N-subs: India debates, China struggles - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 1 September 2010

N-subs: India debates, China struggles

Images of China's new Jin-class SSBN. The Pentagon says there are significant problems with its Julang-2 missiles

(This is the concluding article of a four-part series on India's critical, yet significantly delayed, submarine programme)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Sept 10

An increasingly apparent reason for the Ministry of Defence’s slow decision-making on a second submarine production line for the Indian Navy is: the deep divisions within the navy over India’s submarine force. A debate rages between the submarine arm and the surface navy — particularly the dominant aviation wing — on whether the future lies in submarines or aircraft carriers. The navy’s submariners, meanwhile, debate the merits of conventional versus nuclear-powered submarines.

Slowed by these internal debates, India’s 30-Year Submarine Construction Plan, which the government approved in 1999, has languished. The 30-Year plan envisioned building 24 conventional submarines in India. Six were to be built from western technology and six with Russian collaboration; then Indian designers, having absorbed the best of both worlds, would build 12 submarines indigenously. Project 75, to build six Scorpene submarines (the “western” six), was contracted in 2005. In this series of articles, Business Standard has reported that the MoD believes it is still 4-6 years away from Project 75I, i.e. beginning work on the second six submarines

A senior retired admiral, reflecting the views of the submarine arm, blames the navy’s “aircraft carrier lobby” for the delay in building submarines. He alleges: “The last two naval chiefs (Admirals Arun Prakash and Sureesh Mehta) were aviators, who had no interest in using the navy’s limited budget for building submarines. So they exploited the division of opinion amongst submariners — the nuclear-powered versus conventional submarine debate — to push submarine building into the future.”
Nuclear-powered submarines are of two types: ballistic missile submarines (called SSBNs) and attack submarines (referred to as SSNs). Both are propelled by power from a miniature on-board reactor, but SSBNs also fire nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. SSBNs are not a part of the fighting navy; they constitute a country’s nuclear deterrent and fire their nuclear-tipped missiles on orders from the national leadership. SSNs operate as part of a naval fleet, moving under nuclear power and sinking surface warships with conventional torpedoes and missiles.

Interestingly, India is the only country that has chosen to build SSBNs (the recently-launched INS Arihant, and two successor submarines) before building an SSN force. The reason has been a deeply felt need to operationalise the nuclear triad — land, sea and air-based nuclear delivery systems that India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine stipulates as a secure second-strike capability.

But the possibility of an SSN force remains tantalisingly alive. In 2004 — when INS Arihant was being developed under the Advanced Technology Vessel, or ATV, programme — Admiral Arun Prakash, then navy chief, proposed that the ATV programme be enlarged to six SSBNs and four SSNs. This required the allocation of Rs 10,000 crore for the DRDO to develop the necessary technologies. Pranab Mukherjee, then the defence minister, backed the allocation of this funding. But, according to sources close to the ATV project, once AK Antony took over as defence minister in 2006, he backed off, insisting that the Prime Minister’s Office should take all decisions relating to India’s strategic nuclear programme. The proposal for funding technology development lapsed.

But the Director General of the DRDO, Dr VK Saraswat, confirms that an SSN could be developed without difficulty. Talking to Business Standard, Saraswat said, “I have no charter to build an SSN at the moment. But once the government takes a policy decision… we can start working on it. The only major difference between a nuclear powered attack submarine (i.e. an SSN) and an SSBN is weaponry, and the size changes. The technology for design, packaging, and integration remains similar.”

Votaries of nuclear submarines, such as Rear Admiral (Retired) Raja Menon, argue that nuclear-powered submarines have a crucial advantage over conventional ones: endurance. While conventional (diesel-electric) submarines are more quiet and harder to detect while submerged, they are easily picked up when they surface to charge their batteries. Furthermore, they move slowly underwater, unlike nuclear submarines, which can remain submerged almost indefinitely. This allows a single nuclear submarine — travelling underwater to its patrol station and remaining there, undetected, for months — to do the job of multiple conventional submarines, which give their position away when they surface at regular intervals.

Admiral Menon explains, “A single SSN can dominate an area 1,000 nautical miles (1,850 km) away as effectively as three conventional submarines, which require one submarine on station, another transiting to relieve it, and a third transiting back to refuel. If the patrol area is farther than 1,000 nautical miles, a single SSN does the job of five conventional submarines. That is why the US Navy fields an all-nuclear force.”

