Hidden Dragon on High Seas
China’s deployment of a nuclear attack submarine in the Indian Ocean signals the beginning of strategic encirclement of India.
On December 8 last year, India’s military attaché in Beijing hurried out of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defence and drove to the embassy at Chaoyang. The Brigadier-ranked officer was bearing an urgent message: China has just deployed, for the first time ever, a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) in the Indian Ocean. The submarine, the officer had been told, had sailed out a few days earlier to help with the People Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden and Beijing was now informing New Delhi of it “to demonstrate respect for India”. The news triggered alarm in the highest echelons of India’s security establishment; Beijing, it seemed, had finally put steel into the string of pearls, a network of Chinesebuilt naval bases ringing India that stretch from Myanmar and Sri Lanka in the east to Pakistan in the west. Reports by RAW, the Defence Intelligence Agency and the Directorate of Naval Intelligence warned the government that the deployment, “seriously aggravates India’s security concerns”.
Though Beijing claimed the Shangclass SSN was part of a routine antipiracy patrol—it returned to its base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea on February 20 after two months in the Indian Ocean—New Delhi read more sinister motives. “Nuclear-powered attack submarines don’t take part in anti-piracy patrols,” a senior government official tells INDIA TODAY. Naval analysts predict it is a precursor to the deployment of a full-scale carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean. The battle group, a mobile force comprising attack submarines, warships, tankers and troop ships, will be centred around two aircraft carriers currently under construction. Retired Rear-Admiral Raja Menon says as much. “It was a reconnaissance probe, the prelude to a full-scale deployment.” BREATHING FIRE If, rather when, this happens, it will pose a direct threat to India’s security and economic interests. India claims
the region between the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Straits as within its sphere of influence, one that is vital for its maritime commerce as 80 per cent of the country’s energy supplies, about 3.86 million barrels of crude oil per day, pass through it. And it’s largely to secure these waters that the Navy has for years been demanding 25 per cent of the defence budget—it now gets 17 per cent— to acquire aircraft, warships and submarines. Naval planners dismiss speculation that this demand is driven by a desire to move into the South China Sea and emphasise that the navy “has neither the capability nor the intent” to do so. “The Indian Ocean remains our primary focus,” says a senior official in the defence ministry. SHIFT IN BALANCE OF POWER? Now, the Chinese have sailed in and altered the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Unlike conventional submarines, nuclear-powered submarines such as the Shang-class boats can operate submerged and almost undetected. Sailing at over 30 knots, they can attack warships, merchant vessels and use cruise missiles to hit targets on land. Chinese SSNs in the Indian Ocean can, thus, wreak havoc with India’s naval plans, which rely mainly on a fleet of conventional diesel-electric submarines that are limited by range, endurance and size. A fleet of four such boats on a ‘barrier patrol’ can choke India’s energy supplies, isolate the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and threaten the INS Vikramaditya carrier battle group. They can even impede deployment of the slower Arihant nuclear submarines from their base in Visakhapatnam into the Bay of Bengal and beyond. “India has no strategic capability yet to deter China,” says retired ViceAdmiral K.N. Sushil, veteran submariner and former Southern Naval Command chief. “We are yet to sail the Arihant and are nowhere near starting our own SSN programme. We will, therefore, be self-deterred and without the capability to retaliate.”
