An IDC Analysis

(With inputs from Sayan Majumdar) 


New Delhi, 04 July 2004

The recently announced Naval Doctrine envisages the adoption of a submerged nuclear missile deterrent, to launch the so called ‘second strike capability’. Our researcher Sayan Majumdar speculates on the totality of the technology, systems, combat units, communications and integration with the National Command Authority, required to make such a capability a reality…..

Submerged Nuclear Deterrent

November 15, 1960 was a Red Letter day for the United States Navy (USN) and for the world naval community. USS George Washington, the first nuclear powered Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) of the USN began its operational patrol on that day. USS George Washington was armed with solid-fuel Polaris A-1 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) that could be launched from under water.

The SSBNs have since matured into submerged mobile silos as they are reasonably well protected from pre-emptive strike and thus ideal instruments for nuclear deterrence. These submarines cannot be eliminated in a first strike, yet their hydra-headed SLBMs can inflict devastating reprisals on a rogue nuclear aggressor. The present force of the USN consists of Ohio Class SSBNs armed with Trident II D-5 SLBMs with ranges in excess of 7,000 km that increases the sea room in which they can hide and still keep their targets within range. Their accuracy is as good as land based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) thanks to stellar inertial navigation system (INS).

The Naval Doctrine recently propounded by the Indian Navy has correctly stressed the use of submarines both conventional and nuclear powered, in conjunction with the stated nuclear “retaliatory second strike” capability. A significant proportion of the valuable military and industrial targets of India’s potential adversaries lie near their coastlines making them highly vulnerable to naval strikes.

It is quite likely that an indigenous Indian nuclear submarine referred to as advanced technology vessel (ATV) will be in operation by about 2006, to be followed later by sister submarines, to boost India’s nuclear “second strike capability”. The weaponry of the ATV needs to be selected carefully and also the focus should shift to underwater Very Low Frequency/Extremely Low Frequency (VLF/ELF) and laser communications for effective coordination of these ATVs with the National Command Authority (NCA).

Earlier media reports had indicated the ATV to be a version of the Russian Charlie Class nuclear powered cruise missile armed submarine (SSGN), but it is unlikely that the Indian Navy will choose such an older basic technology for operations at the turn of millennium, especially when advanced technology is available from Russia and France. Another option is stated to be a modified variant of the massive Project 949A Antey Oscar II Class SSGN. A customised development of Russian Project 885 Yasen/Graney Class Nuclear powered Attack Submarine (SSN) also referred to as Severodvinsk Class, which is a further derivative of the Project 971 Akula Class SSN and features a significant cruise missile capability with eight vertical launch tubes aft of the sail, appears to be yet another choice. Although a SSN, the dimensions of Severodvinsk Class approach the dimensions of the French Le Redoutable Class ballistic missile submarines. The hull is made of low magnetic steel, with spherical bow sonar and canted torpedo tubes. In any case the ATV project is demanding simultaneous development and integration of advanced technologies in the fields of nuclear propulsion, missiles, missile guidance, “cold launch” from submerged submarine and precise navigation and position fixing techniques.

The exact nature of our ATV will only become apparent after it enters service but the Sagarika (Oceanic) SLBM or submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCM), due to enter service with the Indian Navy should have a range of at least 2.000 km and provide greater operational sea room and ability to operate far from the enemy coast.

Near enemy coastlines ATV will be vulnerable to enemy conventional powered hunter-killer submarines (SSK) equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP). If a SLBM or SLCM of decent range can be developed the ATV will retain the choice of operating in certain heavily defended patrol areas of Arabian and South China Seas and in the Indian Ocean, while keeping the potential targets within range. The Soviet Navy followed this “Bastion Concept” during Cold War days with relative success against the formidable anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces of the United States Navy and her allies.

Escorts and Weapons

The ATV will require escorts and the induction of Project 971M Akula II Class SSN like Gephard from Russia seems possible. The naval officials should ensure integration of the latest range of sensors and weapon systems available from Russia and elsewhere. Structurally these submarines have the latest technologies; they are very quiet in comparison to other Russian vessels and significantly are the product of advanced Russian research on marine animals, notably dolphins.

