced Naval Systems in February 2017. The missile is reported to have a range of over around 6,000 km.

And three, India has completed its first deterrence patrol five years after the nuclear reactor which powers INS Arihant went critical. In comparison, China, which launched its first SSBN over three decades ago, completed its first deterrence patrol only in December 2015. But India remains far from matching China’s capabilities, both in terms of numbers and experience. INS Arihant’s deterrence patrol lasted only around 20 days. In comparison, modern diesel-electric submarines can remain at sea for 30 to 40 days at a stretch. Beijing currently has four SSBNs and India is likely to reach the same number, by the most optimistic accounts, only by the end of the next decade.

The push to develop a fleet of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, monitored directly by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, has been making progress away from media glare. The effort, India’s costliest defence project at Rs 90,000 crore, is crucial to have a continuous at sea deterrent. And it has borne fruit in recent years. The second nuclear submarine, Arighat, is currently undergoing sea trials, expected to last three years, before induction into the navy. Two other SSBNs, still unnamed, will be launched by 2020 and 2022. The two boats will displace 1,000 tonnes more than the Arihant class, and will be equipped with eight ballistic missiles or twice the Arihant's missile load (the submarine can carry only 4 K-4 missiles or 12 K-15s). The design was tweaked a decade ago to make space for additional missiles after the then finance minister, P Chidambaram, questioned the utility of having just four nuclear-tipped missiles on a boat ‘worth billions’.

It doesn't end here. On 1 December last year, Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba revealed that a Rs 60,000 crore project to build six indigenous nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) had been kicked off by the navy. SSNs are conventionally armed submarines powered by nuclear reactors. Unlike the SSBNs, these boats do not carry nuclear-tipped missiles. Design work for the submarines, displacing around 6,000 tonnes, is currently underway at the submarine design centre in Gurgaon.

The navy is also working on a new series of 13,500-tonne ballistic missile submarines. These boats will be capable of carrying 12 nuclear-tipped missiles, compared to four K-4 which INS Arihant is capable of carrying.

India is, therefore, working on three different nuclear submarine projects. The induction of these submarines will further strengthen India’s nuclear triad by shaping it in terms of the numbers. Operating the fleet, though, will remain a challenge. A case in point is the accident which left INS Arihant crippled, forcing it to remain non-operational at the time of the Doklam stand-off due to damage.

To sum up, INS Arihant’s deterrence patrol is only the first step in what promises to be a long and onerous process for India of maintaining a credible deterrent at sea. It has critical gaps to fill in the sea-leg of its nuclear triad.

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