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India launches its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine

Arihant : India's Ambitious Nuclear Submarine Project

By Cmde Ranjit Rai (Retd) Published : August 2009

On 26th July, 2009 in the presence of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, his wife, Mrs Gursharan Kaur, broke the traditional coconut on the bows of India’s ambitious scientific naval programme, the 6000 ton nuclear submarine called by the misnomer an Adavanced Technology Vessel (ATV) and named it INS Arihant.

The name Arihant is actually a philosophical adaptation from India’s ancient language Sanskrit meaning the destroyer of enemies. Mrs Kaur also gave blessings to all those who would sail on Arihant, as is the custom, and with that, she ceremoniously launched the black shark shaped hull out from under covers of the Matysa drydock at Vishakhapatnam to come alongside berth B at the Ship Building Centre (SBC).

Defence Minister A K Antony, Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Trubnikov and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) head M Natarajan, Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta and several senior naval officers from the past who were associated with this top secret project from the beginning, were invited to grace the occasion.

The drydock and berth B were earlier a part of the sprawling Naval Dockyard built with Soviet technical assistance and supervision in the 1970s, when the USSR Navy was looking for a warm water port in the region for its ships. The Soviet Union’s large fishing fleet, which reportedly doubled for intelligence gathering at the height of the cold war, was also to use this port.

It is to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s wisdom however that she actually did not permit it to become a sort of Soviet base. Instead, they were informed that they could use Vishakapatnam for refuge only if any of their ships or vessels broke down; and that is customary for friendly nations any way.

The Prime Minister, speaking at the ceremony said: “The sea is becoming increasingly relevant in the context of India’s security and we must readjust our military preparedness to this changing environment. Our Navy has a huge responsibility in this regard.”

The launch signified India’s intention to join the elite club of countries with sea-based nuclear deterrence. It should take about two years to conduct standard checks on its various systems, in shallow and deep waters progressively, and then activate the nuclear cores, to make the submarine operational along with its onboard nuclear tipped ballistic missiles.

Pictures of the submarine were not released and a group of newsmen invited to witness and cover the event were only allowed limited access to footage through official Ministry of Defence cameramen.

India has a vast, 7500-plus km of coastline, an inadequate number of ships and assets to protect it, thanks to what has been called the dark decade of political inaction after 1989.

The work on bridging the gap for the coming years has picked up, particularly after the 26/11 terror attacks on India from Pakistani soil, and the government has cleared several pending proposals including the acquisition of eight highly advanced P8-I Maritime Multimission Aircraft (MMAs) from the US.

India has a declared No-First-Use (NFU) policy in nuclear weapons. That entails the requirement for a strong deterrence so that an aggressor can be punished massively, as the Indian nuclear doctrine envisages. India already has operational landand- air launched nuclear missiles and INS Arihant will extend the deterrence platform to the sea towards completing the triad for nuclear defence and attack.

Arihant is to be followed by two more submarines, which could be slightly larger and perhaps more powerful in both propulsion and range of missiles.

The Prime Minister was quick to point out though: ”India has no aggressive designs nor do we seek to threaten any one. We seek an external environment in our region and beyond, that is conducive to our peaceful development and protection of our value system.”

A top official connected with the project told India Strategic that the Indian Government was according highest priority to coastal defence after the 26/11 attacks and subsequent projects were being appropriately advanced, thanks to the experience gained in building the first nuclear submarine. “It was relevant in the past, and it is relevant now, that India should itself take care of its vast coastal interests and secure its maritime interests due to the troubled region around the country.”

The hull of the submarine was built by the private sector Larsen & Toubro, a technology-driven USD 8.5 billion engineering company, and it is already in the process of building the subsequent hulls.

Notably, Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, has disclosed that the Navy has undertaken projects worth around $ 2.5 billion every year for some time to make up for the delay in modernization and acquire the latest in capabilities. Both the public and private sectors are being invited to participate on equal basis in this programme, reserved mainly for government-run companies in the past. (See Box).

The Indian Navy’s increasing role and responsibility were signified by the Prime Minister when he mentioned the words “our region and beyond.” Actually, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Strategy and Doctrine are based on India’s area of interests, as ranging from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca and the sea lanes of communications in the Indian Ocean.

This itself underscores the need for a larger navy, and a nuclear fleet which can stay hidden for upto six months.

Notably, the idea for India having nuclear submarines was first mooted by India’s leading nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna and Vice Admiral Mihir Roy, who shared a room while studying in London long back. Dr Ramanna oversaw India’s first nuclear test on 18 May 1974.

When Mrs Gandhi approved the idea of nuclear submarines in the laste 1970s, he involved Mihir Roy, then a young naval officer.

Roy, now 84, says that the project was so secret that he never shared his involvement even with his family till the government recently acknowledged its existence.

