(Photos: courtesy Ajai Shukla)
A rare photo of an Indian Navy submarine with the aircraft carrier, INS Viraat in the background
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard Weekend Supplement
25th July 09
One hallmark of some of the world’s path-breaking projects has been the choice of impressively lofty names. The first atomic bomb was built under Project Manhattan. Project Apollo put the first man on the moon. But for some reason, perhaps simply native modesty, one of India’s most challenging technological developments --- its first nuclear-powered submarine --- has been cloaked in blandness.
When on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife, Gursharan Kaur, breaks a coconut on the hull of what is referred to as the ATV or the Advanced Technology Vessel, to christen it INS Arihant, it will launch a new era for the navy.
With the christening, water will be let into the Vishakhapatnam dock called The Shipbuilding Centre, from where INS Arihant will begin its underwater journey. Once submerged, it will undergo two years of extensive trials, first in harbour and then at sea, before formally joining the Indian Navy.
Nuclear-powered submarines are of two types. Ballistic missile submarines, termed SSBNs in the US Navy (colloquial term: “boomers” or “bombers”) carry nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. These form the third leg of a country’s nuclear triad: airborne, surface, and underwater-based launch platforms. INS Arihant is a ballistic missile submarine, armed with twelve K-15 missiles, each capable of carrying a 500-kg nuclear warhead to a target 750-kilometers away. It will be deployed almost continuously off the coast of a potential enemy, a virtually undetectable and indestructible missile launcher.
The Arihant will not be alone. Two more SSBNs are under construction at L&T’s Hazira plant. These will probably be followed by several more, equipped with longer-range nuclear-tipped missiles.
The second type of nuclear-powered submarine is the SSN, or attack submarine, armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles. These operate as a part of the navy, performing the task of “sea denial”, or preventing enemy ships --- both naval and commercial --- from using large expanses of the ocean. An SSN’s nuclear plant eliminates the need to surface, allowing it to remain underwater for months. India will shortly be leasing an advanced “Akula II class” attack submarine --- named INS Chakra --- from Russia, followed by another after a yearlong interval.
In addition to a new fleet of nuclear submarines, a growing stable of major surface warships are catapulting the Indian Navy into the league of serious maritime powers. Cochin Shipyard is building the 40,000-ton Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), which is likely to be commissioned into the Indian Navy in 2014, followed by a successor vessel in 2017. The controversial INS Vikramaditya, as the Gorshkov will be named, could also be commissioned by 2012.
For the Indian Navy these are times of change. After decades as a near-invisible subaltern service, the growth in the Indian Navy’s force structure, visibility and budget are being warily observed by every other power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Asia-Pacific. The Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Sureesh Mehta, has publicly articulated the navy’s plan to boost warship numbers to 165-170, up from 140 vessels today. And because building in India cost less than half of building abroad, India’s three defence shipyards --- Mazagon Dock Limited, Mumbai (MDL); Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) and the smaller Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL) --- have more warship orders than current capacities can handle.
The latest order placed on MDL and GRSE, reported in today’s Business Standard: seven new-generation stealth frigates under Project 17A, 5600-ton warships, each capable of dominating vast stretches of ocean. India’s growing skill in integrating disparate sensors and weapons on indigenous warships gives them heavier punches than most other warships of the same weight class.
Senior naval planners explain the logic behind India’s rapid naval expansion. Other than the great naval powers --- US, Russia and, now arguably, China --- most major navies operate in alliance with one of the big players. Since the Cold War, for example, Britain’s Royal Navy has functioned in alliance with the US Navy, specialising in anti-submarine warfare, and relying on US cover for crucial aspects like anti-air defence.
In contrast, India has always rejected military alliances. As a serving naval admiral elaborates, “India is different. We can operate for a short while as a partnership navy, but definitely not as part of a military alliance. We, therefore, need a balanced navy with all-round capability, which can operate alone for as long as it takes.”
But even while rejecting formal alliances, Indian Navy admirals realise that a navy that is visible is a navy that is taken seriously. That has spawned a series of annual exercises with foreign navies, including the Malabar series with the US Navy; the Varuna series with the French navy; the Konkan series with Britain’s Royal Navy; and the Indra series with the Russian navy. Early this year, India even sent three warships to China for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
“It’s important to strut your stuff”, says a naval planner, “you visit a foreign port and invite your counterparts to a cocktail party on board. While sipping their drinks on the warship’s deck, they are taking note of the weaponry you’re carrying. You’re sending a clear message.”
