by Ahyousha Khan

In March 2021, as reported in the media, the Indian Navy is all set to acquire three indigenously built nuclear-powered submersible ships (SSN), commonly known as nuclear-powered attack submarines. Diplomat magazine has reported that the Indian Navy has prioritized the acquisition of the SSNs over the indigenously built aircraft carriers. Currently, India is operating only one aircraft carrier, “INS Vikramaditya“, which is a revamped Soviet origin “Kiev-Class Ship” that was acquired in 2014. Further, India is operating only one SSN, ‘Chakra’, which it got on lease from Russia in 2012. Likewise, the nuclear-powered and ballistic missile capable submersible ship (SSBN) ‘Arihant’ which has been operational since 2018 has significantly enhanced India’s deterrent capability at sea. Indian focus on enhancing its naval capability is premised on a view of itself as the sole custodian of the Indian Ocean. India considers Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as its backyard since it is one of the biggest littoral states to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, geography is one important factor for the Indian naval strategy. Analysis of Indian naval strategy reveals that its objective for the Indian Ocean is to seek and attain sea denial ability and capability, which would bring about Indian territorial claims with its neighbour China and Pakistan to IOR as well. In this regard, the fleet to hunter-attack submarines would not only provide India with the ability to hunt, tail, and attack submarines and vessels of other countries. But, these submarines would provide security to its SSBN from attack submarines of other states.

The plan to build and acquire SSN by India was under discussion for quite some time but recent border clashes with its neighbours and the interest of its military elite have paved the way for SSNs instead of naval carriers. Last year, Gen. Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff, and former army chief in his interview to Times of India voiced his opinion in support of submarines instead of carriers by stating that anything which is on the surface would be an easy target. In this plan, India is set to build 6 nuclear-powered hunter-attack submarines, which would weigh around 6000 tons at Vizag Shipbuilding Centre. But, initially, India’s cabinet committee on security would approve the production of only three SSNs and the first of these three would be deployed by 2032. However, if one keeps in mind the process of Indian naval build-ups and their deployment and operationalization, it is expected that deployment will take more time than 2032. It was also reported in the media that India would commission its second-nuclear powered ballistic missile capable submarine (SSBN) “Arighat”, this year. Unlike SSNs, SSBNs are of strategic importance and carry out strategic missions. Both Arihant and Arighat are capable of carrying and firing the advanced K-15 sea-launched ballistic missiles with a range of 750 km. Although India claims that its naval nuclear deterrence is to provide it with second-strike capability against two front threats, with missiles that are only in the range of 750 km at the moment, India’s second-strike capability is only against Pakistan. Secondly, it is to facilitate its ambitions of domination in IOR by sea denial. Apart from these two nuclear submarines and one leased SSN from Russia, India has 12 old SSKs (diesel-electric powered) submarines. India is developing an SLBM known as K-4 with a range of 3,500 km, but to facilitate these missiles India will need bigger SSBNs, which India is also building.

These developments by India, especially regarding SSNs would further complicate the security structure of IOR where already competition is increasing. Although, India claimed that its nuclear policy is based on “CMD” and “NFU” but the acquisition of offensive technologies like SSNs, UAVs, and cruise missiles reflects that its policies are more inclined towards pre-emption. Moreover, with the acquisition of SSBNs and SSNs, India would be in a position to tilt the balance of power of the region in its favour. In such a situation, to maintain deterrence so far Pakistan under its policy of FSD has tipped its cruise missiles with the nuclear warhead for its diesel-electric powered submarine. It has provided Pakistan with the option of second-strike capability or to launch a nuclear attack from the sea but there is a long way to go for Pakistan. Diesel-electric submarines cannot stay submerged for more than 12 to 21 days and have to come to the surface, which could become a challenge in the crisis for Pakistan. Since, other than building nuclear submarines, India has also improved its satellites and intelligence capabilities. This would give India an edge in locating Pakistan’s submarines. Moreover, these developments in IOR between India and Pakistan have further blurred the lines between peacetime and wartime situations as no one would know which submarines have nuclear-powered cruise missiles. Although India has claimed that its SSNs would not perform strategic missions, SSNs are normally equipped with cruise missiles and at the moment India is pursuing hypersonic cruise missile technology and has already developed supersonic cruise missile ‘BrahMos’; one of the fastest cruise missiles currently operational in the world.

In all, India has been deliberately enhancing its naval capabilities to become a dominant regional naval power. In pursuit of this, it has indigenously developed and also acquired some of the advanced naval platforms aimed at increasing its offensive naval capabilities. In such a hostile regional situation, Pakistan would likely be compelled to follow the same suit. Moreover, investment in satellite technology has apparently become important for Pakistan. In this regard, it would be more rational for Pakistan to make investments in these domains. Since this would not only enhance its security vis-à-vis India but ensure its economic interest in the IOR as well. Moreover, indigenization will help in lowering down the costs of these technologies and in the longer term can create an opportunity for Pakistan to emerge as an exporter in the international market.

Ahyousha Khan, Research Associate, Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad