Arihant, by itself, is not the end, but the beginning of the sea power of the Indian State.
At the turn of the last decade of the 20th century, when the once-mighty Soviet Union had already broken into 15, there were only five countries with nuclear vessels out of 157 designated naval nations — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — with India nowhere in the reckoning.
With 25 nuclear-powered strategic missile submarines (and another six building/projected/converted/life extension programmed) and 83 nuclear-powered attack submarines, the US Navy stood at the top of the list, followed by the Royal Navy’s eight Vanguard and Resolution class nuclear strategic missile subs and three types (Trafalgar, Swiftsure and Valiant) of 13 nuclear attack subs, usually deployed between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
The French Navy followed the Anglo-Saxon fleet with five nuclear; turbo-electric L’Inflexible strategic missile boats and five Rubis class nuclear attack subs (with two more building). From the developing world, the Chinese PLA Navy was the sole member of the exclusive nuclear boat club, with an inventory of one Xiang class ballistic and five Han class attack subs.
In the midst of the four, what was the fifth navy of the new Russia doing in the sea? Surprisingly, though the State was broken, the spine of the submarine fleet was yet unbroken; and the West was still apprehensive, notwithstanding its visibly reduced fleet strength. Moscow had more than 175 nuclear submarines of various types in its inventory, and even though a large number of them were reported to have been demobilised due to funding problems, resulting in a logistics nightmare, the reduced half of 175 nuclear boats was still good enough to constitute a major strategic challenge to the West.
However, the most interesting of all certainly was the report of Jane’s Fighting Ships 1992-1993 on China’s Xian class nuclear submarine. “First laid down in 1978 at Huludao Shipyard and launched April 30, 1981. Finally became operational 1987… The first firing from Xia was in 1985, and was unsuccessful… and it was not until September 1988 that a satisfactory launch took place.” Clearly, nuclear subs are no child’s play. It troubled even the pioneers.
Now fast forward from the 1990s to the 21st century. The elite club of five of the 1990s has now expanded to the exclusive six, with India being the proud new entrant. Here, one needs to recall what even the most recent almanac of world combat ships had to say in 2017 about the advancement made by India in undersea capability. Although Arihant was a “notable absentee” from the Indian Navy’s International Fleet Review at Vishakhapatnam in February 2016, “this was to be expected given the likelihood that the boat is approaching a crucial period in its life. Having begun sea trials in late 2014, the boat has been subjected to exhaustive testing over the past year, as would be the case for any first of class…” It further reported that: “Meanwhile, second of class Aridaman… at an advanced stage of construction and is expected to be launched soon”. That’s not bad at all!
All the more after what the Indian Navy faced following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That the West was always wary of India’s avowed independent geostrategic stand and status, can be gleaned from this entry: “With commendable pragmatism, India has abandoned its search for an elusive nonaligned status between the Soviet and Western camps.” The West certainly has always wanted India to abandon its “dependence” on Moscow’s military machine. However, it is the Soviet Russian nuclear-powered Charlie class submarine in the 1980s in which the Indian Navy first tested the power of the nuclear boat. The Indian fleet successfully operated it close to a decade, thereby sowing the seeds of an indigenous nuclear-powered submarine. Today’s Arihant is undoubtedly the product of the collective thought process and maritime vision of the nascent India.
Arihant, by itself, is not the end, but the beginning of the sea power of the Indian State. Henceforth, it’s likely to face a “sea state” which would be more challenging than ever before due to global uncertainties and the turbulence of our times. Moreover, Arihant is bound to face the stark reality of a “single boat” syndrome. “To maintain one submarine on continuous patrol takes a minimum of three and, to be absolutely safe, an optimum number of five hulls”, say experts, and this can’t be wished away. Seen in this light, one understands why the other five of the “club of six” are constantly upgrading and enhancing both their capability and deployment. The US Navy today has 68 nuclear subs of various types, with more than 25 on order. There was a time when the Royal Navy did not have a single aircraft-carrier for more than five years, yet it never compromised with the operational deployment of nuclear submarines. Today, the UK has 11 active/reserve nuclear-powered boats with eight more building/projected.
Russia is also once again banking on its underwater boats, with a fleet of 50. Like the UK, Russia too preferred submarines over aircraft-carriers, due to the former’s inherent stealth capability to be operated for “sea control”, “sea command” and “sea denial” — from deep under the sea.
There was a time when the French carrier force was the connoisseur of all eyes. No longer, it seems. The sole Charles De Gaulle class carrier is 17 years old, but it is unlikely that the French will go in for a second carrier before another few years. However, France is already going ahead with the construction of six Suffren (Barracuda) class nuclear-powered submarines. And coming to China, it has 12 nuclear-powered boats with many more in the pipeline.
Overall, the good news is that India has finally come of age in high-tech sea operations, and as can be gleaned from the annual SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) 2018, “India continues to develop the naval component of its triad of nuclear forces in pursuit of an assured second-strike capability”. Reportedly, India’s “fleet of up to five nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)” containing missiles of 5,000-km-plus range, does augur well for the Asian giant.
However, concern remains in Indian Ocean littorals with the attempted “deep penetration” of the Chinese PLA Navy since Beijing continues to assertively pursue its longstanding strategic goal, through its Belt and Road Initiative, of developing and deploying a sea-based nuclear deterrent. According to the US defence department’s 2017 annual report on Chinese military power, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has commissioned four Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs), and a fifth, with “modified hull structure, designated… as Type 094A … under construction”. The point to note, and nullify, is that China has “deployed JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles”, which have an estimated “maximum range in excess of 7,000 km and is believed to carry a single nuclear warhead”. The US report suggests that the “four operational Type 094 SSBNs are equipped to carry up to 12 JL-2s”. Thus, for India, Arihant was more a matter of compulsion than choice. China sits right across with a 7,000-km-plus range missile. India so far has done well, no doubt; yet its long voyage has really just begun.