For Navy, 6 nuclear-powered submarines take priority over 3rd aircraft carrier

Mar 24, 2021 11:24 AM IST

India’s emphasis on submarines to counter China comes against the backdrop of Beijing raising its capacity to build a destroyer in just 5 years.

The Indian Navy has informed the Narendra Modi government that the induction of six nuclear-powered submarines would take priority over a third heavy aircraft carrier discussed earlier to counter the rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and dominate the Indian Ocean, people familiar with the matter said.

India’s sole nuclear powered attack submarine INS Chakra, which is on lease from Russia. (Wikimedia Commons/Ilya Kurganov)
India’s sole nuclear powered attack submarine INS Chakra, which is on lease from Russia. (Wikimedia Commons/Ilya Kurganov)

According to South Block officials, the Indian Navy told the country’s national security planners at the Combined Commanders Conference this month that the plan to build the nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs should take priority over the project to build a third aircraft carrier (also called indigenous aircraft carrier 2). It is understood that the Navy will seek “acceptance of necessity” or AON approval from the government on the submarine project soon as China has developed the capacity to produce 12,000-tonne Renhai class destroyers in just five years.

While even Pakistan’s Agosta 90B submarine, the only one of the five that are operational, can make its way to the Bay of Bengal with an intrepid crew, the SSN class of submarines, carrying a conventional missile and weapon systems, is only limited in range by food supplies.

The nuclear-powered submarines can patrol the entire Indo-Pacific without even surfacing once and remain detected on high seas and equatorial waters. China has nearly a dozen such submarines in operation. Its latest, the Type 095 attack submarine has a reduced acoustic signature as compared to the Han class of submarines.

While India has a number of options to jointly design and develop the submarines with countries such as Russia, France and the US under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat rubric, India’s preferred partner appears to be Paris as it is already designed Kalvari class of diesel attack submarines for Indian Navy and is currently jointly developing a nuclear attack submarine (named Alvaro Alberto) for Brazil under a strategic partnership.

Apart from being India’s closest allies in defence technology, joint development of submarines with France is free from any regulatory regimes such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) with the US or any future sanctions in case of Russia. India already operates one Akula class SSN from Russia on lease with an agreement to get another one when the lease on the first expires.

The government’s emphasis on upgrading naval assets is an attempt to counter China’s navy in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLA’s navy is larger than the US navy in terms of the number of ships, although the US is still ahead in terms of tonnage and capability.

It is in this context that the Navy is also seriously thinking of reviving its heavy-destroyer project to counter the 12,000-tonne cruisers being built by China. The first of India’s 7,500 tonne INS Visakhapatnam class of guided-missile destroyers is expected to be commissioned within a year.

Indian national security planners believe that the next threat from China will come on Indo-Pacific, particularly in the Indian Ocean with the US Navy continuously deployed in the South China Sea and ensuring that the PLAN ballistic missile submarines do not cross the first island chain. This means that PLAN will have to take a circuitous route to deploy its nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean as it is mandatory for sub-surface vessels to surface when they cross Malacca Straits, Sunda or Lombok straits.

As part of India’s effort to match China, India will commission its second aircraft carrier INS Vikrant - it is New Delhi’s first indigenously-built aircraft carrier - later this year. It will be home-based on the eastern seaboard while INS Vikramaditya, the other carrier built by Russia, will be on the western seaboard of India. INS Arighat, the second nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) will also be commissioned this year.

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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