Is AUKUS pact a signal to India to go for nuclear attack submarines?

With a new aircraft carrier, six new Kalvari class diesel attack submarines and Vishakhapatnam class of destroyers, the Indian Navy is going to be very potent force in the Indo-Pacific by 2025.
File picture of nuclear powered ballistic missile firing submarine INS Arighat, set to be commissioned next year.
File picture of nuclear powered ballistic missile firing submarine INS Arighat, set to be commissioned next year.
Published on Sep 18, 2021 11:23 AM IST
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By Shishir Gupta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

With Australia signing a pact with US and UK to go in for eight nuclear powered conventional attack submarines or SSNs to deter China in Indo-Pacific, India also needs to have a relook at its 1999 conventional submarine plan and move swiftly towards nuclear powered sub-surface vessels.

While India has floated a Request for Information (RFI) for six new diesel attack submarines with air independent propulsion for longer duration under water under Project 75I, the rapidly changing security scenario in the Indo-Pacific calls for Modi government to put the plan of three SSNs on the front-burner. India as of now has one ballistic missile firing nuclear submarine or SSBN, INS Arihant, with another one, INS Arighat, ready for commissioning next year. It does not have a nuclear-powered conventional attack submarine, but the situation will change in 2025.

Although the French are understandably unhappy at Australia for unilaterally scuttling the USD 50 billion deal with Naval Group to build 12 AIP equipped diesel submarines in favour of SSNs under the newly unveiled AUKUS Anglo-Saxon pact, fact is that the rapidly building Chinese Navy needed a stronger response. The SSNs are only limited by food supplies and the mental framework of their crew and can-do sea access-sea denial patrols for more than 45 days. In short, Australia, which is at the receiving end of the belligerent Chinese like India and Japan, can deter the powerful PLA Navy, which has a series of SSNs and SSBNs and is acquiring longer sea legs by the day.

In this context, Indian national security planners also need to reconsider Project 75 I and Project 76, a follow-up of the previous one, and jump to Project 77 or the SSN project. Since submarine building takes at least a decade from the drawing board, India needs to prepare for a time when Chinese aircraft carriers and SSNs will be patrolling the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) apart from other global players.

It is not that the Modi government is sitting tight and watching the unfolding security situation in maritime dimension. With new aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, INS Arighat SSBN, six new Kalvari class diesel attack submarines and Vishakhapatnam class of destroyers, the Indian Navy is going to be very potent force in the Indo-Pacific by 2025.

With US willing to sell armed Predator drones, Aegis integrated combat system and Tomahawk cruise missile to India, Modi government has enough options to project power in Indo-Pacific. India’s key ally France is also willing to help in design and construction of SSNs as well as improve Indian military’s over the horizon capabilities.

Just as US, India and Australia are focused on the Indo-Pacific, the new Japanese leadership is also shedding its pacifist approach faced with wolf-warriors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The emerging leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are conservative and nationalist in approach. Rather than be pushed around by Beijing, Japan is all ready to join hands with Quad partners in securing Indo-Pacific.

The AUKUS pact will not be without security ramifications for the Quad partners as there is a distinct possibility that China may build an SSN for its client Pakistan citing the transfer of nuclear reactor under AUKUS to Australia. This will create a bigger security headache for India and for other countries in the IOR. Time has come for India to revisit its deterrent capabilities and for Indian Navy to think beyond Karachi.

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Thursday, October 21, 2021