International Affairs · Law · Public Policy

India’s ATV Project – Not going nuclear, underwater, anytime soon

When the INS Arihant’s nuclear reactor went critical in August 2013, India not only joined the blue-water navy club of countries with the capability to build nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines, but also picked on a major doctrinal headache. This, apart from the specification concerns and limited intended utility, puts the Indian Advanced Technological Vessel (ATV) programme in a quagmire. With the Indian Navy expecting to acquire and deploy the vessel in the first quarter of 2015, certain aspects of this project need to be deliberated upon, broadly gauging New Delhi’s capability to field and utilize such a technology.

Manufacturing

The ATV project is, initially, believed to have been started with the objective of manufacturing SSNs –fast moving deep diving nuclear powered attack submarines – largely based on the K-43 Charlie class vessel, leased from the Soviet Union at a time when India did not overtly possess nuclear capability. The project since then has been covertly working in the backdrop of India conducting the Pokhran-II tests, declaring an ambiguous nuclear strategy, and making impressive strides in the development of Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The inference one may get from this, is that the Arihant class is a derivative of the Charlie class, with the specifications scaled up to the Akula class, to accommodate a Vertical Launch System (VLS), for the ballistic missiles. This modification seems to have not affected the general functioning of INS Arihant as no complications have been reported in the vessel’s extensive sea trials in so far. Regardless, the final integration of the Sangrika SLBMs on to the Arihant, in 2015 will determine the full implication of this tweak. Although there is no comment yet on the submersible’s diving planes, the presence of sail planes has been much reported, which implies a more complex sail, leading to water displacement issues. Furthermore the reported presence of a Soviet-style towed array pod is startling, as this arrangement is generally avoided due to the fragility of the array, and the restricted speed during deployment.        

The pressurized water reactor (PWR) on board the INS Arihant is also a considerable issue. With the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) failing to develop a working prototype of the PWR, blueprint designs for the technology were imported from the Soviet Union, to facilitate a fast-tracked programme. This goes in stark contrast to New Delhi’s claims of the Arihant being an indigenously developed vessel. With no word on the progress of a domestic generator in India, the Arihant class’s core component still uses Russian intelligence and technology. Furthermore, the initial vessel consumed more than a decade worth of time to be rolled out for primary tests, as opposed to the average five years taken for the development of vessels of the same class/category, by the five other navies which possess this technology.

With the first vessel of the Arihant class still undergoing final trials, and projected to commence operations only in 2015, the government of India’s decision to start work on subsequent vessels is a little rash. An ideal strategy would have been to concentrate on finishing the INS Arihant and observing it in a deployed state, making notes for improvement, and then diverting time and resources on the succeeding vessels. With DRDO claiming the INS Aridhaman (second vessel in the Arihant class)  to be built with much ‘bigger and better’ specifications, this points to the Indian organization not having taken any pointers from this endeavor, and embarking on a new project, without successfully completing the first.     

Utility – Intended Vs. Delivered

Former Naval Chief Nirmal Verma described the INS Arihant as primarily a ‘technology demonstrator’. However, it remains to be seen as to what ‘technology’, the vessel will be demonstrating. The INS Arihant has an advertised maximum speed of 24kts (submerged). Pitting this against other comparable nuclear subs, such as the Astute class at plus-30kts, and the Virginia class at plus-25kts, does not justify the massive cost the ATV project has incurred to produce a sub-standard product. Even the Akula class, which the INS Arihant is largely based on, is known to clock between 28kts to 35kts. Not only does this reflect poorly on India’s – DRDO and BARC’s – technological capabilities, but also impedes the operational capability of the vessel. Once discovered, the propellant potential becomes the deciding factor for the survivability of a submarine.

