Rear Admiral Raja Menon : Indian Express Fri Apr 06
‘INS Chakra’ shows the significance of nuclear attack submarines
After 1986, when India acquired a nuclear attack submarine on lease, the country has gone in again for one of the most powerful attack boats in the world — a Russian origin Akula II class. Armed with supersonic cruise missiles and torpedoes and capable of diving deeper and going faster than the first Chakra, this submarine, also called Chakra, carries no nuclear tippled ballistic missiles as does the INS Arihant.
Nevertheless, this attack submarine is the queen of the seas and unlike the Arihant, which is meant to stay out of harm’s way and launch her deterrent missiles, the Chakra is a fighting platform — the most formidable in the world. With two powerful nuclear reactors, she can transit at 30 knots and appear off the coasts of Africa, the Persian Gulf and the subcontinent within an interval of three days. No ship can stand against it and in the Falklands War, where a nuclear attack boat was last used, its very appearance at sea bottled up the entire Argentine navy in harbour for the duration of the war. Rarely can a tactical fighting platform, be it a ship or an aircraft, create strategic ripples by its very appearance in one part of the ocean, which is why it is the most feared fighting platform of all. It has no equal, is undetectable and is a true destroyer of enemies.
Delayed by over a year by having had an accident while on trial, and because of a few contractual problems, this submarine will change the fighting profile of the entire Indian navy in the eyes of the world. Mixed with pride at owning such a platform is a tinge of regret. One submarine is not enough. We need a fleet of six nuclear attack boats to leave in no doubt as to which navy is the arbiter of power in the Indian ocean.
What then appears to be the problem in getting the required number? The navy itself is going in at this stage of the country’s development for a further six Scorpene class conventional diesel-electric submarines which don’t have a role in a genuine blue water navy, thereby diverting resources from acquiring the queen of the battle. The indigenisation lobby is another handicap, for there is a belief that we must not just acquire a nuclear attack submarine, but make one in India — and that would take 20 years. Indigenisation for its own sake would be a tragedy when the nation needs these platforms for its politico-military strategy today.
Building a nuclear submarine is a strategic project for the country, like the light combat aircraft and the main battle tank. Having already built submarines in the country, at Mazagon dockyard, the technical hold-up comes from designing and building the nuclear propulsion reactor, on which the Department of Atomic Energy and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre have spent almost two decades and yet not been entirely successful. Foreign help is required and we are today free of technological sanctions. Even then, acquiring nuclear propulsion technology will require a bold attitude, clever strategy and hard bargaining. We lost a golden opportunity to tie up with the French, when we chose the Rafale fighter. Even now it is not too late for the nuclear submarine reactor project to ride piggy back on a large payout project like the civil nuclear reactors or the building of the next six conventional submarines, for which tenders are even today in the pipeline.
Since the days when we started building the Arihant, the techno-strategic scene has changed dramatically. In the 1980s, there was only one yard worth looking at — Mazagon. Today, there are a host of public and private yards in competitive bidding for large projects. Furthermore, the external environment has turned benign and technology is available for the asking. With these advantages, it should be possible to induct one more submarine construction line to build nuclear attack submarines, preferably with foreign aid, so that delivery is possible within reasonable time frames. The navy has recently begun to exploit the capabilities of private yards in building offshore patrol vessels and landing ships dock — the latter is the most interesting where the Indian yard is responsible for acquiring foreign technology with a joint venture contract.
Strategically the country needs power in the Indian Ocean as the arbiter of assuring a peaceful environment for India’s domestic economic growth. There is little point in building nuclear attack boats 20 years from now when our developmental hurdles have been crossed. The Himalayan border must remain peaceful and the way to ensure that it does, is to remain supreme in the Indian Ocean.
A fleet of six nuclear attack submarines like the powerful Chakra will leave everyone in no doubt that power in the ocean lies with New Delhi. But a meaningless acquisition of ships and conventional submarines will terrify none. For that we need nuclear attack boats and the navy must first come to an intellectual consensus on this issue. It can then demand from the national industry the investment and managerial inputs to build a line of nuclear attack boats. There is no need to confine the demand to public sector yards — national capability far outflanks what public sector yards can do.
The writer retired as a rear admiral from the Indian navy, email@example.com