Once the fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines joins the Indian Navy, it will be possible for India to patrol the entire Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) without surfacing and remain undetected.

THE Indian Navy has recently decided to give top priority to building a fleet of nuclear submarines, armed with nuclear-tipped Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and build a fleet of six such attack submarines. At present the only India-made nuclear sub is INS Arihant. Another submarine leased from Russia for ten years in 2012 (INS Chakra II) will have to be returned soon. The programme for building another aircraft carrier has been shelved for now. At present India has only one aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. It was originally a Soviet ship, named Admiral Gorsshkov commissioned by the Soviet Navy in 1987 and decommissioned in 1996. It was refitted and sold to India at an exorbitant price of $2.35 billion in January, 2004.

The first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which is now being built, is expected to be launched this year and commissioned by 2022-23. It is the proposal for a second indigenously built aircraft carrier, to be named INS Vishal, and built by the Cochin Shipyard Ltd., that has been put on the back burner. Aircraft carriers are prohibitively costly and vulnerable to attack by enemy aircraft and missiles. So the emphasis has now shifted from building aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines, which India badly needs to establish its supremacy in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is increasing and India has to counter it effectively. The proposal now is to build six nuclear submarines at a cost of Rs. 96,000 crores. Nuclear submarines are of two types. One is the general purpose attack submarine (SSN) and the other is the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). India intends to build six SSNs.

The nature and methodology of war are changing. Future wars are likely to be fought less with foot soldiers (infantry) and more with artificial intelligence, electronic warfare, cyber warfare, hypersonic missiles, which have a speed of over six thousand miles per hour, anti-satellite missiles, which can destroy a communication satellite and put an end to satellite-based communication networks, and hybrid warfare, which includes “irregular” warfare, influencing public opinion with “fake” news and even intervening in elections in foreign countries. Future wars are likely to be fought more in the skies and in the sea, rather than on land. Hence the importance of submarines, especially nuclear submarines, which can stay under water for a much longer time than the conventional diesel-electric submarines, which have to surface frequently to replenish oxygen supply. On surface the combustion engines of these subs work fine but under water they have to rely on their batteries. For recharging, the ship has to come on surface. This limitation can be overcome by a technology called AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) that enables a diesel-electric sub to remain under water for far longer periods. Nuclear submarines do not have such a problem. The atomic reactors of these subs enable them to remain under water almost indefinitely. The only reason for which they have to surface is to replenish their food stock.

The nuclear subs are costlier to build and costlier to maintain. That is why few navies in the world have them. As far as India is concerned, the need for nuclear submarines of SSN class has become urgent in view of the growing challenge of the Chinese Navy. This programme should have been undertaken at least a decade ago. Even if the implementation of the programme begins right now, the first submarine may take another decade to be delivered to the Navy. Then the boats will join the Navy at regular intervals in a steady flow. Once the fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines joins the Indian Navy, it will be possible for India to patrol the entire Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) without surfacing and remain undetected. Their engine noise will be reduced to the minimum, adding to their “stealth” feature. The boats are likely to be made with French collaboration. India is trying to develop a defence relationship with France on a long-term basis. It is a sound policy. We should not be solely dependent on any particular country for our defence hardware.

The Navy has been the proverbial Cinderella of India’s Armed Forces, in spite of its glorious role during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, when it severely damaged the Karachi port of Pakistan from a distance of forty miles and set huge fuel dumps ablaze. The consequences of the neglect of years and decades cannot be undone overnight. But the Navy should get the budgetary allocations it deserves which it has been denied so long. The Chinese Navy is the largest in the world today, larger even than the US Navy in terms of ships. India need not get into a race with the Chinese Navy. China’s aim is world domination, supplanting the United States in the next forty or fifty years as the sole superpower. India has no such ambition. The three wings of our Armed Forces – the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, should be strong enough to foil the military misadventure of any country directed against us. But there are areas where we have to make up for our weaknesses.

One is the development of an SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) with a greater range. At present India has two types of SLBMs. One is the K-15 with a range of 750 km and the other is the K-4 with a range of 3,000 km. But for a real and effective deterrent against China, we have to have in our arsenal an SLBM of five thousand plus km range. We have to double march to make up for the time lag. The Centre will have to allocate the funds that the Navy needs because the Indian Navy will be called upon to play a greater role in future wars.