INS Arihant's highly publicised 'deterrent patrol' is only the first step in a long journey India needs to take before it acquires a credible nuclear triad. Making premature boasts can be counter-productive.

by Pravin Sawhney

With a nudge from those keen on governmental image management, the Indian Navy has carried out its version of the 2016 ‘surgical strikes’ by launching a mission that is more political than military.

While the first so-called deterrent patrol of India’s ship submersible ballistic nuclear submarine (SSBN-80) – also referred to as INS Arihant – does not yet qualify as credible sea-based deterrence, it has given Pakistan reason to heighten tensions by seeking to undo the perceived strategic imbalance at sea. China, by holding India responsible, would likely be upfront in supporting Pakistan in its strategic endeavour.

What is a deterrent patrol? It is an operational or war patrol, where the submarine has its primary weapons, in this case submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), K-15, with 700 km range onboard. The crew is conversant with the necessary command and control, i.e. how the nuclear missile release orders would come to them from the national security advisor/Chairman, Chiefs of Staff committee; and secure communications through very low frequency (VLF)/extremely low frequency (ELF)/ satellite communication (SATCOM) would be known and rehearsed. According to reports, K-15 SLBMs were on-board. The SSBN-80 can hold a total of 12 K-15s.

The moot questions are: Were nuclear armed K-15 actually on-board the SSBN 80, and was the submarine ready for a second-strike? There have been reports since 2015 of K-15 test-firings from static pontoons, and one or two test-firings from INS Arihant.

There is, however, a big difference between static/limited test-firing (ejection tests of a missile coming out from the launcher) and operational test-firing. In the latter case, a series (two to three missiles in succession) of K-15 missiles would be fired from the SSBN-80 when at sea, as after each test launch, the buoyancy (for stability of the submarine) and safety would be checked and fully assured. This technical evaluation is critical since in an operational scenario, the SSBN-80 would have to be ready to fire a series of K-15s and still maintain the desired stability.

There is nothing to suggest that, let alone a series, even a single test-firing of K-15s has been done from the SSBN-80 at sea. This is not all. Since the K-15 and follow-on missile will be loaded vertically into the SSBN, India needs dedicated shore-based infrastructure for this purpose. This has yet not come up in Vizag or elsewhere.

There is also the question of nukes with the SSBN-80 crew. Considering that nuclear weapons, in a peculiar arrangement, are firmly with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) scientists – who would mate them with the land-based ballistic missile Agni series launchers on the operational site – it is difficult to conceive total de-centralisation of mated-nukes with the SSBN-80 crew. The command and control, safety, and sequence of release orders involved in this process are humongous. As an aside, China has till date sent only its nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines (SSN, Ship Submersible Nuclear), and not its SSBNs (which are armed with SLBMs) into the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

The truth is that India’s nuclear deterrence is completely de-mated with each of its critical components in silos. The launchers are with the Strategic Force Command, the nukes with BARC, and the non-nuclear components with the Defence Research Development Organisation. It will be long before SSBN-80 and its follow-on submarines get nukes on-board.

On the SSBN-80 itself, the vessel has an advertised displacement of 6,000 tons with an 83 megawatt nuclear reactor. While the reactor gives 83 MWe of thermal output, this converts into around 40 to 45 MW electric output, which is the actual power available to the submarine. Give this measly electric output, the SSBN-80 will have minimal endurance with an unimpressive speed, perhaps about 15-20 knots. What this means is that the SSBN-80 is under-powered: it cannot go far, and it would require an assured stability and safety if it is to fire a series of K-15 missiles.

According to reports, India will have a total of six SSBNs. The first three (S-2, S-3, S-4) will be similar to SSBN-80. The next series (S-5, S-6) will have a nuclear reactor with double MWs (around 1,500 thermal output) and better SLBMs — the K-3 and K-4 with ranges of 4,000 km and 6,000 km which are under development.

While the design of all SSBNs have come from Russia (IPRs are with Russian Rubin design bureau), the fabrications of SSBN is indigenous with some hand-holding for SSBN-80. It is essential to keep in mind that with the basic SSBN designs belonging to Russia (they have not sold designs to India), it does not help India to make premature grandstanding when the Indo-Pacific geopolitics is in turmoil.

The SSBN-80 was at sea for about 20 days. As a comparison, diesel submarines usually go out on 40-day patrols at sea. The SSBN-80 patrol would certainly not prevent nuclear blackmail or be an important pillar of global peace and stability, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it. It was at best a good step in the long journey that India has ahead before its SSBNs conduct deterrent patrols in the Indian Ocean, and India acquires a credible nuclear triad.

Pravin Sawhney is editor, FORCE news magazine