Part I: History and Beginnings of the ATV
India’s efforts to embark upon an indigenous nuclear submarine project hark back to 1971, a time when the a tast force from the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, including the USS Enterprise nuclear-powered aircraft carrier projected unignorable power from the Bay of Bengal as India continued to deliver liberty to Bangladesh. Strategically, this was a profoundly disturbing period for the government and military planners — it was an open admission then, as it is now, that had the American not quietly withdrawn from the theatre, India would have had no reasonable way to deal with them. It was after this that the terse exchange of letters between Indira Gandhi and President Nixon ensued.
She was well-advised at this time that if India had had a small fleet of nuclear submarines, the government would not have been, as it were, at sea. Mrs Gandhi is known to have thrown a small tantrum with the three military chiefs, fuming at having been “bullied” and saved by the bell of the Pakistani surrender. Analyst Dr. Eric H. Arnett of SIPRI wrote, “The history and implications of the nuclear attack submarine for Indian maritime strategy suggest that the US presence in the Indian Ocean was a strong motivation for the nuclear attack submarine program.” But neither then, nor now, did the government fully comprehend the complexity and enormity of the task at hand.
It was the sincere belief of all Naval ranks at the time that it was a splendid, indeed indispensable, idea that the country needed its own nuclear submarines. But Mrs Gandhi’s advisors had her sanction the establishment to embark upon something for which the Indian defense research and development industry or the laboratories were just not prepared or equipped.Submarines had come to occupy an important place in Indian maritime strategy.
Ian Anthony, the author of The Arms Trade and Medium Powers—Case Studies of India and Pakistan 1947-90 writes that in December 1968 the arrival of submarines of Soviet origin was announced as part of a new plan for naval expansion and modernization by Navy chief Admiral AK Chatterji.
The decision to buy six Foxtrot-class submarines from the USSR was a new departure in naval strategy which indicated the pattern of Indian naval thinking, particularly as it related to technology change. Admiral Chatterji was one influential voice arguing that the growing vulnerability of surface ships inevitably led to the development of submarines and air forces. Chatterji was also of the belief that India should seek to build nuclear-powered submarines by the late 1980s.
In 1983, Defence Minister K Venkataraman and BARC’s former Director, Raja Ramanna, decided to make veteran submariner Vice Admiral MK Roy chief of the ATV project. But official denials, not unreasonably at the time, about the very existence of the programme continued. In December 1983, answering questions in the Indian Parliament, Defense Minister Venkataraman said, “I have already said that we keep our options in this matter, if necessary we will go in for it. But then a nuclear-powered submarine is different from the nuclear submarine with nuclear warheads. I have already said that we are not going to use atomic energy for anything but peaceful purposes. Therefore, we will use it for power. It will be only for propulsion.”
But one of the reasons a handful of retired Naval staff have begun to collaborate to bring out the real story about the ATV is that over the years, the ATV Project has become what they call become a “self-perpetuating monster”. The “singularly monumental bungling” is something that has come to preclude patriotism and engender a culture that threatens to destroy the one good relationship left in the ugly world of relations in the armed forces and industrial complex — that between the Navy and the scientific establishment, a historically strong and healthy relationship that shines even today in myriad systems and construction projects, including but not limited to the magnificent indigenous aircraft carrier.
Taking a political decision to build or acquire a nuclear submarine was easy, but implementing it was difficult. Problems cropped up from the word go. The shipbuilding expertise, shore-based support facilities and manpower needed to build and operate nuclear submarines could not be acquired quickly. The Cold War was very much on and things were not coming by easily. The USSR was apparently and understandably reluctant to transfer either nuclear-powered submarines themselves or the technology required for their construction in India. In 1980 and 1982 the only submarines offered seem to have been refurbished Foxtrot Class boats. As a result, India began evaluating the possible alternative of conventionally powered submarines to replace the Foxtrot submarines in service. At this point it was decided that at least some units of the design which was chosen would be built in India, and that the ultimate objective of producing nuclear-powered submarines would not be abandoned. So far so good.
From the mid 1970s, a number of submarine designs were under consideration from Western Europe and the Soviet Union. The European countries involved were France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Sweden, with the FRG and Sweden the clearly favoured options by 1980. The Indian establishment was actually looking for a design which could offer a chance to learn the production and operating skills relevant to nuclear-powered submarines. The Type-209 design offered by the West German company HDW met some of these criteria. In 1981, HDW won the order based on a ‘stretched’ and heavier version of the Type-209 weighing 1500 tons (and consequently designated the Type-1500). West Germany also gained an advantage in negotiations by offering as a package a new generation of torpedoes supplied by the West German company AEG. The initial order covered the sale of two submarines to be built in Kiel and included an option to produce up to four subsequently in India. The signature of the contract was held up, as officials in the FRG were unhappy about a clause in the contract, insisted upon by India, which would guarantee deliveries of spare parts in wartime. However, the option on the production of the submarines at the Mazagon Dock Limited in Bombay was exercised in December 1981. Construction began in early 1982 and the West German-built vessels were delivered in 1986-7. Production of the submarines on the other hand, ran into problems, finally getting underway in 1984, and delivery of the first of these (originally expected in 1988) was delayed until 1991.
