An eminent Indian strategist has said: “If India had competent naval leadership and a strategic culture, the IN at the turn of the century would have had nuclear submarines.” While there may be a streak of truth here, these are harsh words because in India, matters impinging on grand strategy, are shared by the politician, only with scientists and bureaucrats; keeping the armed forces at arms length. Nevertheless, one wonders how much of their time the Commanders will devote to the navy’s critical under-water dimension and its submarine arm.
Over the past six decades the navy, once it had broken free of the “Cinderella Service” chrysalis, is generally acknowledged to “got its act together” a little better than its sister Services. If this is indeed true, it could be due to its compact size, a smaller decision-making loop, and the fact that it has possibly received greater exposure to external influences. The navy’s adroit management of its affairs can be viewed under two headings.
The Doctrine-Hardware Gap
A major pitfall confronting “young” armed forces universally is the gap that can arise between their doctrine (if they have one) and the order of battle that they create; especially in the context of hardware. The problem becomes aggravated when equipment has to be imported from diverse sources, as in our case, and often force-fitted into the ORBAT. Of course, the evolution of doctrine and strategy has itself been delayed and hindered by lack of higher direction from the government.
To take a few examples in India; The Army’s self-hypnosis about set-piece battles with armoured spearheads, low-intensity conflict and “boots on the ground” has created for it, a highly manpower-oriented paradigm in which even the Special Forces have been reduced to the status of super-infantry. Consequently one has the nagging feeling that the army has grid-locked itself, doctrinally, into a vicious circle. Its refusal to down-size, will deny it the fruits of technology; like precision weaponry, air-mobility, long-range fire-power and night-fighting capabilities, and siphon the money into manpower costs, which will, in turn, impede further modernization.
The IAF acquired many aircraft, including the Sukhoi-7 fighter-bomber, the MiG-23MF interceptor, and the Tupolev-124 and Ilyushin-14 transports either under duress or with insufficient forethought, because they proved of limited utility. At the same time, due to a lack of doctrinal focus, they completely overlooked the immense force-multiplying benefits that EW, early-warning radar, and air-to-air refueling would have bestowed, till quite late; and they still lack a true long-range (nuclear?) bomber.
By the same token, the IN found itself a few years after independence, with an aircraft carrier, a destroyer/frigate escort group and a basic fleet-train without a well thought out doctrine for their employment. Shunned by the West, the navy’s early acquisition programmes were guided, more by what the Soviets thought was good for us rather than what we actually needed or wanted. So much so that an editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships was constrained to remark that: “the IN is one of the few major navies which first buys hardware, and then thinks about how to use it”!
The IN realized the gravity of this problem at an early stage, and has been trying to address it since the last two decades. As far back as 1988, NHQ issued a document titled: “A Military Maritime Strategy 1989-2014” which reflected Cold War realities and the insular posture we had adopted in that era. Although overtaken by events within a few years, this document triggered off a process. However, it was not till the beginning of the current decade that the Service applied itself, once again, to matters of policy as well as dogma.
This has resulted in a series of documents including a Maritime Doctrine, a Maritime Strategy and a Maritime Capabilities Plan which have collectively provided an intellectual underpinning for, and placed the navy’s roles, missions, operational posture and acquisition policies into geo-strategic perspective. This has created a firm foundation which the Service can build upon in the years to come.
The IN has fortunately stood by two fundamental doctrinal convictions; on which the leadership has never failed to voice its views. Firstly, that India’s national interests and stature require it to have overt and credible trans-national capabilities. And secondly, that not just the management of trans-national capabilities, but the demands of today’s warfare require the integration of the three armed forces with a single head of the Defence Staff.
Regrettably, government policy appears to have placed nuclear deterrence outside the ambit of doctrinal examination by the navy (as well as the other two Services).
If one aspect sets it apart from the other two Services, it is the navy’s total commitment to indigenization, which was underpinned by two bold and far-sighted decisions in the late 1960s; to undertake warship construction in the country, and to set up a Directorate of Naval Design manned by a Corps of Naval Constructors. Our shipyards have, to-date, delivered over 90 ships ranging from basic patrol boats and amphibious ships to sophisticated submarines, frigates and destroyers. It is to be hoped that an indigenous aircraft carrier will slide down Cochin Shipyard’s slipway in a few years time.
Of a piece with the resolute indigenization drive is the symbiotic relationship which the IN has assiduously created with the DRDO – an organization which deservedly attracts much searing criticism otherwise. Apart from whole-heartedly participating in the work of DRDO’s two dedicated naval laboratories, the IN has invariably contributed funds as well as manpower to projects undertaken for it by the organization. And herein lies the crucial difference in the navy’s approach.
