The ATV project has been probably one of India’s worst kept secrets. A Google search for “ATV Submarine“ would, on any day, would throw up between 100, 000 to 200, 000 results ranging from news snippets, blog discussions and Wikipedia articles to learned analyses on the Federation of American Scientists website. Every aspect of the project has been discussed threadbare in cyber-space by self-appointed experts, amateur security analysts and plain nuts; sprinkled with inputs from retired scientists and an occasional press release by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Naval HQ have been content to maintain stoic silence about the ATV in the face of this tell-tale evidence and using, as a last resort, the “neither confirm nor deny” line to fend off the inquisitive media. Perhaps there was a method in all this secrecy and we did manage to befuddle everyone who tried to garner the truth from the heap of disinformation and half-truths available in the public domain on the ATV.
But the trouble with excessive secrecy is that while it may or may not deceive the enemy, it can certainly obfuscate the truth and lead you to the wrong conclusions; often with deleterious consequences. Now that the submarine is out of the closet, we need to discuss some aspects of this project which has a vital bearing on national security.
Project Management Paradigm
India must be unique amongst nations that undertake major expenditure on defence R&D in that; both timelines and cost ceilings are infinitely flexible and neither accountability nor responsibility for delays, or even failure, are ever affixed. Subjective in-house “peer reviews” can never be a substitute for hardnosed audits and progress-checks by independent experts, as well as end-users. The dismal story of projects like the Kaveri turbo-jet engine, the Light Combat Aircraft, the Arjun battle tank and the Trishul surface-to-air missile could have been very different, had they not been wrapped in furtive secrecy and been subjected, instead, to periodic scrutiny and oversight.
Of all the DRDO projects, to date, perhaps it is only the ATV which has forged ahead steadily, and, even after allowing for time and cost overruns as well as other shortcoming, can be called an outstanding success story. While we will dwell on some of the issues later, it can be stated up-front that this major achievement is mainly attributable to three factors, which should provide salutary lessons for the other two Services. The high level of synergy and co-ordination attained by the IN, DRDO and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
The tremendous good sense displayed by DRDO in placing the Navy in the driving seat, resulting in the intimate participation of the end-user in the project. The sustained and non-invasive support provided by successive Secretaries of DRDO to the project.
Genesis and Growth
The IN had begun to examine the viability of indigenous design and construction of a nuclear submarine as far back as 1967, and the initiative gathered momentum soon after the 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion”. 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 1971 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the Soviet Deputy Defence Minister Marshal Ogarkov made an unprecedented offer, to lease a nuclear powered submarine to India along with a training and maintenance package. In 1988 a Charlie I Class (Project 670) 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.
Tagged on to the lease offer had been an option for acquiring Soviet “assistance for design and construction of a nuclear-powered submarine” at a later date. Sometimes in the mid-1980s, in a far-sighted initiative, the IN and the DRDO joined forces, to constitute the Advanced Technology Vessel Project as an R&D venture. Funded by DRDO, the project was headed by a three-star Director General and manned largely by naval personnel.
On completion of preliminary concept studies, realization began to dawn on the ATV group, of the immense complexity of most disciplines involved in this ambitious project. The heart of this 6000 ton nuclear-powered vessel would be miniature low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuelled pressurized light-water reactor (PWR) delivering about 90 megawatts (120,000 horsepower) of power to drive it at 25 knots.
Unlike civilian power reactors which operate at a steady state, a naval reactor has to respond instantly to repeated variations in power for ship maneuvering. Nuclear safety, radiation, shock, quieting, and operating performance requirements in addition to operation in close proximity to the crew dictate exceptionally high standards for design, manufacturing and quality assurance. Once on patrol, a submarine’s reactor remains inaccessible for inspection or replacement throughout its core life — unlike a typical commercial nuclear reactor which can be shut down for refueling or repairs as required.
For scientists used to designing shore-based natural uranium/heavy water reactors spread over a couple of football fields, miniaturizing reactor components to fit inside a 20×20 foot compartment, with the whole assembly weighing no more than 300-400 tons, posed an insurmountable obstacle. No less daunting were the challenges of submarine design, hull fabrication and underwater missile launch, to name just a few.