Furthermore, the armament capacity of the INS Arihant is acutely inferior, when compared to other submersibles, under the same category. The Arihant class is fitted with four vertical launch tubes with the capacity to carry 12 K-15 Sagarika short range SLBMs, with a strike range of 750kms. In contrast, the Astute class vessels have the provision to carry a total of 36 weapons, between Spearfish torpedoes and Tomhawk SLCMs, while the Virginia class can deploy 16 Tomhawks and 26 Mark 48 torpedoes. The Akula class vessels, although lacking a VLS, are capable of carrying up to 40 torpedoes or SLCMs.

With its slow speed and limited strike range, INS Arihant does not contribute significantly to India’s second strike capability. China’s sea and land based anti-missile systems, and Pakistan’s wide array of air-defense systems, combined with decent airborne early-warning systems, vis-à-vis the Erieye AEW and Hawkeye 2000s currently in use by the PAF, negate any threat offered by the INS Arihant. In a nutshell, India still does not possess a credible sea based second strike capability.  

Financial – Is the cost justified?

Although there is no official statement, the ongoing cost of the Arihant is pegged at USD 2.9 Billion, way higher than the USD 2 Billion cap on Virginia class submarines manufactured by the US navy, and the 2.1 Billion per unit price of the Astute class, in production by the Royal Navy. This makes the INS Arihant the most expensive submarine in the world for its specifications and category.

With the UPA government allocating a mere 2.5% defense budget, amounting to USD 36.3 Billion in 2013, the financial aspect of this project raises the question of feasibility. At a time when the Indian Army and the Air Force require a major modernization tide, with the Defense Ministry planning to set up additional commands for space, cyber and special operations, can the Government even afford to divert a fraction of the funds to this ambitious project with no apparent or immediate gains? Add to this the INR 1.6 Billion package of the 2012 budget for INS Varsha, the Eastern Naval Commands’ upcoming naval base at Rambilli, which will harbor India’s future planned fleet of nuclear submarines. Like the ATV project, INS Varsha was initiated in 2005, with no estimated date of completion.        

Doctrinal – Implementation sans planning?

The INS Arihant poses a new dilemma for the Modi government. So as to stay in conformity with its intention of maintaining nuclear weapons primarily for ‘credible minimum deterrence’, New Delhi is believed to have kept its nuclear weapons in a ‘de-mated’ state, i.e. with the core warheads separated from the delivery systems, with the civilian authority exercising absolute control over the nuclear components. For a ballistic nuclear submarine to fulfill its intended purpose, the government will not only have to increase the readiness of the weapons, but also relinquish their command to naval officers, on board the vessel. This increases the probability of an unauthorized/erroneous launch. Also absent are well defined protocols to dictate the steps to be taken in the event of a communications failure with the central command authority, or dealing with the warheads in case of a hostile take-over. The INS Arihant is a classic example of governments going into production stage of weapons, prior to developing well-sounded doctrines dictating their explicit use.

The INS Arihant maybe a landmark achievement for the consortium of companies involved in its development over the years, but it cannot stand up to China’s newest Jin class vessels, reported to be one of the best in service presently. Similarly, the implication of inducting a nuclear submarine in the Indian Navy remains to be seen on Islamabad. There are already talks of Beijing selling submarines and technology to Pakistan. In that case, the INS Arihant has only initiated another arms race in the region.

About the Author
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Amit R. Saksena is a post graduate scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His primary area of interest is geopolitical defense trends, particularly looking at nuclear capabilities and unconventional warfare in the South Asian region. Currently, Amit is working as a Senior Research Associate with  Alexis Centre for Public Policy and International Relations.

2 thoughts on “India’s ATV Project – Not going nuclear, underwater, anytime soon

  1. When you produce a first prototype the cost always is very high due to establishing processes tools and machinery. Subsequently they will come down with more experience and machinery and skills.

  2. You seems to have very limited idea about the technology involved and even less of an understanding about the technicalities involved. Do you have any idea about what it cost the other countries to develop their first nuclear sub, if so kindly bring it up for discussion. Since you bought china into the picture , do you know after many generations of developing nuclear subs their current technology is equalent of 70s russian tech.
    Remember getting right the first time is seldom possible and the first time cost is always high.

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