India’s Quest for a Nuclear Submarine

In July 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unveiled India’s first nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, catapulting it into a select group of countries possessing naval nuclear propulsion. Though the nuclear submarine project picked up pace in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear weapons tests and inclusion of sea based assets in India’s nuclear force projection capabilities as outlined in the 1999 Draft nuclear doctrine, Arihant’s historical vintage is at least four decades long. Based on recently declassified material, government documents, biographies of key personalities and a combination of open sources, this series of blogposts (which are excerpts from a larger research project) is an attempt to understand Arihant’s journey from the design boards at Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in 1967 to its successful launch in August 2009.

From Design to Lease: 1967-1990

According to Vice Admiral Mihir Kumar Roy, Indian Navy and atomic scientists, motivated by the desire to invest in a futuristic technology, conducted a design study on naval nuclear propulsion in 1967 (Mihir Kumar Roy, War in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi: Lancer, 1995, p. 114). The most convincing strategic rationale for sub-surface nuclear assets emanated out of the United States’ gun-boat diplomacy in 1971 during the Bangladesh war. For India, the advent of the United States’ Seventh Fleet, with the USS Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal was both a massive shock and a deeply humiliating experience. One strategy to deal with such superpower intervention in the Indian Ocean was to push forward the idea of “Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ).” As the U.S. took control of Diego Garcia in mid-1970’s, India’s pitch for IOPZ further strengthened (“Swaran Reiterates Stand on Indian Ocean as Peace Zone.” The Times of India, 10 May 1973). Only the Soviet Union appeared sympathetic to India’s concerns and raised the issue with the US, even at the highest levels. Soviet submarines also operated in the Indian Ocean; being an ally, they were largely seen as an “essentially countervailing” force, without which the U.S. would dominate the region (T.T. Poulose, “India’s Maritime Strategy”, The Times of India, 9 July 1978).

Diplomacy notwithstanding, post-1971, the Navy increasingly focussed upon “raising the cost of intervention” by outside powers in the Indian Ocean (p. 70). Nuclear submarines, given their ability to remain under water for long stretches, captured the imagination of the service.  Soon after the USS Enterprise incident, the commander of the Navy’s western naval command, who directed the operations during the war, and later Chief of Naval Staff – Admiral S. N. Kohli – remarked: “India cannot be content to have nuclear submarines of other powers prowling round the Indian Ocean and not be able to deter them in any way. The presence of an Indian attack submarine (emphasis added) would make them think twice before undertaking such a deployment” (quoted, p. 71).

A few years after the Bangladesh war, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Indian Navy jointly prepared a report titled “Project Report on Nuclear Propulsion for Marine Applications.”(p. 72) Funds were made available in 1976. If BARC was entrusted with the responsibility to develop a working reactor for India’s nuclear submarine, the Navy was allowed to vet designs produced by the former. Designing a reactor small enough to fit in the hull of a nuclear submarine was the real challenge. Difficulties compounded from the very beginning. BARC failed in producing a viable reactor design. Nuclear fuel for the reactor was also a hurdle: initially there was a debate among the scientists whether the submarine should run on plutonium or enriched uranium; India had no production capacity for the latter (p. 229). Within the first two years of the project, naval engineers challenged initial designs produced by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), first in 1976 and then in 1977, leading to their rejections in 1979 (T.S. Gopi Rethinaraj, ‘ATV: All at Sea before It Hits the Water’, Jane’s Intelligence Review (June 1998), p. 31-35). When BARC repeatedly failed to pass the Navy’s technical assessments, India sought the Soviet Union’s assistance. In 1979, at the behest of the Ministry of Defence, Ambassador to Moscow and later Prime Minister – I.K Gujral – approached the Soviets for help.  Moscow also appeared willing.

In July 1981, Raja Ramanna, Indira Gandhi’s Scientific Advisor signed a understanding with the Soviet Union, where the Soviets agreed to help India design a viable nuclear submarine (p. 251). Designs of the Soviet Charlie-I-class nuclear submarines were later provided to the Indian authorities. In return, India promised to purchase conventional submarines of EKM-77 type, leasing at least one nuclear submarine of Charlie-I-class and other defence equipment. In the light of the Soviet offer, a fresh indigenous effort codenamed Advanced Technology Project was initiated in 1983-84, when R. Venkataraman was the Defence Minister. Venkataraman confirms this in his 1994 biography – My Presidential Years.  Venkataraman claims that the “idea of acquiring a nuclear propelled submarine (from the Soviet Union) was floated by me as Defence Minister (1982-84)” (p. 76). A second nuclear submarine was to be built in India. The “Atomic Energy Agency and its chief, Dr. Raja Ramanna”, according to the President, were “confident for providing an atomic power pack for the submarine.” (p. 76). In 1984, Indira Gandhi made some major changes in the management of the project (Rita Manchanda, “Extravagance at Sea,” The Pioneer, 22 December 1994).  First, an ATV directorate was established in New Delhi with a naval officer of the rank of Vice Admiral in charge. Vice Admiral M.K. Roy was the first to take charge. Second, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was now made the project manager. Upon Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister. Rajiv continued with his mother’s commitment for the project. Launched in October 1984, the 15 Year Perspective Plan envisioned that by 2000 India should build a nuclear submarine (G.M. Hiranandani, Transition to Guardianship: The Indian Navy, 1991-2000, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence, New Delhi: Lancer, 2009, p. 216-17). However, as the official history of the Indian Navy suggests, such capabilities were sought to “inflict decisive punishment on any regional Navy in war and to raise the threshold against intervention by foreign powers (ibid, p. 216).”

