India's first nuclear submarine will be a key component of our total defence capability.
There are moments that are more definable than others, the watershed points in life, whether of a nation, an institution or an individual. One such moment, whose time should actually have come earlier, came to the Indian Navy with the launch of our own nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, in Visakhapatnam on July 26, by the Prime Minister. There have been other such events in the sixty-year lifespan of the Indian Navy, induction of the cruiser INS Delhi in 1953, being the first, followed in succession by others. The acquisition of the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in 1961, made the young Service a ‘blue water’ force, the only regional country to have that claim. Inductions of the first submarine, INS Kalvari in 1967 and of the Missile Boats (which were to wreak havoc on Karachi on December 4, 1971) in 1968, were others. Not to be left behind, was the switch of maritime air surveillance aircraft from the IAF to the Navy in the late 1970s which made the seagoing force a self-sufficient entity. To this list can be added the acquisition of INS Viraat in 1987, making us a ‘two aircraft carrier Navy’, the lease of the nuclear-powered submarine, INS Chakra in 1988 and, arguably, the induction of INS Jalashva (formerly USS Trenton) a few years ago which has enabled credible assistance to be provided in the region during natural calamities such as the tsunami of 2004. All of these and, of course, many other milestones in afloat as well as shore support facilities have made the Indian Navy the leading regional maritime power that it is. To this impressive list must now be added the launch of INS Arihant.
It was over two decades ago that we embarked on a project termed the ATV, or Advanced Technology Vessel. As far back as the mid-1970s, a small unit called Project 932 was constituted under a Commander rank officer under the aegis of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)—its task: to develop feasibility of a small reactor which could fit within a submarine hull. This project moved slowly and with mixed results, with less than enthusiastic support from the Navy’s hierarchy. In 1980, it nearly came to a dead halt. An officer working in the project, not a nuclear reactor engineer but one who had acquired deep knowledge in this field on his own, persuaded the then Navy Chief that the DAE design was seriously flawed. The matter was taken up with the then Scientific Adviser in the Ministry of Defence, Dr Raja Ramanna — a distinguished nuclear scientist himself — but without resolution. The result was that the 932, already on slow march, ground to a halt. The officer who had questioned the design being developed left the Navy and, whilst en route to the US, was arrested at the airport for possessing highly classified literature which later turned out to be all in the public domain. He spent some years in prison, argued his own case before the court and was acquitted, with strictures passed against the DAE.
It was not until the mid-1980s that the concept was revived as the ATV Project, this time under the Department of Defence Research and Development (DRDO). By 1989, a full-fledged organisation had been put in place with outlying units at Kalpakkam (under DAE for reactor design) and Hyderabad (for developing auxiliaries and systems). We then entered into an agreement with Russia for developmental and design assistance for a nuclear-powered submarine. From then to now has been a long journey of two decades with many ups and downs but with some very substantial long-term gains. Indigenous participation — especially of private sector companies, Larsen and Toubro and Walchand, to name only two — has been very encouraging. Aside from the reactor, we now have manufacturers who can build and weld submarine hull sections which can stand pressures at great depths. Capacity to build pipes and cables, compressors and air conditioning machinery, pumps, gear boxes and generators, all strengthened for underwater operations has been created within the country. To this should be added interfacing of electronic systems from several sources—no easy task. So, there is much to be proud of and little to moan about the delay as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) can be expected to do. The larger vision is, perhaps correctly, not part of his duty or responsibility; in any event, there is no accountability.
It has been excitedly proclaimed by some in the media that India now has a triad of nuclear weapon delivery capability, the land and air elements being in place already. Nothing can be farther from the reality. Some trials of a rocket launch from a fixed underwater platform have reportedly been carried out but these do not translate themselves into an on-board capability. That will also come at some time in the future but that moment is not now. An underwater vertical launch system is about the most sophisticated and complex weapon and it is not going to happen anytime soon. 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. The nuclear reactor itself has to be made ‘critical’. So, there is need to move slowly with full regard to safety and without getting hustled by those sections who know not what they say. The fact that a leased nuclear submarine of the Russian Akula class will be operational with the Navy very soon should be a confidence-generating feature of the plan.
INS Arihant will, happily, not be a ‘one alone’ thing. Reports have it that the government has sanctioned at least three submarines of this type already. Nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles are strategic, not tactical, weapons. In the global strategic equations from which India cannot remain excluded for very long, they will be an important component of our total national power. It is a moment of satisfaction for every Indian, not just those who go to sea. The launch of INS Arihant is, undoubtedly, a watershed not just for the Indian Navy, but for the nation.
The author is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command