The promised Russian assistance, both material and intellectual did come; albeit in fits and starts which accounted for most of the programme delays, and at prices which escalated at a breathtaking rate. However, Indians being quick learners, our scientists, engineers and designers too, rapidly gained proficiency in many of the complex technologies involved in nuclear submarine construction. In this process, DAE scientists also succeeded in building and fuelling a small shore-based reactor in Kalpakkam, which now serves as a useful training aid for submarine crews. In addition, there are many areas in which the tremendously beneficial fall-out of the ATV project has gone un-noticed by the public. Firstly, a large number of private sector companies have not just participated but contributed most significantly to the project by mastering esoteric techniques and technologies, to design and fabricate major systems for the vessel. Secondly, the ATV HQ has spawned a huge indigenization process in which small and medium ancillary industries all over the country have participated to contribute sub-systems and components manufactured to high precision and reliability specifications. Lastly, DRDO and other defence laboratories have come up trumps in developing some excellent products like combat-management systems, sonars, and electronic warfare systems for the ATV. The launch of the first ATV, whose correct current designation is S-2 (she will become INS Arihant only on commissioning in due course) is no doubt a most significant milestone in every respect and marks a major step in India’s quest for a ballistic missile armed submarine, known in US parlance as SSBN. However, in order to tread the thin line between skepticism and euphoria, and retain a balanced perspective, it is necessary to note the fact the S-2 is only the first step in a long journey, and it may be a year or more away from becoming an operational sea-going submarine.
More importantly, she may remain a “technology demonstrator” for a long time before attaining the status of a ballistic missile nuclear submarine or SSBN due to three major factors.
The reasons why nations place a significant part of their nuclear arsenals on board SSBNs is because of their supposed undetectability. Once at its patrol depth of a few hundred meters in the murky ocean deep, the SSBN is considered safe from prying satellites and risk of attack, and poses a continuous, threat to the adversary with her battery of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
The only way to detect an SSBN, or any submarine for that matter, is through acoustics. The noise generated by a submarine’s hull, reactor, machinery, propeller and even her crew, across the full spectrum of frequencies can be picked up by the adversary’s listening devices mounted on ships, helicopters or submarines. Known as low-frequency recording and analysis or LOFAR devices, these sensors can detect submarine noise at tens of miles and pinpoint an SSBN within minutes. The Hollywood movie “Hunt for Red October” typified the deadly serious Cold War cat-and-mouse game played out between US and Soviet navies to locate and mark each other’s SSBNs, using LOFAR as well as sonar; with the Soviets usually at a disadvantage because of their traditionally noisier submarine designs. In our case, the first crucial test of the Arihant’s design will be the careful calibration of her underwater noise signature, which will determine her degree of invulnerability and suitability as a SLBM carrying platform. This may call for extensive trials involving minor adjustments or major design modifications – if not for S-2, certainly for her successors.
For the submarine leg of the nuclear triad to have significance, there must be one or more fully armed SSBNs on continuous patrol, which could last for months. Before one SSBN returns home she must be relieved on patrol by another one. This obviously requires, not just, that there should be a certain minimum number of SSBNs available in one’s inventory, but also that at least 2-3 of them should be operationally available at any given time.
The most crucial factor in SSBN availability is her refueling cycle. Refueling, or replacing the enriched uranium fuel rods, of a submarine reactor is a complex dockyard operation which may take a submarine out of circulation for anything from 18-24 months.
The life of a reactor core is decided, apart from enrichment level of uranium fuel rods, by its operating regime. Since a SSBN has to travel long distances to its patrol area at high speeds, the power demand is invariably high and rapidly consumes reactor life. Reactor technology has been steadily advancing since the USS Nautilus first went to sea in 1954. Today the US Navy has 25 different types of reactors running into the 9th generation of development, many of such sophistication that, they do not require refueling throughout their lifetimes. The nuclear reactor installed on the S-2, according to open source information, is understood to be based on first or second generation Soviet era technology with a short re-fuelling cycle. The implications are that either her patrol areas will have to remain close to base, or that her endurance on patrol would be limited, and of course that there would be long gaps between patrols when refueling is under way. The shortcomings of this reactor design, demand larger submarine numbers at huge expense.
It is more than likely that Jin class SSBNs of the PLA Navy are, today, targeting both New Delhi and San Francisco with their 8000 km Ju-Long missiles from patrol areas in the home waters of the South China Sea. The effectiveness of the SSBN as an instrument of deterrence is obviously related to the range as well as number of SLBMs carried by her. While the SSBN does have the asset of mobility, her patrol areas must be chosen with great care to ensure that a valuable strategic asset of this nature is not placed in harm’s way. In this context, the shorter the range of her SLBM, the closer she must position herself to a hostile shore. In India’s case, the basic requirement is to deter China from threatening us with her considerable nuclear arsenal. This can only be achieved with SLBMs of inter-continental (5000-8000 km) range which have the warhead yield to threaten China’s cities and nuclear forces located deep inland. Such a missile would enable the SSBN to take up operational patrols in safe areas in the Bay of Bengal or even Arabian Sea. Missile range would also compensate, to an extent, for shortcomings in reactor design. The weapon slated for fitment on the S-2 is understood to be a SLBM whose range is currently limited to 700-1000 km. The successful underwater launch and flight trials of this missile (variously named by the media as Dhanush or K-15) is certainly a big feather in the DRDO’s cap, but its limited range constitutes a handicap for S-2. Moreover, this achievement needs to be assessed against the background that the DRDO’s 25 year old guided missile programme has yet to deliver an inter-continental ballistic missile.