It can be assumed that these submarines "by default" will carry a formidable array of potent torpedoes and the Indo-Russian BrahMos Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM). However every effort should be made to retain the capacity of firing the submarine launched Raduga RK-55 Granit (SS-N-21 Sampson) Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) twelve of which are carried by Russian Navy Akulas and are fired from standard 533 mm torpedo tubes. LACMs especially submarine launched, are invaluable assets of any major navy, and tactically may be used in decimating enemy overland communications, command and control centres and powerful air defence installations –– before launching extensive barrage air attacks followed by ground invasion.

If the Russian LACM is not available because of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) restrictions, efforts should be made to develop an indigenous LACM of fair range and capacity, or re-engineer and enhance the capability of BrahMos ASCM. The BrahMos developments indeed seem to be approaching that direction with 900 km and 1400 km “Super BrahMos” variants. This aspect will enhance the Indian Navy's capability to influence the "air-land" battle and since this naval application is likely to appeal to politicians and stretegic planners as well, the Navy will be able to press for increased budget in return. As the ATVs will represent a cohesive cluster of strategic capability –– with perhaps 12 to 16 SLBMs or SLCMs –– there will be unacceptable damage if one unit is lost. Thus nuclear-warhead armed SLCMs should be distributed on SSNs and major surface combatants for distribution of our strategic capability and to complicate the tasks of our adversaries.

The Indian Navy could also opt for the exceptionally high speed (200 Knots) Russian Shkval (Squall) rocket propelled 'torpedo' which is capable of destroying even super-carriers with a couple of hits and provides the targeted vessels very little chance to perform evasive manoeuvres. This 'torpedo' may also be used as a "revenge" weapon, which may be fired along the bearing of an incoming enemy torpedo. The Russians have meanwhile disclosed the existence of non-nuclear tipped Shkval-E for the export market.

Action Information System

It is generally regarded that the underwater acoustic sensor suite and combat action information system of United States and West European submarines are superior to their Russian contemporaries. Hopefully the Indian Navy is set to "absorb" the key technologies of the Franco-Spanish Scorpene Class SSKs, which includes innovations inspired directly by France's new-generation nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines. It is difficult to ascertain the completion status of the Akula II Class submarines for the Indian Navy, but it may be possible to retrofit the Franco-Spanish technology especially the sonar and other acoustic sensor suite and automated action information/combat management system, to the subsequent units of the ATV and Akulas if these are found to be superior.


We envisage that gradually the nuclear powered submarines will predominate over conventional types in the IN. If future units of Scorpene class can accommodate a small nuclear Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), it is most welcome. The French are expert in developing small yet reliable marine reactors of exceptional standard leading to the development of small 2,670 ton Rubis and Amethyste Class nuclear attack submarines. The Indian Navy however should retain a decent portion of conventional attack “hunter-killer” submarines with AIP for efficiency of operations on the continental shelf region and insertion of Special Forces on enemy beachheads.

Security of Bases

Although submerged submarines are relatively invulnerable, the submarines while in bases are susceptible to pre-emptive strike and sabotage. Special facilities are required for ballistic missile submarines and this makes their location easily identifiable and well known. Surveillance devices such as satellites and electronic monitoring enable the arrival and departure of ballistic missile submarines to be closely observed. The departures of ballistic missile armed submarines are accompanied by easily identifiable behavior of the escort vessels as the submarines are checked up for acoustic and magnetic signatures and clip-in towed arrays are fitted. Again British ballistic missile submarines have to leave their Scottish base at Faslane through “narrows” at Rhu just north of Helensburgh in full public view. The French Force Oceanique Stretegeque (FOST) ballistic missile submarines face similar problems while leaving Ile Longue Naval Base at Brest Bay.

Naturally radical steps are taken for security of naval bases. The Gremikha SSBN Base at Kola peninsula of Russia has huge SSBN “pens” blasted out of granite rocks of the adjacent cliffs to ensure the survival of the Typhoon Class ballistic missile submarines. The other base at Zapadnaya Lista is also closely guarded. Again highly trained dolphins guard the USN SSBN bases of Bangor in Washington State and King’s Bay at Georgia. These animate sonar of these dolphins far exceeds any artificial set. In addition to radical measures the Indian Navy also should plan to secure rights for using overseas bases for proper strategic distribution of assets and operational flexibility.


