Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is the Navy's newest sub worth the price?

Not much of a sea-based deterrent, says Pravin Sawhney; Chakra is the filler of strategic space says Vijay Shankar

Not much of a sea-based deterrent

Just when the Russian nuclear-powered Akula-II submarine joins the Indian Navy as INS Chakra on a 10-year lease at a cost of over $one billion, the moot question is: does it contribute to India's sea-based nuclear deterrence?

To put matters in perspective, India in 1988 had procured the Soviet Charlie I class nuclear attack submarine, renamed INS Chakra on a three-year lease. The vessel came without strategic weapons, with the sole purpose of familiarising naval personnel on training and maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines. The rules of engagement spelt out that INS Chakra would not be used in war. The hidden part of the deal was that Soviets would help India in its indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), both materially and intellectually. While the promised assistance to the ATV programme which culminated in the launch of 80MW nuclear reactor S-2 vessel (to be called INS Arihant on commissioning) by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 26 July 2009 came in fits and starts, the technology of the 6,000 tonne vessel is between first and second generation vintage. By comparison, the U.S. has ninth generation nuclear-powered subs which do not require refuelling throughout their lifetime.
Follow-on vessels

The Russian Akula sub, given the same name, INS Chakra comes with similar purpose and rules of engagement. Like the earlier deal, the undisclosed understanding this time is that it is part of the Gorshkov package (INS Vikramaditya) and includes Russian help in the follow-on indigenous nuclear-powered vessels. While S-2 vessel began sea-trials in January (could last 12 to 18 months), India has planned follow-on S-3 and S-4 vessels based on the S-2 design. As all three vessels have similar hull and nuclear power plant, capability enhancements will be meagre. It is only when the S-5 vessel with a new design and a powerful nuclear reactor is launched, which could be two-decades away, can India hope to have a semblance of sea-based deterrence against China. The S-2 and the coming S-3 and S-4 vessels will lack adequate capabilities in three key areas of stealth, reactor design and missile range to become a deterrent ballistic missile armed nuclear-powered submarine (SSBN) against China, which with its Jin class subs is at least four decades ahead. India's S-2 vessel armed with 700km K-15 missile will have difficulty in even deterring Pakistan as, given its limitations, it would be required to be positioned closer to hostile shore.

Against this backdrop, a retired chief of naval staff had told me that the coming of Akula four years late, when the S-2 vessel is already undergoing sea-trials, serves little purpose. While still in office, he had written to the government to review the leasing of Akula programme. According to him, there is a case to dispense with the S-3 and S-4 vessels which will consume enormous time and finances. India, after all, is still on the technology understanding curve and not ready for production. Therefore it should leap-frog to work on S-5 vessels which would entail imagination and initiative. Given improved relations with the U.S. and France, why cannot India seek advanced reactor technology from them? Developing long range ballistic missile would have to be an indigenous effort as it comes under global restrictive regimes. Why cannot ISRO with capabilities to propel rockets up to 10,000km help DRDO make 8,000km ballistic missiles? These hard questions need to be examined to produce credible sea-based deterrence.


Chakra, the filler of strategic space

A strategic posture of a nation is a declaration, more by deed than articulation, of its orientation, will and intent. It purports to mould and shape a future that would benefit its larger objectives. The process is fraught with the hazards of conflicting interests and therefore it demands the weight of the nation's comprehensive power both soft and hard.

In an era when the face of soft power is that of an Assange and its voice, that of Gandhi, Gibran, Che and Osama; a critical instrument to uphold posture is the State's military power and the talent to distinguish between the maintenance of armed forces and their use.

The operational canvas is a transient that abhors futuristic force planning. So it was, year-after-every-five year the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived threats and building force structures to cope.


It was, therefore, the ‘instantaneous intimidation' that drove plans and consequently resulted in ‘a tail chasing' accretion of forces. Unfortunately to some, this inspiration continues to be the pretender that fills strategic space. The case of our strategic maritime posture as a function of the declared ‘Look East' policy is a study in point. Here the need for a theory to make transparent the complexity of the problem and invite the necessary intellectual rigour to not just ‘chart a course' but also to analyse and cater for the hurdles that may beset policy is the first imperative.

As Julian Corbett so eloquently put it, theory may not be a substitute for judgment and experience, but is a means to fertilize both.

Significantly, the recent acquisition on a 10-year lease of the ‘Chakra' (Russian Akula II class nuclear attack submarine) is an extremely perspicacious departure from the past for it is a concrete step towards the translation of the theory and realisation of the larger strategic maritime posture that serves policy.


Admittedly, the gestation period has been long; it is recognised the process has been challenged by a fragmented approach (the Chakra in its first avatar came to us in1988) and plagued by the economics and the geopolitics of the times. But these are challenges that any strategic project must expect to face and defy.

The nuclear attack submarine (SSN) being completely independent of air for propulsion frees it from the need to surface frequently, the enormous power generated permits a bigger hull to operate at high speeds with large payloads for durations that is limited by human fatigue and replenishment of consumables only (reactors require refuelling at intervals of 25 years). In real terms, it is critical to understand what the Chakra represents. Working the submarine to our operational challenges and demands is just the tip of the iceberg, training and building a bank of specialised personnel; creating the necessary infrastructure to maintain nuclear submarines; unique logistic management practices; development of doctrines and procedures; generating design feature for the indigenous programme and, most importantly, building an ethos of efficient and safe nuclear submarine stewardship and exertions, these are the 8/9th submerged part of the iceberg. Strategically SSNs in numbers provide a vital element of a riposte to any “sea control strategy” that an adversary may contemplate or a “denial strategy” that we may plan.


In terms of the platform, the Akula II represents the state of art in SSN design, the programme having been launched in the mid 1990s. The nearest in terms of design vintage is the British ‘Astute' class also of the mid 1990s,but in terms of capabilities it is smaller and less accomplished; while the American Los Angeles class predates the Chakra by a decade. Also, the design philosophy harmonises with the orientation of our strategic nuclear submarine project.

As far as the economics of the matter is concerned, $920 million for a 10-year lease with certain support features attached must be viewed in perspective of what the SSN represents and the fact that a new SSN of similar capability with a 30-year life would have a price tag of about $3billion and a through life cost of (thumb rule) $9 billion would suggest that the deal is a sound one.

As any nation that has committed to operating maritime nuclear force will fully appreciate that kudos are due to our planners who visualised a theory, saw a form and translated it to a force plan and now have given substance to each step of the way.

1 comment:

  1. I find India's decision to introduce nuclear subs in this region saddening.

    Unlike the USSR and USA which kept their nukes on a hair-trigger - prepped up and ready to launch on a moment's notice during the cold war, Pakistan and India chose to maintain their nuclear arsenal in a disassembled state. Missiles and warheads were stored separately, and hundreds of millions of people did not live under this constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

    Introducing nuclear submarines to this region adds a whole new dimension to the situation. Their very purpose is to be able to launch nuclear weapons on a moment's notice, from any location to any location. With India having a live arsenal like that, Pakistan would also have to raise their posture to maintain deterrence.

    Even in the 90's when India leased it's first nuclear sub, Pakistan was in negotiations to obtain a similar nuclear submarine from China. And even if they don't go for a nuclear submarine at the moment, various news reports already indicate that Pakistan is considering getting the new Type 041A Yuan/Qing class submarines with nuclear-capable CJ-10K missiles.

    Raising the bar makes this whole region unsafe, especially considering how both sides stand to be destroyed if these nuclear weapons are used. I, for one, wish India's strategists had not upped the ante, raising the bar makes life unsafe for both Indians and Pakistanis.