But Menon accepts that the Indian Navy would always need conventional submarines. India’s coastal waters are so shallow that SSNs, which typically weigh 4,000-5,000 tonnes, run the risk of scraping the bottom. Conventional submarines, which normally weigh around 1,500 tonnes, are needed for dominating the coastal areas. But the complexities of a nuclear submarine programme are evident from China’s current difficulties. The Pentagon’s recent report to the US Congress, entitled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010” reveals that China’s SSN and SSBN programmes are in trouble. China relies on its four primitive Han-class attack submarines (Type 091), having decided to close construction of the newer Shen-class (Type 093). Currently, China is grappling with a newer Type 095 SSN; five of these could be added “in the coming years”.

China also faces problems in developing SSBNs. The first Xia-class (Type 092) SSBN line produced just one submarine, which was never deployed on a deterrence patrol. Then China shifted focus to a newer Jin-class (Type 094), of which the first SSBN “appears ready”, with four more under construction. However, the long-range ballistic missile for the Jin-class SSBNs, termed the Julang-2, has “encountered difficulty… failing several of what should have been the final round of flight tests.”


  1. Never knew that the national security is run at the whimps of the Generals and politicians. How can one aspect (be it submarines or aircraft carrier or another capability) be neglected by naval chiefs based on their likings? I hope this is not true. How can the politician like Anthony block the building of India's SSN's? I cannot believe it. I was having the thought that India's SSN's are being built and they will be available when the follow on SSBN's comes online. Expected Atleast 6 SSN's as well. Now we are again a meak power with SSBN's going out without any escorts and enemy SSN's trailing Arihant. Where is the second strike then? Where is the triad if our SSBN's will also be taken out along with a first strike. Stupid politicos. Time to build 30 conventional subs, 6 SSBN's 6 SSN's to have a minimum capability in submarine warfare. Otherwise we will never have a blue water navy, never become a great power and forget about becoming a superpower. Sigh.

  2. Sleeping Tiger, crouching dragon. While MMS, Antony and Pranb da sleeps the Chinese are inching towards India be it through land route or through the oceans. And when they wake up they can see Hu holding Mao's poster and flexing muscles.

  3. China's "carrier killer" missile should the end the debate between AC and Subs. As for SSK vs SSN, we still need time for our nuclear tech to mature.
    We need an out of the box approach to save our shrinking sub fleet. Why not approach Greece for their U 214 boats. 4 of them are lying ready at Hellenic Shipyards. Greece would love to get rid of them given their financial situation. MOD is in any case going to take their sweet time to finalize P75i.

  4. any word on how Arihant sea trials r progressing?
    n where does IAC project stand as of now

  5. what we get to know about the polity in media is not even tip of the iceberg. r f***ups are as glorious as our history

  6. @ajai sir

    just got to know that the Chinese are developing Type 96-Tang class submarines that will fire 24 missiles each.

    Do you still feel India can make it happen without missile cruisers and just 3 SSBNs and 7-8 conventional subs for next 15-20 yrs.

    Also you yourself said India does not have SSNs and even if approved building 2 of them will take atleast 20 yrs from now.

    So without protection sending a SSBN so close to Chinese waters (the situation I referred to earlier)with subs from the Chinese underground submarine hanger ready to give a chase will be suicidal.

    So I still feel going for 2 Slava class missile cruisers is better option till we we have all 24 conventional subs, as well as 6 SSBNs and possibly 2 SSNs.

  7. SSN state not that bad as posed, but we need to start work on our own SSN.

    For a few years the Akula II will provide the necessary escort.

    Our politicians better wake up and ask necessary agencies to start work let them then decide if to construct and operationalize the SSN's.

    Also, why not make use of L&T in the right way, when a private shipyard needs to be involved they want the process to be transparent and ask for a bidding and tender.
    So they want is on time , quality and cheap.

    Shouldn't that all apply equaly for the PSU ( not against a PSU, but the product also needs to come with the same requirements, time, quality and in the right price).

    MoD please wake up.

  8. Infighting over selecting the types of equipments of war may be a time consuming and futile exercise. It is like fighting over Vit-A Vs Vit-B Vs Vit-C Vs Vit-D etc. All of them are essential albeit in different doses.