The Indian Navy had anticipated the importance of Very Low Frequency (VLF) underwater transmissions long ago. As part of an ambitious naval modernisation program, during the mid-1980s the Indian Navy had constructed a VLF broadcasting station in Tamil Nadu. Although not publicly declared, it was reported that the United States actively collaborated in the project, which was completed in September 1986.

The operational VLF facility can primarily be used by the Indian Navy to communicate with its SSKs with trailing communication buoys at periscope depth of 10 to 20 metres. When nuclear ATVs become operational, the VLF facility will permit Indian National Command Authority to issue launch orders to submerged subs at periscope depth. VLF waves propagate almost a quarter of the globe away and are generally immune to atmospheric disturbances caused by nuclear detonations. Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves on the other hand can penetrate to the operational “patrol depth” of the SSBNs but huge overland infrastructure needs to be built up with 80 km long antennae.

On the negative side, the small bandwidth of VLF transmission limits the rate of transmission of data, usually allowing only the operation of slow Teletype messages. Moreover the large terrestrial and static VLF facility would be vulnerable to enemy strikes and even if the VLF facility is shifted deep underground in “hardened” shelters, the communication antennae would be located above ground and will remain vulnerable. Thus an airborne VLF transmitter similar to the USN Take Charge And Move Out (TACAMO) should be seriously considered for procurement and induction.

A powerful 200KW transmitter provides the VLF transmissions in TACAMO. The United States Navy utilizes an EC-130A/Q Hercules with a trailing wire antennae 10km long with a drogue parachute at the end. During transmission the aircraft flies in a continuous tight circle, which results in over 70 percent of the wire hanging straight down and acting as a relatively efficient vertical antennae.

Presently the E-6 Mercury is the airborne platform of the United States TACAMO Communications System. It provides survivable communication links between the United States National Command Authority (NCA) and Strategic Forces. Long range, air refuelable E-6 is a derivative of the commercial Boeing 707 aircraft equipped with four CFM-56-2A-2 high bypass ratio fan/jet engines with thrust reversers. The weapon system is Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) hardened. Mission range is over 6000 nautical miles. E-6B fulfils both TACAMO and Airborne National Command Post (ABNCP) missions.

The E-6 ABNCP modification program was established to upgrade TACAMO operational capabilities by incorporating a subset of United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOMM) EC-135 ABNCP equipment into the E-6 aircraft. The modified aircraft have the designation changed from E-6A to E-6B. The E-6B modified an E-6A by adding battle staff positions and other specialised equipment. The E-6B is a dual-mission aircraft capable of fulfilling either the E-6A mission or the airborne strategic command post mission (“Looking Glass”?) and is equipped with an Airborne Launch Control System (ALCS). The ALCS is capable of launching United States ICBMs. The E-6B is capable of performing both the TACAMO and ABNCP missions. This modification enables USSTRATCOM to perform current and projected TACAMO and ABNCP operational tasking and the E-6B provides survivable Command, Control and Communications (C3) force management communications for the NCA via multiple frequency band communications.

Attention has now shifted to laser based underwater communications. There is an optical window in the blue-green part of the laser spectrum, which enables transmission to penetrate the ocean to substantial distances. Power requirements are considerable and the system at least presently cannot be installed in artificial satellites. Thus as a tactical improvisation the laser is made to be ground based, preferably mobile, in perfect conjunction with a space based mirror with adaptive optics being used to produce a cohesive beam. Significantly, data transfer rate will be 300 times greater than ELF system although the “rerouted” laser may not penetrate to the same depth.


The effective combination of nuclear powered ballistic missile armed and coventional attack submarines coupled with underwater VLF/ELF and laser communications will make our sea based nuclear deterrent optimally effective. The challenge lies in front of our national leadership and defence scientists to “secure” the proper systems either indigenously or import them from established sources.

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