This despite the fact that deployment of the Chinese SSN in India’s backyard was not entirely unexpected. Naval watchers were well aware of the three-phase strategy of military expansion, propounded by PLA Navy chief Admiral Liu Huaqing in the late 1980s—upgrade the navy into a blue water force or one capable of operating beyond territorial waters; deploy in the Indian Ocean between 2011 and 2020; and undertake global operations sometime between 2021 and 2049. The PLA Navy has since advanced this timeframe. Using piracy as an excuse, it has deployed warships to protect its merchant vessels and sailors in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. “For China, piracy has come as a huge opportunity,” an Indian admiral told INDIA TODAY late last year. “Now they will continue their deployments on some pretext or the other.” NO SUCCESSOR TO JOSHI No wonder, the mood in the Indian naval headquarters in South Block has turned from bluster to bewilderment. That China’s move comes amid a crisis in the Indian Navy has only made matters worse. The Navy is headless since Admiral D.K. Joshi quit on February 26 in the wake of a string of accidents beginning with the August 14, 2013, destruction of the submarine INS Sindhurakshak. The government has dithered over choosing Joshi’s successor. The Navy’s submarine arm is in a rut. It has not acquired a new conventional undersea platform in 14 years and just half its fleet of 13 ageing conventional submarines are operational. It operates a
solitary nuclear-powered attack submarine, the INS Chakra leased from Russia in 2012, even as it struggles to put the first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine to sea. And this is not for want of funds. The country has spent more than $6 billion over the past decade on building conventional and nuclear submarines. But the project has been crippled by a lack of long-term strategic vision within the Navy, and bureaucratic delays. ALLAT SEA Months before the INS Sindhurakshak exploded and sank in Mumbai harbour, the navy had proposed life-extension of its fleet of 14 submarines. Refits would extend lives of older submarines by seven years—a submarine has an average life span of 25 years— but this plan is yet to be approved. Even if the upgrade rolls out, it will come with disadvantages: A refurbished submarine will be available only 10 days a month while as a new boat is available for 20 days. New submarines are what the Navy doesn’t have. The six Scorpenes bought from France in 2005 were to join the fleet in 2012 but “procedural delays in financial sanctions” caused by the bureaucracy have delayed induction till at least 2017. The shrinking fleet, meanwhile, has led to a glut of personnel. If 150 officers manned 12 submarines a decade ago, there are 700 officers for seven operational submarines now. Submariners thus have to contend with shorter sea tenures, which adversely impacts their training and efficiency. Besides, such worries may have clouded assessment of the looming threat from China and, worse, even injected a sense of complacency.
In contrast, China has embarked on the world’s largest military expansion. Only last week, it increased its defence budget by 12.2 per cent from last year to $40 billion—the actual budget may be 40 per cent higher—to fund, among other things, construction of a fleet of over 20 nuclear-powered attack submarines. On the other hand, India will spend $6 billion on defence this year. Still some in India’s defence establishment are not worried. A senior submariner says he is unruffled by PLA Navy’s SSN deployments because “their reliability to deploy beyond their submarine bases is not established yet. There’s a question mark on the ability of their SSNs to operate unhindered.”
That may be so. But it’s nobody’s case that India can afford to be lax as for as defence preparedness goes. The country has struggled with a three-decade-old project to field a small force of three indigenous 6,000tonne nuclear-powered submarines fitted with nuclear missiles. The first submarine, Arihant, was launched in 2009 but is yet to begin sea trials. The government is also yet to clear a classified 2010 naval proposal to build a fleet of four vessels like the Shangclass SSNs. The navy, meanwhile, is pushing hard to get more conventional submarines —top of its list are six Project 75 ‘India’ submarines, which come at Rs 3,000 crore a piece and are bigger than the Scorpenes— never mind they will have limited utility against Chinese SSNs. The proposal has been blocked by the finance ministry citing the exorbitant cost. In all, the Navy wants to add 24 conventional submarines to its fleet, at a cost of Rs 76,000 crore.
This makes little sense to analysts such as Rear Admiral Menon, who say the navy must scrap all its plans for conventional submarines and remake itself into an all-nuclear navy like those of the United States, France and the United Kingdom. What’s the Navy thinking on this? A naval officer says the changing strategic scenario in the Indian Ocean could force them into leasing a second nuclear-powered attack submarine. Just another tactical response to another strategic problem.
SHANG-CLASS SSNS AT THE PLA NAVY BASE IN HAINAN ISLAND