By Dr Frank O’Donnell
India’s first nuclear-armed submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant, was reported on February 23 to have completed diving and weapons trials. Indian officials stated that with tests complete, the vessel could be formally commissioned and enter into operational service as early as March. This is a landmark in the history of Asian nuclear deterrence and Indian Ocean naval projection. The particular characteristics of the Arihant, along with the tense strategic environment it will enter, will have important implications for Asian security in the 21st century.
The Arihant, the first in an intended Indian nuclear-armed submarine fleet size of 4-6 boats, is an important step toward delivering Indian seaborne nuclear deterrence. This aspiration was first publicly outlined in India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine, and is of growing importance to Indian strategic planners. The most recent iteration of the Indian Navy Maritime Security Strategy, published in October, devotes substantial attention to nuclear deterrence, asserting that the “three principles central to India’s nuclear deterrence, viz. credibility, effectiveness and survivability, are imbibed in the sea-based segment of the nuclear triad, primarily the nuclear powered submarine carrying ballistic missiles (SSBN)”.
The Arihant is a 6000-ton boat and can be armed with up to 12 750km-range nuclear K-15 ballistic missiles or up to 4 3500-km range K-4 missiles. It is powered by an 83MW naval nuclear reactor fuelled by highly enriched uranium. The submarine has benefited from substantial and continuing Russian technical assistance. The Arihant physically resembles Russian Charlie-class nuclear submarines.
The Soviet Union leased a Charlie-class boat to the Indian Navy from 1988 to 1991, enabling Indian sailors to gain experience of operating a nuclear vessel. India today operates a Russian Akula-II class nuclear submarine on loan for the same purpose, and is presently negotiating to lease a second boat. Furthermore, a Russian Prut-class submarine rescue ship has accompanied the Arihant from October 2015 on its recent weapons and diving trials.
As the first in its class of submarines, the Arihant will provide the Indian Navy and nuclear National Command Authority with invaluable operational experience of piloting a seaborne nuclear deterrent. However, the Arihant has certain attributes that will likely limit its operational role, and require careful consideration in how it is deployed. It is reportedly noisy, reducing its stealth potential. Its main armament, the 750km-range K-15 missile, would require the boat to move very close to adversary shores to bring targets into range.
While the February 23 report claimed that the Arihant could be equipped with the longer-range K-4 missile, technical doubts have been expressed in the past about its ability to successfully house the K-4 without modification to either the missile or boat. If these technical issues have nevertheless now been overcome, the 3,500-km range of the K-4 would still necessitate the Arihant moving close to the coasts of Bangladesh and Myanmar in order to bring major east coast Chinese targets into range.
The level of testing conducted before the Arihant was certified as ready for commissioning also raises questions about the extent of its future operational role. Earlier reports had specified that the submarine would be allocated a period of between 9 and 18 months to begin and complete operational trials.
These trials, which commenced in December 2014, would involve the launch of a K-15 from each of the Arihant’s four missile tubes, along with some diving tests. While launch tests for India’s other missile and missile defence projects are regularly briefed before and after the exercise (including previous K-15 and K-4 tests from a pontoon), the Arihant K-15 tests were nearly entirely conducted in secret.
Only one report was released in November 2015, announcing one successful K-15 ejection test and the completion of diving trials. Another report was issued in October regarding intended plans to test the nuclear 1,000km-range Nirbhay nuclear cruise missile from the Arihant. However, no further information regarding this planned Nirbhay test has been made public.
This means that almost no information is publicly available regarding the success rate of each missile test launch from the Arihant. These secret tests have also only been conducted over a period of five months, suggesting a small sample size of test data from which to base the decision to commission the submarine.
The Arihant programme differs from other elements of Indian nuclear force development in that it is led by the Indian Navy; most other nuclear force projects are managed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) defence scientific agency.
However, these above developments suggest that the Navy shares the DRDO tendency of certifying a new nuclear platform as ready for service following only a very limited slate of tests, with implications for operational credibility and reliability in the absence of a longer and more rigorous testing process.
Finally, the Arihant’s reactor design could further curtail its operational deployment. A Navy officer who has worked on the Arihant project has remarked that the “effective fuel inventory of the submarine reactor is insufficient for longer duration deployment of the vessel far away from Indian shores, as it will necessitate frequent fuel changes that are time-consuming”. Executing just one fuel change is “a protracted and cumbersome process requiring the hull of the submarine to be cut open.”
Subsequent Arihant-class boats, INS Aridhaman and the as yet-unnamed third submarine, will follow the above Arihant design specifications. It is only the fourth boat in the fleet that will feature a substantial redesign that may address these technical issues.
Due to these characteristics, far-reaching operational deployments thus appear unlikely for the Arihant. However, it will still have a significant impact on regional security even if deployed mainly around Indian littorals. It marks a new point in the growing extension of India’s nuclear rivalry with Pakistan and China into the maritime domain.
China is fielding a new generation of Jin-class SSBNs. Pakistan presently lacks a seaborne nuclear deterrent, but established a Naval Strategic Force Command in 2012 and agreed to purchase 8 Chinese diesel-electric submarines in October 2015. Pakistan and external analysts anticipate that these boats, likely the Type-041 model, will host nuclear cruise missiles in future.
There is little strategic dialogue among these states regarding either their nuclear intentions or their specific maritime boundaries that they intend to protect, as they compete in these domains. A particular concern is that nuclear-armed ships and submarines will merge these two major sources of regional strategic tensions: rising competition for control of Indian Ocean access; and nuclear force growth and diversification.
The inexperience of these states in operating nuclear-armed submarines, combined with the realities that platforms such as the Type-041 can be assigned nuclear or conventional missions and that SSBNs require conventional escorts, threatens to nuclearise an Indian Ocean competition standoff. One such scenario that can be envisioned is an attempted denial of access directed at an adversary naval vessel that is incorrectly assumed to have a solely conventional mission.
Developments in this direction are indeed becoming more common. On February 23, the same day that the Arihant was reported as being ready for service, “alarm bells went off in Delhi” due to an unknown boat being spotted close to the Indian Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where a major military command is located.
The boat was determined to be a Chinese submarine support ship, suggesting that “one or more PLAN submarines were prowling in the Area of Responsibility (AoR)” of the military command. A Chinese Type-041 also visited Karachi in May 2015.
Chinese officials are aware that few believe the claims of Beijing that its growing Indian Ocean submarine patrols are merely in support of “anti-piracy” missions; the chief of staff of the Shanghai Naval Garrison rather defensively exclaimed in July 2015, “Why can’t submarines participate in anti-piracy operations? Submarines also participate in anti-piracy operations along with other fleets”.The Pentagon, by contrast, has concluded that such patrols are “conducting area familiarization, and demonstrating an emerging capability both to protect China’s sea lines of communications and increase China’s power projection into the Indian Ocean”.
For its own part, the Indian Maritime Security Strategy of October 2015 identified the South and East China Sea as an “area of maritime interest”, and Delhi is publicly supporting other states in their naval competition with China. Pakistan is developing a new generation of naval forces to strengthen its maritime projection against India.
These are the troubled waters into which the Arihant will enter, adding a new layer of complexity to this tense regional nuclear and naval competition. A new effort at maritime and nuclear dialogue between New Delhi, Beijing and Islamabad should be made to discern intentions, improve transparency and deconflict patrol routes where possible. Without such a dialogue, the threat of inadvertently nuclearising a naval dispute, without effective de-escalation mechanisms, will continue to grow.