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India Launches First Nuclear Submarine
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Peter Crail and Eben Lindsey

India launched its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine July 26, paving the way for initiating the third leg of its planned nuclear “triad.” The vessel, named the Arihant (Destroyer of Enemies) is the first nuclear-powered submarine of any type that India has developed and constitutes the first undersea-based component of New Delhi’s nuclear delivery capabilities. India is only the sixth country to develop a nuclear-powered submarine after the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China.

India’s nuclear arsenal consists of up to 100 nuclear weapons, which can be delivered using aircraft and surface-based ballistic and cruise missiles. Placing such weapons aboard nuclear submarines, which can remain under water undetected for extended periods of time, is generally seen as the most effective way to protect them from attack and assure they can be used in response.

When asked by India’s NDTV August 3 if the Arihant would provide New Delhi with a “second strike” capability, Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), said, “[T]hat is the purpose of such a platform.”

India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine established a no-first-use policy of “retaliation only” and added that “the survivability of the arsenal is critical.” (See ACT, July/August 1999.)

Bharat Karnad, a member of the drafting group responsible for that document, has suggested that Indian ballistic missile submarines may have a more expansive role. In an Aug. 12 e-mail, he said such vessels would not only serve as a “survivable passive deterrent,” but also “for active deterrence and even preemption.”

Such submarines “are conceived as the cutting edge in a deterrent confrontation with China,” in the context of a long-term aim for “notional parity” with China in the quality and size of India’s nuclear arsenal, he said.

Indian officials, however, have been wary of publicly making a connection between India’s and China’s strategic capabilities. During an Aug. 11 speech on national security challenges, Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Sureesh Mehta stated, “[W]e have neither the capability nor the intention to match China, force for force,” in military capabilities.

Speaking at the July 26 launch ceremony, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasized that the launch was not intended as an aggressive act. India does not have “any aggressive designs, nor do we seek to threaten anyone,” he said. Outlining the rationale behind the vessel’s development, he said, “[I]t is incumbent upon us to take all measures necessary to safeguard our country and to keep pace with technological advancements worldwide.”

Pakistan did not appear to be convinced by Singh’s assurances. In a statement issued the day after the launch, Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Abdul Basit said that the introduction of new weapon systems into the region by India was detrimental to regional peace and security. “Pakistan will take appropriate steps to safeguard its security without entering an arms race,” he added.

Pakistan does not have a nuclear submarine but maintains a small fleet of diesel-electric attack submarines.

The launch of the 367-foot, 6,000-ton Arihant follows more than two decades of development under the secret Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) program, which New Delhi publicly revealed in 2007.

Beginning in the late 1980s, India received Russian assistance for that project, including the lease of a Charlie II-class nuclear submarine. Indian technicians maintain that Russia provided only consultation and that the miniature reactor technology key to the submarine’s development was homegrown. India’s Frontline magazine quoted former AEC Chairman M.R. Srinivasan in August as saying, “The naval personnel had some assistance from Russia in designing the submarine, but the reactor is a totally Indian effort.”

In spite of the public launch of the Arihant, key systems are not operational. In particular, the vessel is not equipped with its reactor. Noting the amount of work yet to be done to prepare the submarine for safe operation, former Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Arun Prakash told the Times of India July 26, “The big day will however come when the nuclear reactor attains criticality.”

Additionally, India has not yet completed development of the nuclear-capable missiles the Arihant-class vessels are intended to carry or the vertical launch tube system in the submarine itself. In a July 30 op-ed in the Indian daily Business Standard, retired Vice Adm. Premvir Das, former commander-in-chief of India’s Eastern Naval Command, said that the underwater launch system will not be operational “any time soon.”

“For the present, a few years are needed to prove the platform and its systems, first on the surface in harbor, then on the surface at sea, and finally, under water, progressively at increasing depths,” Das added.

Explaining the reason for launching the vessel without such systems, Karnad said, “the idea is to have these critical systems get on stream around the time the harbor trials and initial sea trials validate the basic design, buoyancy aspect, working of the diving planes, etc., so that induction into the fleet can follow soon thereafter.”

The missile system currently being developed for the submarine is reportedly a ballistic missile called the K-15 with a range of about 700 kilometers. India Today quoted retired Rear Adm. Raja Menon in January 2008 as stating that “one submarine carries at least 12 missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, which could mean as many as 96 warheads.”

According to Indian press reports, while the Arihant undergoes sea trials, its crews will train aboard the Akula II-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Nerpa, which Russia is expected to lease to India before the end of the year.

New Delhi is reportedly planning to produce two more nuclear submarines for the Indian navy using the ATV design.