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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
India Test-Launches Submarine Missile
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Wade Boese

India took a recent step toward its longtime goal of deploying nuclear weapons at sea by test-firing a missile from beneath the ocean’s surface. The submarine that this missile type is supposed to arm is scheduled to be put to sea for the first time next year.

 Official details about the Feb. 26 missile test are scant, and the Indian government did not respond to Arms Control Today inquiries requesting information. India’s media, however, reported on the event at length, albeit with some conflicting data.

In addition, the Pakistani government confirmed March 5 that it had been “duly informed” of the test in advance by India. The two rivals agreed in October 2005 to give each other prior notice of their surface-to-surface ballistic missile flight tests. (See ACT, November 2005. ) That notification suggests that the missile tested was a ballistic missile and not a cruise missile as some reports stated. A cruise missile is powered through its entire flight and can maneuver, unlike a ballistic missile, which is only powered during the early stages of its flight and then follows a trajectory dictated by gravity to its target.

The missile India fired from a submersible platform about 50 meters deep in the Bay of Bengal waters was most frequently cited as the K-15. Some reports also called it the Sagarika, which is a missile that two years ago India’s defense minister told lawmakers did not exist.

All reports generally agree that the tested missile can fly approximately 700 kilometers and carry a nuclear warhead. Most reports also declare the experiment was the missile’s inaugural undersea launch. Agence France-Presse Feb. 18 quoted S. Prahlada, a top official of India’s Defence Research and Development Organization, as telling reporters, “[W]e have completed all preparations for the first-ever launch of the missile.” But some reports indicated the missile may have been previously tested secretly, perhaps several times.

Rajesh Basrur, author of the book Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security, told Arms Control Today in a March 20 e-mail that the previously reported tests were “component tests” and “the recent one was the first ‘undersea’ trial.” He added, “[T]hat would partly explain the publicity given to it.”

Another expert on Indian nuclear weapons, Bharat Karnad, also e-mailed Arms Control Today March 23 that the February launch was a “full-system test.” Formerly a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board and a participant in crafting India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine (see ACT, July/August 1999 ), Karnad contended the launch was a success but “some kinks appeared thereafter in [the missile’s] flight which need ironing out.”

India has at least a few years to try and perfect the missile. Sureesh Mehta, India’s top naval official, disclosed last December that the first Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) would be ready for sea trials in 2009. If the trials go well, it could be inducted into service two or three years later.

Largely kept secret, the ATV would be India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine and India’s first submarine able to fire nuclear-armed missiles. India reportedly is building three of the boats. It began developing nuclear power submarines in the 1970s, but their development was delayed by troubles in building a power reactor small enough to fit onboard.

India’s interest in nuclear-armed submarines has been no secret. The 1999 draft nuclear doctrine endorsed a sea-based nuclear delivery capability. In its May 2006 “vision document,” the Indian navy stated its intent to conduct operations from “conventional war fighting to nuclear deterrence.”

Basrur and Karnad stated that India wants nuclear-armed submarines due to the notion that they are more “invulnerable” than air or ground systems. The thinking is that such arms more persuasively dissuade an adversary that, in a first strike, it will be able to minimize or eliminate the possibility of retaliation. India claims it particularly needs survivable forces because it has forsworn the first use of nuclear weapons. Basrur disagrees, contending that submarine-delivered nuclear weapons invite instability by increasing “risk precisely because they are hard to detect…thereby reducing reaction time and encouraging early warning and launch.” 

Admiral Muhammad Afzal Tahir, chief of Pakistan’s naval staff, reacted to the Indian test by reportedly calling it a “very serious issue” and warning it could provoke “a new arms race in the region.” In a lengthy interview several months ago with Asian Defence Journal, however, Tahir discounted the possibility that Pakistan would pursue a sea-based nuclear force, stating, “[P]resently, we do not have [the] technological capability and we cannot afford it.”

Other countries with nuclear-armed submarine missiles are China, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France, which recently commissioned its latest nuclear-armed submarine (see page 35 ). Israel, which neither confirms nor denies its widely believed nuclear arms possession, also allegedly has equipped submarine-based cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. (See ACT, November 2003 .)