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The day after its Republic Day (January 26), India conducted the 12th test of its sea launched ballistic missile that has alternatively been called the K-15, Sagarika, and B-05 in its latest incarnation. The missile was tested for its full range of 700 kilometres, launched from a pontoon rigged to simulate a launch from India’s nuclear submarine, the Arihant.

Despite the braggadocio of the media and the Defence Research and Development Organisation that India has completed its nuclear triad, such an occurrence is still at least a decade away. The successful test-firing of the Sagarika by the DRDO is certainly a milestone, albeit overdue, but India remains a little way off the nuclear triad green. When India does genuinely deploy SLBMs, it would join a select group of countries with such capabilities – the US, Russia, France, and China.

The first and most obvious shortcoming of India’s sea-based deterrent is the unavailability of any submarine capable of launching missiles – the nuclear-powered Arihant, for all the pomp at its launch in 2009, is yet to have its reactor, an 83 MW pressurised water reactor fuelled with enriched uranium, attain criticality (projected in June 2013). Once it does so, the submarine will first have to undergo harbour trials, and then be deployed in the open seas. The missiles would then have to be integrated into the Arihant, and the crew would need to drill repeatedly to be able to launch at a moment’s notice if the order ever came. Furthermore, a submarine’s location is compromised upon the launch of its first missile – the technology to not just launch but launch rapidly and that too from a moving and rocking platform, unlike a pontoon launch, needs to be perfected. Some of the problems regarding the different fluid dynamics of air and water are reportedly solved by the use of a two-stage booster, one for the water and one for the air. This will take some time, but until this is done, India will not possess the sea leg of the nuclear triad.

Another consideration for India’s defence planners is how many submarines India will deploy. A single nuclear submarine (SSBN) would seem like putting all of India’s sea-based nuclear eggs in one basket. India needs to decide how many SSBNs it wishes to deploy, and how many it wishes to hold in reserve. In comparison, the United States has 14 SSBNs, Russia 12 (with two in reserve and eight on order), and China six. The Arihant is presently configured to carry 12 shorter range (750 kms) K-15 SLBMs (three per launch tube) or four longer range (3,500 kms) K-4 SLBMs. There are three more Arihant class submarines under construction presently, one at Visakhapatnam and two at Baroda, but India needs to consider if it needs more submarines to allow its navy a reserve force and fleet rotation. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that Indian defence production has historically been lackadaisical at best, and a fleet of even four SSBNs is unlikely to be ready before 2022.

With four nuclear submarines deployed, India would have 16 nuclear-tipped missiles deployed at sea – the DRDO is yet to develop MIRV technology (essential, given the relatively low yield of Indian nuclear weapons). In case of war, that would be a small percentage – 15% – of India’s estimated nuclear arsenal. By contrast, the French have most of their arsenal deployed at sea, and the British only possess a sea-based deterrent since it is the surest to survive a surprise first strike. The United States also has almost 40% of its arsenal aboard SSBNs. The most probable reason Russia and China do not fit into this trajectory is the near total domination of the US navy and their inability to counter US anti-submarine warfare. India must also consider its force composition – how much to disperse through road and rail mobile units, how many to be deployed at sea, and what part to be delivered by air. Given India’s No First Use policy, survivability should be a key issue in Indian nuclear strategy even if neither of its two most likely foes presently have an effective counter force capability. Yet greater reliance on SLBMs means either more submarines, larger submarines, MIRV capability, or smaller and lighter missiles without sacrificing range. Each of these will take time for India’s scientists to develop and deploy. But India will have much time – given that India’s manufacturing capabilities add only two Agni missiles per year to its arsenal, arming six or even four SSBNs with a full complement of missiles and warheads will take many years.

A nuclear submarine away at sea needs to communicate with its command centre to receive launch instructions and coordinates. On long deployments, an effective Ship Inertial Navigation System is required to reduce the need to surface and reconfigure location with GPS, GLONASS, or Galileo. Needless to say, a submarine is most vulnerable on the surface. Of course, satellite navigation can be circumvented if the navy possesses highly accurate maps of the seabed, but this would be expensive and time-consuming. Communication with submarines can be sent at any frequency in the spectrum, and many are situationally used. However, Very Low Frequency and Extremely Low Frequency can penetrate water, the former up to nine metres, and the later even more but at a lower data rate. Usually, ELF is used to call submarines to the surface where communication is faster. Yet India presently possesses only VLF stations, not ELF. Though not difficult to remedy, it would require infrastructural investment in ground bases (some perhaps on foreign soil), aerial stations and satellites.

The most underrated component of nuclear strategy in India is operations. Even after the extensive development of infrastructure for a sea-based deterrent and further tests and drills, India’s nuclear release procedure presents a hurdle. Presently, India maintains a recessed deterrent, meaning that its nuclear warheads and missiles are not mated. Upon receiving the instruction to launch from the appropriate authority, the Atomic Energy Commission brings the warhead and the DRDO the missile together at a conveniently located military base where the warhead and missile are then put together and the military employs the Permissive Action Link and Permissive Enable System codes to fire the missile. India’s nuclear launch system, thus, requires three agencies working in tandem with each other. This is obviously not possible in a submarine. India’s strategists have to decide if they are comfortable with a Launch on Warning nuclear deterrent, and if they can implement one on their submarines, why not land-based and air-launched nuclear forces as well? Delhi’s answer to this question could fundamentally alter India’s nuclear posture and have profound implications on regional security.

Typical of its entire nuclear history, India’s technical achievements have been trumpeted prematurely. Moreover, despite their slow pace, the country’s technical achievements have preceded the intellectual framework within which they must operate. There is a lot of midnight oil that must yet be burned – by India’s scientists as well as by its strategists – before the country can be said to truly have a reliable sea-based option in its nuclear deterrent.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on January 31, 2013.