By S. M. Hali

India this week inducted the Russian-origin nuclear-powered submarine'Nerpa' into its Navy; joining the elite league of nations having such sophisticated warships. Indian Defence Minister A K Antony formally commissioned the Akula II class Nerpa, rechristened 'INS Chakra', into the Indian Navy at the Ship Building Complex in Visakhapatnam. "INS Chakra will ensure security and sovereignty of the country," Antony said after commissioning the vessel.

India had earlier leased and operated a Charlie Class Russian nuclear submarine from 1988 for training its personnel on such warships. With the induction of INS Chakra, India has joined the elite group of nations with nuclear-power submarines after a gap of two decades.

With INS Chakra and the indigenous INS Arihant expected to start operational patrols soon, India will soon have two nuclear submarines guarding its vast maritime boundaries. The Nerpa has been taken on lease from Russia for ten years and would provide the Navy the opportunity to train and operate such nuclear-powered vessels.

It was expected to be inducted a couple of years earlier, but after an accident in 2008, in which scores of Russian sailors died during trials, the delivery schedule was changed.

Indian Navy crews have already been imparted training for operating the submarine in Russia. A crew of over 70 people, including around 30 officers, is required to operate INSChakra. The heart of the submarine is its nuclear reactor which has been made by Russia. Its displacement is around 8,140 tonnes. With a maximum speed of 30 knots, the vessel can go to a depth of 600 metres and has an endurance of 100 days with a crew of 73. The vessel is armed with four 533mm and four 650mm torpedo tubes. INS Chakra  does not carry nuclear weapons. In this sense, it does nothing for India's sea-based nuclear deterrent. This third leg of the nuclear triad calls for a submarine prowling at sea with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. That capability will come only with the induction of the indigenous 6000-tonne Arihant class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) that began trials this year and is still two years away from induction.

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Chakra is one of the quietest, most lethal undersea vessels in the world. Military analysts compare it to early models of the US Navy's Los Angeles class attack submarines. It will also give Indian designers a look at a larger nuclear-powered submarine for larger 12,000-tonne variants of the Arihant, capable of carrying 5,000-km range ballistic missiles. India has already carried out more than 10 test launches of the K-15 missile (also known as Sagarika) in the Bay of Bengal. The nuclear-capable ballistic missile is said to have a range of over 700 kms and the premier research agency plans to increase its strike range in the near future.

The submarine was laid down in the shipyard of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East as the 'Nerpa' in the early 1990s. Its construction was halted after the break-up of the Soviet navy. A secret deal was signed in 2004 and India transferred an estimated $650 million for the completion of the unfinished hull. The crew for the submarine underwent 18-month training at a shore-based facility near St Petersburg in 2005. They had to wait nearly six years before they could see the actual submarine. The submarine was to have been inducted in early 2008 but the project was dogged by delays. As mentioned earlier, the worst of these was during its sea trials in the Sea of Japan, when a November 2008 accidental gas discharge killed 20 Russian crew members. The delays have resulted in an anomaly: The Chakra's commanding officer Captain P. Asokan has to contend with four other captains on board, officers promoted to their next rank during the seven-year wait.

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At present, India has 14 active submarines in the fleet whereas Indian Navy (IN) has contracted France for 6 Scorpene submarines.  These subs are being constructed in Indian shipyard and are likely to be inducted in Indian fleet by 2018.  The Defence Committee of India has also approved procurement of 6 more conventional Submarines in addition to the six already being built with the help of France. The PWR of India’s first indigenously developed ATV, INS/M Arihant went active last year, while its sea trials are completing soon and Arihant’s induction is expected by end 2012.  Simultaneously, fabrication work on the three follow-on nuclear-powered submarines is in full swing whereas, the reactor for the 2nd S/M is being constructed with the help of Russia.  The 2nd INS/M Aridhaman is expected to be ready for sea trials by 2015.  The IN nuclear subs are to be armed initially with the 750 km Sagarika (K-15) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) and at a later stage with the under-development 3,500 km K-4 SLBMs.  INS/M Arihant has four silos to carry twelve 750 km range, Sagarika SLBM or four K-4s.  Meanwhile, IN has acquired two Russian Akula-II class nuclear submarines on lease from Russia because it wants to have three SSBNs and six SSNs (Nuclear-powered Attack Submarines) in the long term.  It is envisaged that by 2025 India will have around 30 conventional Submarines in her flotilla.

The induction of the nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean will have serious implications for the region. It is going to elevate the international status of India amongst regional and extra regional nations/navies, while the existing security calculus in Arabian Sea vis-à-vis PN will significantly shift in the favour of IN. The threat to Chinese, Australian, Indonesian and other regional navies will increase multifold. Nuclear submarines provide the reach to attack the adversary in far flung waters across the globe as well as remain undetected under water at great depths for prolonged periods, without needing to come up to the surface for recharging its batteries or refueling. Operationally, they will act as a force multiplier armed with nuclear tipped missiles, their induction will further enhance IN’s capabilities to strike inside Pakistan while staying well away from Pakistani coast line.

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Pakistani defence planners will have to think deep to meet the threat.