The ATV Project and RUSSIA

The classified ATV project, or Arihant, has been pursued and administered by the DRDO, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), and the Indian Navy with coordination and control directly from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) since1980, when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave it the go-ahead.

After 1989, it progressed haltingly. Yet, it has been a unique partnership between the Indian industry and DRDO, nuclear scientists at BARC, and the Navy. The Soviet Union, and later Russia, have given the project important guidance and building support, training Indian crew onsite as well as on board a nuclear submarine – the Charlie class Chakra leased by India from 1988 to 1991 – sharing important materials and their welding techniques. Russia also supplied the special steel needed for submarines and ships, and possibly parts of the nuclear reactor.

Russian advice has also been taken to give it some stealth capability, and rubber tiles, made in India, have been installed for noise suppression.

The Russian presence of Ambassador Vyacheslav Trubnikov and a large number of Russian specialists was significant at the ceremony, clearly indicating their role.

Stage of Completion

INS Arihant is reported to be slightly larger than the Charlie class which India had leased from 1988 to 1991, and is in a fairly advanced state of completion, perhaps up to 75 per cent. Appropriate reactor components, built by BARC and L&T, were ferried to Vishakhapatnam from different parts of the country. Nuclear vessels are expensive as they need cutting-edge technology, and are also time consuming to build. It is not easy to ferry particularly oversized components over long distances, but that has to be done. (See illustration of HMS Astute).

Arihant is 6000 tonnes and 104 metres long.

Hulls for two more vessels, reportedly longer and with more displacement, are ready.

Indications are that a total of seven nuclear submarines will be operational within the coming decade. Two of these should be launched by 2014, a year or so after INS Arihant is commissioned for operations in the Indian Ocean.

The newer submarines are likely to be larger to accommodate progressively increasing sensor and weapons package. Right now, the onboard missiles are reported to be capable of reaching an effective range of 750 km. Eventually, this range could be five to six times as much, say 3500 to 4000 km.

Design changes for the next two boats are reported to have been completed.

Cost estimates are not available but once the companies involved are given an indication for a larger number, up to seven, there would be stabilization. Instead of expenditure on design and basic research and fabrication, the emphasis would be on sensors and missiles.

INS Arihant and other submarines will have connectivity with the aerial assets of the Indian Navy as well as the Indian Air Force (IAF) including maritime patrol aircraft.

All these Indian submarines will be in the nuclear-propelled, nuclear ballistic missile attack category, or SSBN.

In the next one year while the Arihant is berthed at Berth B, technicians, constructors and the skeleton crew will be required to attend to finishing internal fittings, and complete what is known as harbour acceptance trials (HATS).

The steering gear operations and the critical shaft alignment, which provides the best speed, will be carried out.

The myriad of control systems, periscopes, propulsion machinery and generators will have to be operated in harbour with the power supply and steam from external boilers set up at the Ship Building Centre(SBC). Only when all systems have been proved to the laid-down standards, will the computer controlled 80 MW miniaturized reactor will be made critical in stages, accelerating to full potential and required speed and depths.

There are also reports that the reactor, ensconced inside the boat in a stainless steel casing, has been supplied by Russia. Details of what exactly has been given by Russia though and what has been fabricated in India, are not available.

But this will be the first time that the internal heat exchangers manufactured by the state-run heavy engineering company, Bharat Heavy Engineering Ltd (BHEL), will provide the full pressurised steam to run the turbines and generators to prepare for contractors’ sea trials (CST). The seven bladed propeller will be turned by the reduction gear and then by the turbines.

BHEL is India’s largest energyrelated engineering enterprise.

The Voyage

It will be a historic day when the Captain designate of Arihant takes her on a maiden voyage and makes the clarion message, “Proud To Report Underway Successfully on Nuclear Power”, just like the USS Nautilius, USA’s first nuclear submarine reported.

The submarine will then make shallow dives, complete the deep diving trials and operate the USHUS sonar to prepare for the weapon trials of the torpedoes and missiles with dummy warheads. The boat will then be commissioned in to the Indian Navy.

Reports from Moscow indicate that Nerpa, the Akula class nuclear submarine which India is leasing from Russia, will be delivered to the Indian Navy by 2009 or around.

That will help finetune the Indian naval crew's capabilities in operating nuclear submarines.

Many of the Arihant’s crew have already been trained in Russia.

There is also a nuclear submarine training facility in India at Kalpakkam, near Tamil Nadu’s capital city of Chennai, to train the Indian crews in batches.

Nerpa will help give additional experience to Indian officers and men in hastening Arihant’s commissioning.

The Indian Navy is determined to make India’s deterrent from the sea effective soon.

DRDO has indicated that the submarine will carry the K-15, 750 km nuclear tipped missiles.

