In a rare public acknowledgment about India’s nuclear-submarine programme at the highest level, the Prime Minister earlier this week congratulated the crew of INS Arihant, the country’s solitary nuclear-powered submarine equipped with nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, for successfully completing its first deterrence patrol, thereby apparently marking the “completion of India’s nuclear triad”.
The statement made barely a month short of Navy Day on 4 December immediately evoked an understandable statement of concern by Pakistan, which, so far, does not have nuclear-powered submarines, but is likely to have submarine-launched nuclear missiles on some of its conventional submarines. On the other hand, a silent but observant China, which is known to have an established nuclear triad since long with four SSBNs and five SSNs (nuclear powered submarine with conventional missiles and torpedoes), has so far chosen to stay quiet. Knowing China, the announcement would not have gone unnoticed and un-discussed in Beijing.
The completion of the deterrence patrol, after earlier remaining out of commission for much of 2017 (about ten months) due to an act of carelessness soon after it joined service in August 2016, undoubtedly marks a significant milestone in India’s nuclear second strike capability, especially since the submarine has been indigenously developed with the involvement of the private sector. But the issue also raises several questions pertaining to the effectiveness, capability and capacity of this third and vital dimension of India’s nuclear triad.
But first it is important to understand a few basic issues. A nuclear triad comprises a three-dimensional capability of launching nuclear missiles from the air, from the surface (ground and sea) and from undersea. Since it is easier to detect air and surface based nuclear missile launching platforms (such as aircraft, static and mobile launch pads and ships) through sophisticated technological means such as radars and satellites and other ground level intelligence gathering means, a country’s real nuclear deterrence lies in a system that is hugely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to detect. And that system is a nuclear-powered submarine, which, because of the nature of its power supply (nuclear), permits it to remain underwater for durations lasting not just weeks, but for even months at a time, since unlike a conventional diesel-electric submarine, it does need to surface at regular intervals to snorkel air in order to recharge its batteries.
This makes a nuclear-powered submarine practically as undetectable as a needle in a huge haystack. Except that in this case the haystack happens to be a massive deep dark sea. Forget the Malaysian Airlines B-777-200 ER aircraft (flight MH 370) that mysteriously disappeared in March 2014 in the Indian Ocean, such is the vastness under the seas that despite massive efforts India has been unable to even detect the An-32 transport aircraft belonging to the Indian Air Force (IAF) that crashed into the Bay of Bengal in July 2016. This was even though the IAF was fairly well aware of the aircraft’s coordinates at the time of it disappearing from the radar screen.
A deterrence patrol is not supposed to be a short, part time or ad hoc affair. It requires at least one such SSBN (Ship Submersible Missile Ballistic or, simply put, a nuclear-powered submarine equipped with ballistic missiles fitted with nuclear warheads) to be perpetually under sea to ensure continuous deterrence and second strike capability. This requires a country to have at least three to four SSBNs so that at any given time one SSBN is always at sea 24/7 all 365 days a year. Moreover, the SSBN should be capable of enduring long distance sub-surface patrols while being equipped with long-range nuclear tipped missiles so that it can strike at the enemy country’s nerve centres or “centre of gravity”.
Finally, an SSBN has to always be in a state of operational readiness, which means being equipped with live nuclear missiles under the direct command of usually a Navy captain (a colonel equivalent). Considering the enormous secrecy, sensitivity and responsibility at the hands of the captain and his executive officer on board a submarine deep under sea hundreds of kilometres from the country, there is need for a clear, tight and unambiguous command and control system to prevent occurrence of a mishap.
When evaluated against these parameters, India’s nuclear triad is still a far cry. As of now India has only one SSBN in INS Arihant. Hence it cannot be perpetually at sea since it requires routine maintenance at periodic intervals. Secondly, its limited capacity 83 megawatt nuclear power plant is an impediment to the submarine’s endurance and speed. Thirdly, the twelve K-15 or B-05 missiles, also known as the Sagarika submarine launched ballistic missile, have a range of just 750 km, which cannot even strike Pakistan if fired from the Bay of Bengal, let alone reach Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu in China. In other words, the INS Arihant is in insufficient quantity (only one) and has a limited (and therefore not fully effective) endurance and missile range.
India will need three to four SSBNs. While the good news is that three more SSBNs are in different phases of development, with, for example, 6,000-tonne INS Arighat already launched on 19 November 2017 and the third and fourth (both expected to be 7,000 tonnes each) in these series expected to be launched in 2020 and 2022, there is a dire need to increase their capacity.
India does have plans to develop a new S-5 series SSBNs with a 13,500-tonne displacement, a 190 megawatt nuclear plant (twice as powerful as the INS Arihant) and equipped with 12 ballistic missiles with MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles). But this is expected to take at least another decade. The Defence Research and Development Organisation is also working on developing several K-series SLBMs or submarine launched ballistic missiles named after Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to be fitted with nuclear warheads. These missiles are the K-4 (3,500 km range with a two-tonne warhead), K-5 (5,000 km range with a two-tonne warhead), K-5 (5,000 km range) and K-6 (6,000 km range). It is when India develops the K-5 and K-6 that the Indian Navy will truly have a credible second strike capability and also have the option to operate from closer home and within its own backyard, the Bay of Bengal, to deter both China and Pakistan. India is also to develop six SSNs, meant for protecting the SSBNs and other tasks. For now, the S-5 series SSBNs, the SSNs and the long range K-series SLBMs seem a long way of off. So does a credible nuclear triad and second strike capability.
Dinesh Kumar is a defence analyst.