Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why India needs to opt in for Nuclear Submarines?

By Cmde (retd) Ranjit B. Rai

India’s nuclear legend Dr Homi Nusserwanji Sethna (1924-2010) passed away on 5th September in Mumbai aged 86. In May 1974 Dr Sethna as Chairman of India’s Atomic Commission(AEC) which was set up in then Bombay, had ordered preparations for India’s plutonium Pu-239 based, peaceful nuclear explosion(PNE) at Pokhran and was camping in New Delhi. Dr Raja Ramanna Director BARC was on site immersing the cores in the deep tunnels constructed by Indian Army engineers and with some help from an NRI company, and connecting the detonating cables with DRDO help. The bomb’s architect Dr Sethna reportedly briefed Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi on the preparations, “I am pushing in the device (bomb) tomorrow and after that, do not say remove it because I cannot. You cannot tell me to stop.”

“Go ahead”, Indira replied, “ Are you frightened ?,” she asked. “I am not. I am only telling you there is no going back now. That is all,” Homi answered in his no nonsense manner, that he was known for..

Homi Sethna a nuclear legend of India, was educated as a chemical engineer in Ann Arbour Michigan and took over in times when Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai had passed away and left a void. Earlier in his career, he was responsible for setting up of the thorium extraction plant at Alwaye in Kerala for separation of rare earth from Monazite sands, and came in to contact with naval officers in Cochin, including then Commodore SG Karmarkar Commodore in Charge Cochin (COMCHIN). Later Sethna set up the plant for the production of nuclear grade uranium metal at Trombay, and also set up the Plutonium Reprocessing Plant(PRP) there itself in 1959. India Strategic is proud to recount Dr Sethna’s support to the Indian Navy and what is now Indian Navy’s ambitions to build and operate nuclear submarines. The story of Indian Navy’s quest for nuclear submarines needs recounting.


The Indian Navy has always looked ahead, and its ambitious horizons have always included plans to acquire, build and operate nuclear submarines. Sethna supported that, and it is essential to appreciate why India needs expensive home built nuclear submarines like the 6,500 ton INS Arihant (ATV) which is being readied for sea trials and deep diving trials at the Ship Building Center(SBC) at Vishakapatnam. The DRDO-Navy project is being directed by Director General ATV Vice Admiral DSP Verma, a former Chief of Material of the Indian Navy, from the offices of Akshanka( means Hope) in New Delhi, under the control of a board in PMO with the Prime Minister as its head. Another large classified establishment under Akshanka, the Directorate of Marine Engineering Technology (DMET) at Hyderabad has pioneered and tested all engineering equipment inducted from Indian industry for the INS Arihant, and continues to seek suppliers for sea going machinery that goes in to a submarine but its activities are classified, despite all suppliers having all the details. It’s a dichotomy.

A large 8,500 ton nuclear Akula class submarine of Project 971, the Nerpa is also being taken on lease from Russia for training and the Indian crew is likely to commission the boat later this year, if all is equal. The boat had suffered a fire and explosion and the damage has been repaired at Vladivostok. The nuclear submarines are planned to augment the Navy’s long grey line of 32 warships and 6 diesel propelled Scorpene submarines including two aircraft carriers that are under construction, and on order in India and abroad. A nuclear boat with its organic under water launched nuclear missiles, is stealth at its best and is the most proven form of deterrence against another nuclear armed adversary. India has two nuclear neighbors.

The world’s five nuclear weapon NPT states USA, Russia, France, UK and China, continue to maintain and design nuclear submarines capable of launching nuclear tipped missiles besides, air and land launched nuclear missiles. UK and France have admittedly reduced their land and air launched nuclear assets, but they are on course to build newer nuclear submarines despite the burden on their defence budgets, that this class of nuclear boats impose. A nuclear submarine costs around $2 bill a piece, is expensive to maintain, but it is an essential and vital strategic asset of a nation.