For many years the IAF regarded the LCA project with a degree of detachment and skepticism, and waited to assess its chances of success before committing itself in any manner. In the early 1990s a cursory enquiry by the IN about the feasibility of a carrier-borne version of the LCA, evoked an enthusiastic response from the design bureau – accompanied by a request for funds to undertake a study. NHQ reacted instantly with a grant of Rs. 4.5 crores for what was then, little more than a “pie in the sky”, but has now become a full-fledged LCA (Navy) Project with IN funding and personnel. If this bold and ambitious project succeeds, India will be one of just four countries world-wide producing carrier-borne aircraft. But that does not stop the IN from hedging its bets with the MiG-29(K) and possibly the JSF.
The Arjun MBT is turning out to be another heart-break story for the DRDO, because it has allegedly not come up to the army’s expectations. In a somewhat similar situation when a weapon system did not quite measure up to the Qualitative Requirements (QR), after many years of R&D, the navy took a conscious decision to designate the system as a “Mark I” version and accept a limited number. The DRDO was then prevailed upon to undertake the expeditious development of a Mark II version which would meet or exceed a new set of naval QRs.
A nation’s claim to major power status does not rest solely on its ability to produce a few nuclear devices. Such claims will ring hollow unless it can create an unassisted capability for designing missiles, aircraft, tanks, warships and submarines, as well as the industrial wherewithal to undertake their serial production. This calls for an intense synergy between the armed forces, DRDO, defence PSUs and the private industry.
For this to happen, there are two essential pre-requisites. Firstly the R&D establishment must muster the courage and intellectual honesty to admit failures when they occur, and secondly, the armed forces must continue to hold the DRDO’s hand in success as well in failure.
In the navy’s case, impending events call for a much sharper focus on our submarine building capabilities and infrastructure.
Building a Submarine Arm
A proposal for creating a submarine arm for the RIN was put up to the Government of India within months of Independence, but with the pacifist mindset then prevailing, it was felt at the highest levels that the acquisition of such a “weapon of offence” would run counter to our ethos of non-violence.
It was perhaps the alleged sighting of Chinese submarines in the Bay of Bengal in 1962 which led to the revival of this proposal and government acquiescence, the following year. The options offered by USA and UK being limited to WW II surplus vessels with limited capabilities and even less residual life, we turned to the USSR. The initial offer of trouble-prone Whiskey and Zulu Class boats (then in service with China, Egypt and Indonesia), was subsequently upgraded to the more rugged and contemporary boats of Project 641 or Foxtrot Class. Three such boats, along with a Don Class submarine depot ship were acquired in 1967-68, and five more added subsequently.
The Foxtrots, having trained and blooded a generation of submariners in war, the next step for upgradation of capabilities was taken by contracting for advanced hunter-killer submarines of German design. Between 1986 and 1994 four of these Type 209/1500 boats entered service; two built in Germany and two in Mazagon Docks Mumbai. Unfortunately allegations of corruption in this deal scuttled plans for further indigenous construction, and this was a huge setback for the nation in terms of capability accretion. However, concurrent negotiations with the USSR had resulted in the induction of 10 improved boats of the Kilo Class between 1986 and 2000. Because of their “teardrop” hull-form, these boats were much quieter. They also had superior sensors and high-endurance Indian-made propulsion batteries.
With all but one of the Foxtrots having been retired, and the Type 209 as well as Kilos (after modernization) entering the final phase of service life, the 2005 contract for building six French Scorpene Class submarines under license in Mazagon came not a day too early. But even this will be too late to prevent a drastic force level slump at the end of the next decade. In order to sustain the required submarine strength of about 25 boats, and ensure diversification of submarine production a 30-year plan was approved by the GoI, a few years ago. This plan envisages the simultaneous serial production of two types of submarines in two separate shipyards.
While one of the two types can be an of advanced submarine of imported origin, the time is now ripe for our naval architects to create a home-grown design, and for the DRDO to develop an air-independent propulsion (AIP) package which can be installed in a truly indigenous submarine.
The Quest for Nuclear Expertise
According to the 4th volume of the official history of the IN, the Service had begun to examine the viability of indigenous design and construction of a nuclear submarine as far back as 1967. The initiative gathered momentum soon after the 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion”, and by 1978 a small IN-DAE team had been located at BARC to undertake serious design and feasibility studies. This study obviously brought home the magnitude of the colossal challenge posed by this undertaking, and it was decided to approach the USSR for assistance.
A decade after signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the USSR made an unprecedented offer in 1981, to lease a nuclear powered submarine to India along with a training and maintenance package. Tagged on to this offer was an option for acquiring Soviet “assistance for design and construction of a nuclear-powered submarine” at a later date. In 1988 a Charlie I Class Soviet nuclear attack submarine (SSN) arrived in Indian waters on a 3-year lease. Renamed INS Chakra, this SSN carried neither the weapons nor the systems for a strategic role, and therefore served a limited purpose; that of providing experience to IN personnel in the operation, maintenance and deployment of a nuclear-propelled submarine. The reactor was guarded by Russians, and it seems doubtful that our scientists or engineers gained much design insight from Chakra.
