Beginning of a New Era

The story behind India’s first nuclear submarine INS Chakra

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (retd)Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (retd)

The major policy decision implicit in the directive of October 1968 signed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed to the defence minister and the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) was to prepare an action plan and progress steps to achieve advanced strategic frontiers.

This was followed by discussions in 1974 between the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral S.N. Kohli and Admiral of the Fleet S.G. Gorshkov on the broad contours of the navy’s role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond. Coincidentally, the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) programme was formally initiated by the Prime Minister a few months later. Readers would recall that the United States’ aircraft carrier USS Enterprise had made a threatening move in the Bay of Bengal during Bangladesh operations in December 1971.

Pokhran I (1974), through a peaceful nuclear explosion, was a clear message that the nation would not be coerced into forsaking its national interests. The priority accorded to Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was the move in the same direction. Navies are also a mirror of a nation’s capabilities in science and technology. Hence, the nuclear submarine was the platform that would become a ‘factor of uncertainty’ to reckon with in the calculations of the superpower and other extra-regional navies in the IOR.

The quest began with internal discussions at the highest political level. The Prime Minister advised by her principal team of advisors including G. Parthasarthi considered a single page, hand-written, position paper submitted by me, then a young commander in the Indian Navy. It was accepted in principle by the government and was only actively revived in 1980 after the return of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister, when offers were made at the level of the Soviet defence minister, Marshal D.F. Ustinov and Admiral S.G. Gorshkov to set up a nuclear submarine fleet for India and lease one nuclear submarine to train the Indian crew.

INS Chakra
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visiting INS Chakra I

This gathered pace despite some ‘refrains’ of, ‘We must learn to walk before we can run. The Soviet offer would neither strengthen the navy’s submarine arm nor add muscle to India’s maritime forces from the then CNS Admiral R.L. Pereira and few others in the navy, some elements in the ministry of defence (MoD), and alarms raised by external powers, using covert channels.

However, a determined Indira Gandhi, then also the defence minister, approved the go-ahead to sign an inter-governmental agreement (IGA), simultaneously approved by President Leonid Brezhnev. The commissioning crew to be trained left for Vladivostok in 1983 to commence their two and half years training. Due to the change of leadership in the Soviet Union there was an overall change in the geo-political situation. Soviet leader and general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, met the US President Ronald Reagan at the Reykjavik in 1986.

The finalisation of the terms and signing of the lease took place in July 1987 after the decision was taken by Ambassador T.N. Kaul and chief of naval staff Admiral R.H. Tahiliani in Moscow. The Chakra (I) crew returned to the Soviet Union in August 1987 for delivery acceptance trials. The US dispatched a note of protest to the Soviet ministry of foreign affairs which resulted in the suspension of the transfer process in October 1987. On Ambassador T.N. Kaul’s advice, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi paid an unprecedented one-day working visit to Moscow. The go-ahead was finally given in mid-December 1987 for the completion of the transfer process and hoisting of the Indian colours on Chakra (I) on 5 January 1988.

Similar high drama repeated itself in mid-1998 with the initiation of the lease for Chakra (II) till signing of the contract along with the Gorshkov aircraft carrier on 20 January 2004. These demonstrate the international attention and attempt to de-rail the ‘N’ submarines programme. Of course, one has to not only anticipate but always be well-prepared for this as far as strategic projects are concerned.

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