India is set to clear a mega indigenous project to build three nuclear-powered attack submarines, which will be followed by approval for another three at a later stage, as part of the long-term plan to counter China’s expanding naval footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is likely to give the final nod “within a month or two” to the submarine project, which has been hanging fire for over a year now, say top government sources.
The overall project is for the construction of six nuclear-powered attack submarines (called SSNs in naval parlance), each weighing over 6,000-tonne, at the ship-building center (SBC) at Vizag. But only three will be approved by the CCS in the first go, with the first indigenous SSN slated to roll out by around 2032 or so. Though each will cost around Rs 15,000 crore, the funding will not be a major problem because it will be spread over several years, said the sources.
India will also commission its second nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear ballistic missiles (called SSBN), INS Arighat, this year. The first, INS Arihant, became fully operational with “a successful deterrence patrol” in late-2018. This somewhat completed India’s long-awaited “nuclear triad” after the land-based Agni missiles and fighter jets like Mirage-2000s jury-rigged to deliver nuclear bombs.
A SSN does not have “a strategic role” like a SSBN. Instead, it’s a deadly “hunter-killer” of enemy warships and submarines, while also being equipped with long-range cruise missiles to hit land targets. It can quietly track an enemy target for extended ranges, and take it out as and when when required. India currently operates a solitary SSN, INS Chakra, the Akula-class submarine taken on an initial 10-year lease from Russia in April 2012. In March 2019, an over $3 billion (Rs 21,000 crore) deal was inked with Russia to lease a more advanced SSN to eventually replace INS Chakra.
India, of course, needs to build its own SSNs because they will not only prove cheaper but also give a major boost to the local economy. Nuclear submarines can operate at high speeds for long distances as well as remain submerged for months at end, without having to surface or “snorkel” every few days to get oxygen to recharge their batteries like conventional diesel-electric submarines.
TOI was the first to report that the Modi government had rejigged the 30-year submarine building plan, which was first approved by the CCS in 1999, to include construction of 18 diesel-electric boats and six SSNs. The construction of SSBNs is a separate project under the PMO. The 6,000-tonne INS Arihant and INS Arighat, currently armed with 750-km range K-15 nuclear missiles, will be followed by two 7,000-tonne SSBNs.
Moreover, an even bigger 13,500-tonne SSBN is also being planned, while the new K-4 missiles, with a strike range of 3,500-km, are now virtually ready, as was earlier reported by TOI. Apart from two nuclear submarines, India currently has only 12 ageing diesel-electric boats and three new Scorpenes. China already has the world’s largest Navy with 350 warships, including 50 conventional and 10 nuclear submarines.