Held as a closely guarded secret for more than two decades and known only by its non-descript acronym — ATV (Advanced Technology Vessel) — it was only in early 2009 that there was gradual articulation in the public domain about India’s aspirations in the maritime nuclear arena.
Submarines occupy a special niche in the spectrum of naval capability and accord distinctive tactical and strategic advantage depending on their exploitation and the national politico- military perspicacity with which this underwater capability is nurtured. Unlike conventional diesel boats that have to surface periodically to ‘breathe’ — the nuclear boat can stay submerged for months on end thereby enhancing its ‘un-deductibility’.
The nuclear submarine comes in two variants — that which is propelled by nuclear power is an SSN; and the SSN that can also carry a ballistic missile is termed an SSBN.
During the Cold War decades, conventional submarines propelled by diesel-electric engines that carried ballistic missiles were termed SSB but this option is losing its salience.
Almost every major navy has deemed it necessary to acquire a mix of SSN/SSBN platforms and the first such effort was made by the US Navy when they acquired the USS Nautilus, an SSN in 1955. Gradually the compulsions of nuclear deterrence and the techno-strategic imperative of acquiring credible and invulnerable ‘second-strike’ capability led to the SSBN being identified as the most preferred platform for nuclear weapon powers.
The last to join the SSN club was China, which acquired this capability in a rudimentary form in the late 1970’s.
It has since invested in this domain with ruthless political determination — Chairman Mao was a staunch advocate of this platform — and by the mid 1980’s the PLA Navy had joined the peer group of the USA, former USSR, UK and France. Despite many setbacks in the early years, currently the PLAN has a fleet of 62 submarines of which there are 3 SSBNs and 6 SSNs.
This submarine capability accords the PRC considerable strategic relevance both at the global and regional level. India has now embarked on the same path and the launch of the Arihant and the first major step has been taken.More than the launch itself — the fact that India has gone public with its determination to acquire such strategic capability is significant.
Like the nuclear tests of May 1998, an overt, reasonably transparent posture is always more desirable in the long run for a nation that seeks to enhance its strategic relevance — first regionally and then globally.
In terms of the other steps that need to be completed, it merits repetition that the first ship or submarine of any class is always a complex challenge for both designer and ship-builder. Hence India and its Navy will have to persevere through all these stages before the substantive potential of Arihant is realized and the national strategic profile made more robust. In the interim, the symbolism of the launch however must also be noted. It is to the credit of the entire ATV team in Visakhapatnam, Hyderabad, New Delhi and elsewhere that they were able to make steady progress in an exceedingly hostile environment when India was under severe US led technology denial regimes.
Yet another commendable feature is the active participation of India’s public sector, major private companies — L&T in particular — and some part of academia. Many of these individuals and entities have had to work in an almost furtive manner for years and this extreme secrecy also led to highly avoidable persecution of some high caliber professionals.
Hopefully the launch of the Arihant and the confidence that the Indian state is acquiring about its nuclear related aspirations will allow for some redress and belated recognition.
After some false starts and setbacks, India is now making slow but steady progress in indigenous submarine building, which is the most demanding maritime endeavor.
But it must be noted that the design of the Arihant benefited in no small measure from Russian inputs. The indigenous effort in submarine design will have to be carefully nurtured and here a long term, macro HR policy is called for.
Hopefully the powers that be in Delhi will take the prime minister’s advice seriously and carry out a rigorous audit of the Arihant — from inception in the 1980’s to where it is now — and improve the efficiency and output levels in an appropriate manner.
The launch of the Arihant, it must be reiterated is symbolically signifi- cant for India — not just the Navy — but the substantive part must not be exaggerated.
Commodore Uday Bhaskar is Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own
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