India wants more nuclear submarines and fewer aircraft carriers

YB WEB DESK. Dated: 4/5/2021 11:56:41 AM

New Delhi, Apr 04 In March 2021, the Times of India reported that the Indian Navy had announced its intent to prioritize the development and construction of a force of six nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, ahead of building a third, larger aircraft carrier. The initial order of three submarines could begin entering service in 2032. The SSN program, estimated optimistically to cost $12 billion ($2 billion per submarine), could affect the balance of power in the Indian Ocean as India seeks to offset the growing presence and capability of China’s rapidly expanding navy. In the last two decades, the PLA Navy has secured access to bases in the Indian Ocean to the west and east of India, and periodically dispatches warships and submarines to patrol those waters. Long-running tensions between China and India meanwhile have mounted, culminating in June 2020 in a deadly clash on the Himalayan border in which dozens of soldiers were killed. New Delhi’s decision to focus on submarines concludes a year-long debate between senior leaders of the Indian Navy and Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat. Both projects have been on the Navy’s slate for decades, but progress has been slow. CDS Rawat favoured submarines over carriers because the latter make for large and indiscrete targets, and China has developed a wide variety of long-range air, sea- and land-based missiles to attack carriers. Attack submarines, by contrast, are ideal for navies facing numerically superior adversaries because underwater stealth allows them to (mostly) pick their battles, pouncing upon vulnerable merchant convoys or unsuspecting warships. Furthermore, even a relatively small submarine force can compel an adversary to devote enormous resources to systematically escorting merchant convoys and valuable warships, lest they sustain insupportable losses. Those costs were so high that in World War I and II, the United Kingdom and U.S. Navy both initially thought it was better to let convoys go unescorted, only for shipping losses to German UBoats to rise so catastrophically high that they were forced to backtrack—even if that meant throttling down the pace of shipping overall. is on its second lease of a nuclear-powered Akula-class attack submarine from Russia, and in 2019 signed a $3 billion deal for a third lease to begin in 2025. Russian assistance also played a major role in India’s development of an indigenous nuclearpowered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Arihant, giving India an underwater sea-based nuclear deterrence capability. Three progressively improved submarines based on the Arihant are in the pipeline, with one—the Arighat— due for commissioning this year. These will be followed by a new, larger class of four SSBNs dubbed the S5. Nuclear propulsion allows submarines to remain underwater essentially indefinitely and traverse long distances without having to expose themselves by surfacing or snorkeling to sip air needed to recharge their batteries. That allows an SSBN to creep slowly underwater with maximum stealth on patrols that may last two or three months, ready at any moment to respond to orders transmitted by high-frequency radio to unleash a barrage of nucleartipped ballistic missiles. An attack submarine, however, is principally designed for hunting down ships and other submarines. For that role, agility is essential for intercepting vulnerable enemy ships, out-manoeuvring underwater foes, and diving deep to evade anti-submarine forces. Here, nuclear propulsion can enable much higher sustained underwater speeds of 20 to 30 knots. Indeed, India has reportedly been researching higher-strength hull materials that will allow its future SSNs to dive deeper and travel at higher speeds. However, the greatest technical challenge may stem from the submarine’s reactor.


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