Notwithstanding the political support offered by the Rajiv government, the high level of confidence among the scientists and the structural changes made in the project, the ride ahead appeared to be extremely difficult.  The reactor and its containment continued to dodge the scientists. Differences between BARC and the Navy came out in the open in 1988, when an Indian naval engineer – Capt. B. K. Subbarao – involved in the design of the naval nuclear reactor was apprehended under the Officials Secrets Act at the behest of the DAE (B. K Subbarao, “Reorientation of DAE needed to counter Pakistan Threat,” The Hindu, 22 November 1994). Though Subbarao was charged with espionage, reports suggest that his constant refusals to accept the reactor designs prepared by BARC led to this witch-hunt by the authorities.

Following Raja Ramanna’s visit to Moscow in 1981, India had entered into negotiations with the Soviets for leasing a nuclear submarine. Constant prowling of Indian Ocean by the nuclear submarines of the superpowers and extra-regional powers such as China had raised concerns in New Delhi and was being debated at the highest levels (“Superpowers Rivalry in Indian Ocean Viewed,” Daily Report: South Asia, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 14 December 1985. Also see, “Rajya Sabha Debates PRC Submarine Deployment”, Daily Report: South Asia, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 28 March 1985). In this regard, propitious signals were sent to New Delhi during Soviet Defence Minister Marshall Ustinov’s visit to New Delhi in March 1984 (War in the Indian Ocean, p. 115).  Venkataraman later claimed that the lease was clinched in September 1987 and Vice Admiral M.K. Roy, the chief of the ATV directorate, had personally conveyed him the news. In the media, however, reports of the deal appeared only in December.  On 5 January 1988, this Soviet nuclear submarine joined the Indian Navy, rechristened as INS Chakra. Unprecedented in history, it was for the first time a foreign navy was operating a nuclear submarine of a Nuclear Weapon State.

Islamabad was furious. Pakistan severely criticised the Soviet Union’s decision to lease India a nuclear submarine.  “A great power ought to have a stronger sense of responsibility,” exhorted Islamabad. It also took notice of the fact that the proposed lease came with no international safeguards and asserted that Pakistan would take necessary “countervailing steps.” (“Paper Condemns India’s Nuclear Submarine Lease,” Daily Report: Near East and South Asia, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 27 January 1988).  Regional concerns notwithstanding, the Navy had plans to acquire more nuclear submarines from the Soviet Union (Ashley J. Tellis, ‘Securing the Barrack: The Logic, Structure and Objectives of India’s Naval Expansion: Part II’, Naval War College Review (Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn 1990), p. 36).

However, as the Soviet Union moved towards political and economic uncertainty, changes in India’s geopolitical fortunes would soon rupture the Navy’s nuclear plans. Signs were visible even during Gorbachev’s reign. To decision-makers in New Delhi, the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, appeared ambivalent in its commitment to India. Even when the Indian Navy was keen on extending the lease of the Charlie-I class vessel until the under-construction indigenous submarine was operational, the deal came to an end on January 1, 1991 and the submarine was returned. If Gorbachev’s regime appeared to be retracting from its special relationship with India, the new republic – Russia, under Boris Yeltsin – also became an active member of the non-proliferation regime, spearheaded by the United States (p. 324). Under pressure from the United States, Russian technological assistance to India came to a grinding halt. From cryogenic engines to nuclear fuel and reactors, Russia reneged on its many promises (p. 166, 181-200).  Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, had been co-opted in the Unites States’ non-proliferation agenda. U.S. pressure on India over nuclear non-proliferation also increased manifold during this period. All these factors delayed the ATV project.

India began its quest for nuclear submarines as an interest in a ‘technology of the future.’ In the wake of Nixon’s gun-boat diplomacy in December 1971, this interest took a strategic rationale of sea denial to extra-regional powers in Indian Ocean. As the developments in 1980’s suggest, the Navy continued to look at this platform only in terms of a ‘sea denial strategy.’ Technical issues delayed the project as the size and containment of the naval nuclear reactor continued to dog the scientists.  Repeated failures also made the Navy extremely impatient. The service, therefore, started showing keen interest in buying nuclear submarines from the Soviet Union. After years of negotiations, the Charlie-I Class nuclear submarine, renamed INS Chakra, joined the Navy in 1988. However, growing international concerns and domestic political changes within the Soviet Union limited the Navy’s options.

What Next?

From a ‘definite pause’ in the early 1990’s to its successful launch in 2009, the next two decades of Arihant’s development will resonate with the fluctuations in India’s political, economic and nuclear fortunes. This part of its historical trajectory will be delineated in the next post.

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Image: Sebastian D’Souza-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Deterrence, History, India, Nuclear, nuclear navy, Nuclear Weapons

Yogesh Joshi

Yogesh Joshi

Yogesh Joshi is a doctoral candidate at the Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He has been a fellow at Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University and is currently an international PhD partnering fellow at Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

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2 thoughts on “India’s Quest for a Nuclear Submarine

  1. It is important here to acknowledge flaws in India’s engineering tradition, such as poor maintenance, which causes fighter aircraft to frequently crash. No need to become Great naval or Military power, First become an economic power. Japan does not own a great navy or Air Force but commands the respect of every nation in the world. Even smaller Vietnam & Philippines, both much closer to China are not spending huge money on their Navy, but just enough to thwart the aggressive designs of giant China.

  2. India’s quest for nuclear submarines actually dragging the region towards instability and brinkmanship. The concern is not only for Islamabad rather China would also get involved and seek for more advanced and equipped technology in order to make the India’s dream of gaining regional supremacy unfulfilled. And I personally think that past tragedies can help a lot in making one experienced and learn a lesson for the rest of the life. But in case of India this is quite reversible. India while coming across number of accidents due to Russian outdated supplied submarines still trusting Russian technology and is in fully determined to make the country chaotic and a dangerous place to live in.

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