With the launch of Arihant, India’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, on 26 July India has become the sixth country in the world after US, Russia, UK, France and China to develop its own nuclear submarine. Rightly hailed as a major step in India's quest for a minimal but credible nuclear deterrent, Arihant, which means ‘destroyer of enemies’, will help provide India with the capability to launch nuclear weapons from sea. More importantly, Arihant is the realization of the third leg of the nuclear triad that will help the Indian Navy to decisively influence military movements in a wide geographical area and counter all sorts of conflicts. For strategic balance in naval power vis-à-vis China, Arihant marks only the beginning of India’s efforts, it has a long way to go before it can match China that already has 10 nuclear-powered submarines.
What is the strategic significance of Arhant? Given India’s nuclear doctrine of no-first-use (NFU), possession of a nuclear submarine is of immense importance. Aimed at acquiring second-strike capability, Arihant can launch a deadly counter-strike even if an enemy’s nuclear attack cripples land-based missiles. In fact, equipped with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, Arihant provides that ultimate riposte. In a scenario where a first strike by an enemy could result in India's airbases and nuclear missile infrastructure being crippled, the role of Arihant becomes crucial in destroying the enemy’s missiles infrastructure bases with precision and perfection.
Second, living in a neighbourhood with nuclear capabilities, India needed the powerful nuclear submarine for security purposes. At the launch of the Arihant, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rightly pointed out that India does not have aggressive design but it seeks a peaceful external environment in the region and beyond that is conducive to India’s peaceful development and protection of its value systems. He clearly meant more secure Indian seas. With China’s rising naval prowess New Delhi has been compelled to develop a nuclear submarine. Like the navies of the US and China, India too seems serious about creating a formidable maritime strategy. Arihant is an example of that strategy, a strategy which would be adequate for an anti-Pakistan second strike. However, a joint China-Pakistan adventure in Indian Ocean could pose a challenge for the country.
When operational in 2012, a 6,000-tonne Arihant, also known as Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN), will have the capability not only to survive a first strike but also strike back with devastating consequences against the aggressor. Armed with 12 K-15 Sagarika missiles, each capable of carrying a five-tonne nuclear warhead to a target at a distance of 750 km. Unlike the 16 diesel-electric conventional submarines that currently constitute the Indian Navy's submarine fleet, which need to resurface in order to take in air to charge their engines, Arihant has endless underwater endurance. In the future, 3,500 km-range K-X missiles are sought to replace the K-15 missiles on Arihant. Another striking feature of Arihant is that it runs silent and deep, and it is twice as fast as its conventional counterparts, for example, it can acquire surface speeds of 12-15 knots per hour and a submerged speed of up to 24 knots per hour. Hidden from the enemy’s eyes, Arihant can lurk in the depths of the ocean for months together, making it difficult for the enemy to detect it. From these depths it can track down and destroy an enemy’s ballistic missile submarines and other naval targets.
These feature notwithstanding, looking at what China has acquired, India needs to work extra hard. Compared with 750 km and 3,500 km range missiles, China’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-1, had a range of 1,700 km while its new JL-2 missile is estimated to have a range of about 8,000 km. However, in terms of diving depth, Arihant is not inferior to the average submarines being built in China and elsewhere. Arihant has captured the attention of the Indian people as a missile-firing submarine and attests to the determination of country’s technologists, scientists and defence personnel who have overcome several hurdles and barriers to enable the country to acquire self reliance in the most advanced areas of defence technology.
So far the development of nuclear submarines is concerned, India has a long way to go and much to learn much from China – both on the technology and diplomacy fronts. Given the fact that India does not have a white paper on Nuclear Submarine Force, there is a need for harnessing technological talents such as strategists, industrialists and nuclear engineers. Though the idea of constructing a nuclear submarine was conceived in the 1970s, India took ten years to go ahead with the US$2.9 billion Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project. On the political level, India has been denying that the country was building a nuclear submarine. Now with Arihant launched, what the country needs is to pursue the policy of building nuclear submarines not only to back up the Arihant, but also more advanced submarines in order to ensure India’s security.