The Indian Navy’s undersea combatant arm is facing a yawning chasm between ambition and capability. Its proposal to acquire at least six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) has been awaiting the government’s approval for nearly four years.
As the lease of the Russian Akula class nuclear-powered submarine ended in 2021, the Indian Navy is left with no SSN in its fleet. Reports are that India is in talks with France to collaborate on the project to build the six SSNs.
China’s submarine fleet consists of more than 70 submarines, including seven nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), 12 nuclear attack submarines (SSN), and more than 50 diesel attack submarines (SSKs). In contrast, most of India’s conventional submarine fleet was acquired in the 1980s and is getting long in the tooth.
The nuclear-powered submarines are so critical for the Indian Navy to match the growing power of PLAN that the former has reportedly shelved its project to build a 65,000-ton Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC)-2 in favor of the SSN project. After all, SSNs are underwater fighter jets.
“SSNs are a game changer. They are powerful platforms with stealth and unlimited endurance. They can remain underwater indefinitely and operate far away from the port for long periods and at high speeds. They can move along as part of the carrier battlegroup. Armed with long-range missiles, they can change the shape of maritime battle,” a former Indian Navy submariner Commodore Anil Jai Singh told the EurAsian Times.
The SSN has greater reach, endurance, and speed than the slow and short-legged diesel submarine. It can remain submerged for months, as compared to hours or days for the diesel engine-cum-battery propelled conventional boats, even one with AIP.
Once it dives into deep waters, the SSN is not only difficult to detect but has (unlike the diesel sub) enough speed to overtake or outrun most other submarines or warships if required. The classic roles of an SSN are to protect carrier battle groups and to hunt enemy SSBNs, but it is also an ideal platform for the anti-ship, land-attack, and surveillance roles.
India signed a US$3 billion deal for another nuclear-powered Akula class attack submarine from Russia in 2019. With the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the beginning of the lease is likely to miss its deadline of 2026. For the indigenous SSNs, if the government’s nod comes tomorrow, it will take another 10-15 years before the first of the lot becomes combat worthy.
So, realistically speaking, the first homegrown SSN will enter the Indian Navy by 2040. The Indian Navy has got the in-principle approval for six SSNs, and it is waiting for a nod from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to begin work on it.
In July, Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) signed an agreement with the Electronics Corporation of Indian Limited (ECIL) to develop 11 types of control systems and their multifunction consoles. This would facilitate the efficient execution of the work on SSNs and, overall, establish India’s nuclear triad to support the established nuclear warfighting doctrine.
India presently has two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). As an instrument of India’s nuclear deterrence, they cannot be deployed for tactical missions.
That is where the SSNs come into play to counter numerically superior navies. They can stalk and shadow targets at will, and their near invulnerability makes them the most potent weapon in a country’s arsenal.
It is evident from how India deployed its only Russian Akula class submarine, rechristened as INS Chakra, on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean during one of the many border standoffs with China in the past decade.
According to reports, INS Chakra slipped out of the Visakhapatnam harbor on the eastern seaboard of India and disappeared for over a month after diving into the Bay of Bengal.
Her deployment to the East was a well-kept secret. It demonstrated India’s ability to carry out maritime strikes in response to land aggression.
India’s Prospective Fleet Of Nuclear Sharks
SSNs are an “expensive” proposition. The Indian Navy has gained invaluable experience maintaining and operating nuclear-powered submarines through the leased Russian Akula class submarines.
India has designed and developed nuclear-powered ballistic attack submarines (SSBNs) – INS Arihant and INS Arighat, with the help of Russians. This has given them the expertise to miniaturize the nuclear reactor to fit into a submarine. Arihant is powered by an 83 MW reactor manufactured by the BARC.
The proposed SSNs are planned to be bigger and more powerful. The SSNs will have a 190 MW reactor powering it.
India is in talks with France to collaborate on the ambitious program to build six nuclear-powered submarines. France’s Naval Group is building the Barracuda class SSNs for the French Navy.
“With the US, the UK, and Australia collaborating under AUKUS to develop nuclear-powered submarines, France is the only option for India at the moment,” the official added. India and France, during the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Paris, decided to cooperate in the field of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).
The US and UK plan to double their SSN fleets over the next two decades, alongside helping Australia beef up its attack submarine muscle to counter the rising influence of China in the Indo-Pacifiic. AUKUS aims at a critical vulnerability in the Chinese Navy – their weak antisubmarine warfare capabilities.
Chinese Checkers In The Indian Ocean
The Indian nuclear-powered submarine program has been hanging fire due to bureaucratic hurdles. But, the PLAN is taking giant strides to augment its undersea capability.
According to an assessment by the US Naval Institute, the level of quieting in China’s current Shang class SSN is at par with Soviet designs from the 1970s. The assessment said: “In contrast, if the PLAN were able to deploy super-quiet SSNs on par with the best US and Russian boats, that would represent a major strategic change—not only for its ability to defend on the open ocean but also in terms of China’s capacity to threaten US naval forces well outside the first island chain.
“Such a capability would give China transoceanic reach with single platforms, absent the extensive logistical support or need for the overseas bases a carrier strike group requires.”
The PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean has been growing steadily since 2009. The rise of piracy and hijacking of ships in the Gulf of Aden hastened the Chinese Navy’s advent in the region. Even today, the Chinese warships and their sub-surface vessels are ostensibly in the Indian Ocean to thwart piracy attempts and protect its commercial interests.
China has been deploying Sea Wing Underwater Unmanned Vehicles with fair regularity to gather data about the region’s currents, acoustics, and maritime environment, which, besides legitimate scientific endeavors, can help the PLAN submarines chart navigational courses.
The deployment of submarines, along with PLAN’s survey and hydrographic ships in the Indian Ocean, has become a regular feature since 2017. The increasing presence of Chinese state-run hydrographic ships and survey vessels will facilitate the future deployment of Chinese SSBNs and SSNs in the Indian Ocean.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com