A Nuclear Journey’s Tipping Point

Prime Minister Modi with a crew member of INS Arihant on November 5
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Seen from that vantage point, INS Arihant marks only the start of what India needs for functional nuclear deterrence

WHEN PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi met the crew of INS Arihant, India’s indigenously built ballistic missile submarine, his pride was obvious. The submarine had just completed its first deterrence patrol—an operational run armed with nuclear-tipped missiles—and this marks the ‘completion’ of India’s nuclear triad of sea, air and land-based nuclear capabilities. It is a remarkable achievement but one that is only the start of a much longer and challenging nuclear journey given India’s exceptionally adverse strategic environment.

INS Arihant is the first of a fleet of four or five ballistic missile nuclear submarines or SSBNs . The second sub in the Arihant class, INS Arighat is being outfitted at the moment and is reportedly undergoing sea trials. These submarines are vital if India’s second strike nuclear capability is to have an operational meaning. By ‘second strike’ one means the ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack after an enemy has launched one of its own. These are, of course, doomsday scenarios. But the essence of nuclear strategy is a combination of signalling and preparation. Signalling requires that one’s enemies know that one has the means to carry out what one says. From that perspective, a sea-based deterrent is perhaps the most vital peg of nuclear deterrence today. Land and sea-based systems—whether they are missiles or aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons—are easily detected by satellite imagery and also by other intelligence means. In contrast, an SSBN can silently slither into the depths of the sea, undetected.

Seen from that vantage point, INS Arihant marks only the start of what India needs for functional nuclear deterrence. One area that requires attention is the missiles with which INS Arihant is equipped. At the moment, these are K-15 missiles with a range of 750 km. This is a severe limitation in the context of the potential targets at which a nuclear warhead may need to be aimed one day. In a recent comment, former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash noted that if this submarine were placed somewhere in the Bay of Bengal, it would mean that targets in China and Pakistan remain out of reach. Hopefully, the next generation of Indian SSBNs will be equipped with K-4 missiles that have a much longer range of around 3,500 km.

As compared to other classes of SSBNs , INS Arihant is a nimble boat with a much smaller displacement of 6,000 tonnes. For comparison, consider the American Ohio class of submarines that displace roughly 16,800 tonnes and the newest Russian SSBNs of the Borei class that displace around 14,700 tonnes. These much bigger subs were built with a very different geostrategic intent and purpose. What India needs at the moment are more subs equipped with longer range missiles. This inadequacy was painfully evident last year when INS Arihant had a minor accident: its hatches were left open and seawater flooded the sub. That this accident happened just around the time of the Doklam crisis is noteworthy. If, instead, India had a fleet of SSBNs then even if one was ashore for repairs, others could fill in the gap. A single ballistic missile submarine is a lonely animal, it needs company.

Then there are other issues to consider. The intent to make an indigenous SSBN was announced by then Defence Minister George Fernandes almost two decades ago. Unlike Cold War US or USSR, India does not have a military industrial complex of that scale and complexity. Nor, some would argue, does it need one. But that does not discount the fact that its need of strategic weapons—innovative missiles, space-based weapons, harnessing of Artificial Intelligence to military ends and, of course, SSBNs—will grow rapidly in the years ahead. Had India’s military industrial capabilities, including its woeful naval shipbuilding infrastructure, been better, the country’s turnaround time for getting hold of SSBNs—from laying of the keel all the way to commissioning—would have been much shorter. The fact that INS Arighat is close to commissioning is a matter of some satisfaction.

India’s torpid strategic culture—a topic that raises hackles in many quarters—and the rather loose fit between its political goals and the military means available to implement them are well-known across the world. To those who rationalise this state of affairs, this is part of the country’s strategic culture, one that has kept India’s enemies lulled for long. That may (or may not) have been true in an earlier era. But in the age where countries mark off entire oceans as their territory, pretending otherwise is naïve at best and more likely dangerous for one’s survival. Having an SSBN patrol the oceans goes some distance in providing a sense of security but only some. Building the entire phalanx of weapons and platforms needed for robust defence not only requires economic muscle but also unwavering political support to this end, one that is not shaken by noises of peace first and security later. If anything, peace is maintained much more robustly in a country that ensures its overall national security.