India has yet to achieve a credible ‘Triad’ deterrence capability to protect its national interests which includes its growing economy slated to grow faster in the coming decades. The Chinese PLA Navy has been pursuing a vigorous programme to build up its Han, Xia(093), 094 and 095 class of nuclear submarines which can launch short range missiles from SSNs, and long range 5000km ICBMs like the JL-1 derived from the DF-31 from SSBMs, and if India is to join the big league which is now on the cards, then it has little option but to have a line of SSN and SSBM nuclear submarines to ensure deterrence, akin to insurance against nuclear states. One however hopes, the use of nuclear weapons is never resorted to.

Politicians, the public at large and even business leaders in India have to appreciate that if you do not have security, then you will have no governance or business in a growing economy. National security is a national pre-requisite, and this is what late Dr HN Sethna who when he was working as Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Center Bombay in the 1960s producing weapon grade plutonium(P-239) from waste from nuclear reactors, always emphasized in conversations with naval officers in Bombay. His education in USA had fired his imagination on security and nuclear issues. He often visited the USO club’s golf course which was close to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research(TIFR) in Colaba. TIFR was constructed on naval land adjacent to Navy Nagar, and a number of ‘hush hush research projects’ were conducted there and a few technical naval officers took short courses at TIFR.

Rear Admiral SG Karmarkar, the first Indian officer who had commanded British officers on INS Kistna had by then become Flag Officer Bombay(1963-65). Dr Sethna was known to him from his Cochin days and hosted him at Northbrooke House next to the Atomic Energy Commission Office in the Old Yacht Club premises at Apollo Bunder near the Taj Mahal Hotel. Sethna took the Admiral to visits to Tarapur Nuclear Power project and BARC, and this writer as Flag Lt accompanied the Admiral on one visit to Tarapur when a reactor was being commissioned. Dr Sethna who had served under Dr Homi Bhabha is acknowledged is as being the prime architect of India’s nuclear weapons programme with Dr Raja Ramanna. They both successfully demonstrated capability to build indegenious nuclear bombs in May 1974 and ‘Smiling Buddha’ took under his stewardship when he was the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, but he was a modest person and never hogged the lime light and diligently pursued his tasks and interests.


Many naval officers recall Sethna tell young naval officers in Mumbai to dream of nuclear propulsion. He did this in times when officially Indian Armed Forces were not taught offensive nuclear doctrines. Nuclear and nuclear warfare in India’s context was not in India’s toxilogy or lexicon as a subject in Indian staff colleges, but it is less known that all major Indian Naval ships have always been fitted to fight through and defend themselves against a nuclear explosion. All major naval ships have ‘citadel capability’ to button up the ship and re-circulate internal air and generate oxygen like a submarine does. Every major warship can pre- wet the whole ship structure to cleanse nuclear fallout. A warship’s raison d’etre is “To Float, To Move, To Fight’ even thorough a nuclear explosion at sea.

Every IN navigator is taught to steer the ship away from the centre of a nuclear bomb explosion at sea. The Fleet regularly exercises nuclear explosion drill and ships are required to calculate a moving geographic position called ‘Roaming Romeo’(the centre of explosion and fallout) depending on the direction of the wind, and steer a safe course to evade the nuclear fallout at high speed, with the ship’s company sealed breathing circulated and re-oxidised air.

Nuclear warfare drill has been taught to every naval officer since the 50s, and officials from Bharat Atomic Energy Centre(BARC) at Mumbai where India’s plutonium nuclear bombs(cores) are currently stored, regularly gave lectures on board ships on how to check radiation levels, apply radiation cleansing techniques and calibrate the naval ships fixed and portable electromagnetic Rontogen X-radiation meters. Nuclear bomb effects and methods of delivery is bread and butter to the youngest of Indian naval officer at sea, as it forms a part of the inspection routine by the Fleet Commander. It is a legacy of the British ships Indian Navy acquired after partition.

