INS Arihant, India's first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, which went "critical" over the weekend, has enabled India to join a select club of nations like the US, Russia, China, the UK and France, which possess nuclear-powered submarines.
The story of the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project, of which the INS Arihant is a part, is really the story of the incredible hard work, long-term strategy and clear thinking employed by generations of India's political leaders cutting across party lines, defence experts, foreign policy mandarins and scientists, to build indigenous capability that could give India the chance of becoming a serious power.
The Arihant's 83Mw pressurised water reactor (PWR) has also been built with considerable assistance from the Russians, who are said to have helped scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in miniaturising the reactor to fit into the 10m diameter hull of the nuclear submarine.
But it is equally true that the Arihant is more than a sum of its imported parts, transfer of technology and consultancy given by the Russians. The Rare Materials Project of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in Ratnahalli, Mysore, supplied the highly enriched uranium, while the submarine itself was built in a completely enclosed dry dock at the Shipbuilding Centre in Vishakapatnam.
India's private sector helped out the $2.9-billion project in significant ways. The hull for the vessel was built by L&T's Hazira shipbuilding facility, Tata Power built the control systems for the submarine, while the systems for the steam turbine integrated with the reactor are supplied by Walchandnagar Industries, reported DNA newspaper in 2009.
"We have used the Russians as consultants. As far as efforts in designing, developing and maintaining the reactor are concerned, they are entirely ours," BARC director Srikumar Banerjee said at the time.
The INS Arihant may not launch a thousand ships or nuclear-powered submarines in its wake-five more are being built in Vadodara and Vishakapatnam-and in fact has been called a "technology demonstrator" by former navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma, but it is a classic example of collaborations sought with friendly countries abroad at various inflection points of India's post-independent trajectory.
The ATV project was launched as long ago as 1974 in the wake of the India-Pakistan war when the US aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, was deployed in the Indian Ocean as a warning to India, in response to which the Soviets despatched ships armed with nuclear missiles as well as a nuclear submarine to ward off the threat posed by the Americans. Then prime minister Indira Gandhi was said to have been considerably impressed by the power of the Soviet Union's nuclear-armed flotilla to change the course of the war and ordered the launch of the ATV project in 1974.
But it was only in 1985, after Indira Gandhi's death, that the Rajiv Gandhi government ordered the upgrade of the ATV project and the Mazagaon docks in Mumbai began the construction of two German HDW 209 1500 submarines--the INS Shalki and the INS Shankul. He also asked the Soviet Union to lease the INS Chakra, a hush-hush project for the time because India, a non-nuclear power, had no business with a nuclear-powered submarine. (Simultaneously, the Rajiv Gandhi government was also giving a big push to the nuclear programme at Pokhran.)
With the Rajiv Gandhi government ousted in the 1989 polls, the V P Singh government kept the INS Chakra in India, even though he caved into public pressure to withdraw the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka in early 1990.
By 1998, Atal Behari Vajpayee's government had taken power, gone nuclear and announced its no-first-use nuclear policy. After the Kargil conflict in 1999, this was further refined when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced its intention to build the nuclear triad to its logical conclusion. The ATV project got a big boost at this time, when in November 2003, the miniaturised nuclear reactor went critical inside a simulated submarine hull (seeking to replicate Arihant conditions) on land at Kalpakkam.
In 2006, under the Congress-led first Manmohan Singh government, this land-based prototype nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam was declared operational, and in January 2008, it was integrated into the Arihant. By this time, the political controversy over the Indo-US nuclear agreement was its apogee. As the politics over the nuclear deal with America fermented, the Left parties withdrew from the United Progressive Alliance, allowing the Congress-led government to piggy-back on the shoulders of the Americans to enter the exclusive club of de facto nuclear powers.
The Indo-US deal would allow India to open negotiations with the outside world, like France, Russia and the US, to build pressurised water reactors (which use natural uranium, from places like Jadugoda in Jharkhand, as fuel and heavy water as coolant and moderator) for the production of clean electricity.
BARC officials have confirmed that for large-scale commercial nuclear power stations (that will be built by outside powers like France, Russia and the US), which require much larger quantities of enriched uranium, the special material enrichment facility in Chitradurga district in Karnataka will be used.
Soon after the elections in 2009, on July 26, Manmohan Singh's wife Gursharan Kaur broke a coconut and launched the INS Arihant for the world to see. The presence of then Russian ambassador Vyacheslav Trubnikov and other diplomats at the submarine's launch at the Eastern Naval Command in Vishakapatnam confirmed the behind-the-scenes role played by the Russians in developing this part of India's nuclear triad.
Meanwhile, the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier or the INS Vikramaditya is completing its sea trials in Russia and will soon move into the White Sea for aviation trials for fighter jets landing and taking-off. The Russians have told India that it will hand the warship over in end-2013.
India is now said to be constructing a nuclear submarine base on its eastern coast that will be named INS Varsha, for which Rs 160 crore is sanctioned in the 2011-12 budget (Rs 58 crore for civil works and the remaining for setting up a VLF communication system.) These will berth the INS Arihant, the INS Chakra as well as the new nuclear submarines under construction.
Notwithstanding these incredible markers on the road to self-defence, it is likely to be decades before the Navy can send an Arihant-class submarine into waters close to Pakistan or China. This is because the Arihant is still very noisy and at an underwater speed of 24 knots cannot run away easily. (With a 500 kg Sagarika missile on board, whose range is about 700 km, it can at best threaten Pakistan.)