INS Arihant the indigenous nuclear submarine of the Indian Navy

In 1945 Sardar Kavalam Madhava Pannikar, was perhaps the first Indian thinker to state that whoever controlled Indian Ocean, would have India at his mercy. In his view, India couldn’t exist without the Indian Ocean being free. But he went too far on ownership rights when he proclaimed Indian Ocean as ‘truly Indian’ as the world at large debunked any such claims in 1982 when it signed United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), which does not recognise any country’s sovereignty over oceans and to which India is a signatory.

Robert Kaplan, an American author, considered as one of the top 100 thinkers in the world today, was closer to the truth in his description of Indian Ocean as ‘the center stage for challenges of the twenty-first century’. One such emerging ‘challenge’ is reflected in Indian Navy’s desire, prodded on to no lesser extent by United States for its own strategic interest, to be ‘net security provider’ within the Indian Ocean Region.

As manifestation of this desire, India has intervened in in 1988 in Maldives and in 1987 forced an agreement on Sri Lanka in its struggle against the Tamil separatists. It has given developmental and maritime assistance to some littoral states in the Indian Ocean. These steps are un-mistakenly aimed at enhancing its influence beyond its shores.

Emergence of China as global economic power and US’ pivot to the east, have become catalyst to rising tensions in the Indian Ocean, and rapidly transforming this erstwhile backwater of major powers into a theatre of intense rivalry. Recently, US has renamed its U.S. Pacific Command as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, leaving little doubt this tussle. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) between India and US, and with nearly USN 50 ships deployed to cover area from Persian Gulf to Malacca Straits, ‘to get a better picture of the movements of foreign navies in the region’, in the backdrop of US role in Balakot incident (actual or perceived) is a cause for concern for Pakistan. We should ascertain the scope of this agreement from US and whether it will be used against Pakistan in any manner. The environment become more anxiety ridden when India and US call their own vision as ‘free’ and other’s as ‘sheltering terrorists’ or ‘oppressive’.

Indian Navy has capitalised on the country’s burgeoning economy and laid out ambitious development plans. More than 40 warships and submarines, including a long stated but distant objective of possessing three aircraft carriers, are on order or under construction.

India’s Maritime Perspective Plan 2027, flowing from its Maritime Doctrine of 2015, sets out a goal of 212 warships and 458 naval aircraft, compared to only 138 warships and 235 aircraft in 2017, to become a powerful three-dimensional blue-water force. It is already fifth largest navy in the world and completion of current development plans will further augment its sea power.

As an element of its nuclear triad, INS Arihant, a ship submersible ballistic nuclear (SSBN) asset, has been inducted in service and a second vessel of this class, INS Arighat, has been launched two year ago, with plans to build three additional nuclear submarines. For the interim, it has leased a Russian Akula-II class nuclear attack submarine and as a force multiplier, its first missile tracking ship should be ready for trials anytime.

In diesel-electric domain, it has indigenously launched third of the six Scorpion class submarines contracted from France and Project 751 envisages acquisition of an additional six conventional attack submarines. Indian Navy’s Achilles heel, however, is its near total dependence on Russia for comprehensive submarine maintenance program.

Out of the ten Kilo class submarines acquired from Russia in 1980s, at least seven have been re-furbished in Russia. In the recent stand-off, out of its entire fleet of Kilo class submarines, only one was reported to put to sea as all others were undergoing some sort of maintenance. Pakistan Navy, on the other hand, undertakes in-country all levels maintenance for all its submarines.

Recently, a C-in-C of one of Indian Navy’s Commands, was seen on social media singing a romantic song to its perfection, but judging from its track record of serious accidents and its recent performance, Indian Navy is far from any reasonable professional standards.

A Scorpion class submarine, latest in technology, was detected while patrolling in Pakistan’s EEZ. In 2016, a 209 class submarine was detected by the Air Arm of Pakistan Navy. Pakistan Navy’s submarines have never been detected by Indian Naval forces, either in peacetime or in war.

Its record in operating nuclear propelled vessels is even more dismal. INS Arihant was flooded because someone didn’t fully tighten one of the hatches before it dived. INS Chakra ran aground in shallow waters while entering Vishakhapatnam harbour in 2017.

These accidents with nuclear submarines are a danger to environments of Indian Ocean on which a large population of littoral states depends for their sustenance and quality of life. INS Sindhurakshak sank alongside its berth in Mumbai harbour after an explosion. In the recent Indo-Pak tension, a 209 class submarine caught fire in Mumbai harbour.

India’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has approved procurement of 111 naval utility helicopters as well as 24 multi role helicopters from US. Its sea surveillance capability lies in eight Boeing’s P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, with likelihood of adding eight more to the inventory.

Its firepower is boosted by supersonic BrahMos ballistic missile and Israeli surface to air missile Barak 8 in addition to ‘Dhanush’, a naval variant of ‘Pirthvi’.

Apart from these indigenous construction, Indian Navy is in the process of setting up, what it calls, operational turnaround bases, forward operating bases and naval air enclaves along the coast with a view to enhancing its surveillance capabilities at sea.

India appears to draw a two pronged strategy from its maritime doctrine; giving its navy a blue water capability and to counter threats closer to its coastline which is over 7,000 km long.

In the aftermath of Pulwama incident, the IAF and Indian army have tested the resolve of PAF and Pakistan Army to defend their motherland, whatever it takes.

The Indian Navy too was deployed as evident from detection of a submarine. Contrary to general perception, an evolving threat at sea is quite different than on land or in the air and can develop into dangerous proportion within hours.

Rapid responses to any misadventure from India therefore need to be well thought out to meet any eventuality. If the exuberant confidence of Indian Navy is any indicator, the North Arabian Sea will be the next battle space between India and Pakistan.

Indian Navy should not be under any illusion and should know that it forfeits any right of innocent passage in Pakistan’s EEZ once an act of war against Pakistan, such as the Balakot raid, has been committed. If in doubt about professionalism of Pakistan Navy, they should ask their new found ally, USN, as to why in good old days, it would always insist on PN submarines exercising with their carrier groups – because a PN submarine would breach an aircraft carrier screen each and every time without a hitch.

India is a victim of self-imposed contradictions. It does not and cannot understand that endlessly oppressing an entire population in disputed Kashmir, will have its own repercussions. When countries refuse to resolve disputes peacefully through negotiators, then unfortunately war becomes the highest form of struggle for resolving such differences. – a practice as old as the humanity itself.

India unfortunately is blind to one basic lesson of history that - wars, once initiated, have their own trajectory and nearly always get beyond control of original actors. Pakistan’s security is threatened by a war-mongering India, enslaved by its own contradictions whose inflection point has been reached. We should be ready when it comes.

The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy