The U.S. Navy officially embraced the concept of nuclear submarines when it rolled out the USS Nautilus in 1954. However, nuclear submarines as principal weapons of war emerged when the Navy ordered the construction of USS Thresher (SSN-593) in 1958. Three years later, the newly-commissioned stealth submarine served as the lead boat of her class of nuclear-powered attack submarines, displaying an unrivalled speed of 33 knots, unrivalled stealth features, deep-dive capabilities, a state-of-the-art sonar system, and the capability to lurk under the oceans for long periods.
So impressed was the U.S. Navy with USS Thresher’s capabilities, it ordered the construction of fourteen nuclear submarines with similar design characteristics and weaponry. However, disaster struck on 10th April 1963 when the Thresher, during a deep-diving exercise, sunk with all hands on board. A fact-finding exercise later confirmed that the disaster occurred due to a faulty salt-water piping system joint that relied on silver brazing instead of welding. The system initially shorted an electrical panel, scrammed the reactor, and caused loss of propulsion.
Following the sinking of the Thresher, the U.S. Navy embarked on a comprehensive submarine safety programme known as SUBSAFE which fixed existing flaws in Thresher-class submarines. Till today, not a single SUBSAFE-certified nuclear submarine has been lost at sea, and the only one the U.S. Navy lost since Thresher was the USS Scorpion in 1968 which was not SUBSAFE-certified.
In the meantime, the Soviet Navy also had its fair share of nuclear submarine disasters, losing five submarines to accidents and explosions. The most disastrous of them all was the sinking of the Kursk, a monstrous nuclear sub displacing up to 16,100 tonnes, carrying two nuclear reactors, dozens of 33-feet-long nuclear-tipped missiles, and housing over a hundred sailors.
The experience of the world’s premier naval forces demonstrates that even though nuclear submarines take years of research and billions in funding to perfect, they still remain vulnerable to flaws and little details that escape the attention of their designers during the conceptualisation stage.
India arrived fifty-years late to the nuclear submarine party when it first launched INS Arihant, a 6,000-tonne “technology demonstrator” in 2009 and commissioned it seven years later. Indeed, Arihant’s initial objective was to validate the country’s newfound expertise in nuclear technology and stealth and to pave the way for the construction of more advanced submarines with greater tonnage and weapon-carrying capacity.
Even though Arihant did not suffer the same fate as the USS Thresher or the ill-fated Soviet nuclear submarines, it suffered an unfortunate event following its commissioning when an open hatch let seawater into the propulsion area, forcing the Indian Navy to park the submarine for ten months to replace all the affected propulsion pipes.
Following the minor hiccup, Arihant re-emerged as a singular success for India’s naval designers, completing its first deterrence patrol as the unseen vanguard of over a billion Indians, waiting to strike hard in the event of a nuclear attack. The completion of its deterrence patrol catapulted India into the league of just five countries capable of deploying the nuclear triad.
The success of the Arihant programme has already started bearing fruit. In November last year, India launched INS Arighat, a follow-on nuclear submarine which is earmarked for commissioning sometime around late 2020. Once commissioned, it will cruise at 24 knots, carry eight K-4 ballistic missiles or twenty-four smaller-range K-15 missiles, six torpedo tubes, and may weigh almost twice as much as the Arihant.
India is also reportedly working on two additional 1,000-tonne-plus nuclear submarines dubbed S4 and S4 Star and is spending 90,000 crores on the much-talked-about ATV project. Five years from now, these three fresh nuclear submarines, along with Arihant, could prowl deep into the far corners of the Indian Ocean, tailing enemy submarines, practising deep dives, and posing existential challenges to India’s enemies.
However, if we read the work of some journalists (especially some that command vast swathes of editorial space in leading newspapers and news websites), we would be led to believe that the minor accident involving INS Arihant was a stinging reminder that India’s nuclear submarine programme is a failure right from the start.
If you read some doomsday articles about India’s ATV project, you would see that the journalists do appreciate the complexities that designers encounter while designing nuclear submarines and that it takes years to perfect the use of such machines, yet they would choose headlines that would instantly deflate the hopes of any patriot who would want to hear about the country taking positive steps to bolster its strategic defence posture.
For instance, Modern Diplomacycarried an article in August titled “INS Arihant Accidents: Question Mark on the Sustainability of India’s Naval Force”. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“India could not make considerable progress in developing underwater deterrence. It needs more efforts to overcome all these technical problems to launch a robust triad. It is not difficult to predict that a fully operational nuclear submarine would take 10 to 20 years. The first few submarines, including, INS Arihant is as a technology demonstrator rather than a vigorous deterrent projector. Arihant has faced many problems from the start and still experiencing repairs for damage. The performance of these vessels belongs to the first and second generation of SSBNs. For the sea-based deterrence, India needs S-5 vessel and a powerful reactor, which will take two decades more.”
If it will take one or two decades more, then why not give our designers the time to conduct more research and roll out better submarines? Why predict doomsday in the headline?
Here’s another from the Diplomat: “INS Arihant Accident Raises Questions About the Sustainability of India’s SSBN Force”. In the article, Robert Farley pointed out that “This stuff is hard. The Indian experience has been particularly difficult because India has never constructed a nuclear submarine before, has never operated an SSB, and has very limited experience with nuclear attack subs.”
He pointed out the experiences of Russia and China in the development of nuclear submarines to explain India’s starting problems. “It took the USSR nearly a decade to produce a meaningful deterrent boat. It has taken China nearly three decades, despite extensive experience in both countries in submarine construction and operation,” he wrote.
No one is contesting the fact that Indian scientists and atomic energy experts will have to burn the midnight oil in the years ahead to build better and larger reactors and better stealth technologies to make our future nuclear submarines more agile and powerful. However, the delicious starter has been served and work is underway to deliver an even sweeter dessert. In the meantime, let’s cut the Indian Navy and our scientists some slack and just applaud what they’ve achieved so far.