In an astute and far-sighted initiative, the IN and the DRDO had joined forces, sometimes in the mid-1980s, to constitute an R&D venture designated the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) Project . This little understood and much maligned project has been making steady progress in many areas related to the indigenous development of submarine as well as system design and construction. It is possible that external advice and consultancy may have been sought in some aspects of this enormously complex undertaking.
In hindsight, the Chakra lease was perhaps pre-mature, because 17 years after she went home, we are yet to see an indigenous nuclear boat, and in the interim the trained manpower has dissipated.
In this context; Navy Day 2007 appeared to have brought two pieces of good news from authoritative naval sources; firstly that the ATV project was making rapid progress, and secondly that there was a proposal to lease another nuclear boat (possibly an Akula Class SSN) from Russia to facilitate crew training and familiarization . The Akula is known to be equipped with bow and stern tubes which can fire either torpedoes or anti-ship cruise missiles.
If the ATV project did not progress in its early years, as rapidly as the IN had expected, the 1998 Pokhran II tests and the Nuclear Doctrine issued subsequently, must have certainly expedited its pace. This “no first use” doctrine clearly aims for a triad of nuclear vectors in the near future. It requires little reflection to conclude that the only undetectable and survivable (hence credible) leg of the triad will be the SSBN; a nuclear-propelled submarine armed with ballistic missiles.
India’s Nuclear Stakes
The leased Russian SSN is unlikely to contribute to India’s nuclear deterrent, and suggestions that its cruise missiles could be modified to carry nuclear warheads appear very far-fetched, especially in the light of MTCR restrictions. While the exact configuration of the ATV remains in the realm of media speculation, the logical way ahead for the IN would be to build and sustain a small SSBN fleet for deterrence, and a few SSNs for anti-submarine and sea denial roles. The creation of such a force has to be viewed in a 40-50 year geo-strategic and fiscal perspective and will require overcoming many technology challenges. Some of these are:
1. The ab-initio indigenous design and production of a nuclear propulsion plant which will pose a major challenge for our nuclear scientists. Freedom from dependence on external assistance in this field is vital for national security. The 4000 ton Chakra’s reactor delivered 90 MW power, while the 7500 ton Akula is driven by a 190 MW reactor, and our designers should be aiming at a power output of around 200 MW.
2. Reactor design is heavily dependent on the level of proficiency attained in uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication technologies. Reactors which run on low enriched uranium (18%-20%) have a short refueling cycle whereas highly enriched uranium fuel (93% or above) can last the lifetime of a reactor.
3. A stealthy and safe hull design, using materials of sufficient strength which will facilitate high speeds and also permit the SSBN to lurk in deep waters, undetected.
4. The design and production of an underwater launched ballistic missile of inter-continental range, dimensionally compatible with the submarine, so that 12-16 can be carried on board.
All these endeavours are complex, laborious and time consuming, and a period of even 15-20 years for attaining the capabilities listed above may be optimistic; allowing for errors and unforeseen delays. While the USSR/Russia have, so far, been the main sources of maritime hardware and technology for us, other avenues are likely to open up. The US Navy has nuclear powered vessels ranging from cruisers and aircraft carriers to submarines, powered by 25 different types of reactors running into the 9th generation of development. It is quite possible that US or other technology may become available for indigenous programmes. Such assistance should, however, be sought very selectively and with the greatest caution, because of the strings that will come attached to it.
The PLA Navy sent its first (Han class) nuclear submarine to sea in 1974, and today the Chinese nuclear flotilla consists of 3-4 Xia and Jin class SSBNs (with missiles of up to 8000km range) as well as 5-6 Han and Shang class SSNs. Given that we are already 30 years behind China in this field, there is not a day to be lost in committing the necessary capital as well as human resources from the Navy, DAE and DRDO to this endeavour.
Like it or not, the underwater deterrent is going to be the Navy’s baby, and it will increasingly make exacting demands on the expertise and human resources of the Service (the funding will certainly have to come from elsewhere). The planning, production, trials, operational deployment and maintenance of the nuclear fleet will all require naval involvement.
Here it is worth quoting RAdm Raja Menon who has studied this issue in depth: “Eventually the country’s deterrence could shift entirely underwater….but for this the navy and the country will have to understand that this is a gigantic technological project operating at the frontiers of science….” He adds: “Government procedures simply cannot produce a nuclear submarine…and more harm cannot come to the country than to build it in furtive secrecy, where the first casualty is accountability.”
The biggest challenge will, obviously be that of project management which will require bold, imaginative and resolute naval leadership. Once the ATV Project completes its assigned R&D task, it could be converted into an enterprise for the serial production of nuclear submarines. Such a vast undertaking would involve a very large number of public and private sector units and could be run as a public-private corporation under the Navy’s supervision.
For a Service which has focused largely on surface ship operations since inception, this will involve a radical paradigm shift. But the Navy must face the fact that the future certainly lies beneath the waves.
(Admiral Prakash was Chief of the Naval Staff from 31 July 2004-31 Oct 2006. He currently lives in Dehradun. This column is from the current edition of Vayu Aerospace & Defence Review, a journal he is Editorial Advisor to)