The PowerPoint presentation by navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh at the combined commanders’ conference in Kevadia, Gujarat, on March 6 this year had been some months in the making. For nearly 18 months now, the proposal to indigenously build six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) for Rs 96,000 crore had been stuck with the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) as senior government officials questioned the need for the platforms during an economic crisis. The navy chief pressed Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the urgency of the programme to build the SSNs, each displacing around 6,000 tonnes and costing around Rs 16,000 crore, as key to solving the crisis in India’s underseas combatant arm. The bulk of India’s conventional submarine fleet, acquired in the 1980s, are approaching the end of their 30-year service lives. Bureaucratic delays have hit their replacements.
The underseas arm is shrinking at a time when India’s principal adversary, China, has initiated the largest post Cold War naval expansion. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) navy is now the world’s largest in a number of warships, and will continue to grow over the next decade, not only adding new aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and surface ships but also expanding its reach through distant deployments in the Indian Ocean region.
Admiral Singh’s pitch seems to have worked. The CCS is now set to fire the starter’s pistol on a project that has been on the blocks for two decades. The CCS nod will release government funds so that the geographically scattered, technologically challenging project can finally get underway. The project involves a final design clearance in Gurugram, nuclear reactor construction in Kalpakkam, hull fabrication in Hazira and assembly and sea trials at the shipbuilding Centre (SBC) in Visakhapatnam. It will take over a decade for the first 6,000-tonne submarine to enter the waters. It is believed that an ambitious naval project to build a second indigenous aircraft carrier, the 65,000-tonne IAC-2, has now been shelved in favour of the SSN project.
The SSN project has remained in the shadows of India’s Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), a top-secret effort to build four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The INS Arihant was commissioned in 2016 and the second unit, the S3, will be commissioned this year. Two more units, the S4 and the S4*, will be inducted by 2025.
Both SSBNs and SSNs use nuclear fission reactors to generate enormous heat generating steam to drive a propeller shaft. But that’s where their similarity ends. SSBNs are like strategic bombers, tools of deterrence stealthily lurking under the ocean with their ready-to-fire nuclear-tipped missiles. SSNs are the underwater equivalent of fighter jets. Conventional diesel-electric submarines are in reality submersibles, they have to ‘snorkel’ close to the surface of the water—to suck in air to run their diesel engines and recharge their batteries—when they are most vulnerable to detection. They can sustain submerged speeds of 20 knots in only short bursts of around half an hour. SSNs are true submarines in that they can stay and operate underwater almost indefinitely—their endurance is limited only by food supplies for the crew. They are also equipped with a range of tactical weapons like torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles and land-attack cruise missiles.
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