A Chinese nuclear attack submarine docked in the harbour in Karachi in May last year, shows an image on Google Earth, proving that Beijing might be scrutinizing Indian warships’ movements far more closely than earlier.

Unlike conventional submarines, nuclear-powered submarines have an unlimited range of operations since their nuclear reactors rarely require to be refuelled. This means the submarines, which are armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles, can be deployed underwater for extended durations where they are difficult to track.

The Karachi image, spotted first by a satellite imagery expert (Twitter handle @rajfortyseven) appears to show a Chinese Navy Type 091 ‘Han’ class fast-attack submarine, the first class of nuclear powered submarines deployed by China. The image, shown here, can be accessed by clicking on the historical imagery icon on Google Earth and scrolling back to May, 2016.
Indian naval experts, who NDTV spoke to, have however not ruled out that the submarine shown could be the far more capable Chinese Type 093 ‘Shang’ class, far quieter and tougher to detect and equipped with newer weapons and advanced technology including its nuclear reactor.

The presence of Chinese nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean reinforces Beijing’s aggression in competing with India for dominance in a region strategically vital to India’s security.

Last month, Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba said, “As far as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships and submarines are concerned, the Indian Navy keeps a close eye and monitor their movements. We launch surveillance missions in the form of aircraft and ships to keep a track of them.”
The range of operations of nuclear submarines is often limited only by the amount of food and supplies that can be carried onboard for the crew and the mechanical reliability of the vessel itself. Nuclear submarines are also considerably faster underwater than conventional diesel powered submarines which rarely operate on missions longer than a few weeks.

For the last few years, the Indian Navy has been convinced that the presence of Chinese nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean is part of a carefully-choreographed exercise to expand Beijing’s military presence in the region. Senior Navy officers NDTV has spoken to reject China’s earlier assertions that its submarine deployment has been in aid of the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia.

What is clear, however, is that a great game of underwater subterfuge, a feature of the Cold War, is presently underway in the Indian Ocean. To operate in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines need to sail through either the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits where the shallow depth of the waters international regulations mean that they have to remain surfaced or visible.

This gives regional navies, including the Indian Navy, the ability to monitor the movement of Chinese submarines before they can dive to depths where tracking them is far more difficult. Indian Navy officers have told NDTV that the induction of the US-built P8-I anti-submarine warfare jets have been a game-changer for the force and a key asset in tracking Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. A replacement for India’s ageing Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-142, the P8-I comes equipped with state-of-the-art sensors meant to detect the sound radiated by submarines underwater. Once a submarine is detected, the P8-I can either engage the submarine with weapons or use its datalink to pass on the exact location to other naval assets including friendly warships and submarines operating in the area.

Over the last decade, Pakistan has strengthened its naval links with China, its biggest international partner. In August last year, Pakistan State Radio announced a deal to acquire 8 Chinese Yuan-class conventional diesel-electric powered submarines. The first four submarines are expected to be delivered by the end of 2023 while the others will be assembled in Karachi by 2028. Perhaps most significantly, China has access to Pakistan’s strategic Gwadar port, central to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is under development, in addition to its own recently constructed naval base in Djibouti situation in the Horn of Africa.

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