Undersea arsenal

SLBM-India yet to stand on third leg

The strategic significance of Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles can be understood from the fact that under the missile reduction treaties the US and Russia have decided to retain two thirds of the targeted storage comprising of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.

The SLBMs are considered a significant arsenal forming the third leg of the nuclear triad of any country, which has the potentials of a second strike capabilities because of its inherent anonymous location advantages.  

Though India is still on the last stages of delivering a SLBM as the launch platform i.e. India’s first indigenously developed nuclear attack submarine Arihant will take at least a year’s time more  to start operational patrol.  Thus India is still far away from a global sea based nuclear deterrent.

India’s first 750 kms range K-15 SLBM has been flight tested and its developer Defence Research and Development Organisation  has claimed the successful completion of the program and simultaneous commencement of the production processes, it may take another year or more to induct the K-15 on the Arihant.

The efficacy of the launch platform will also need to be tested for the K-15. Only after this the reliability of the Arihant will be declared credible and capable of launching a second or retaliatory strike hidden in the bottom of the sea far away from the enemy shores.

Missile race

Though India is still in the process of taking a few baby steps in the arena of under sea missile capabilities, Indian strategic planners will have to take note of the fact that the Chinese are focusing more on the SLBM capabilities.

Thus, the new missile race will be in the arena of the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles as we have noticed the fast tracking of the Chinese SLBM program in recent years to counter the US naval deployment in the Pacific sea. The new US Rebalancing Asia policy under which the US proposes to divert 60 percent of its maritime resources to the pacific region has raised alarm bells in the Chinese strategic circles. The Chinese SLBM program in response to the US naval relocation to the pacific  will be a source of concern for India also as the Chinese  nuclear submarines equipped with the newly acquired long range  SLBMs will be patrolling the Indian Ocean region too.

The Chinese PLA Navy has recently started the deployment of the JL-2 SLBM which is a three stage solid propellant ballistic missile, derived from the land based DF-31 Ballistic Missile. This is said to have a maximum range of 8,000 kms with a payload capacity of 2800 kgs.

The lethality of the JL-2 can be understood from the fact that it can be converted into a Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) with the capacity to carry 2-8 warheads. It has been reported that the JL-2 will be deployed on the Chinese Navy Jin Class Type-094 nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines.

At present China is operating three Type-094 SSBNs, which will be joined by two more very soon as they are reported to have completed the sea trials. This annual assessment of China’s military capabilities has recently been released by the US Department of Defence. Thus the JIN class submarines and the JL-2 SLBMs will give the Chinese Navy the most credible sea based nuclear deterrent. According to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s (NASIC) report on international missile programs, China has the most active and diverse maritime ballistic missile development program in the world.

The Chinese PLA have been concentrating on the SSBN capabilities since the seventies as a response to the American and the Soviet SSBN program when they acquired the JL-1 SLBM for deployment on the Type-092 or XIA class  nuclear submarines in the late eighties.

Bu these were not considered very credible because of teething problems with the Type-092 sub which remained mostly anchored on the Chinese naval bases. The JL-1 SLBM for this submarine had a range of 1700 kms but only a payload capability of 600 kgs, and a Circular Error Probability of 700 meters.

However the Type-094 submarines mated with the JL-2 SLBMs will significantly add to the naval punch of the Chinese Navy and which will result in counter programs from the US Navy and will compel the Indian strategic planners to advance its SLBM program.  
The Russians have already developed and deployed the Bulava class of SLBM with a range of 10,000 kms on its new Borei class of ballistic missile nuclear submarines. This has been stated as the future cornerstone of Russian nuclear triad.

The US Navy is already ahead in the SLBM race with the successful testing of its Trident 2 D-5 ballistic missile deployed on USS Tennessee. Both the US and Russian navies have hundreds of such SLBMs.

Future plans

The Indian missile development program has also an ambitious agenda of long range intercontinental class SLBMs, which is derived from the AGNI land based ballistic missiles. As the land based missile program progresses, the SLBM program can also be advanced. Since the Indian missile scientists have already demonstrated the under sea launch capability from a pontoon and are confident of deploying them on the Arihant, the longer range SLBMs should not be a problem.

After announcing the successful completion of the K-15 missile, the DRDO has embarked upon the next advanced missile called K-4 which is supposed to have a range of 3500 kms.

According to defence sources India has already taken very advanced steps in this category of missiles.  This is supposed to be a version of the Agni-3 missile with a range of 3500 kms. The DRDO is also reportedly working on the next version of K-4 which will be 12 metres long and will be having a range of 5000 kms for the next submarines. The Arihant can accommodate four K-4 or 12 K-15 missiles, but its limited range will not make it feasible to venture in far off oceans like the Pacific and more specifically in the South China Sea.  

However, since the Arihant can silently slip into the South China Sea, it certainly can threaten the Chinese mainland from the Chinese maritime area.

Since, the nuclear submarine acquired from Russia on ten year lease will not be allowed to carry any nuclear tipped ballistic missile; Indian Navy will have to rely principally on its own nuclear submarine.

Presently the only indigenous nuclear submarine Arihant will carry the 750 kms range K-15 and for the K-4 3500 kms range SLBM. Indian Navy will probably have to wait till the end of this decade, as there are no indications of Arihant -2 joining the forces before the end of this decade.

If Indian Navy decides to integrate the future K-15 in its diesel electric submarines, the waiting period will not be less as the tender for the next six submarines is yet to be released. Since India cannot hope to have another nuclear submarine before the end of this decade, the additional six diesel electric submarines will have to be made compatible to carry the K-4 series of nuclear tipped Ballistic Missiles.

Thus a single Arihant with 12 K-15 missiles with a limited range of 700-750 kms will not give Indian Navy the feasibility of operating from distant seas and be able to hit the Chinese mainland. Of course Pakistan can be targeted from the Arihant deployed in the Arabian Sea, but this can mean only a limited retaliatory strike capabilities.

India will have to wait longer to be able to hit any international target from the sea from own under sea nuclear platform.