Modernising submarine fleet

With both its conventional as well as nuclear powered submarine production lines well on stream India will have to decide what percentage of the entire Indian Navy fleet will have to be either diesel electric/air-independent propulsion and which types of surface vessels will have to be converted to nuclear propulsion. This factor will dictate the extent of its regional footprint and hence its power-projection capability.

The true worth of the Indian Navy will be judged by how well it is able to police the Strait of Hormuz/Suez Canal waterways in the west to the Chinese maritime seaboard in the Pacific Ocean in the east 24x7, 365 days. A naval presence at such distances will have to depend largely on nuclear propulsion if it is to be effective both as a deterrent as well as an in situ operational group. The need to call at local ports for bunkering facilities will have to be eliminated if one is to be truly effective. ‘Showing the flag’ operations will need to be knitted into the whole skein of deployment patterns on a sector wise basis-the more sensitive sectors requiring longer ‘on station’ presence fully supported by organic depot ships for victualing, medical evacuation and housekeeping/maintenance requirements.

Nuclear capability

The commissioning of the nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed INS Arihant has completed the third leg of an indigenous triad of nuclear weapons delivery platforms, the others being aircraft of the Indian Air Force and surface platforms of the Indian Navy.

By being submerged for long periods the Arihant will be difficult to detect and is thus a surer nuclear deterrent than the other two. The range of the missiles on board is the only limiting factor. Currently, the four launch tubes of the Arihant are fitted with a 700km range nuclear tipped missile that could annihilate the whole seaboard of Pakistan from Karachi in the east to Gwadar in the west.

The possible assured loss of its maritime assets should be sufficient to deter Pakistan from putting its “first strike” policy into effect. However, India has in the pipeline missiles with longer ranges (1500 km and 3500 km) which will bring the whole of Pakistan and large parts of the Chinese coastal hinterland (including Beijing, Shanghai and Hainan) within reach.

India will have to look for other sources of heavy torpedoes to arm the Arihant because the Italian firm has had to be blacklisted for middlemen to secure the contract in violation of the set guidelines. The surface ship version of the indigenous Varunastra heavy torpedo has been commissioned but certain modifications need to be incorporated in the submarine version before it is fitted to the Arihant for its self-defence and attack capabilities. Each new Arihant class submarine will have a larger number of launch tubes and capability of launching longer-range submarine launched nuclear ballistic/cruise missiles.

Thus after the first four the next lot will be powered by a larger miniaturized pressurized water reactor under construction at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Maharashtra. With an increase in the number of launch tubes the overall weight of the next generation nuclear ballistic missile submarines would require more powerful engines. Learning from the experience of the past three decades BARC (inclusive of the presence of chartered nuclear submarines from Russia) is in an enviable position in designing the next generation of nuclear power plants for submarines.

Even as the six Scorpenes (the first of which has already been inducted into the Indian Navy) are moving steadily to fruition there is to be a quantum leap in submerged time with the introduction of an indigenously produced air-independent propulsion unit as an auxiliary to the diesel-electric powerpack of the Scorpenes. The AIP unit raises the submerged capability substantially though it does not compare with the submerged capacity of nuclear platforms which is circumscribed only by the need to provide food and rest and recreation to the crew.

A second production line has been laid in Vishakhapatnam for the manufacture of six hunter-killer nuclear-powered submarines also described as ‘attack submarines’  (as different from ballistic missile submarines) that will be used in anti-submarine warfare and the sanitization of large swaths of ocean space for sea control/sea denial operations.

With an assured replenishment of India’s ageing submarine fleet composed largely of Russian Kilo class boats (plus the Russian Akula class INS Chakra taken on lease) with two submarines (one conventional and one nuclear powered) India will have totally modernized its fleet over the next seven years.

Combined capabilities

If there is to be a synergetic coordination of all the combined capabilities of the Indian Navy attention will have to be concentrated on creating a right mix of nuclear powered, diesel electric, gas turbine propulsion technologies to create assets that will enable a wide range of activities from littoral submarine operations/localized sea control to long-range deterrent patrols. A lot will depend on how much reactor grade nuclear fuel is available for life-cycle operations of its nuclear powered submarines. It is no secret that the operationalisation of the first miniaturized nuclear reactor for the Arihant submarine was delayed because India was unable to acquire the 20 per cent enriched uranium fuel for the first firing to make the reactor go critical.

The first tranche of four indigenous nuclear powered submarines is expected to be operational by 2022. Simultaneously, the first of three of the indigenously manufactured aircraft carriers is expected to be inducted into service by 2018.

The first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant will be powered by LM2500 gas turbine engine; the second the INS Vishal could well be nuclear powered thereby giving India the ability to intervene in the defence of Indian national interests in any part of the globe. Given that there is an emerging nexus between China and Pakistan a carrier air group consisting of MiG-29K and the indigenous navalised version of the Tejas light combat aircraft had appeared to be the logical requirement for the Indian Navy.

However, the deployment by China of a land based cruise missile capable of a range of 2500 km has changed the scenario. No aircraft carrier without an adequate supply of missile-to-missile killers on board will take the risk of being hit by a salvo of these Chinese missiles. The accent thus returns to nuclear powered/nuclear armed submarines to create a deterrence scenario vis-à-vis China.

India has a case for the acquisition of three aircraft carriers. The first will be conventionally powered and the other two are expected to be  nuclear powered for global deployment. It is also possible that the INS Vikrant at some stage will also be converted to nuclear propulsion if the cost-benefit ratio demands it.

In the context of nuclear deterrence six submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) carriers backed by six nuclear-powered hunter killer (submarine-submarine killer) appears to be an adequate replacement for the current preponderance of Russian Kilo class conventional submarines in the Indian Navy fleet armed as the latter will be with heavy torpedoes and anti-ship tube-launched cruise missiles.