Nuclear Submarine building facilities

A large planning and design office called Akanksha (Hope) in New Delhi, has directed the ATV programme under the current Director General, retired Vice Admiral D S P Verma.

Facilities at Vishakapatnam have been built by the DRDO, industry and the Indian Navy with BARC’s collaboration with funds and monitoring from the PMO.

Two Admirals with technical expertise have headed the two large supporting complexes. One is the sprawling Defence Material Department (DMD) at Hyderabad, which collaborates with DRDO labs and BHEL for the heat exchanger turbine propulsion system, and MIDHANI for special steel requirements and other contractors. The large Submarine Building Centre (SBC), tucked behind high walls and barbed wires in the heart of Vishakapatnam, is where the hull was put together in sections provided from engineering and refinery reactor maker L&T. This company is investing heavily in ship building, and already has facilities at Hazira in Gujarat and Mazagon Docks in Mumbai (Bombay).

Walchandnagar Industries provided the gear box and shafting as it does to Indian Navy’s Leanders. Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), another state-run company, is fitting out the USHUS sonar, radars and the Combat Management System along with Tata Power Ltd which has a tieup with BAE Systems for the control pedestal.

KSB pumps and Jindal pipes have also played a significant role. The submarine is coated with rubber anechoic tiles supplied by a rubber vulcanising firm in Mysore to provide stealth qualities.

The Russian assistance has been substantial by way of the design, critical parts, the reactor enriched uranium pellets and inputs.

BARC, which steered the critical nuclear reactor installation programme in 1975, also manufactures and stores India’s fission and fusion atomic bombs. It has provided training to Navy’s technical officers in submarine nuclear technology.

The ATV project has also set up a small submarine reactor training complex at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, near Chennai with facilities to test the 80 MW–plus pressure water reactors before insertion into submarine hulls. The reactor is normally sealed into a 600-ton titanium shell of about 10 metres in diameter.

According to a former Indian Navy nuclear boat Captain with command of INS Chakra, “the nuclear submarine operates like any other under water boat, except that it can stay under water for months and it is imperative that the key members learn to operate the computer controlled nuclear power plant… Each crew member has to be aware of all the possible emergencies including emergency shut down that can take place in the ensconced nuclear reactor.”

The nuclear safety drill is very important and so are the facilities of nuclear safety at the Vishakapatnam and other berths the submarine may visit.

The Indian Navy has a full team for nuclear safety under a submarine Vice Admiral at Naval Head Quarters as its Director General. Expanded berthing facilities are likely to be created in the long run at some ports for nuclear submarines and large vessels like aircraft carriers.

Vishakhapatnam's history and future

Soviet Union’s famous Admiral Sergie Gorshkov had visited Vishakapatnam in 1977 and suggested to the Indian Navy that it would be better served if it sets up a dedicated naval base at Bimlipatam, North of Vishakapatnam, visualising the future and the constraints of the Vizag harbour’s narrow entrance.

Former Vice Admiral Daya Shankar supported this view. But India could not afford the high capital costs.

However, the Ministry of Shipping has now agreed to transfer part of its Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) to the Defence Ministry for pursuing submarine construction and refits. The Kilo class INS Sindhukrti has been laid up at HSL for the Club missile and USHUS sonar upgrade.

To support this huge ATV project, universities and commercial firms have been employed on an ad hoc basis, including the well-equipped Naval Design Directorate in New Delhi.

It is now common knowledge that since 1971, Indian scientists were attempting to produce a compact nuclear power plant (reactor) design suitable for use at sea. Captain Kotta Subba Rao, under the guidance of Dr Raja Ramanna, Dr Srinivasan and Dr Iyengar, the stalwarts who steered India’s nuclear programme, had been trying since 1975 to design and build a miniaturised submarine reactor at BARC.

Of the three reactor designs evaluated, the first was rejected in late 1976, the second in 1979 and the third in 1981. Captain Subba Rao had also tabled a design but he left the Navy prematurely and was apprehended at Mumbai airport while carrying his reactor design to the USA and was imprisoned for 20 months. He was finally found innocent as it was proved that he had presented this very theoretical design cleared by NHQ, as his thesis project for his Phd Doctorate.

Today, India has the ability to design miniature reactors.

India’s nuclear triad, once operational by 2012 or 2013, will offer the best bang for the big bucks that the Indian Naval planners are spending on the ATV, which must succeed and the nation must be told how important it is. The offshoots of the project when made public will help the Indian public and private sector Industry to blossom.

(The author is a former Director Naval Intelligence and Director Naval Operations, and has worked on the miniature nuclear training reactor at Greenwich called Jason and witnessed robotic nuclear fuel change operations at an Indian facility).

  © India Strategic 
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