Opinion

The Importance of INS Arihant

Aerial starboard bow view of a Russian Navy Northern Fleet Delta III class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine underway on the surface.

The recent deterrent patrol by this nuclear-powered submarine shows that India is ready to assert itself as a capable and responsible nuclear power.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a series of tweets, announced the operationalizing of India’s nuclear triad with a successful deterrent patrol by the nuclear-powered submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant. Modi tweeted: “India’s pride, nuclear submarine INS Arihant successfully completed its first deterrence patrol.” This means that India’s first nuclear powered submarine has conducted its first mission armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, which is a significant milestone in India’s nuclear weapons program. INS Arihant’s operational status was unknown since reports of an accident last year. The deterrence patrol is the first news about its operational readiness, which, evidently, is in prime condition.

The underwater arm is the most crucial leg of nuclear deterrence, especially for a country like India that professes no first use. The triad was envisaged in the draft nuclear doctrine released in 1999. However, the work on this crucial leg started long before India weaponised its nuclear capability, under the advanced technology vessel program in the 1980s. India leased the Soviet Charlie-I nuclear attack submarine in 1988, and commissioned it as INS Chakra into the Indian Navy (IN) to learn about and train on operating nuclear powered submarines. The submarine was returned to the Soviets in 1991. The experience gained went a long way in helping India on its advanced technology vessel project. India went on to lease another Russian submarine, the feared Akula-II class attack submarine which was commissioned in 2012, again as INS Chakra, which is in service with the IN right now.

Operating nuclear powered submarines requires advanced command, control & communications systems, since the submarine carries nuclear weapons. In 2014, India had set up a new state-of-the-art Very Low Frequency station in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. It is difficult to communicate with submarines that operate up to 500 metres below the surface of the sea. Redundant mechanisms are required to stay in communication with submarines, especially SSBNs, because of their role.

To prevent unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, advanced control systems like permissive action link will be in place, since the warheads and missiles will be mated for launch on order. Another possibility is for electronic demating of the warhead from the missile. The missile and warhead would be electronically mated once use of nuclear weapons is authorised, a process that would take about 30 minutes. The firing of the missile would be via two-man rule which is another safety mechanism.. This is not the case for India’s land-based nuclear weapons, in which the warheads and missiles (or aircrafts in case of air delivery) are kept separate. This will change once the Agni V missile is operationalised and similar safety systems are put in place for the road mobile canisterised missile.

The Arihant would have gone on its deterrent patrol with the 750kms range  K-15 missile, which is operational but not of adequate range for effective deterrence, especially against China. The Arihant can carry twelve such missiles that deliver a single nuclear warhead. The 3500 kms range K4 missile has been tested many times, but it is uncertain if it’s operational. During the Doklam standoff with China , the political leadership wanted the Arihant to be deployed, which may indicate an operational long-range missile. The K-4 can target most parts of China from the Bay of Bengal. The Arihant can carry four K-4 missiles, which also delivers a single warhead. Development is on to make over 6000-kms range missiles that could carry multiple warheads.

INS Arihant going on a deterrence patrol shows confidence level of the Indian Navy in its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. An SSBN is a prized asset that needs to be protected from enemy attack submarines. The Indian Navy continues to build advanced surface warships for ASW. It has acquired the advanced P8I ASW aircrafts from the US. It also extensively exercises with the US Navy in anti-submarine warfare in the biennial Exercise Malabar that now includes Japan. With both these countries, India has got intelligence-sharing agreements that will act as a force multiplier to monitor enemy submarines in the Indo-Pacific region in particular. Considering increased Chinese submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean, these agreements will provide India advanced warnings about Chinese submarine movements.

It is interesting that while the Chinese commissioned their first SSBN, the Type 092 Xia class submarine, in 1987, and followed it with the improved Jin class, which was first commissioned in 2007, China conducted its first deterrence patrol only towards the end of 2015. In contrast, India has put the Arihant on a deterrent patrol within about two years of it being commissioned. This is not surprising, as in December 2010, the then Chief of Navy Admiral Nirmal Verma said that the Arihant will go on deterrent patrol once its commissioned.

The quick operationalizing of the INS Arihant is a tribute to the preparation over the years by our scientists, designers, engineers and technicians who worked on the SSBN program and the Indian Navy, the Strategic Forces Command and the Nuclear Command Authority.

Modi in one of his tweets stated: “The success of INS Arihant gives a fitting response to those who indulge in nuclear blackmail.” This was clearly targeted at Pakistan, which indulges in nuclear sabre rattling to provide cover for its terror war against India. However, what is significant is that Modi, twice in as many tweets, said that India’s nuclear weapons are for global peace and stability. This is significant as it adds another dimension to India’s role as a security provider in the Indo-Pacific and its quest for leadership.

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About the author

Yusuf Unjhawala

Yusuf Unjhawala is editor of Defence Forum India and a commentator on defence and strategic affairs.