By this time some people had started becoming nervous. Looking back in retrospect, it appears certain, at least to us, that the scientific establishment had misled the government from the beginning. They had boasted of delivering something quickly which they were not to deliver even decades later. “The naiveté of the political establishment and the Navy lay in the fact that they implicitly believed in the tall, outrageous claims of the scientific establishment. While the scientific establishment betrayed the nation by boasting of an expertise which they never had, the political and the military establishment failed the nation in believing in their feverish hallucinations.”
In early 1984, there were reports of discussions with the Soviet Union on the supply of more advanced, possibly nuclear-powered, vessels and the training of Indian crews in the Soviet Union. By late 1984, the Soviet Union was apparently prepared to offer India submarines of more modern design in considerable numbers. Vice Admiral Tahiliani, then Vice Chief of Naval Staff, took a leading role in talks in Moscow in September 1984, after which official sources stated that the defense relationship had taken on “a new dimension”. This has subsequently been interpreted to have meant that the Soviet Union agreed not only to supply more modern types of conventional submarines, but also to allow India access to nuclear-powered submarines. The formal agreement to lease a nuclear-powered submarine from the Soviet Union was signed in 1985.
Hopes were kindled even as our indigenous scientific establishment kept the nation in dark about what they had been able to achieve or not achieve so far. In mid 1987 reports began to surface about Indian negotiations with the Soviet Union to transfer one or more nuclear submarines. It was at this stage that international observers, for the first time, got a hint that India had already started a nuclear submarine reactor program of its own at BARC a decade ago but with highly unsatisfactory results. The ATV had run aground in the first decade itself of its inception. No one in India was allowed to learn what exactly had gone wrong. The lack of coordination and focus, besides sheer technical incompetence marked the ATV project out as a failure from day one. The first ten years of the programme were wasted in debating what reactor would suit the vessel. Ten years. Think about that for a minute.
Comparisons with other nations are always thrown in the face of criticism. But the ATV programme crosses all bounds. Compare it with what the others had done at the time. The world’s first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile 1, was made by Enrico Fermi on December 2, 1942. It was the most elementary nuclear reactor imaginable. The world’s first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, was launched in January 1954 itself. Within 12 years of inventing the nuclear reactor they could make a reactor for a nuclear submarine. Those were the early years — it was pioneering work with very few reactors in the world to guide them or acquire experience. What the scientists of the world could achieve in just 12 years, our entire scientific establishment has not been able to do in 32 years in spite of having reactors in India since 1955 and the experience of operating power reactors for long. The taboo word incompetence rears its head.
Nuclear power was still in its infancy when the decision was made to use an atomic reactor to power a submarine. Chicago Pile 1 had been built only six years before Argonne’s Naval Reactor Division was formed in 1948. Over the next six years, the division helped turn the atomic ship engine from a concept into a reality. The first prototype, Submarine Thermal Reactor Mark I, was completed in 1953 by Westinghouse Corp. at what is now the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. STR Mark II was installed in the Nautilus, launched the following year. In fact, the ship’s reactor and its operating procedures became the prototype for most of world’s commercial nuclear power plants. The Naval Reactor Program also inspired efficient safety and control methods — essential with the limited crew in a submarine. Former U.S. Navy “nucs” operate many of the USA’s nuclear power plants today.
We, on the other hand, have had the experience of operating large power reactors and yet we have not been able to make a ship’s reactor in 32 years of dedicated effort. It indicates a frightening prospect — our scientists haven’t done their job. This is not to indulge in a sweeping condemnation of the scientific community — India can still boast of some of the best minds — but the facts of the ATV programme speak for themselves. And in this case, it has to be admitted that the Navy is also to blame. “The scientific community cannot be allowed to hide its epic incompetence under the guise of secrecy.”
The Navy, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the DRDO could simply not come to a consensus on several crucial issues. The navy, again it has to be admitted, knew little else besides the fact that nuclear subs used nuclear reactors, the BARC knew little else besides the physics of nuclear reactors, and the DRDO thought it could coordinate their making without knowing anything specific. Amongst them they could not fathom the design of the nuclear reactor used on submarines. The DRDO and the BARC claimed it could be built indigenously. It is said that Ramanna and others at an apex board meeting said we’d produce it in no time and all that they needed was a Soviet nuclear submarine on lease. The intention was apparently to copy the design and to train Indian officers to operate the indigenous version as soon as it was ready. All the manuals and detailed documentation were studied but nothing much came out of it. Left with no other viable option, India decided to import the capability from the Soviet Union, initially in the form of Soviet nuclear-powered submarines, with Indian personnel already in training in the Soviet Union to handle the equipment. In early January 1988, All-India Radio announced that the Soviet Union had ‘leased’ a nuclear-powered submarine to India with India taking delivery of the sub in the Soviet port of Vladivostok.
(NEXT: Part II The Wasted Leasing of INS Chakra)