A Russian Navy Akula powered attack submarine

New Delhi signed a $3 billion lease deal with Moscow in 2019 for the Chakra-3 submarine. But with growing Chinese naval presence and delays in its own nuclear submarine project, India needs as many submarines as it can get

Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to travel to New Delhi later this year for his first in-person summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi since the onset of the pandemic. Both countries are close strategic partners and have a thriving defence partnership. India has signed or is negotiating defence deals with Russia worth over $15 billion (Rs 1.09 lakh crore). The deals include those for frontline military equipment, from long-range missiles to fighter jets and assault rifles, to modernise its armed forces.

But it is the prospect of India leasing a second nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN)—for which both sides have opened discussions—that is intriguing. This is because India already hopes to induct one Russian SSN into its fleet by 2026. India concluded a $3 billion (Rs 22,000 crore) deal with Russia in 2019 to modernise and upgrade the ‘Bratsk’, an Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine—now called ‘Chakra-3’.

SSNs are true submarines in that they can stay and operate under water almost indefinitely; their endurance is limited only by food supplies for the crew. They are also equipped with a range of tactical weapons, such as torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles and land-attack cruise missiles. They form part of battle groups centred around aircraft carriers and are capable of independently projecting power into heavily contested enemy waters and performing escort duties for ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

Acquiring a second SSN will enable the navy to operate two independent carrier battle groups, centred around the INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, each with one SSN. (INS Vikrant is currently in sea trials and will join the Navy later next year.) The two SSNs can also perform escort duties for India’s fleet of four Arihant-class SSBNs, all of which will be in service by the end of this decade.

India leased its first SSN from the former Soviet Union between 1987 and 1991. In the mid-1990s, then Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat resumed discussions to lease two nuclear submarines from Russia. This was whittled down to just one unit when the inter-governmental agreement was finally signed in the early 2000s.

Now, nearly two decades later, the Navy seems to be going back to its original plan of leasing two SSNs. Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh is believed to have broached the topic of leasing another SSN with his Russian counterparts during his three-day visit to Russia in late July. Russia indicated its willingness to refurbish and lease out one or more of its old Akula-class SSNs. The Akula was the former Soviet Union’s best and most widely known SSN. Fifteen or more such vessels were either being built or in service when the Soviet Union broke up three decades ago. And while Russia is replacing its Akulas with the newer ‘Yasen’ class, it still has nine Akulas in service. Several of them are either in refit or in a half-finished state, which will allow the Indian Navy to complete them to its own requirements. It will take Russia only six years or less to refurbish and modernise another SSN. The Navy’s keenness to rapidly acquire submarines has to do with a perilous fall in its underwater capabilities at a time when China has begun the largest naval modernisation by any country since the Cold War.

The Navy has projected a requirement for six SSNs but has none at present. It will be over a decade before the first of its six indigenously designed and constructed Project 76 SSNs joins the fleet. Even the conventional submarine arm is severely handicapped. The bulk of the Navy’s fleet of 15 conventional submarines is over 30 years old, which is near the end of their design lives. They are being given life-extension refits in Indian and Russian shipyards. An ambitious Rs 45,000 crore Project 75I to indigenously build six large conventional submarines, which can operate near the maritime chokepoints of the Indonesian islands, is running over 15 years behind schedule and will not deliver the first submarine before 2030.