It is to Dr Sethna’s credit that he as AEC Chairman he opened the secret portals of India’s nuclear establishment BARC in 1976 which was under Dr Raja Ramanna then and accepted a team of four naval officers led by then Capts PN Agarwala and Bharat Bhusan both very bright engineer officers trained at the Royal Naval Engineering College at Manaden Plymouth, to form a Diesel Propulsion Research Team(DPRT) at BARC. DPRT was a subterfuge for designing a nuclear propulsion plant. Cdrs Gurmit Singh and Cdr BK Subbarao were also in the team, and in later years Subbarao designed a submarine nuclear power plant but crossed swords with Dr Raja Ramanna. Bhusan later headed the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) nuclear project and subsequently many naval officers were trained in nuclear engineering at BARC and transferred to the the DRDO-Navy classified ATV project, which fructified in the launching of INS Arihant by PM’s wife Mrs Gursharan Kaur on 22nd August,2009 at Vishakapatnam.

INS Arihant a 7,000 ton medium sized nuclear propulsion technology demonstrator submarine and is being readied to go to sea and will be fitted with the 700km Sagarika K-15 solid fuel nuclear tipped missile, and it will possess India’s first underwater launched deterrent, if all is equal. India already has air and land launched nuclear arsenals, and two of Navy’s four off shore patrol vessels (OPVs) INS Subhadra and Suvarna can launch one 350km liquid fuelled nuclear tipped Dhanush missile each. These launch platforms operate on surface and can be located from visual and radar observations and from satellites and are vulnerable.


It needs recall that at a nuclear session at India International Center three years ago, when India’s nuclear deal was being pursued with USA, the speakers included India’s doyen nuclear analyst K Subrahmanyam, Raja Mohan of the Indian Express and others. Former PM I K Gujral shared an anecdote which holds relevance for the Indian Navy’s plans and ambitions to possess nuclear submarines with under water launched long range missiles. IK Gujral unveiled how in 1979 when he was Ambassador in Russia and C Subramaniam and K Subrahmanyam were the Defence Minister and Defence Secretary (Production) respectively in MOD, he was tasked to meet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov and seek help and guidance on India’s quest for nuclear submarines, which were prompted by the Indian Navy, and supported by Dr Raja Ramanna. Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov known to be a supporter of the Indian Navy and officially acknowledged as the ‘Benefactor of the modern Indian Navy’ was one of the finest naval minds of the last century. When Shri Gujral met him he made him look at the chart/map of the Indian Ocean and went on to explain to Gujral how India was hemmed in by the Straits on both sides and said China has nuclear submarines and so India must also have nuclear submarines. That was the time when relations between Russia and China had soured. That led to the birth of the ATV and later the lease of INS Chakra.

From 1983 under the guidance of late Dr Raja Ramanna who worked under Dr HN Sethna , the ATV project took off and a former roommate of Dr Raja Rammana, Vice Admiral M K Roy, when they were living together in digs in London was made the first DG. The rest is history, and INS Chakra was given by Russia on lease to the Indian Navy from 1987 to 1991 despite rumblings in the West, and the IN cut its teeth in nuclear submarine operations and handling with the full support of BARC which opened its portals and a large number of naval officers hold M(Tech) degrees in nuclear engineering from BARC. The nuclear reactor in INS Chakra was maintained by Russians on board and all activities kept secret, including those of the ATV even from other service chiefs, and senior officers of the Indian Navy.

It was only six years ago that then Defence Ministers of India Pranab Mukherjee and Sergei Ivanov of Russia, jointly acknowledged the ATV project in pubic in Moscow for the first time and wowed to complete it. India also secretly clinched the deal to take Akula nulcear submarines on lease on the lines of the INS Chakra, but with full control. Many feel Russia readily agreed, as the funding for rejuvenating the Akulas, Nerpa and Jaguar came through the advances for the 1000X 2 Kundankulam nuclear power projects, and they needed the business. A few thousand of crores has also been spent on INS Arihant which has Russian assistance and equipment makes it the next most expensive DRDO project along with the LCA. Possibly the most expensive.


