Friday, July 17, 2009
India set to launch nuclear-powered submarine
NEW DELHI: Fifty-four years after the world's first nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus took to the ocean and distance records thereafter, India's long hunt for its own N-sub has finally entered the last lap.
Sources say India's first nuclear-powered submarine, built under the top-secret ATV (advanced technology vessel) project, will be 'launched' for 'preliminary trials' at the shipbuilding centre at Visakhapatnam naval dockyard around 10 days from now.
In fact, if things go as planned, it will be PM Manmohan Singh's wife Gursharan Kaur who will break the 'auspicious' coconut against the ATV hull on July 26 to mark India's entry into the exclusive club of US, Russia, China, France and UK, which design and operate nuclear submarines.
Extensive sea trials will, of course, have to follow after the first of the three approved ATVs, designed to carry a miniature 80MW pressurized water reactor (PWR) and its containment vessel in the hull, is put in the water by flooding the dry dock at the naval dockyard.
"It will take a minimum of two years before the first 6,000-tonne ATV can become fully operational," said an official. Nevertheless, it will constitute a big step towards India's endeavour to build a 'credible nuclear weapon triad' — the capability to fire nukes from air, land and sea.
India does have fighters like Mirage-2000 jury-rigged to deliver tactical nukes as well as nuclear-capable Agni ballistic missiles. But airbases and missile launch infrastructure can conceivably be taken out with a crippling first-strike by an enemy. This is where the triad's third leg comes in, especially for a country like India which has a declared no-first-use nuclear doctrine.
A nuclear submarine, whose reactor usually needs to be refuelled only after a decade or more, provides a difficult-to-detect-and-target platform for launching punishing retaliatory nuclear strikes.
Even US and Russia have ensured that two-thirds of the strategic warheads they eventually retain, under arms reduction agreements, will be in the shape of SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles).
Interestingly enough, India's first ATV is to be named INS Arihant (destroyer of enemies). Incidentally, defence minister A K Antony earlier this year declared the ATV project was in the "final stages now". This was indeed a rare admission because even existence of the project, first conceived during Indira Gandhi's reign as PM in 1970 but which really got going only in the mid-1980s, has been officially denied in the past.
With a massive Rs 30,000-crore funding, it still remains largely a 'black' project even 11 years after India came out of the nuclear closet with the Pokhran-II tests in 1998.
But while a formidable weapon, a nuclear-powered submarine by itself does not give strategic deterrence. For that, ATV needs to be armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic or cruise missiles.
So, DRDO has been concurrently working on the equally hush-hush Sagarika project since the mid-1990s, under which the 700km range K-15 missile has been tested from submersible pontoon launchers till now. The next challenge is to test-fire the K-15 missile from the ATV.
Moreover, with US, Russia and China fielding over 5,000km range SLBMs, Indian scientists are also working on an SLBM variant of the 3,500km Agni-III missile. For a country which had build only two diesel-electric German-origin HDW submarines at Mazagon Docks in 1992-94, constructing a nuclear submarine was never going to be easy.
Building a SSBN or a "boomer", after all, is an incredibly complex process, with marine, nuclear and missile technologies all being integrated into a holistic whole. ATV's meandering saga has extended from Vishakapatnam dockyard, where the basic submarine hull and structure have been fabricated, to the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam, where the PWRs have been built and tested, apart from several other secretive facilities chipping in with their expertise.
Designing the miniature nuclear reactor, fuelled by highly enriched uranium, was obviously one of the main hurdles, with initial designs by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre failing to work. Then, the nuclear technical expertise of Russia and some others was sought to overcome the technical roadblocks. Now, with the ATV launch finally happening, the defence establishment is keeping its fingers crossed. The eventual aim is to field three SSBNs well before the next decade ends.
(Courtesy: TIMES OF INDIA)