An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 12 March 2005

Chairing a session on India’s nuclear deal with USA on 7th March at the India International Centre where the speakers were the nuclear doyen K Subrahmanyam and Raja Mohan of the Indian Express, former PM I K Gujral shared an anecdote which holds relevance for the Indian Navy’s plans to possess nuclear submarines with underwater launched long range missiles.

It is now in the public domain that the ATV project, a technology demonstrator is an expensive and laudable technological programme, which is supported by many vendors including Larsen and Tubro, Mazdock, Tatas and BHEL. IK Gujral unveiled how in 1979, when he was Ambassador in Russia and C Subramaniam and K Subrahmanyam were the Defence Minister and Defence Secretary (Production) respectively in MOD, had asked him to meet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov and seek help and guidance on India’s quest for nuclear submarines. Gorshkov, one of the finest naval minds of the last century, made Shri Gujral look at the chart/map of the Indian Ocean. Then he explained how India was hemmed in by the Straits on both sides and said China had nuclear submarines and so India must also. Relations between Russia and China had soured.

The rest is history, and INS Chakra was given by Gorshkov on lease from 1987 to 1991 and under the guidance of late Dr Raja Ramanna the ATV project took off in 1983. Defence Ministers of India Pranab Mukherjee and Ivanov of Russia jointly acknowledged the project in Moscow in December 2005 and wowed to complete it. A few thousand crores spent on it makes it the next most expensive DRDO project after the LCA. Recently as part of the President’s Review of the Fleet Dr APJ Kalam who had steered the project earlier visited the sprawling restricted project site at Vishakapatnam.

A nuclear Submarine force is the right option for countries with large oceans to patrol and though this issue has never been debated in India it must be stated that nuclear submarines are very expensive technological toys. The cost of buying or building nuclear submarines is approximately 50 to 75% higher per unit than diesel-electric. Nuke boats cruise three times faster, have a greater sustained speed underwater and an unlimited range. For this reason a larger number of diesel units are required for the same duty. Higher speeds by diesel propelled boats for short periods deplete their underwater batteries in a few hours and without resorting to recharge they then become incapable to the point of helplessness. INS Hangor under then Cdr Tasneem of Pakiastan suffered this fate in 1971 after attacking INS Kuthar which his torpedoes missed but sank INS Khukri. However the Captain made an ingenious get away by daring to navigate in shallow waters. Nuclear submarines cannot do that.

Diesel submarines are warships of position whereas nuclear submarines are vehicles of maneuver. Diesels are suited for small shallow seas with straits to block (hence Singapore has opted for submarines) like the Baltic, but when rapid movements over long ocean distances are required, nuclear propulsion is the desired choice and India can afford it since even our cricket players earn a few million dollars a year.

A conventional boat needs to be in the vicinity of its target. A nuclear boat can be dispatched to intercept or can track and attack when ordered. The sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands is the most recent example of the capability. HMAS CONQUEROR was dispatched at full speed for 8000 miles, submerged all the way and intercepted the Argentinean’s cruiser and bottled up the whole Argentinean fleet. No conventional submarine could have achieved this. Unlike the diesel electric boats, which have to surface to recharge batteries about 20 percent of their time at sea, the nuclear submarine does not have to come up and effectively broadcast its position with noisy engines

The diesel–electric submarine can be a useful weapon provided it can get to the right place at the right time. Conversely a nuclear powered boat, which can stay submerged indefinitely and run at high speeds indefinitely, has enormous flexibility. A nuclear powered boat running silent, fast and deep can be switched very quickly from, for example, a wartime role of barrier patrols against hostile submarines in a specific area, to convoy escort across an ocean.

In its frequent surfacing, the diesel-electric is highly vulnerable to visual, acoustic and radar detection and thus open to attack by other submarines, aircraft and surface ships. The nuclear boat’s reactor produces much more electrical power than diesel electric submarines and makes it possible to operate much higher powered sonar detection systems, provide more oxygen re-generation and unlimited water supply. The mere threat of a nuclear powered submarine in an area inhibits an opponent and acts as a powerful deterrent. Rigorous safety standards followed by western navies in building and operating nuclear submarines have insured nuclear accident free operations. The US Navy for example has used nuclear propulsion for more than 40 years and accumulated more than 3600 reactor years of operations.

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