The desire for a more powerful and visible navy is also rooted in growing concern over India’s 7516 kilometers of coastline, the vulnerability of which stood starkly exposed during the 26/11 terrorist strikes. Protection is also needed for an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2 million square kilometres, which could go up to 2.5 million square kilometres once India’s continental shelf is delineated and placed before the International Seabed Authority. Naval officers point out that India’s entire land mass is just 3.28 million square kilometres.
A related argument marshalled by strong-navy enthusiasts is the protection of trade: 90% of India’s trade by volume and 77% by value is transported by sea. Especially vulnerable is India’s oil dependency; according to Hydrocarbon Vision 2025, India’s current oil import level of 74% of consumption will rise to 88% of consumption by mid-century. The navy is also expected to protect busy international trade routes that pass close by Indian shores (100,000 freight vessels annually; one billion tons of oil).
Naval planners point to the historic link between trade and military power. An officer explained, “In the colonial period it was said that ‘trade follows the flag’. Today, we see, like with China in Africa, the flag follows trade. But in no case can trade be divorced from the flag.”
An indicator of the navy’s shift into the mainstream of Indian strategic planning --- even more so than the growing number of capital warships --- is the growth in its command and administrative infrastructure. The deep-water Karwar naval base, located 34 nautical miles (62 km) south of Goa, is already functioning. Aimed at decongesting Mumbai, Karwar will be base for more than 40 ships including the aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, when it is commissioned.
Also nearing completion is INS Kadamba, an administrative support base, which was commissioned in 2005. Another important addition to the navy’s capabilities is the new Naval Academy at Ezhimala, 280 kilometers north of Kochi, which will soon churn out 750 cadets a year. You will need professionals to man the Indian Navy’s growing fleet.
CREWING A SUBMARINE: LIFE UNDER THE SEA
Sailors who man the 18 boomers of the US navy describe their role thus: while the surface fleet exploits the peace --- exporting security and building alliances through port visits, and exercises with other navies --- the boomer fleet keeps the peace, deterring aggression by its very existence, a force of fully deployed missiles poised to strike.
Submariners, all of the double volunteers, justifiably consider themselves an elite. They must first volunteer to join the navy, undergoing a full year of basic naval training, and again for submarine duty, going through psychological profiling and high-stress physical tests to see if they can cope with the rigours of undersea life. Even so, there is no shortage of volunteers. Says an Indian Navy lieutenant commander, serving on board a submarine, “The extra danger adds a keen edge to life… there’s a huge thrill in wearing the gold badge of a submariner.”
But the admiration that submariners draw comes at a price, especially for the super-elite who serve on a nuclear submarine. They spend long tenures underwater, often measured in months, keeping the missile deterrent deployed for as long as possible. At the end of a deployment, the boomer races into port, the crew changes around (all SSBNs have two full crews), supplies are replenished, and the boomer heads back on station.
“After a while, you just run out of things to do on board”, explains an officer who served on the INS Chakra, a nuclear attack submarine that India leased from the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991. “You become irritable, you start noticing things about your cabin-mate that you had never noticed before. The way he always leaves the door open… that pimple on his face. Even the lighting on board starts giving you headaches.”
The long stays underwater are enabled by the nuclear reactor. Conventional diesel-electric submarines are propelled underwater by a battery-powered electric motor, which drives a propeller. But batteries discharge quickly and conventional submarines must surface regularly to recharge them through a diesel generator. A surfaced submarine is highly vulnerable to detection, as well as to attack.
Nuclear submarines, in contrast, have no compulsion to surface, since the nuclear reactor needs no air to generate power. A boomer lies silently below the surface some way off the enemy’s coastline and, as long as on-board noise is minimised, remains virtually undetectable.
Noise is a submarine’s greatest vulnerability. The enemy’s anti-submarine warfare units --- which include other submarines, surface ships as well as maritime patrol aircraft --- are constantly searching with sonar (SOund NAvigation and Ranging) systems for submarine sounds, whether from the engine-room, the propellers, a dropped spanner, even an irate officer speaking loudly to a sailor.
So sensitive are today’s active sonars, and so skilled the sonar operators, that they can differentiate biological signals (whales, fish, even shrimp feeding) from the sounds coming from a submarine. They can make out the number of propellers in a ship, whether they have encountered it before, and the direction and speed that the target is headed.