by Balaji Chandramohan


With the development of its first nuclear-armed submarine, India joined the small group of countries that are able to indigenously develop submarine-launched nuclear weapons technology. INS Arihant was officially welcomed back to its home port of Vishakhapatnam by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 6 November, upon completion of its first full deterrence patrol.


INS Arihant, commissioned with little fanfare in 2016, constitutes a critical factor in India’s status as a rising power and its efforts to deploy credible nuclear and naval forces. Its deployment in the Indian Ocean will bolster Indian naval force projection in the wider Indo-Pacific. It also underscores India’s intention to develop the full nuclear triad of land, air and sea forces capable of deploying nuclear weapons. It thus represents another component of the great power status desired by New Delhi.

India has made considerable progress in developing a robust underwater nuclear deterrent, but a number of problems still need to be overcome before the naval component of its nuclear triad is deployed and fully capable. The introduction into service of up to five additional Arihant-class ballistic missile submarines may also bring with it questions of doctrine.

The first technical challenge, the successful integration of ballistic missiles with the nuclear submarine platform, has been overcome as indicated by the operational readiness and testing of Arihant. Second, the operational success of the miniaturised nuclear reactor that powers Arihant, was also confirmed under the duress of extensive sea trials.

While the nuclear submarine force will grow in number as more Arihant-class boats are commissioned, the first vessels at least are unlikely to be a major component of India’s nuclear deterrent force. In fact, some sources in the navy have characterised the commissioning of the first-in-class INS Arihant as a technology demonstrator, rather than a robust deterrent projector.

On the other hand, the Arihant-class boats may create doctrinal ambiguity if they result in moving the peacetime deployment of India’s nuclear force away from a low-level alert status and towards immediate operational readiness. Such a posture would signal a move away from India’s declared principle of ‘credible minimum deterrence’, as stated in its 2003 Nuclear Doctrine.

Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, which was released by the Indian Navy in 2015, envisaged an undersea deterrent force of between four and six fully operational nuclear submarines. Given the Arihant’s history of delayed deadlines, it is likely to take ten to 20 years before India can boast a force at that level.

In these ways, the emergence of the SSBN force heightens the debate in India over the future of its nuclear doctrine. As India has credible minimum deterrence and a no-first use policy as the two central principles of its nuclear policy, its maritime imperative, as set out in the maritime security strategy document, is interesting. In that document, the greatest importance is given to SSBNs as a part of credible nuclear deterrence against its nuclear-armed rivals, Pakistan and China.

Further, sea-based nuclear deterrence is one of the important tenets of the 2015 Maritime Security Strategy document. That study indicated that a force level of three to five SSBNs, six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and 20 diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) is required for the Indian Navy to fulfil its mandate of achieving an effective blue-water navy. If the nuclear submarines provide the resources for sea-denial and sea-attack options, then increasing the number of aircraft carriers would further improve India’s capability to achieve command of the sea and control of the choke-points.

Internally, the ambitious posture of the Indian Navy, with its undersea nuclear deterrence capability, means that it serves as a tool to allow the other two services to rearrange their existing command structures, including the Strategic Forces Command. This is part of an effort by India’s armed forces to collectively present a credible level of nuclear deterrence towards both Pakistan and China.

Importantly, as highlighted in the Maritime Security Strategy document, the stature of the Indian Navy has risen, especially since the introduction of its nuclear submarine capability. This provides an essential element in the structuring of forces against continental and maritime threats from both Pakistan and China.

The commissioning of Arihant, which benefited to a large degree from Russian technology, may also reinforce the debate over New Delhi’s reluctance to enter into a strategic partnership with the United States.

In fact, the reluctance among the Indian defence services (including the Navy) towards signing the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) with the US, partly emanates from such concerns.

In the meantime, even as the debates over partnerships and doctrine continue, the deployment of Arihant also signals India’s growing force projection capabilities and its intention to act as a counterweight to China’s maritime expansion in the wider Indo-Pacific.