The INS Chakra, minutes before it was inducted into the eastern fleet at Vishakhapatnam on 4th April 12
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Apr 12
A thin trumpet call wafted over the warm, humid air of the dock, heralding the arrival of defence minister A K Antony to induct into the Indian Navy its most recent and most potent submarine, the nuclear-powered INS Chakra. In late February, the Chakra, leased from Russia for 10 years at an estimated cost of $900 million, set off from snowy Vladivostok. After a 40-day underwater odyssey past Japan and through the disputed South China Sea, undetected by anyone, the Chakra reached sweltering Visakhapatnam on Saturday.
Key functionaries of the Chakra’s all-Indian crew lined up on its deck to welcome Antony. The 12,000-tonne Akula II class vessel is a shockingly large cigar-shaped cylinder, painted a drab black. The only splash of colour came from the gold braid on the officers’ shoulders and the fluttering tricolour. Like so many Russian weapon platforms, the Chakra conveys an understated menace — functionality without the frills.
There were brief speeches by the Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, naval chief Admiral Nirmal Verma and Antony. Then, a band struck up the national anthem and the Chakra joined the navy’s Eastern Fleet. Kadakin termed this “a shining example of the very confidential strategic cooperation between India and Russia.” Antony took a crack at Kadakin, reminding him of the Russian promise to deliver the Russian aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Gorshkov) “on time”. The Vikramaditya is already three years late.
Beyond the banter, military planners are thrilled at this massive boost to India’s power and reach in the Indian Ocean region. While China enjoys military advantages on the land frontier, India’s ability to choke Chinese shipping at straits like Malacca and Hormuz constitutes a powerful strategic lever. And, nothing performs such “sea denial” missions as effectively as a nuclear attack submarine, known by its acronym, the SSN.
Making the SSN a game-changer is its ability to remain submerged indefinitely. Stealth is a key attribute in a ‘sea denial’ mission to shut down, for example, the Strait of Malacca. A submarine must slip undetected (which means underwater) into the patrol area and lurk in ambush for days on end, listening through its sonar for propeller sounds that give away the presence of a ship. Then, it must launch torpedoes to destroy the target and escape at high speed before the enemy can come and destroy her.
One great drawback of the conventional submarine is lack of endurance. Since its diesel engines cannot run underwater for lack of air, it can remain submerged for only as long as its on-board electric batteries provide power. When the batteries are drained, typically in eight-72 hours, depending on how fast it must move, the submarine must surface to run its diesel generators and recharge its batteries. A surfaced submarine with generators running is a sitting duck, inviting an attack by enemy aircraft, surface ships or submarines.
But a nuclear reactor can run underwater, allowing an SSN to remain submerged for as long as its food supplies last. While a conventional submarine moves slowly underwater, to conserve batteries, the Chakra can sprint for long durations at speeds of up to 33 knots (61 kilometres per hour), faster than most surface vessels.
The Chakra’s capabilities are provided by a 190-Mw nuclear reactor, powerful enough to light up a medium-sized city. It is armed with the versatile Russian Klub anti-surface missiles that can strike a ship almost 300 kilometres away. It also has four 533-mm and four 650-mm torpedo tubes.
Says P Asokan, INS Chakra’s first skipper, “I commanded a conventional submarine before this and we were restricted by battery power. But now, I have no restrictions. I can chase a vessel anywhere, overtake her, play games with her, and the nuclear plant never runs out of power.”
Across the water from INS Chakra is the Ship Building Centre, a gigantic hangar where the indigenous nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, is being constructed. The Arihant is not an SSN like the Chakra; it does not engage in naval warfare. It is an SSBN, a nuclear powered underwater platform from which nuclear-tipped missiles can be launched. The Arihant and its successor vessels would form the third leg of India’s ‘nuclear triad’.
The INS Chakra could be followed by a second SSN from Russia, a proposal the navy has already raised. Questioned on the issue, Antony responded, “There is a proposal (about a second submarine), but we have not taken a decision about that.”
The Indian Navy has 14 conventional submarines in service. Also under construction are six Scorpene conventional submarines at Mazagon Dock, Mumbai, scheduled to enter service by 2018.
According to Antony, seven new warships, including submarines, would enter service with the Navy this year, while an average of five warships would be inducted each succeeding year.