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India needs to put its nuclear-powered submarine in perspective

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Indian’s indigenous nuclear-powered submarine called ‘S2’ project by the Defence and Research Organisation was finally (after over two-decades in the making) launched at Visakhapatnam on July 26. The submarine, reportedly costing Rs 30,000 crore, will require a minimum two years of harbour, sea and weapon trials before it gets commissioned into the navy. Speaking on the occasion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India has no aggressive designs towards any country. The vessel, he said, was needed for two reasons: safeguard India and keep pace with technological advancements worldwide. On both counts, the Prime Minister has not been informed well. This is not all. There are other aspects of this secretive project that need to be considered seriously.

Let’s start with the technology of the submarine. It is known to be at least three decades old, and thus does not conform to advancements worldwide. What is not known is the operational fall-out of this aspect. Unlike any nuclear-powered submarines that can stay at depths of 600feet under water, this submarine is incapable of achieving even one-third depth. Consequently, long-range Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) cannot be fired from this submarine. It will be nigh impossible to fire more than the suggested short-range K-15 ballistic missiles from this platform. The question to ponder over is whether an under-water platform that can fire maximum 600km range missiles serves our national security purpose when we are seeking deterrence against China?

The problem is that when the DRDO conceived this project in early Eighties, the sights were kept extremely low with only Pakistan in mind. Over the years, nobody thought of raising the sights as it involved going back to the drawing board, with uncertainty of ever completing the project. The government now has cleared construction of two more submarines of same specifications. Operationally, it is wise to have three nuclear-powered submarines, but what use would they be if they give little security assurance against China and Pakistan does not care much? Pakistan has a first-use nuclear policy and an assured nuclear weapons vector in its ballistic missiles. What the navy requires are more diesel-powered submarines especially when China and Pakistan are investing heavily in their sea denial capabilities. It is no secret that not more than six of the present 16 submarines with the navy are sea-worthy. While the navy has put up a brave front saying that its 30-year submarine plan in on course, it is not entirely true. It is high time that steps are initiated on the acquisition of the second-line of diesel submarines.

On another note, the Russian ambassador to India, Vyacheslav I. Trubnikov and his team were the only foreigners present at the nuclear-powered submarine launch ceremony. This is indicative of the fact that the Russian are ‘partners’ and not mere ‘consultants’ as the DRDO referred to them at the ceremony. This aspect requires reflection especially when the Russians have not been fair in their defence dealings with India. Moscow is extracting a massive price for minimal assistance in strategic areas and seems to be getting away with it. Take the recent Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on Admiral Gorshkov, which has called the purchase ‘a defence mess-up.’ The Russians have sold us what-was-scrap for nearly three billion dollars. Earlier, Russia tried to sell us second-hand Tanguska air defence systems while charging us for new platforms. They gave us over USD 300 million worth of Krasnopol precision artillery ammunition that turned out to be duds. This is not all. The Russian Sea Dragon suites on the five naval IL-38 aircraft have literally been pushed down our throats. India paid for the research and development of the system which proved incompatible for our tropical conditions. The navy refused to accept the last three IL-38SD aircraft for three years; finally under pressure said that system had been fully proven. I personally remember the agitation writ large over the face of the navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta when at the 2007 Navy Day press-conference he said that India should refuse to submit to Moscow’s blackmail on Admiral Gorshkov, and not put all its eggs in the Russian defence basket. Who would know better about the Russian carrier that the chief himself who is a distinguished aviator? Yet, he was silenced with media reports saying that Admiral Mehta had been upbraided by the defence minister. If true, this is a national shame.

Yet another aspect of the nuclear-powered submarine launch needs consideration. The launch was initially decided for January 26, the Republic Day, but could not be done as the Prime Minister was hospitalised for cardiac surgery. Thereafter, India was busy with its General Elections, and finally the launch could be done on July 26. For six months, the vessel was lying in the dry-dock waiting for the opportune time for VIP launch. Should it not have been done by a lesser mortal, say the Union defence minister? If India wants to become a big power, it has to move away from symbolism and demonstrate urgency and transparency on national security matters.

The last issue concerns the naming of the vessel. INS Arihant is the name given by the media; the navy does not know about this. According to a top naval officer who is in the know of things, the naming of the vessel will be at the time of its commissioning. What can be said about this?


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