On 14 October 2022, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile emerged from the depths of the sea and landed at a pre-designated location. It was a perfect launch by the crew of INS Arihant, India’s lone Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear or, to use the more commonly used acronym, SSBN Submarine. She is the ‘lone wolf’ in the maritime domain for India’s nuclear triad, maintaining a quite vigil in the depths of the ocean, waiting to unleash Armageddon on any hostile nation that launches a nuclear strike on India. She had a more agile and nimble footed friend in INS Chakra, a Ship Submersible Nuclear or SSN; more precisely, a nuclear attack submarine that was on lease from Russia and has since been returned.
SSBN and SSNs have unique roles. SSBNs sail out, dive, and stay quietly, waiting for orders to do what only they can. On the other hand, SSNs are like hounds looking for their prey. SSBNs are fast, but they instead prefer quiet to mobility. SSNs are quick and use that speed for hunting down the enemy and then prey on them. Most nations that operate SSBNs and SSNs have first constructed SSNs before graduating to SSBNs. France and India are exceptions.
The US Navy, the frontline nuclear maritime vessels operating country, first built an SSN, the USS Nautilus, before commissioning an SSBN five years later in USS George Washington. Before graduating from an SSN – Han class, the Chinese built an SSBN – Xia class submarine. The Russians, considered a very formidable operator of nuclear submarines, first built their November class SSNs before graduating to the Hotel class SSBNs. The UK’s Royal Navy first built the Dreadnought class SSN before acquiring the Resolution class SSBNs. The Redoubtable class’s French SSBNs were the only ones that preceded the Rubis class SSNs. India has built and commissioned INS Arihant, the lone SSBN. But where are India’s SSNs?
If reports are to be believed, India started its quest for nuclear submarines by planning the construction of an SSN. However, there were changes of plans and what we saw or instead read firing a nuclear-capable ballistic missile was the result, an SSBN. There are numerous reports of India constructing more SSBNs, but we hardly hear anything about SSNs.
India’s Navy has developed a robust eco-system for constructing ships and submarines rather than ballistic nuclear submarines. This is much before the current emphasis on Atmanirbharta (self-reliance); Indian Navy has been a trendsetter on this front. With the construction of the Scorpene class conventional submarines at the Mazagon Dock Ship Builders Limited in Mumbai, the missing piece remains the SSNs.
The Indian Ocean is a significant maritime space. It’s the ocean through which the energy arteries of the world flow. A significant chunk of the world trade traverses these waters. It is home to large energy and mineral deposits. It also has a substantial population in the littoral countries that ring the ocean. And all these factors have seen many extra-regional players making the Indian Ocean a place of permanent presence under the pretext of protecting their interests. The challenge for India is protecting her interests when some power decides to impinge on them.
The Indian Navy protects India’s maritime interests with a formidable array of aircraft carriers, frontline ships, aircraft, and conventional submarines. The lone SSBN provides credible deterrence value. However, the Indian Ocean is vast, and in today’s era of ubiquitous satellite coverage, ships face steep challenges in keeping their locations secure when they operate on high seas.
SSNs are the instruments that provide an edge to navies under the circumstances. Their speed, stealth and offensive punch allow them to prowl in the deep. In consonance with aircraft carriers with fixed-wing fighters, ships with precision-guided missiles and long-range maritime patrol aircraft that give complete situational awareness, SSNs would enhance the Indian Navy’s capabilities to safeguard Indian interests. It’s time we prioritise the induction of SSNs in our Navy as of yesterday!
Captain DK Sharma VSM (Retd)