    I think that 30% of our Navy shall be Paki specific, 40% of our Navy shall be Sino specific and 30% of our Navy shall be West specific.

  9. Ajai sir, any plan to visit Cochin shipyard for update on IAC-?

    Pls tell something.

  10. In the next Indo-China war, India will be woefully un-prepared in the Naval arena just as it was woefully un-prepared in the 1962 war with Army and Air-Force. Atleast the later 2 have understood their short-falls and are trying to remedy it. Seems like the Navy Chief is dozing at his post and/or the MoD does not have enough strength to look into matters of priority within the Naval Defence procurements. How are we going to support Vietnam, South Korea or even Singpore if our Navy is not competent enough to de-stabilize China's Naval might ???

  11. The SSN's primary function is to kill SSBNs. SSNs are expensive to build and operate compared to Diesels, I think we need to keep in mind our limited resources. SSBNs don't need escorts, they typically roam on their own. A fleet of conventional subs and a small number of SSBNs as a detterent is a good startegy for India.


  12. Why should India have to choose between aircraft carriers and submarines? This should not be an either/or scenario. The defense budget should be increased to provide for both.

  13. hina has too many conventional submarines effective for sneaking up into bay of bengal it already has bases in myanmar and may have docking facilities in bangladesh and Srilanka. We cannot rely upon DRDO for anything its best to buy some diesel subs from European countries that are struggling with budget deficits and shedding their defence forces. I think we need to concentrate more on acquiring modern conventional subs like that Sweden produces rather than buying old russian ones. And i think its beyond our ability to produce our own nuclear subs, so trash the plans for it buy as many conventional subs as u can.The old Stalin said "quantity has a quality of its own". I think its better to field a Carrier support group and it is suitale for the South Asian theatre rather than building few expensive nuke subs.

  14. Think about a scenario if China attacks India we cannot send a naval task force to South China sea to attack any coastal cities like shanghai,because we dont have any naval bases like that of US near China. Rather we should concentrate on defence and protect our coast, and we could request the americans based in Diego Garcia to patrol the waters with their SSN's and we could deploy one CSG in arabic sea and other in bay of bengal as a deterrent.

  15. This is the stupidest debate i've seen.. so we either have carriers or we have subs? why cant we have both? have we become poor again like the early 90s? anthony is a moron.. cant even do his job! then suddenly when china fields all the carriers and subs we will find ourselves thinking.. why didnt we do anything? this has always been the babudom at work in our country.. goes for relations with countries like bhutan and sri lanka too.

  16. Ajai ji,

    May we know your personal thoughts on AC Vs Subs debate...As well as Conventional Vs Nuke debate?

    Thank you,

  17. hey ajai,

    great article! i was hoping you could investigate the quality and quantity of equipment the infantry is carrying on the sino-indian border i.e. presence or absence of any bullet proof vests, guns, helmets, etc. It would be great if you could expose the poor quality of equipment that the infanty is carrying on the sino-indian border. with your influence i'm sure it will force some changes. also could you help clear up what is exactly standard issue equipment for the infantry on the sino-indian and indo-pakistani border? there is a great deal of confusion about what is standard issue and a lot of different pictures of different types of gear in terms of bullet proof vest (if any), type of helmets (which i have not seen one uniform design for) have been on the net for a couple of years with no clear answer. also could you shed light on the procurement process the infantry in acquiring the latest equipment? we are in desperate need of a new better procurement process, one in which our troops can get the latest equipment quickly. i am confident on your reporting and journalistic capabilities and know you will not disappoint! thank you for your hard work on reporting on the most recent developments in the indian military! keep up the good work!

  18. Ajai sir, any news on IAC-1??? Are you visiting Cochin shipyard?

  19. Hi,
    I will request L & T that please do youre BEST . Design and build one Diesel / Electric Sub by your own when finished let DoD see it if they like they may buy it or sell in market as L & T's own product .I know near 35 years ago TATA Engineering offered DoD that they can make Battle TANK by their own . Government refused . What a IDIOT government . They will never give any private sector a chance to make some thing by their own . JUST START DOING. MAKE WHAT YOU LIKE . In world market some one will buy it for sure .


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