At the same time ISRO, having obviously mastered the propellant technologies, routinely launches rockets which can achieve linear ranges of up to 10, 000 km. And yet the invisible firewall between the two organizations seems to prevent transfer of technology, even in national interest. While work on more advanced SLBMs is no doubt in progress, it has to be borne in mind that longer range missiles will have to be powered by propellant motors of larger length and diameter, and the resultant weapon is unlikely to fit within the hull of an Arihant class SSBN, in sufficient numbers (16-24).
After Arihant; What?
The launch of the S-2 is, no doubt, a most significant and encouraging demonstration of India’s technological skills and managerial expertise. But much more than that, this vessel will provide a trials platform which will enable us to learn from our own experience, what no one is going to teach us; the arcane disciplines of SSBN operations and maintenance. The main beneficiaries of this experience will be two submarines which follow S-2. The S-3 and S-4 are planned to be built on the same baseline design as S-2, in order to consolidate shipbuilding expertise and industrial capabilities. They will therefore incorporate only those capability enhancements which can be accommodated within the same hull-form and supported by the same nuclear power-plant. Therefore it is the fourth submarine in this series the S-5, still a few years ahead, which should be an object of sharp focus for not just the IN but even more so, the DAE and DRDO. In a 50-60 year perspective, India should be looking at a standing force of 4-6 SSBNs; accompanied, if possible by a smaller force of nuclear attack submarines or SSNs. While we are well on the way to achieving mastery over many of the technologies involved, there are three key areas which would need special focus: The acquisition of propellant technology for producing underwater launched ballistic missiles of inter-continental range. The length and diameter of the missile will decide the dimensions of the SSBN. These SLBM’s should preferably be capable of carrying 4-6 multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV).
The indigenous design of a SSBN hull which will be able to accommodate a battery of 16-24 such SLBMs. The indigenous design of a nuclear propulsion plants of about 200 megawatt capacity, with a 6-8 years refueling cycle, to drive a SSBN of 10,000-12,000 tons at about 30 knots.
Having committed ourselves to fielding a credible deterrent in the form of a nuclear triad, we no longer have a choice but to go down this route at the earliest. This is one area where dependence on foreign sources, especially for hardware, must be minimised and autarchy aimed for. Once we acquire indigenous capability for design and production of naval reactors and LEU cores, as well as long range SLBMs, we would have achieved such autarchy.
Future Project Management
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 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 commence design and development work.
This is going to be a complex, laborious and time consuming endeavour, and a period of even 10-15 years for attaining the capabilities listed above may be optimistic. So far, Russia has remained the main source of technology for us, but in the changing circumstances, we must not shy away from seeking advanced reactor technology from the US or France for our strategic programmes. There is no doubt that the DRDO-Navy synergy worked well during the developmental phase of the ATV. With the launch of S-2, this project now needs to transition rapidly and seamlessly from R&D mode to serial production mode. The time has therefore come to create a new management structure in which all the national capabilities created for the ATV (in the public as well as private sectors) can be brought under an umbrella corporation for serial production of nuclear submarines for the IN. Lifting the pall of secrecy will promote a better dialogue with operators and lead to design improvements.
Command & Control
The protracted trials period of S-2 should be used by the Navy to prepare itself to enter a new and uncharted era of SSBN operations, maintenance, and above all, nuclear safety. In this context, two important issues come instantly to mind.
From the time she sails out for a deterrent patrol, till her return to harbor, a SSBN will form part of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and remain under its direct operational control. However, for all other purposes, the submarine would be like any other naval unit. This duality of control, and the specific modalities of change of operational control (CHOP), would need to be meticulously worked out, ensuring failsafe communication between the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), Chairman COSC, Commander SFC and Captain of the SSBN.
Nuclear weapon preparation/assembly on land has, so far, involved participation of SFC, DAE and DRDO personnel. SSBN operations will involve a new paradigm for India because the SLBMs carried on patrol would be fully assembled, and possibly containerized, nuclear weapons, ready for launch when required. The launch order, to be executed jointly by the Captain of the SSBN and his second-in-command, will need to be duly authorized through secure and authenticated means by the National Command Authority. In order to ensure instant launch when ordered, and to prevent unauthorized launch, a system of software permissive action links (PALs) will have to be devised, along with triple-redundant underwater communications. These are complex issues which require time and resources to resolve.
And the final thought; would a brand new nuclear war-head required to face the rigours of an underwater launch, not require a “hot” test to prove its design?
(Admiral Prakash was India’s Chief of the Naval Staff from 31 July 2004-31 Oct 2006. He currently divides his time between Dehradun and Delhi. This column is Copyright of FORCE Magazine, at which the Admiral is Maritime & Strategic Affairs Editor. He contributes columns to journals, magazines, newspapers and, occasionally, to LiveFist)