As a nation committed to ‘no first use’, it is of critical importance that the adversary never be in doubt about the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent

Although INS Arihant undertook its first, notional, “deterrent patrol” in 2018, impressive visuals of the missile launch demonstrate Arihant’s fully-operational status as well as its crew’s proficiency.

Reports of the successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile by INS Arihant, India’s sole operational nuclear-powered, ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), on October 14, should convey an uplifting message of reassurance to the public. Although INS Arihant undertook its first, notional, “deterrent patrol” in 2018, impressive visuals of the missile launch demonstrate Arihant’s fully-operational status as well as its crew’s proficiency. This drill would also have tested and proven long-range underwater communications as well as command-and-control procedures of the Strategic Forces Command.

India’s nuclear deterrent aims to “prevent a nuclear attack on Indian territory or Indian forces, anywhere,” and to threaten the attacker with “massive retaliation designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” As a nation committed to “no first use”, it is of critical importance that the adversary is never in doubt about the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent. This calls for a deterrent capable of surviving a surprise nuclear attack and undertaking retaliation.

Given that land-based missiles (static and mobile) and air bases are exposed to enemy reconnaissance, and will be targets of pre-emptive attacks, the best way to invest the nuclear deterrent with immunity is to send it underwater on an SSBN. For this reason, India has resolutely pursued, with former Soviet and now Russian help, the indigenous design and construction of a series of SSBNs.

Reports about the recent test state that the missile was “tested to a predetermined range and impacted the target area in the Bay of Bengal, with very high accuracy”.

While withholding any indication of the missile’s actual capability may be a prudent security measure, it is more than likely that this test was closely monitored via technical means — by friends and foes — and the missile’s performance parameters were recorded. Moreover, the recent presence in the neighbourhood of Chinese satellite and space-tracking ship Yuan Wang-5 indicated its snooping intent.

The role of an SSBN is to pose a nuclear threat from underwater to two types of adversary targets: Counter-value (population centres) and counter-force (military nodes). To this end, an SSBN is positioned in a safe patrol area that is remote from shipping traffic but within the missile range of its pre-designated targets. It appears likely that India’s SSBNs will operate from sanctuaries or “bastions” in the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal, where they can remain under the protective umbrella of our naval units.

From the middle of the Bay of Bengal, Karachi is about 2,500 km, while Beijing and Shanghai are over 4,000 km. Therefore, to threaten counter-value or counter-force targets deep inside China or Pakistan from a safe “bastion,” India needs a submarine-launched ballistic missile of “inter-continental range,” ie, over 6,000 km. The missile, last reported as being carried by INS Arihant, was the K-15, whose range falls below 1,000 km.

While land-based missiles such as the Agni V and VI, with ranges above 5,500 and 8,000 km, respectively, are reportedly under development, the challenge for our scientists is to design powerful but compact rocket motors so that a battery of 12-16 missiles can fit within the hull of INS Arihant class of SSBN. However, should the dimensions of this new missile call for a larger hull, the resultant size and displacement of the vessel will demand a unique design and a more powerful nuclear reactor for propulsion — challenges that are being tackled by our scientists and designers.

Prolonged deterrent patrols and continuous usage of a submarine’s nuclear reactor would call for refuelling with fresh uranium rods every few years. Refuelling entails cutting open the submarine and virtually rebuilding it, thus, taking it out of action for a year or more. India will, therefore, require an inventory of three-four SSBNs to maintain one on deterrent patrol off each seaboard.

Protection of India’s SSBN force would call for another type of vessel, the “nuclear attack submarine” (SSN), which also has immense utility in the anti-shipping and land attack roles. Thus, from a 50-year perspective, India would be looking at a nuclear submarine force of 8-12 SSBNs and SSNs.

Apart from its strategic significance, the nuclear submarine programme is an excellent manifestation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) vision. Many private-sector companies have contributed to this programme, designing and fabricating systems for INS Arihant and follow-on vessels. This Indian Navy-managed Defence Research and Development Organisation project has also spawned an enormous indigenisation process; many micro, small and medium enterprises have contributed components manufactured to high precision and reliability specifications.

India’s nuclear triad and accessories will cost the nation thousands of crores of rupees in the decades ahead. However, our dilemmas demonstrate that a large military and a nuclear arsenal, by themselves, can assure neither India’s security nor bequeath “great power” status. Therefore, unless underpinned by a grand strategic vision that integrates its military strength and nuclear triad with other elements of comprehensive national power to generate a compelling national security strategy, we may be wasting precious national resources.