In 2012, an Akula-II class submarine was leased for a period of 10 years. It is also called INS Chakra and will be in the Indian Navy till 2022

by Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)

On 07 March 2019, India signed a contract with Russia to lease an Akula-2 class nuclear attack submarine for a period of 10 years commencing from 2025. India’s tryst with nuclear-powered submarines began with the lease of a Charlie-1 class nuclear attack submarine in 1988 from the erstwhile Soviet Union for a period of three years. It was returned in 1991 and in that period had provided the Indian Navy invaluable knowledge in understanding the complexity of operating and maintaining nuclear submarines. In 2012, an Akula-2 class submarine was leased for a period of 10 years. It is also called INS Chakra and will be in the Indian Navy till 2022. There is of course the possibility of the lease bring extended beyond that period.

More significantly, the lease of these submarines also underlines the depth and durability of the Indo-Russian strategic relationship as no country has ever leased or transferred a nuclear submarine to any other country. Akula class submarines (Project 971), which first entered service with the Soviet Union in 1985, were the most advanced attack submarines in the world. Now in their fourth iteration, regular improvements and upgradations have ensured that these are still considered amongst the most lethal of contemporary nuclear attack submarines. It is understood that the submarine being leased to India will be modified with an indigenous mix of equipment in its communication and sensor suite before it is handed over to the IN.

This is a positive development towards the national endeavour for achieving self- reliance in our defence requirements and our indigenous submarine building program.

Why Submarines Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a navy’s offensive capability and are therefore are an integral element of a maritime nation’s security architecture. The versatility of the platform gives it the autonomy to operate across the entire spectrum of conflict from the strategic to the sub-conventional. Submarines can be broadly classified into three types – the ballistic missile armed nuclear submarine (SSBN) which is the most credible platform for strategic deterrence, the nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and the diesel-electric submarine (SSK).

The harnessing of nuclear power to propel submarines after World war 2 transformed the concept of submarine deployment into a realm never imagined before. During the Cold War which ‘raged for over four decades, it was the nuclear submarines on both sides of the bi polar divide that more than anything else ensured that the Cold war remained ‘cold’.

In the 21 st century post-Cold war scenario with the focus shifting to the littorals, the role of the submarine has also transitioned from being the ultimate Cold war warrior to becoming the platform of choice for shaping not only the littoral maritime battle-space but also to significantly influence the war on land as has been so effectively demonstrated in various operations from Kosovo to Libya to Syria.

The Indian Context

A contemporary blue water capability with a carrier-centric force structure is integral to the concept of sea control. As the pre-eminent maritime power in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is structured as such with its multi-dimensional full spectrum capability. Its force structure is commensurate with its ability to project power, deploy in distant waters with the necessary hardware to sustain operations and effectively control the environment in the area for the desired duration. Submarines, with their versatility, lend themselves ideally to this.

The maritime resurgence of China, its belligerence in the East and South China Seas, its permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, its infrastructure support to countries surrounding India, its long-festering border issues with India and its unstinted support to Pakistan including an unholy nuclear nexus are enough cause for unease in India. The country also has to contend with the nuclear conundrum in this region. Six of ten declared and undeclared nuclear weapon states are in the Indo-Pacific. Some of these consider it an existential necessity and the shrill rhetoric that emanates from them periodically is disconcerting.

India is only the sixth country in the world which operates nuclear submarines (SSBNs and SSNs), the others being the five permanent members of the Security Council – USA, Russia, UK, France and China. While the SSBN is the most credible platform for strategic deterrence and effective second strike and the SSK ideally suited for littoral operations in a limited tactical scenario, it is the SSN which, by virtue of the following attributes perfectly complements a carrier-centric expeditionary force structure :-

(a) High speeds underwater in excess of 25 knots
(b) Agile manoeuvrability,
(c) Unlimited endurance due to nuclear propulsion
(d) Lethal firepower including land attack cruise missiles and heavyweight torpedoes.
(e) Ability to shape the maritime battle-space

India has planned a force of five ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), six SSNs and 18 conventional submarines (SSK). INS Arihant, the indigenously built SSBN successfully completed her first deterrent patrol last year and the second, Arighat is undergoing trials. The SSK construction programme is also progressing, albeit behind schedule. However, the SSN programme is still at a design stage. Hence the continued lease of an SSN, such as the Akula-2 will not only enhance the operational and maintenance expertise required for these but will also provide valuable insights into designing and building such submarines.

A force of six SSNs, as envisaged in the IN’s perspective plans would effectively support its three Carrier Battle Group aspirations. The importance of submarines to national security cannot be underestimated. They provide the decisive edge at every level, be it strategic, operational or tactical. Submarines make modern navies credible and nations which neglect the phased growth and modernisation of this vital capability do so at their own peril.