A nuclear Submarine force is the right option for countries with large oceans to patrol and though this issue has never been debated in India, it must be stated that nuclear submarines are very expensive technological toys. The cost of buying or building nuclear submarines is approximately 50 % to 75% higher per unit than diesel- electric powered boats but has greater capabilities. Nuke boats cruise three times faster , have a greater sustained speed underwater, and an unlimited range. For this reason larger number of diesel units are required for the same duty. Higher speeds by diesel propelled boats for very short period deplete their underwater batteries in few hours, and without resorting to recharge they then become incapable and vulnerable to the point of helplessness. PNS Hangor under then Cdr Tasneem of Pakistan almost suffered this fate in 1971, after attacking INS Kuthar which Hangor’s torpedoes missed, but sunk INS Khukri with the loss of 168 souls. However the Captain of Hangor made an ingenious get away by daring to navigate in shallow waters, to escape the Indian Navy ships and submarines that were deployed off Diu. Nuclear submarines cannot do that in shallow waters.

Diesel submarines are warships of position, whereas nuclear submarines are vehicles of maneuver. Diesel subs are suited for small shallow seas with straits to block like the Malacca Straits and the Baltic hence Singapore has opted for small submarines, but when rapid movements over long ocean distances are required, nuclear propulsion is the desired choice and India must afford it. A conventional boat needs to be in the vicinity of its target . A nuclear boat can be dispatched to intercept or can track and attack when ordered. The sinking of the Argentinean’s cruiser General Belgrano in the Falklands war is the most recent demonstration of the capability when HMS Conqueror which was dispatched at full speed for 8000miles submerged all the way. Went and intercepted the Argentinean Navy’s cruiser. No conventional submarines could have achieved this feat and bottled up the whole Argentinean fleet. Unlike the diesel electric boats, which have to surface to recharge batteries about 20 percent of their time at sea, the nuclear submarine does not have to come up and surface and then effectively broadcast its position with noisy engines for sonars to detect it. The motto of nuclear submarines is ‘Run Deep, Run Silent, Run Long’.

The diesel–electric submarine can be a useful weapon provided it can get to the right place at the right time. Conversely a nuclear powered boat, which can stay submerged indefinitely run at high speeds indefinitely, has enormous flexibility. A nuclear powered boat running silent , fast and deep can be switched very quickly from, for example , a wartime role of barrier patrol against hostile submarine in a specific area to convoy escort ships across an ocean, or land saboteurs secretly.

In its frequent surfacing, the diesel- electric submarine is highly vulnerable to visual, acoustic and radar detection and thus open to attack by other submarines, aircraft and surface ships. The nuclear boat’s reactor also produces much more electrical power than diesel electric submarines and makes its ‘pear shaped hull’ possible to operate at much higher speeds for its highly powered sonar detection systems , provide more oxygen re-generation and unlimited water supply. The mere threat of a nuclear powered submarine in an area inhibits an opponent and acts as a powerful deterrent. Very rigorous safety standards have to be followed by navies building and operating nuclear submarines and most have ensured nuclear accident free operations. The US Navy for example has used nuclear propulsion for more than 40 years and accumulated more than 3600 reactor years of operation.


The importance of nuclear propulsion and nuclear submarines needs publicity. Once the importance and inescapable need for nuclear submarines is accepted by India and the Indian Navy becomes confident and masters nuclear propulsion along the way, the nation’s Navy should be encouraged to think of nuclear propulsion for all its major naval warships of the future especially aircraft carriers that the Indian Navy is planning for the second decade of the 21st century. This will be a tribute to Drs Homi Bhabha, Homi Sethna and Raja Ramanna who showed the way. The cost of fossil fuel is set to rise exponentially and India which is a net importer of hydro carbons has to plan for alternate fuels and savings. Navies are large consumers of oil. The Government has maintained overt secrecy over all the equipment fitted in INS Arihant and kept a veil over the Indian designed and Indian built small nuclear reactor in the boat, which was a joint effort by BARC and Indian industry. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh admitted that Indian industry has largely contributed to the building of INS Arihant and names of companies like Larsen& Toubro Ltd, Walchandnagar Industries Ltd, Bharat Heavy Elecriclas Ltd, Bharat Electronics Ltd, Tata Group and pump makers like Khosla and Kirloskar Pumps Ltd and some small suppliers and fabricators are known, but not their deeds. These need to be made public as it is reported two more larger Arihant class with modifications to take additional missiles is on the cards.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the information. Recently attended an interview at Kirloskar in the pumpsets manufacturing team but unfortunately missed in the last round. Will definitely give my try for this.