INS Arihant: A 'Giant Stride' for India?

16 Jun, 2014    ·   4519

Amit Saxena says that the vessel may not go nuclear or underwater anytime soon

Amit Saksena
Amit Saksena
Research Intern
When the INS Arihant’s nuclear reactor went critical in August 2013, India not only joined the blue-water navy club of countries with the capability to build nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, but also picked on a major doctrinal headache. This, apart from the specification concerns and limited intended utility, puts the Indian Advanced Technological Vessel (ATV) programme in a quagmire. With the Indian Navy expecting to acquire and deploy the vessel in the first quarter of 2015, certain aspects of this project must be discussed to gauge New Delhi’s capability to field and utilise such technology.

The ATV project is believed to have been started with the objective of manufacturing SSNs –fast moving deep-diving nuclear powered attack submarines – largely based on the K-43 Charlie class vessel, leased from the Soviet Union at a time when India did not overtly possess nuclear capability. The project since then has been covertly developing in the backdrop of India conducting the Pokhran-II tests, declaring an ambiguous nuclear strategy, and making impressive strides in the development of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The Arihant class seems to be a derivative of the Charlie class, with the specifications scaled up to the Akula class to accommodate a Vertical Launch System (VLS) for ballistic missiles. Although this would not hamper the general functioning of the vessel, as per reports of the sea trials, the full implications of this tweak will only emerge when the Sagarika SLBMs are integrated into the of the INS Arihant in early 2015. Furthermore, the inclusion of sail planes and a towed array pod are surprising, as they are generally avoided to counter limitations to speed and fragility.

The pressurised water reactor (PWR) aboard the vessel has also been developed with considerable assistance from the Russians, contradicting New Delhi’s claims of the Arihant being an indigenously developed submarine. With no word on the progress of a domestic generator in India, the Arihant class’s core component still uses Russian intelligence and technology. The initial vessel consumed more than a decade to be rolled out for primary tests, as opposed to the average five years taken for the development of vessels of the same class/category by the five other navies that possess this technology.

With the first vessel of the Arihant class still undergoing final trials, India’s decision to start work on subsequent vessels is a little hurried. An ideal strategy would have been to concentrate on finishing the INS Arihant and observing it in a deployed state and then diverting time and resources on the succeeding vessels. If the claims of the INS Aridhaman (second vessel in the Arihant class) being built with ‘bigger and better’ specifications is true, then the Indian government has not taken any pointers from this endeavour and embarked on a new project without successfully completing the first. In any case, the US$ 2.9 billion per unit price of the vessel does not justify its results, especially in comparison with other navies building the same submarine at a significantly lower price.

Utility: Intended Vs. Delivered
Former Naval Chief Nirmal Verma described the INS Arihant as primarily a ‘technology demonstrator’. However, it remains to be seen as to what ‘technology’ the vessel will be demonstrating. A simple comparison of the Arihant with other submarines of comparable class/category will reflect this issue. The Arihant has an advertised maximum speed of only 24kts (submerged), as opposed to the average 30kts afforded by all the other classes. Not only does this reflect poorly on India’s – DRDO and BARC’s – technological capabilities, but also impedes the operational capability of the vessel. Once discovered, the propellant potential becomes the deciding factor for the survivability of a submarine.

Also, the armament capacity of the INS Arihant is acutely inferior, with the vessel only fielding 12 K-15 short-range SLBMs. In contrast, the Astute, the Virginia and the Akula class all have provisions for at least 40 missiles.

With its slow speed and limited strike range, INS Arihant does not contribute significantly to India’s second-strike capability, with both China and Pakistan fielding advanced anti-missile and early warning systems. 

Doctrinal Shortcomings
The INS Arihant poses a new dilemma for the Modi government. For ‘credible minimum deterrence’, New Delhi is believed to have kept its nuclear weapons in a ‘de-mated’ state with the civilian authority exercising absolute control. For a ballistic nuclear submarine, the government will not only have to increase the readiness of the weapons, but also relinquish their command to naval officers on board the vessel. This increases the possibility of an unauthorised/erroneous launch. Also absent are well-defined protocols to dictate the steps to be taken in the event of a communications failure with the central command authority, or dealing with a hostile take-over. The INS Arihant is a classic example of governments going into the production stage of weapons without developing concomitant doctrines.

The INS Arihant maybe a landmark achievement, but it cannot stand up to China’s newest Jin class vessels, reported to be one of the current best. Similarly, the implication of inducting a nuclear submarine in the Indian Navy on Pakistan remains to be seen. There are already talks of Beijing selling submarines and technology to Pakistan. In that case, the INS Arihant has only initiated another arms race in the region.